Trust me, I know the feeling. With such different vibes, it’s tough to pick just one. You might be wondering which city has better beaches, or if you can party in both. And don’t even get me started on the cenotes!
But fear not, my indecisive friend, because I’ve got your back. I spent a whopping 10-15 days in each city during my two-month escapade in the Riviera Maya.
And guess what?
I’m here to spill the beans on which city takes the crown in 17 categories. So buckle up, and let’s dive in!
Dream makers 😎
Cancun in a nutshell
Chances are, you’ll touch down at Cancun airport, the largest in Quintana Roo with the most direct flights. Cancun has grown into a bustling city, but the hotel zone remains the top place to stay. This area boasts massive hotels, mostly operating under an all-inclusive model.
Cancun’s beaches are beautiful, as long as you know where to look. Its cheap flights and party atmosphere attract droves of visitors, particularly during spring break. The best clubs in the region are found here. However, if a family-friendly, relaxing vacation is more your speed, Cancun still has plenty to offer.
The downside to using Cancun as a hub for exploring the Yucatan peninsula is its location at the tip, meaning you’ll have to travel further than you would in Tulum to visit places like Bacalar.
It takes around 2 hours to drive from Cancun to Tulum, with Playa del Carmen as the halfway point. Bacalar is about 4.5 hours away, while Valladolid is 2 hours inland.
Here is a terrific article to plan the perfect Cancun Itinerary.
Tulum in a nutshell
Tulum retains a small-town atmosphere many travelers seek. It’s home to exclusive beachside boutique hotels but be prepared for steep prices in the beachside hotel zone.
Tulum is a better hub for exploring nearby cities, with easier access to Bacalar and most coastal spots. Chichen Itza and other popular archaeological sites are also closer than if you were to depart from Cancun. Tulum itself has its own ruins to explore.
Bacalar is 2.5 hours from Tulum, while Valladolid is just 1.5 hours away. The downtown area in Tulum offers a mix of affordable and luxury hotels and apartments at more reasonable prices than the beach.
The laid-back beach town vibe on the Caribbean Sea makes Tulum perfect for extended stays.
|Atmosphere||Modern, bustling city||Laid-back, bohemian beach town|
|Beaches||Beautiful turquoise waters and soft sand||Virgin beach vibe; often affected by sargassum;|
|Accommodation||Large all-inclusive resorts.||Exclusive beachside boutique hotels|
|Transportation||Requires car rental, buses or taxis||Can be explored on foot or by bike;|
|Food||Wide range of options||High-end dining experiences|
|Cenotes||0 near Cancun. You must go to Puerto Morelos (30 min away)||Numerous and impressive cenotes nearby,|
|Boat Trips||More options, marinas, and tour companies||No port|
|Mayan Ruins & History||Tiny archeological sites nearby.||Easier access to major sites.|
|Attraction Parks||Broader array of attractions.||Excel in water parks|
|Little-Known Day Trips||Limited options||Better for off-the-beaten-path adventures.|
|Nightlife||Huge clubs; attracts a younger crowd.||Beach clubs, older crowd, electro music|
|Downtown||Larger; lacks intimate feel||Bohemian vibe; more compact|
|Shopping||Typical souvenirs and international brands.||Unique pottery and Bohemian clothing.|
|Safety||Generally safe.||Generally safe.|
|Weather||Best time to visit is December to April.||Best time to visit is December to April.|
|Money & Prices||Expensive destination.||Even pricier than Cancun.|
|Digital Nomads||Not ideal for long-term stays.||More appealing for digital nomads.|
Cancun Vs Tulum: Atmosphere
Cancun and Tulum offer vastly different atmospheres. Cancun is modern Mexico, while Tulum maintains an old-school, small beach town vibe.
Cancun has a little something for everyone. Family-friendly resorts like Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach cater to those with kids, while partygoers can find hotels near the Forum by the Sea shopping center (Punta Cancun area).
Shopping centers like Isla Cancun Shopping Village give off a Miami Beach feel rather than a small Mexican town vibe. Visitors often marvel at Cancun’s size. If the city is too overwhelming, you can always retreat to an all-inclusive resort and enjoy the pristine beaches.
Tulum is a small town nestled between the jungle and the beach. Its boutique hotels on the beachside are perfect for private couples’ getaways, though the price tag and vibe make it more adult-oriented.
Tulum still exudes a chill, bohemian beach town vibe, particularly in downtown Tulum. It’s less active during the day than Cancun, so come prepared to relax.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Beaches
Cancun and Tulum share beautiful beaches and the common enemy of sargassum (smelly seaweed), but there are key differences to note.
Some Cancun beaches, like Playa Delfines, are not safe to swim in due to large waves and strong currents on windy days. However, Cancun offers a variety of beach experiences. For a sargassum-free beach with shallow waters, head to the Costa Mujeres area. Isla Mujeres, just off the shore, acts as a natural barrier against sargassum.
Cancun’s beaches boast turquoise-blue shallow waters and soft sand that won’t burn your feet on hot days. If you want to upgrade your Instagram feed, you’ll find no shortage of picturesque spots here.
Cancun offers more water sports activities than Tulum, ranging from jet ski rentals to speed boating. Playa Tortuga is a go-to spot for water sports enthusiasts.
Despite increasing hotel development, Tulum Beach retains its virgin beach vibe without massive hotel buildings looming overhead. Beach clubs like Ziggy’s and La Zebra offer beach chairs, tasty food, and cocktails for sunbathing visitors.
On the downside, Tulum’s beach zone is often plagued by sargassum, especially from the end of March through October. Access to the beach can be difficult, with most visitors either staying at a beachfront hotel or visiting a beach club. However, if it’s an Instagram-worthy beach you’re after, Tulum is the place to be.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Accommodation
Cancun is known for its large, all-inclusive resorts, while Tulum’s beach area is more of a boutique hotel destination.
Places to stay in Cancun
Most Cancun visitors opt for accommodations in the main hotel zone. Many hotels offer all-inclusive deals, and if you have loyalty points or free nights to redeem, Cancun is likely where you’ll find your hotel. These establishments typically feature massive pools, bars, and animation teams to entertain guests.
For less expensive options, downtown Cancun has hotels, but you’ll be far from the beach.
A step-by-step guide to deciding where to stay in Cancun.
Places to stay in Tulum
Staying in Tulum Beach likely means booking a boutique hotel. Some top luxury hotels in the entire Riviera Maya are found here. However, you may end up paying a premium for a less-than-stellar experience (Tulum is, after all, quite hyped). That said, many resorts seamlessly blend their design into the jungle environment, creating stunning spots.
For longer stays, communities like La Veleta or Aldea Zama near downtown offer better per-night rates. These areas are closer to Tulum’s downtown, which, unlike Cancun, still provides a taste of small beach town life.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Transportation
Knowing how to get around efficiently and at a low cost is key to the success of your Mexican vacation, whether you’re exploring Cancun or Tulum.
Getting around Cancun
Even if you decide to stay in Tulum, you’ll most likely arrive at Cancun International Airport. So, you’ll want a strategy to get from there to your destination. If you plan to explore multiple cities in the area, renting a car is the best option, with most car rental options available near the airport.
Cancun is too big to navigate on foot. If you don’t rent a car, be prepared to shell out cash for cabs. You can book bus trips on ADO to get to other cities in the area or take public buses on the R1 and R2 routes, connecting downtown Cancun with the hotel zone. One downside is that Cancun airport is 30 minutes away from the hotel zone, so getting a cab at the airport will be pricey. If you’re with a larger group, booking a shuttle service in advance can be a better deal.
Getting around Tulum
Tulum is small enough to explore by renting a bike or scooter. However, you’ll still need a strategy to get from the airport to Tulum. An ADO bus ride is a cost-effective option (about 3 hours). If you plan on spending time in both Tulum and Cancun or exploring the area around Tulum, renting a car still makes sense. Taxis in Tulum are pricey, and rideshare apps don’t operate there.
Renting a car is the best way to get around the area, especially if you want to explore different cities in the Riviera Maya. The downside of having a car in Tulum is that parking on the beach is hard to find, and you’ll have to navigate busy dirt roads during peak season. It’s tough to find a perfect option that works for everyone.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Food
Both Cancun and Tulum offer a range of cheap and expensive restaurants. While Cancun has more options, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are better.
Cancun boasts numerous chain restaurants, food trucks, and street food spots, particularly downtown. Cheap tacos are everywhere! Many top restaurants are tied to resort hotels, and if you’re staying at an all-inclusive hotel, you’ll likely eat on property most of the time.
While you can find street food options in Tulum, most are in the downtown area. Restaurants near Tulum beach are known for being eccentric and pricey, taking advantage of the jungle setting to create high-end dining experiences. Some spots turn into great nightlife venues but may not offer tasty food. If you’re looking for healthy or vegan options, Tulum has plenty of choices, some of which are on the beach and more affordable. Foodies will likely prefer Tulum.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Cenotes
When it comes to cenotes, Tulum wins by a landslide, with more cenotes nearby and arguably more impressive ones as well.
Although there are no cenotes in Cancun, a popular day trip is the “Ruta de los Cenotes” near Puerto Morelos. Most tours let you swim in 3 or 4 cenotes in a day. It’s essential to visit multiple cenotes as they vary significantly, from closed, cave-like cenotes to open, lagoon-like ones. If you’re staying in Cancun without a car, your best bet to explore cenotes is to book a tour.
Tulum’s cenotes are not only more numerous but also more impressive. The jungle surrounding some cenotes and the descent into the caves offer unique experiences. Gran Cenote, Casa Cenote, and Dos Ojos are popular choices near Tulum. You can book a tour for a day trip or even bike to some cenotes like Cenote Calavera or Cenote Escondido. For a top snorkeling experience in a cave cenote, try the Sac Actun area. The crystal-clear water will make you feel like you’re flying!
Cancun Vs Tulum: Boat trips
In this Tulum vs Cancun showdown, Cancun takes the trophy for boat trips, hands down. With more options, marinas, and tour companies, it’s the place to be for sea adventures.
Cancun’s boat trips
Cancun boasts several marinas, so when booking, pinpoint your departure spot. You can choose from various boat trips, like lively catamarans with open bars, popular among partygoers, or luxurious yacht rentals with unlimited drinks. Your experience can be as fancy as you desire.
Whale shark season spans from May to September, making diving and snorkeling tours increasingly popular. When it comes to open sea diving, Cancun arguably outshines Tulum. The MUSA underwater museum, featuring fascinating statues, is a must-see.
With more boats and tour companies in Cancun, you’ll likely find better prices than Tulum. Plus, there are more options for sailing to Isla Mujeres or even Cozumel.
Tulum’s boat trips
Tulum lacks a port, so you must drive to Puerto Aventuras or Playa del Carmen to embark on a boat tour. This 40-minute one-way trip can eat into your day, making boat tours a more significant commitment when in Tulum.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Mayan ruins & history
Both Tulum and Cancun offer intriguing historical sites for the inner archaeologist in all of us. Still, the Tulum ruins are a lot more impressive.
Cancun’s archeological sites
El Meco and El Rey are two sites near Cancun worth visiting. El Rey takes the cake, in my opinion. Arrive early and book a local guided tour to understand the area better and avoid the scorching midday sun.
For a more low-key guided experience, the Museo Maya is a great option. An archeological site is nearby, conveniently close to the main Cancun hotel zone.
Tulum’s archeological sites
The famous Tulum ruins offer more freedom to explore and boast breathtaking scenery—ruins, turquoise water, and lush vegetation. Located on the north part of Tulum Beach, they’re just a 10-minute drive from downtown Tulum.
If you’re keen on visiting Coba or Chichen Itza, starting from Tulum is easier than Cancun. You can book tours or take public buses to these sites. Muyil, another well-preserved archeological site, is a mere 20 minutes from Tulum. Regardless of which site you explore, arriving early is key.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Attraction parks
Both destinations feature exciting attraction parks, often combined with cenotes and other activities.
Cancun’s best attraction parks
Cancun is home to Selvatica, my top pick for zip-lining through a jungle-like setting. Extreme Adventure offers ATV rides and zip lines as well. While parks like Xcaret and Xplor are actually in Playa del Carmen, they’re worth mentioning.
Cancun also hosts a Cirque du Soleil show and the Torre Escénica in La Isla, a towering viewpoint offering stunning aerial views of Cancun.
Tulum’s best attraction parks
Tulum’s emphasis on cenotes means many of its attractions revolve around snorkeling and swimming.
Xel-ha Park, which began as a snorkeling spot, now includes zip lines, bike trails, and water activities. Aktun Chen Park, known for its underground river, now features cave explorations and zip lines.
While Tulum may excel in water parks, Cancun boasts a broader array of attractions.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Little-Known Day Trips
Although Tulum and Cancun each have their own unique charm, Tulum packs more of a punch when it comes to secret spots and off-the-beaten-path adventures. So let’s dive into what each city offers and see which one comes out on top!
Cancun’s Off the Beaten Path Places
While finding untouched white sand beaches in Cancun is near impossible, you might just stumble upon a local restaurant that’s not plastered all over the internet.
As for less-visited day trip destinations, you’ll need to venture towards Puerto Morelos or Playa Blanca, north of Costa Mujeres. However, reaching some of these spots without a car can be costly, challenging, and not necessarily worth the hassle.
Tulum’s Off the Beaten Path Places
Tulum may not be teeming with secluded beaches, but it boasts hidden jungle lagoons like Punta Laguna near Coba and Laguna de Kaan Luum. The crown jewel is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, where turquoise waters meet dense vegetation and a variety of animals frolic in the trees.
Accessing these reserves can be tricky, so booking a tour with pickup and drop-off at your Tulum hotel might be the best bet.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Nightlife
Both Cancun and Tulum have vibrant nightlife scenes, but your preference will depend on what you’re after.
The main clubs, such as Coco Bongo and Mandala, are located in Punta Cancun (hotel zone) and are popular with a younger crowd (Spring Break!). For a more laid-back vibe, head to a nearby restaurant or bar like Sonora Grill in La Isla, where you can enjoy dinner and drinks without the wild club atmosphere.
Tulum caters to an older crowd, especially at its beach clubs. High prices deter younger partygoers, who tend to stick to the downtown area’s more affordable bars. Tulum is also known for its electronic music scene, with top DJs often performing at beachside restaurants-turned-clubs.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Downtown
Downtown is the place to be for budget travelers in both cities, though each has its own distinct charm.
Attractions like restaurants and bars are mainly found around Parque Palapas and Avenida Carlos Nader. However, Cancun’s downtown is larger than Tulum’s, lacking that intimate small-town feel. On the plus side, reaching the beach from downtown is relatively easy, making it a great spot to find a good hotel deal.
Tulum’s downtown exudes the Bohemian vibe the city is famous for. Though not ideal for walking end-to-end, the area is more compact than Cancun’s downtown. Even the boutique hotels in Tulum have more personality than their Cancun counterparts. The main downside is the distance and difficulty in reaching the beach.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Shopping
Neither city is known for shopping, but you may be pleasantly surprised by what’s available.
For the typical souvenir T-shirt or trinket, head to Mercado 28. For more serious shopping, Puerto Cancun and La Isla malls offer stores from renowned brands, similar to what you’d find in the US or Canada.
Tulum is a better option for pottery souvenirs and local Bohemian clothing. If you want to embrace the Tulum vibe with your wardrobe, seek out one of these specialty shops.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Safety
The US travel advisories tend to lump Cancun and Tulum together, so let’s break it down a bit. To stay safe in either city, use your noggin and mainly stick to well-trodden tourist areas.
For instance, in Cancun, you’ll be A-OK within the main hotel zone. Likewise, the primary roads in Tulum Beach and downtown are generally safe. What could land you in hot water is getting too swept up in the dazzling nightlife. Avoid staying out too late and steer clear of drug purchases. Mixing these two can be a recipe for trouble.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Weather
When it comes to weather, Cancun and Tulum are pretty much twinsies. December to April is the prime time to visit the Riviera Maya.
Even during the “cooler months” (November through February), expect warm weather and sunshine to prevail. The downside of visiting from June to August, or even September, is that it gets sweltering. Plus, hurricane season runs from June until early November. As you’ll discover, summers in Mexico are often rainy.
In short, if you’re after excellent weather and fewer crowds, aim for the shoulder seasons (after spring break and November).
Cancun Vs Tulum: Money & Prices
Tulum Beach may just be Mexico’s priciest destination. Unlike Cancun, Tulum offers fewer options when it comes to hotels, bars, and clubs, which drives up prices across the board.
Speaking of price hikes, be aware that some venues may charge an extra 4 or 5% on your tab if you pay with a credit card. Cancun hotels aren’t necessarily budget-friendly either, but you’ll have more options and a better chance of finding a deal. Cancun and Tulum are, without a doubt, two of Mexico’s most expensive tourist hotspots.
Cancun Vs Tulum: Digital Nomads
Beach-loving digital nomads may feel drawn to Cancun and Tulum, but don’t expect a cheap cost of living in either location.
Cancun for digital nomads
In Cancun’s hotel zone, you’ll find decent Wi-Fi and good cell coverage from the local network Telcel, both on the beach and in downtown Cancun. The challenge with Cancun is that you’re unlikely to live full-time in one of the all-inclusive resorts.
Downtown doesn’t offer much in terms of activities, especially if you’re looking for things to do within walking distance of your accommodation. You may end up feeling trapped in a big, not-so-cost-effective city that lacks other appealing features.
In this Tulum vs Cancun comparison Tulum’s got the upper hand big time. Especially Tulum’s downtown. This is a spot filled with cafe’s and things to do in the evening. There’s a growing group of foreign digital nomads in the area. You’re more likely to find cheap lodging options for long-term stays.