If you’re familiar with Riviera Maya, you’ve definitely heard of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. In the past few decades, these two towns have become one of the hottest tourist destinations in the world. They’re basically considered little corner of paradise on earth by thousands upon thousands of people who visit these towns every year.
That being said, these towns are definitely not the same. Despite being situated at only an hour’s drive from each other, they offer very different vibes.
Ideally, you should visit both of them if you have the time (I highly recommend you do so), but some of us don’t get that kind of vacation time. Even for expats who live in Mexico, choosing between these two towns is not an easy decision.
In this post, I’ll help you decide which town to select for your next dream holiday. Let’s get started!
Both Playa del Carmen and Tulum are similar in the way that they’re relatively young towns that became prominent in the 90s. Both of these towns are also famous for their gorgeous beaches. But enough with the similarities, you came here to know the differences.
To start off, the biggest difference between these two is the size and population. Playa del Carmen is noticeably larger on both of these fronts, and, thanks to being developed much more, will provide you with all the amenities and luxuries you can expect from a resort town.
Expect an urban vibe with plenty of boutique and all-inclusive hotels, shopping malls, a very active nightlife, and partying scene, and much more. Another thing to note about Playa del Carmen is that it’s very walkable, the town and its many beaches are basically nestled together so you can easily walk almost everywhere you like.
Let’s cover the highlights and other features of Playa del Carmen point by point.
- Both Tulum and Playa del Carmen don’t have an airport, the closest one being Cancun International. Playa del Carmen is only at a 45 minutes’ ride from Cancun airport, which is much closer than Tulum.
- Playa del Carmen is much more urban and very developed. The town has all the luxuries you can expect from a resort town. A huge plus of all this development is that the beaches are very accessible from the downtown area in Playa del Carmen.
- Playa del Carmen is also very walkable. A car will be handy, but not needed like it is in Tulum. Whether you want to go to the beach, a bar, a restaurant, or what have you, everything is situated very close together.
- The town offers great shopping opportunities. There are two large shopping malls in Playa del Carmen and plenty of small boutique for all kinds of budget.
- Whether you’re on a budget and looking to save some money, or you’re looking to live in the lap of luxury during your stay, Playa del Carmen has great options for both. There are plenty of all-inclusive hotels, boutique hotels, and private accommodation options available to suit tourists’ needs. In this regard, this town is more budget friendly when compared to Tulum.
- If you’re someone who loves nightlife and partying, Playa del Carmen has more active nightlife scene; there are plenty of bars, dance clubs, rooftop lounges, and much more.
- You can also take a ferry from Playa del Carmen to the island of Cozumel, which is very popular for its watersport activities.
- Thanks to the many restaurants, there are plenty of options when it comes to food. Whether you want Mexican cuisine or internationsl you’ll easily be able to find it here at a walking distance to everything.
- Most people speak English very fluently and you won’t need to use Spanish. Though I still recommend you learn some basic phrases if you’re going to be visiting the area. In playa del Carmen there are many spanish schools that you can attend.
- There are plenty of activities available for everyone. Whether you’re college aged and just want to party, a couple on a honeymoon, or want to visit with your whole family (kids included), you’ll be able to find activities that suit all age ranges.
- If you’re someone to whom nature and wildlife matters a lot, Playa del Carmen might not be the town for you. On the other hand, if you’re up for exploring underwater, the town offers excellent snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities; Cozumel will get you access to the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second largest reef in the world.
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- 45 minutes (55 km) from Cancun.
- 1 hour 30 minutes (33 km) from Cozumel.
- 50 minutes (64.4 km) from Tulum.
- 30 minutes (38.4 km) from Akumal.
- 1 hour 28 minutes (108.5 km) from Cobá.
- 1 hour 49 minutes (141.1 km) from Valladolid.
- 2 hours 21 minutes (182.3 km) from Chichen Itza.
TRAVEL MUST – Whatever it is the way you love to travel, either by car, tour, bus, always make sure you get
- Since Playa del Carmen has no airport, you’ll have to fly to the closest one which is Cancun International. Find out how to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen hassle free.
- Playa is much more urban when compared to Tulum. On the plus side, you get much more amenities and staying options in Playa. On the down side, if you’re looking for a more laidback, relaxed, and bohemian vibe, you won’t find it here.
- Thousands of college students head to Mexico for their spring break, and Playa del Carmen is known as a party town. In case you visit during March and April, you won’t be able to enjoy a quiet vacation that you were hoping for.
- Due to the area being more developed, the beaches in Playa are narrower and not as scenic as the ones in Tulum. Depending on the season you go in, you’ll also find the beaches more crowded.
- As mentioned earlier, if you’re a fan of eco-friendly lodgings, nature, and wildlife, Tulum would be much better suited for you.
- Due to Playa being more popular, you’ll also encounter far more people trying to sell you stuff when you’re out and about.
By now, you know that Playa offers an urban atmosphere (assuming you’ve been reading thus far and didn’t skip to this section). Tulum, on the other hand, has a much more relaxed atmosphere.
If you’re looking for a boho-chic, small-town atmosphere focused on ecotourism, Tulum is for you. At the time of writing this, there are no all-inclusive hotels in Tulum, though you’ll be able to find plenty of boutique hotels.
Generally, accommodations are also priced higher when compared to Playa del Carmen.
The beaches on Tulum are much more picturesque when compared to Playa del Carmen. However, Tulum isn’t very walkable. If you’re staying in Downtown Tulum, you’ll have to rent a car, get a cab ride, or bike to the beaches.
The same goes for if you’re staying at a beach resort and want to visit downtown.
Highlights of Tulum
- Tulum has some of the best beaches in Mexico. (actually a very long uninterrupted one).They do get crowded sometimes, but due to the sheer size of the coastline, it’s pretty easy to find a place where you can just enjoy the sights and sunbathe on your own.
- The beaches in Tulum are also much more peaceful and picturesque compared to those in Playa. Technically, Tulum just has one long, unbroken strip of a single beach, and no matter which season it is, you can find a quiet spot to relax in.
- With a population of only around 46,000, Tulum has a very bohemian, laid back, and relaxing vibe. The town is surrounded by natural beauty and the focus is on eco-tourism.
- Despite not being as populated, Tulum has a very active nightlife, mainly in downtown along the main road.
- Apart from the main road in downtown, Tulum is not very walkable in general. You’ll need to rent a bike or use taxis to go to and from the beach. Same goes for if you’re staying somewhere in downtown that’s not close to the main road, you’ll have difficulty finding taxis so you’ll have to rent a bike.
- Tulum is perfect for foodies, with plenty of fine dining experiences available. In the hotel zone, you’ll find gourmet options from Micheline star chefs. Downton Tulum will also give you quite a few options on that front, from authentic Mexican food to Italian cuisine and much more.
- One of the major tourist attractions (that I recommend visiting) in Tulum are the famous Mayan ruins. They’re fairly easy to get to and offer beautiful cliff views over the Caribbean Sea.
- Tulum is also more peaceful during the spring break parties season. Almost all of the parties are focused in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and you’ll be able to have a much better time here.
- The spectacular Sian Ka’an Biosphere is situated just an hour south of Tulum. I highly recommend going there and taking a guided boat tour.
- 24 minutes (27 km) from Akumal.
- 45 minutes (50 km) from Coba ruins.
- 50 minutes (64.4 km) from Playa del Carmen.
- 1 hour 18 minutes (63 km) from Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
- 1 hour 27 minutes (102.9 km) from Valladolid.
- 2 hours (149 km) from Chichen-Itza.
- On average, a vacation in Tulum will be noticeably more expensive if you plan on staying in a hotel; expect to pay about 20-30 more. As a rule of thumb, the closer your accommodation is to the beach, the more you should expect to pay. This isn’t an issue in Playa, as the town is intertwined with its beaches.
- Staying on a budget and having easy access to the beach are mutually exclusive in Tulum for now. That’s not to say that you can’t find budget lodgings, there are cheap hostels available; but those will most likely be in Downtown Tulum and you’ll have to either bike or get a cab to the beaches.
- If you’re used to the all-inclusive experience on your vacations, you should know that it’s not easy to find in Tulum. The accommodations in Tulum are more unique and upscale.
- The nearest airport is Cancun International, which is around 80-90 minutes away. While buses do travel directly to Tulum from the airport, there are only a handful scheduled per day. In case you miss your bus, catch one to Playa del Carmen and from there catch another one to Tulum. Check out the best way to get from Cancun to Tulum
- Although in Tulum there are many develpements and apartments are growing as fast as mushurooms in rainy season, It still has a laidback feel. This becomes very apparent when you’re staying in the downtown area and further away from the main road. The further you get from the main road, the more roads are unpaved and the more messy it becomes, which could also appear cool. See it to believe it.
Both Playa del Carmen and Tulum are very safe towns. Being popular tourist destinations, there is a high presence of police and national guard around these areas to keep things peaceful.
That being said, you should use common sense and practice some general safety tips.
Make sure to keep an eye on your belongings no matter where you go and don’t wander far from them. That includes not leaving your equipment on the beach while you go for a swim. It’s also a good idea to keep your bling locked away in the hotel room safe.
Also, when you go out at night, stick to well-lit areas and avoid secluded streets. At night, always get a cab to go from point A to B.
This is much more of an issue in Tulum, where the road going from downtown to the beach gets very deserted at night and the inner streets of Downtown Tulum also become a ghost town.
Since Playa del Carmen and Tulum are situated only about 50 minutes away from each other, the weather isn’t going to differ much (if at all) from one place to the other.
The only thing to keep in mind is the high, low, and shoulder seasons.
Typically, the high season starts in December and continues until April; you’ll get great weather during these months with low temperatures and humidity, not to mention little to no rain. It’s the best time to visit but you’ll also encounter more crowds and prices for accommodations will be quite high.
The shoulder and low seasons comprise months from May to November and are great for saving money on your trip. Hotel rates and airfare will be at their lowest during this period.
May, which falls in the shoulder season, is a popular month for couples on their honeymoon to visit these towns.
You may also want to check my guide to the best time to visit Tulum.
Tulum vs Playa del Carmen – What do they have in common?
There are many good things that both Mexican beach towns have in common.
- Both town is also very close to Akumal beach where you can see and swim with giant sea turtles and Xpu-ha which are some of the best beaches in Mexico
- Both are close to the best cenotes of the Riviera Maya such as Cenote Azul, Cenote Tak-bi-ha and Cenote Cristalino which are half way between the two towns. However there are many cenotes near Tulum that are closer than to Playa del Carmen
- Both have amazing hotels and vacation rentals to choose from.
- Both have incredible Restaurants for any budget and taste
- Both Tulum and Playa del Carmen have a great expat and digital nomads community with many co-working space and cute cafes where to work from
To be honest, since both towns are barely an hour away from each other, you should definitely visit and spend some time in both. They offer two very different but fun atmospheres that are worth experiencing on your own.
That being said, I understand that sometimes you might only get the time to explore one, so you have to choose. It comes right down to this; if you’re an active person who’s fond of the urban life and the amenities it offers, Playa del Carmen is for you. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s looking to get away from the busyness of urban life to enjoy fine dining experiences, bohemian vibes, and a spectacular beach, pick Tulum.