Last updated on May 22, 2023 by Wandering our World
If holiday season has you daydreaming about exploring Mayan temples, tequila, and tacos, then Mexico’s Caribbean coastline may be calling.The Yucatan Peninsula, in the south of Mexico, is bordered by the Caribbean Sea on its eastern seaboard, and is home to some of Mexico’s best-known and best-loved tourist destinations: Cancun and Tulum being two of the best.
With white-sand beaches, warm waters, and plenty of cultural highlights, its easy to see why people flock to this beautiful part of the world for their vacations. But which destination should you book for your Mexican vacation?
That’s exactly what we’re going to help you with!
Cancun sits at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, facing the Caribbean Sea. It’s been a top tourist destination for many a year, and it’s perfect if you are looking for a resort-style vacation or are looking for a Spring Break-style blowout.
With several stunning beaches and plenty of vacation activities to keep you entertained, it’s easy to see why Cancun is such a popular destination.
Tulum is located a little more than 100 kilometers to the south of Cancun, also on the peninsula’s Caribbean coast.
As a smaller town than Cancun, Tulum can be the quieter choice and is perfect if you are looking to get close to nature and relax with a chilled beach vibe. With excellent beaches, Mayan ruins, and chic boutique hotels, Tulum has an upscale bohemian vibe and is becoming ever more popular.
Read on as we dive a little deeper into these two fantastic Mexican destinations to help you decide where to spend your next vacation…
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview Of Cancun vs Tulum
Many people think these destinations will be quite similar as they’re both in Mexico and quite near to each other. However there are notable differences.
That said, in terms of beaches, both have stunning stretches of coastline and gorgeous white sand beaches. However we believe that Tulum beats Cancun when it comes to which destination has the better beaches for sunbathing and swimming.
That’s mainly because Cancun is one of the most famous destinations in the Americas, and subsequently the gorgeous stretches of sand in Cancun tend to be highly developed and very busy. In contrast, the beaches in Tulum tend to be less busy, and so it’s easier to find your own more private spot.
However, because Cancun is so tourist-orientated there’s also a very good shopping scene, a huge array of restaurants, and the nightlife is lively and loud with numerous bars and nightclubs. That means there’s always things to do in Cancun. But it’s also made the city quite ‘Americanized’ with chain restaurants and hotels.
Tulum, on the other hand, is a quieter more relaxed place with many boutique hotels and independent restaurants.
It’s also very close to some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the region, so is a destination that often attracts tourists that are looking for more than just sun, sea, sand and shopping. Many also feel that Tulum has a more Mexican feel than Cancun.
There are some very nice restaurants in Tulum too, as well as bars and nightclubs so there are things to do in the evening. That said, the emphasis in Tulum certainly isn’t on partying, and places often slow down and shut down between 11pm and 1am. Which is when the party is just getting started in Cancun!
Tulum is a safe destination for tourists too – as is Cancun – but as always you must be vigilant in regards to petty crime in both destinations, and be careful of leaving drinks unattended.
Below we dive deep into the differences and similarities of both, showing you which is better for beaches, hotels with a sea view, families, which is cheaper and far more!
Which Is Easier To Get To?
In terms of reaching your chosen destination, things are pretty straightforward. Cancun International Airport (CUN) is Mexico’s second busiest airport, behind Mexico City, and serves both Tulum and Cancun.
The airport receives plenty of flights from many major US cities, and there are also flights arriving from a few of the South American capital cities. If you are traveling from Europe, many of the continent’s capital cities also run direct flights into Cancun.
From the airport, it will be a little easier and quicker to get to your accommodation in Cancun than it will be to reach Tulum.
Transfers from the airport to Cancun’s bustling hotel zone shouldn’t take more than half an hour. Tulum is around 130 kilometers to the south of Cancun, and you can expect this journey to take close to two hours.
If you’re staying in Cancun, you can use taxis, private transfers, shared minivan shuttles, or rental cars to get to your hotel in Cancun. All are readily available and waiting to transport you to your accommodation.
If you will be heading down the coast to Tulum, you can take advantage of the same options, but the journey will take a little longer. If you are heading to Tulum and are being mindful of the budget, the ADO bus company run regular buses down the coast, and you can book in advance online.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
The Yucatan Peninsula has its fair share of excellent beaches, and you will not be disappointed in either location.
However Whether you prefer the beaches in Tulum or those in Cancun will depend a little bit on you and what you like to do during your beach time.
In general though the beaches in Cancun can be much busier, and far more developed compared to Tulum. Although that does mean there’s more opportunities to find hotel rooms with a sea view in Cancun.
But with plenty of soft, white sand and clear, blue water in both Cancun and Tulum, you won’t be left wanting for a good beach in either location.
We’re going to have a look at three beaches in each location that you should check out, and that may also help you decide which is the better beach destination for you.
The Best Three Beaches To Visit In Cancun
Playa Chac Mool combines beauty with an excellent location. The beach sits at the heart of the Hotel Zone and is blessed with soft, white sand and calm turquoise waters lapping the shoreline.
It’s a great beach for a swim, snorkeling, or a spot of sunbathing with a book. There are also a few activities to be found, such as glass-bottom boat tours over the reef.
Playa Delfines translates as “Dolphin Beach,” and it’s not just a gimmicky name; you can expect to spot dolphins playing in the surf and the waves a little farther out.
The waves can get a little bigger here, but with no huge hotels or sprawling resorts to ruin the views, it is a stunning beach to relax on. Playa Delfines is also located within Cancun’s Hotel Zone.
Playa Maroma is a picture-perfect beach and a good spot to enjoy some water sports, too. The wide beach is covered with soft sand, and the water is an inviting shade of blue.
While it’s a good beach to enjoy jet skis or snorkeling, it’s also great for a lazy day in the sand. With a few resorts and restaurants just behind the beach, there are plenty of good lunch options too.
The Best Three Beaches To Visit In Tulum
Playa Ruinas is, as the name suggests, backed by the Tulum Ruins – a fantastic historical Mayan ruin. The beach is backed by impressive cliffs, and there is a staircase taking you down to sea level to enjoy the white sand and azure ocean.
After topping up the tan and having a swim, you can explore the El Castillo pyramid, which sits atop the cliffs.
Playa Paraiso is an excellent public beach with soft, white sand and an eponymous beach club. It’s a social beach with lots going on and a great place for an afternoon in the sun.
As the sun sets, you can hit the beach club and then continue your evening from there. There are a few excellent restaurants behind the beach, too.
Ahau Tulum Beach is the place to go to get the adrenaline pumping with some water sports activities. The beach’s dramatic entrance, through the open chest of a 10-meter-tall wooden sculpture of a person, is unmissable, and the beach is home to some of Tulum’s best kitesurfing, surfing, and paddleboarding.
Which Is Best For Nightlife?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting your hair down on vacation, and if a few nights’ partying is on your agenda, you should have no problem finding a great party in either location.
Cancun is known for, among other things, being a popular Spring Break destination for the college crowd. One of the reasons Spring Breakers love Cancun is because of its vibrant nightlife and plenty of opportunities to party from dusk till dawn.
There are more clubs and bars in Cancun than Tulum, and they are more accessible. And when it comes to partying, many think Cancun is the better option.
Cancun Mandala is one of the coolest spots for late night fun. This energetic nightclub is one of Cancun’s most popular party spots. Another is Congo Bar Cancun, a nightclub and bar with several levels, dancers, and entertainment.
Tulum has a healthy party scene too, but it’s a little more chic and upmarket, with plenty of world-famous DJs pumping out the tunes.
Tulum also plays host to a few music festivals during the year, and if you plan your visit to coincide with one of these, you will be sure to have a party or two to enjoy.
Although Tulum isn’t as nightlife centric as Cancun, there are several great evening spots. One of our favorites is Batey Mojito and Guarapo Bar. This bar has an energetic vibe, beer garden, and live music – the different flavored mojitos are delicious.
Another favorite is Xibalbar. Expect great service and music at this rooftop bar, as well as a nice selection of food and drinks, and the best hookah in the city. It’s usually open until 1am.
Recommended: A Guide to Tulum Nightlife
Which Is Best For Families?
While both Cancun and Tulum can deliver an excellent family vacation, the two destinations offer different experiences.
Cancun is bigger and busier, while Tulum is smaller and quieter. There are more options for activities in Cancun, but Tulum’s quieter beaches can be more appealing to some families.
But if your children are still quite young, the short transfer to your hotel in Cancun may be more appealing than the longer transfer to Tulum.
In terms of educational activities, a visit to the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza is possible from either location, and the drive time is not that different. However, if the road journey to Chichen Itza is a little far for you and your kids, then Tulum may be a better choice, as you have easy access to the Tulum Archeological Site without the need for a long road journey.
An hour outside of Tulum is another cultural site at Coba. The Coba Archeological Site, which is much easier to reach than Chichen Itza, is home to the Yucatan Peninsula’s tallest pyramid, the Nohoc Mul Pyramid.
For more traditional vacation activities, a stay in Tulum gives you the opportunity to take the children to a water park for the day.
There are two such waterparks nearby: Xel-Ha and Xplor Park. At Xel-Ha, you can enjoy unlimited snorkeling with multicolored tropical fish and see a wide range of marine species that inhabit the waters of Tulum’s rivers, cenotes, and coastal waters. The park also features a 100-foot-tall lighthouse with a slide snaking and spiraling down its exterior.
Xplor Park is an adventure park with ziplines, rafting, water slides, and cenotes and underwater rivers to explore. This park is located on the edge of Playa del Carmen and is halfway between Cancun and Tulum.
Family activities in Cancun include Dolphin Discovery Cancun. There’s a big clue in the name as to the main draw at Dolphin Discovery, while the park also offers the chance to interact with and learn about other marine species, including sharks, stingrays, sea lions, and manatees.
As a larger city and busier location, Cancun does have better infrastructure and better shopping opportunities. La Isla Cancun Shopping Village is also a good place to spend the day. The vast village is akin to an outdoor mall, and in addition to some of the big fashion houses having outlets here, there is also a fun aquarium to explore.
If your kids are looking to meet the Pirates of the Caribbean during your vacation, the Captain Hook Cancun experience will put smiles on their faces. You get to spend a few hours out at sea aboard a pirate ship, and the adventure includes dinner and an entertaining pirate show too.
Cancun vs Tulum: Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
As two large tourism destinations, both Cancun and Tulum have a full range of accommodation options to suit all needs and different types of budgets.
Whilst Cancun is a bigger destination and has a wider choice, Tulum is expanding and already boasts a healthy range of accommodations.
Below we’re going to have a look at each destination and highlight a hotel in each of the following three categories: budget, mid-range, and luxury.
By having a look at the best available for each budget, you may be able to work out which destination suits you best:
Shoestring: Finding a stylish place on a shoestring budget is hard in Cancun, but Nomads Enigmatic Hotel & Hostel is just that. This modern hostel in downtown Cancun has been created in an old Mexican style but comes complete with bar, outside swimming pool and wonderful shared garden. For the price, it’s a fantastic choice. See photos and rates here!
Budget: It’s even harder to find luxurious beachside accommodation in the city’s famous hotel zone without stratospheric prices attached to it. However Oleo Cancun Playa Boutique All Inclusive Resort offers an all-inclusive experience – and even rooms with sea views – at more than half the price of many neighboring hotels. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: Set in the heart of the action in Cancun’s hotel zone, and with every luxury imaginable including butler service, Turquoize at Hyatt Ziva Cancun with its unbelievable beachside views and infinity pool is as high end as you can get. See photos and rates here!
Shoestring: Decked out in old Tulum style, Caribeña may be a cheap accommodation choice but it doesn’t look it. You’ll be just a few minutes walk from downtown Tulum, and close to the beach and archeological sites. And when returning back after a day of exploring there’s a lovely outdoor pool to enjoy. See photos and rates here!
Budget: The beach isn’t the only reason you should visit Tulum, the jungle is just as tropical and picturesque. Nahouse Jungle Lodges give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in Tulum’s breathtaking natural landscape, but in stylish decorated villas with access to a big pool to cool down on warm evenings. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: Everything about Hotel Ma’xanab Tulum is photogenic. From the gorgeously decorated rooms, to the jungle garden. As well as the private beach and huge outdoor pool. There’s a reason this five-star hotel is so popular – you can even get rooms with their own private infinity pool! See photos and rates here!
Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
During the COVID pandemic, Mexico gained popularity as a hub for digital nomads. While many countries closed their borders completely, Mexico kept its borders open. Coupled with the fact that it is relatively easy to get a long-term visa for Mexico, many digital nomads, especially from the US, headed to the tropical climes of the Yucatan Peninsula to work remotely.
The increased number of digital nomads traveling to Mexico has resulted in an increase in digital nomad facilities. There are now options for co-working spaces and co-living options in both locations.
When it comes to choosing a location, digital nomads focus on internet speed, weather, and nightlife. And both Tulum and Cancun have all three in spades.
In terms of weather, there is no difference between the two locations, as they are very close together. Cancun is a big city with excellent infrastructure, and you will find good and speedy internet connections.
Tulum is a little smaller, but the internet connectivity is improving, with more and more establishments being able to offer fiber internet. If you rely on fast speeds for your remote work, this would be something to check out before committing to a long-term rental.
In terms of nightlife, you can certainly have some fun and party well into the small hours in either location. Cancun’s nightlife is more about the megaclubs and Spring Break, while the nightlife in Tulum is a little more low-key and ‘hip’.
So if being able to blow off some steam after a long day in front of your laptop is essential, you may find it easier to let loose in Cancun.
Which Is Cheaper?
With both Tulum and Cancun being popular and busy tourist destinations, there are plenty of choices for accommodation and dining out.
A wide range of options frequently translates into more competitive pricing. And as a bigger destination, Cancun has more accommodation options and more bars and restaurants to choose from.
As such, there is a slight difference in the average daily spend for these two locations, with Cancun working out a little bit cheaper for food, drinks, and accommodation.
However, as popular destinations with plenty of choices, it is possible to plan a vacation to either location and stay within your budget.
Both Cancun and Tulum have their fair share of luxury hotels and backpacker and budget accommodation options too. Both locations have some excellent dining options, and in both places you can find lots of excellent local food at very reasonable prices.
Excursions are similarly priced in each location, too. A trip to Chichen Itza would be roughly the same price from either location, as the distance needed to travel is also very similar, with Cancun being a little farther away and therefore slightly more expensive.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
With such a small distance separating these two Mexican destinations, you can expect to experience the same weather patterns in each location. While both Cancun and Tulum are open all year, there are some times of year that you may want to avoid.
September through November bring the highest chance of hurricanes, so many prefer to avoid the Yucatan Peninsula at this time of the year. While there is every chance you can enjoy a hurricane-free vacation at this time, it is when there is the highest chance of a storm rolling in. However, you can find some excellent deals on hotels at this time of year.
The high season is generally considered to be December through April. The weather should be nice and warm, with little rainfall. As this time of year is the most popular to visit, it will mean more crowds and higher prices for flights and hotels. To avoid the biggest crowds, avoid traveling during Christmas and Spring Break.
May and June can also have great weather, but there can be a little bit of rain at this time too. And the months of July through September can be very hot, with some tropical rains too.
Cancun vs Tulum: Which Is the Better Holiday Choice?
Both these Mexican holiday vacations will provide unforgettable memories but for very different reasons.
Cancun is energetic, busy, loud and developed. The beaches and water there are gorgeous, and the shopping, resorts and nightlife scene are famous for a reason.
Tulum, on the other hand, has arguably better beaches than Cancun, is less busy, more relaxed, and has a more authentic Mexican feel compared to Cancun.
So if you’re looking for a large, all-inclusive resort holiday, then maybe Cancun is best for you. Prefer a relaxing, chilled vibe away from the madding crowds? Then maybe Tulum will be your preferred destination.
And if you’re still struggling to decide, with a shade over 100 kilometers between Cancun and Tulum, you could always opt to enjoy both destinations in one vacation, splitting your time between the two. While renting a car for the day allows you to travel from one location to another for a day trip, possibly with a stop for lunch in pretty Playa del Carmen…
The Yuicatan Peninsula is a spectacular part of the world that has been wowing its visitors for many a year. Book a ticket, pack your bags, and go easy on the tequila!