Last updated on December 29, 2022 by Wandering our World
If you are looking forward to hearing a hearty “bienvenidos a México” at the start of your next vacation, but haven’t decided where in Mexico you plan to spend your valuable vacation time yet, read on as we finally help you decide between two of Mexico’s hottest tourist spots: Playa del Carmen and Tulum!
With a mere one-hour drive separating these two destinations, there are many similarities between the two towns. Both are situated in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula and both border the Caribbean Sea and are close to fascinating Mayan ruins. But there are a few important differences that you must know which will help you make the best choice between these two idyllic Riviera Maya destinations.
Playa del Carmen is a popular family destination with excellent shopping and lots of activities. It also tends to attract a younger, party crowd who look to combine the beach by day with barhopping and nightclubs after sunset.
Tulum is a little smaller and is popular for those looking for a relaxing destination with a bohemian feel. It’s quieter, with less hustle and bustle, but still has plenty to see and do.
So, let’s dive a little deeper into these two marvellous Mexican hideouts to see which one will suit you best, in what is the most comprehensive and honest resource around when it comes to deciding whether Tulum or Playa del Carmen is the best choice for you!
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Better For Snorkeling & Scuba Diving?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Culture?
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
- Which Is More Expensive?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Playa del Carmen or Tulum: Which Is Better?
Which Is Easier To Get To?
There’s not a huge difference in the travel arrangements you would need to make to reach either destination. And for both locations, you should look to book a flight into Cancun International Airport.
Cancun’s airport is Mexico’s second busiest airport, behind Mexico City, and receives a large number of flights every day. Direct flights from the major capital cities of Europe and South America are pretty easy to find, as are flights from the major airports in many US states. Flight times are around five hours from New York, ten hours from London, and eight hours from Brasilia.
Once you have touched down in Mexico and cleared immigration, there’s just the simple task of journeying down the Caribbean coast to your final destination. Playa del Carmen is a little closer to Cancun’s airport than Tulum is, so, naturally, your hotel transfer will be a little quicker.
Playa del Carmen is a little over fifty kilometers from Cancun Airport, and the journey time should be around 45 minutes to an hour. Tulum is about the same distance again from Playa del Carmen, about sixty kilometers farther down the coast, so around 110km from Cancun Airport.
For both destinations, there are a few different options for the journey from the airport: private transfer, shared shuttle, car hire, hotel transfer, and bus.
Private transfers can be made via taxis or minivans, and though it’s not the cheapest option, it’s arguably the most convenient and quickest. A shared shuttle in a minivan will be a little cheaper, but you will have other passengers in the vehicle and will have to make additional stops.
If you have booked an all-inclusive resort, they will probably provide and organize the transportation for you. If you have a valid driver’s license and plan to travel around and explore the area once you arrive, a rental car may be a great idea, as it also includes your transportation back to the airport at the end of your vacation.
The cheapest option would be the bus. The ADO (pronounced ahh-day-oh in Spanish) buses are very comfortable and are a great way of getting from the airport to your chosen destination in a budget-friendly and simple manner. You can check their website for details of their routes; they also have an app through which you can book your tickets in advance.
Which Is Better For Snorkeling & Scuba Diving?
Both Playa del Carmen and Tulum offer plenty of chances to get into the water and enjoy the local marine life.
But for scuba divers, Playa del Carmen’s location, opposite the island of Cozumel, makes it the more favorable choice.
Cozumel has some excellent dive sites and is a world-renowned dive destination. Divers at Cozumel can expect to spot sea turtles, eagle rays, various reef sharks, and a plethora of colorful tropical reef fish.
The cenotes are the main scuba diving draws in Tulum. Cenotes (see picture below) are naturally formed sinkholes, and often are blessed with very clear water. From Tulum, you can easily snorkel or scuba dive in the cenotes, and you will have a unique experience with very few places in the world being comparable to these natural paradises.
In terms of snorkeling, many of the beaches in both Tulum and Playa del Carmen are free from rocks and reefs, and snorkeling will only reveal more sand. However, there are a few rocky sections where fish can be found, and if you have your own mask and snorkel, head to the ends of the beaches for more rocks or look for darker patches from the shore.
There are dive centers in both locations, and they offer day trips out to the better reefs. You don’t need to be a diver to join them, as they will be happy to welcome snorkelers on board too.
In between the two towns, slightly closer to Tulum, is the Xel-Ha Eco-Park. For families, this is a great day out with the chance of some excellent snorkeling in calm and controlled conditions, and the snorkel gear and life vests are included in the admission price. This water park also features ziplines and water slides…
Which Is Best For Families?
Whilst you can definitely enjoy a family vacation in either location, Playa del Carmen is slightly more geared towards families.
Compared to Tulum, Playa del Carmen is more developed, so it has better access to public and private transportation, as well as shopping, entertainment, and attractions. Playa del Carmen will also have a wider choice of hotels for families, and the average hotel price is a bit lower too, which is particularly pertinent for larger families.
Playa del Carmen is a little more Americanized than Tulum too, so you may find it easier to find familiar food and drinks if your children are still quite young.
On the whole, while both are great destinations and families can have a phenomenal time in either, Playa del Carmen just makes everything that little bit easier when traveling with children, especially the younger ones.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
Both Playa del Carmen and Tulum used to be sleepy fishing villages, but they have both expanded beyond that.
Playa del Carmen has expanded much more and is now a much bigger town. As it is a bigger town, there is more choice when it comes to hotels and accommodation.
But don’t worry, Tulum has also developed since its backpacker days, and there is now a wide range of accommodation options in both places.
But as the bigger brother, Playa del Carmen will have more choices, and you may find it easier to find a hotel that perfectly fits your needs and budget there than in Tulum.
Below we take a look at the best hotels in each destination, sorted by budget:
The Best Hotels In Playa del Carmen For Your Budget
Best Budget Option: Hotel Bosque Caribe features tropical gardens with hammocks and an outdoor pool. This budget-friendly choice is conveniently located close to the northern end of Playacar Beach and offers excellent value for money. See photos and rates here.
Best Mid-Range Option: Also at the northern end of Playacar Beach is the excellent Fiesta Inn. The amenities are fantastic for the price range, with a large rooftop pool and spacious rooms. The location is also convenient for restaurants and shopping. See photos and rates here.
Best Luxury Option: Valentin Imperial Riviera Maya is one of the top accommodation options in Playa del Carmen, offering luxurious rooms and facilities. Featuring a number of dining and amenity options, this adults-only all-inclusive resort is a must try! See photos and rates here.
The Best Hotels In Tulum For Your Budget
Best Budget Option: 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.
Best Mid-Range Option: 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.
Best Luxury Option: To the south of the hotel zone, in a tranquil location, is La Valise Tulum. Featuring private beachfront bungalows nestled between the jungle and the ocean and an infinity pool, the hotel offers seclusion and luxury. The rustic rooms include open-air showers and private terraces a few steps from the Caribbean Sea. See photos and rates here.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
While we all love some beach time on vacation, we don’t all look for the same things from a beach. But fear not; whether you’re looking for a quiet place to lie in the sand with a good book, or prefer an activity-rich beach with a lot going on, both Tulum and Playa del Carmen have plenty of beach options.
You’ll find tropical white sand beaches and warm Caribbean water in both Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and both have very few rocks and coral lying around so they’re pleasant to swim at, and go for long coastal walks.
However as Tulum and Playa del Carmen are so close together and similar when it comes to beaches, which is the better beach destination for you may come down to what specific beaches have to offer.
With that the case, let’s have a quick look at some of the best beaches on offer in both locations:
The Top Three Beaches In Playa del Carmen
1. Playacar Beach
A short distance south of the busy ferry terminal is the calm and expansive Playacar Beach. It’s generally considered to be Playa del Carmen’s best beach. The area adjacent to the beach is a gated community and is known for its upmarket residential villas, all-inclusive resorts, and luxury golf clubs. As such, the beach is well-maintained and the golden sand pristine.
2. Playa del Pecado
If you are looking to escape the madding crowds, pack your book and head off to Playa del Pecado. This hidden gem is tucked away at the southern end of Playacar Beach and takes a little bit of effort to reach.
As you head south along Playacar Beach, the backdrop changes from villas and resorts to verdant jungle. After an easy clamber over a rocky patch, you will reach the secluded and peaceful Playa del Pecado—time to apply some sunscreen and lose yourself in your vacation book.
3. Playa Xpu Ha
If lying stock-still in the sand is not for you, and you prefer a few beach activities and watersports, head to Playa Xpu Ha.
Kayaks, jet skis, windsurfing, and kitesurfing are all options for the more active beach-goer. There’s also good snorkeling, but you should bring your own mask, snorkel, and fins. This beach also requires a little bit of effort to reach, as it’s about 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen’s bustling center.
The Top Three Beaches In Tulum
1. Playa Paraiso
For a classic soft-sand Caribbean beach with tranquil waters and fluttering palm trees, head to Playa Paraiso in the center of Tulum’s coastal area.
The inviting white sand and turquoise waters, backed by a few restaurants and an eponymous beach club, make it an excellent choice for a beach day in Tulum. The beach club can be a good place to make an early start on the day’s partying, and for a bit more peace and quiet, walk to the southern end of the beach.
2. El Ultimo Maya Beach
For a more secluded option, head to El Ultimo Maya Beach, around ten kilometers to the south of Playa Paraiso.
There’s a simple restaurant, and a large sand dune obscures the view of the beach from the road. As you climb over the sand dune, a sweeping, wild, and rugged beach is revealed. It’s a great spot for a peaceful day at the beach with a good book.
3. Ahau Tulum Beach
For the more active-minded, head to Ahau Tulum Beach. To access the beach, look for the Ven a la Luz (raw love) wooden sculpture—a 10m-tall carving of a person prying open their chest—and walk through the open chest to follow the path to the golden sand.
Paddleboarders, kiteboarders, and surfers enjoy this beach – just don’t forget the sunscreen before heading out to enjoy the welcoming waves.
Which Is Best For Culture?
One of Mexico’s best-known attractions are the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza (see picture below), and luckily it’s close to both Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people, and its ruins are now a major tourist attraction and definitely worth a visit while you’re in the Yucatan Peninsula. Luckily you can freely visit the ruins of Chichen Itza, considered as one of the Modern 7 Wonders of the World, from both Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
It should be pretty easy to join a tour and the journey time will be quite similar from both towns, albeit a little longer from Playa del Carmen.
If a two-hour-plus journey through the Yucatan jungle doesn’t float your boat, there is also a pre-Columbian Mayan walled city on the edge of Tulum where you can find the so-called Tulum ruins.
Obviously, the Tulum ruins are much easier to visit from Tulum, but it is also relatively straightforward from Playa del Carmen. From Playa del Carmen, instead of a two-hour drive through the jungle to reach Chichen Itza, a forty-five-minute drive along the coast will bring you to Tulum and allow you to explore the cultural ruins and explore Tulum itself—it’s a great day trip from Playa del Carmen.
However due to that, and the fact Chichen Itza is closer to Tulum as well, the reality is Mayan culture and history is a little easier and simpler to access when vacationing in Tulum.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
If vacation time means party time to you, then maybe Playa del Carmen will likely be the better choice. Whilst there are plenty of bars and clubs in Tulum too, the nightlife in Playa del Carmen is just that bit more bolder, brighter, and larger.
That’s not to say Playa del Carmen’s after-dark party scene is like Mexico’s party capital of Cancun – it’s much more laid back. But the bar scene is very good, and there’s plenty of places for a party. The bars, clubs, and shops are quite close together too, so it’s easy to bar hop during the evening.
Although Tulum is probably not as nightlife centric as Playa del Carmen, 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
Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
In recent years, Mexico has seen an ever-increasing influx of digital nomads and tourists, mainly from the United States and Canada. With its tropical climate, stunning landscapes, an affordable cost of living, and reliable WiFi, it’s easy to understand why.
Factor in the ease of obtaining a longer-term visa, especially for US and Canadian passport holders, and Playa del Carmen and Tulum become even more appealing for digital nomads and remote workers.
Of the two destinations, the general consensus is that Playa del Carmen is better suited to the digital nomad lifestyle. The bigger city has better infrastructure and more modern conveniences than Tulum. There are more co-working options in Playa del Carmen than in Tulum, and the internet speed is a little faster and more reliable.
Playa del Carmen also has better mobile coverage, whilst some people bemoan the internet connectivity in Tulum’s hotel zone.
Tulum’s center does have more reliable connectivity and internet speeds than the hotel zone, but overall, the internet is better in Playa del Carmen.
Which Is More Expensive?
As a general statement, Tulum can prove a little more expensive than Playa del Carmen.
Being larger, Playa del Carmen has more accommodation options, more restaurants, and more bars. More competition usually translates to lower prices. And with more scope for shopping around in Playa del Carmen, you should be able to find accommodation to suit your budget more easily than in Tulum.
Aside from accommodation, food prices are also a bit more affordable in Playa del Carmen. There are also many more options for eating local Mexican food in Playa del Carmen, and this can help keep the costs down too.
Tulum can be a bit pricey in certain establishments, with food prices comparable to those in the United States in many instances. However, it is still possible to find smaller, cheaper places to enjoy some excellent food too.
In terms of activities, it depends to a certain extent on what you want to do, but many activities, such as paddleboarding, would be similar in either location. Day trips to local attractions, such as Chichen Itza, would be comparable in price due to the similar distances, but a trip to Cozumel Island will undoubtedly be less expensive from Playa del Carmen.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
Since Playa del Carmen and Tulum are so close to one another, their climates and weather patterns are pretty much the same. Be aware that there are distinct peak and low seasons, even though both can be considered year-round destinations.
The period from December to April is generally regarded as the high season. It’s the time of year when the weather is at its best, but you should also prepare for larger crowds and more expensive accommodation. However, by making reservations outside of Christmas and Spring Break, you can avoid the biggest crowds during these times of year.
To receive the greatest deals during the busy season, it’s advisable to make your reservations well in advance of the dates you intend to travel. The ideal ocean conditions for scuba diving and snorkeling are also at this time of year.
The months of May to June and September to November are commonly thought of as the low season. The weather can be a little wetter during these months and the temperatures can soar. Discounts on hotels, tours, and club cover charges can be found during the low season, which also delivers lower pricing. However, a hurricane, coupled with torrential rain and big waves, is possible at this time of year.
Tulum or Playa del Carmen: Which Is Better?
At the risk of over-simplifying these two diverse and different destinations, a very general summary would be to say it comes down to a choice between the urban chic of Playa del Carmen and the bohemian chic of Tulum.
Playa del Carmen is a little busier and more bustling than its neighbor just down the coast, and there’s more choice for hotels, bars, restaurants, and things to do.
But that’s not to paint Tulum as a barren desert with little going on. The idea of Tulum as an off-the-beaten-track backpacking destination may be in the past, but the chilled, independent traveler vibe still remains.
Both offer the chance to enjoy stunning Caribbean beaches, excellent food, and the opportunity to venture out to visit the iconic Chichen Itza ruins. While families and digital nomads may prefer the better infrastructure and amenities in Playa del Carmen, couples, honeymooners, and people looking for a chilled vacation may well prefer Tulum.
But do not fret – whichever way you decide, you are sure to have an excellent, sun-kissed vacation is a fantastic part of the world – enjoy!