There are so many great destinations in Mexico, and Cancun and Tulum are two of the best. However, both offer very different vacations, so making the choice between Cancun and Tulum is as important as it is difficult.
Thankfully we’re here to help! Below we pit Cancun vs Tulum, letting you know what to expect in each, comparing the beaches, culture, and nightlife.
We then give you a run down of some of the best natural sights and things to do in each destination to help you decide which one is better for your holiday.
- A Quick Overview of Which is the Better Choice
- Which Has The Better Natural Sights and Things To Do
- Where You Should Stay According to Your Budget
- Which is the Better Holiday Choice
Cancun vs Tulum: A Quick Overview of Which is the Better Choice
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. We 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 look at what things you can see and do in Cancun and Tulum in more detail, so you have an idea of what excursions are possible.
Cancun vs Tulum: Which Has The Better Natural Sights and Things To Do
Cancun has many gorgeous white sand beaches, and within the Hotel Zone we would say Playa Delfines is one of the best. The turquoise water here is shallow and warm making it perfect for swimming, but another fun aspect of this beach are the iguanas that come to sunbathe here too. You can often spot dolphins from the beach as well! (Recommended: Sharks in the Riviera Maya: Safety Info, Attacks & More).
Of course Cancun is a destination where adventure is always just around the corner, so why not head to Playa Ballenas where you can hire jet skis and go racing over the strong waves.
For something a bit different, become a pirate in the evening and join Captain Hook Cancun. For several hours you will be taken out to sea on huge replica pirate boats to enjoy a themed show & dinner. It’s fun and sums up Cancun well – there’s always something happening here.
There’s always shopping opportunities too! One of the best places to ‘shop till you drop’ is La Isla Cancun Shopping Village. This huge mall has a fascinating array of shops, from locals selling handicrafts to the world-renowned Prada. There’s even an aquarium.
You can find some incredible cultural excursions in the Hotel Zone too. We would recommend taking an excursion to the stunning Mayan ruins of El Rey.
Or if you venture outside of the Hotel Zone you can do a tour of the breathtaking ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. After that you will get the chance to swim in cenotes – huge sinkholes that have filled with water and are now gorgeous natural swimming pools. A trip like this will let you see another side of Mexico, as well as part of this country’s fascinating history too.
After a busy day soaking up the sun, shopping and exploring, then the nightlife in Cancun beckons. 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.
If you’re looking for nightlife and action, Cancun could be the best choice for you.
One of our favourite beaches, Playa Ruinas, sums up culture-rich Tulum well. This stunning beach with palm trees and aqua water is interspersed with Mayan ruins. It’s essentially an archeological site and beach in one! (Recommended: Snakes in Mexico).
Playa Paraíso is another beautiful beach which has a real Caribbean feel. It’s large, the sand is soft, the water is shallow, crystal clear and perfect for swimming. There’s also a few beach bars which are perfect to grab a cocktail beside the gently swaying palm trees.
If you head around 30km north from Tulum you will find Akumal Bay, a wonderful white sand bay where you can swim with dolphins, sea turtles and snorkel with colorful reef fish and rays.
A worthwhile excursion would be a trip to Parque Nacional Tulum which mixes turquoise blue sea with Mayan ruins. The dramatic position of the ruins on the cliff edge is breathtaking, while the countless iguanas that make this place home certainly adds to the atmosphere!
However our favourite excursion in Tulum is visiting the nearby cenotes. The large natural sinkholes have filled with water and are beautiful places to swim and scuba dive as there’s around 300 miles of interconnected underwater tunnels. The rock formations are other-worldly, the water crystal clear and warm, and the experience of swimming here one of a kind. A great underwater camera – like this one – is a must.
After a day enjoying the sights and swimming, a few drinks in the evening is a must. 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 Local’s Guide to Tulum Nightlife).
Cancun vs Tulum: Where You Should Stay According to Your Budget
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 here are gorgeous, and the shopping and nightlife scene is famous for a reason. So if you’re looking for a lively holiday that combines sunbathing with eating out and partying late into the night, then Cancun will be the better choice than Tulum.
Tulum, on the other hand, has arguably better beaches than Cancun, is less busy, more relaxed, and has an authentic feel compared to the more ‘Americanized’ Cancun. So if you’re looking for spectacular beaches, some great natural and archeological excursions, and a relaxed holiday, then Tulum will be the better choice than Cancun. (Related: Spiders in Mexico – What You Need to Know).