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Tulum vs Cancun: Which is the Best for a Mexican Beach Vacation?

When it comes to beach vacations, Mexico is always on the list of top destinations. Furthermore, on that list, you will always see the Yucatan and Mayan Riveria, in particular Cancun and Tulum. The reason for this is that both these spots have stunningly beautiful beaches, lots of accommodations, plus plenty of activities and amenities. 

But, which is better? Tulum or Cancun? Well, that really depends on what you are looking for in a Mexican beach vacation. Although they both have a lot of things in common and are located fairly close to each other, they really are quite different. 

We’ve spent many months exploring the Yucatan Peninsula over the past 10 years and have big love for the area. We’ve also developed some personal feelings and opinions, both good and bad. As with anywhere, there are both pros and cons to Cancun and Tulum.

In this article, we have combined facts with our own experiences to create an in-depth look at Tulum vs. Cancun. Our hope is that this will help you to decide whether Cancun or Tulum is best for your next amazing beach vacation in Mexico. 

Cancun vs Tulum

What to Expect When You Visit Cancun: An Overview

Click here to see 35 Things to do in Cancun

Cancun is divided into two areas: the Hotel Zone and downtown Cancun. Most vacationers will stay in the Hotel Zone for beautiful beaches, all-inclusive resorts and nightlife. Downtown Cancun is more local, less touristy and more budget-friendly but it is not near the beach.

The Hotel Zone of Cancun sits on a sandbar in the shape of a “7” with a lagoon on one side and the Caribbean on the other. It was virtually uninhabited until the early 1970’s when planned development began with the intention of creating a large resort destination and airport. Therefore, there is very little cultural appeal as it was built entirely for tourism.

However, if you want an abundance of accommodation choices on or near a stunning beach, a huge variety of activities and restaurants, plus a nightlife that doesn’t quit then Cancun may be your ideal Mexican beach vacation. Think Vegas on the beach without the casinos.

Tulum vs Cancun

What to Expect When You Visit Tulum: An Overview

Click here to see Top Things to do in Tulum

Like Cancun, Tulum is also divided into two main areas: the beach strip and downtown Tulum. Most of the hotels are along the beach strip making it the top area of Tulum to stay in. However, downtown Tulum has its charms with a more local feel, authentic restaurants and some less expensive accommodation.

Tulum is far less developed than Cancun with some unpaved roads and lots of natural lands, including lush jungle. It also has a Bohemian vibe with more of a focus on nature, wellness and boutique and eco-hotels.

Having said that, recent years have seen a surge in popularity and today’s Tulum is no longer the secret getaway for backpackers and hippies. It is also no longer an inexpensive Mexican beach destination, especially along the beach strip.

If you want glorious beaches, a more tranquil and chill vibe, boutique accommodations and healthier food options surrounded by nature then Tulum may be your place. We should add that there are plenty of activities and nightlife here, it’s just of a different kind. Think of a smaller Bali.

Cancun vs Tulum: Which is the Best Location?

Cancun is much closer to the airport so you will definitely be sitting poolside with a drink in hand much quicker than Tulum. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the Cancun Hotel Zone and about 2 hours to reach Tulum.

However, if you like to get out of the resort and explore or take tours and excursions around the Yucatan then Tulum is better situated. Most of the top things to see and do are in the Mayan Riviera which Cancun is not part of.

The ferry to Isla Mujeres does leave from Cancun but everything else is much closer to Tulum.

Cancun map

How to Get to Cancun

The decent-sized Cancun International Airport makes it easy to get to Cancun from almost anywhere in the world. Once at the airport there are shuttles, buses and taxis waiting to zip you to your Cancun resort. There will be dozens of people at arrivals trying to convince you to take their transportation.

Our advice is to pre-book a shuttle or bus and if you go want to go by taxi make certain to agree on the cost before getting in.

Click here to see The Ultimate Packing List for Cancun

How to Get From Cancun to Tulum

Tulum does not yet have an airport, although there are talks of this happening in the next couple of years. For now, getting to Tulum means driving about 80 miles. You can take a pricey taxi, a less expensive shuttle or the local ADO bus. Again it’s advisable to pre-book to avoid being overcharged.

If you plan to explore the area then hiring a car at Cancun airport may be worthwhile. Just make sure you have parking at your accommodation.

Tulum beach and bikes

Tulum vs Cancun: Which is the Best for Getting Around?

The best way to get around Cancun depends on where you are staying. Centro (downtown) Cancun is fairly walkable once you’re there but it’s about a 15-minute drive from the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone). There are regular buses between the two areas.

The Hotel Zone stretches for 24 km so unless you’re staying right in the center and have no desire to venture further you’ll need to get around by city bus, collectivo or taxi. The city bus and collectivos run frequently and are quite inexpensive.

Tulum Puebla (downtown) is quite walkable and is often preferable to a car or bus unless you are staying a bit out of town. Most of the things to see and do are concentrated along a 10-block strip of Avenida Tulum.

The beach strip (Tulum Playa) stretches for about 10 km making walking from end to end a challenge. However, if you’re staying somewhere in the middle you’ll be able to reach many things by foot. It’s about 3 km between Tulum Puebla and Tulum Playa. 

Both the main strip of downtown and the beach strip can get busy with car traffic and parking in limited so the best and most popular way to travel is by bike. Bicycles can be hired at most hotels and there are also plenty of rental stands around Tulum.

Cancun Hotel Zone
Cancun Hotel Zone

Cancun vs Tulum: Which is Best for Accommodations?

If judging Cancun vs Tulum for variety of accommodations Cancun would come out on top. In Cancun, you can find a bit of everything from basic budget hotels in the downtown area to luxury beachfront chains.

Cancun also has tons of all-inclusive resorts of varying price points and levels of amenities. Plus there are places exclusively for adults as well as family-friendly hotels with plenty of activities for the kids.

In Tulum, you won’t find chain hotels or massive resorts. What you will find are boutique hotels, eco-resorts and even glamping accommodations in the jungle or on the beach.

There are some more basic accommodations available in Tulum Puebla but overall there are few budget choices left as the popularity of the area has grown. 

Tulum Beach
Serene Tulum Beach

Tulum vs Cancun: Which has the Best Beaches?

Does Tulum or Cancun have the best beaches? The fact is that some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, if not the world, are located in these top spots. With powder white sand dotted with palm trees and kissed by the turquoise Caribbean, both Tulum and Cancun beaches will live up to your tropical dreams.

But, there are some big differences. If you like a lively atmosphere with beach parties and tons of watersports then Cancun is sure to please.

Keep in mind though that despite all Mexcian beaches being technically public, some areas of the beaches may be sectioned off for the large resorts. Also, the waves and current can be quite strong in places which is great for surfers but not so good for kids and swimming.

Tulum beaches are generally much quieter and more laid back so if your idea of paradise includes tranquility then this may be your dream spot. The water tends to be calmer at the Tulum beaches as well which is great for swimming or just floating.

There are amenities and water sports available along Tulum beaches but the choices aren’t as abundant and varied as in Cancun.

Nightclub

Cancun vs Tulum: Which has the Best Nightlife?

If you’re looking for dusk till dawn, city-style nightlife with large nightclubs and a wide variety of bars then Cancun wins hands down. After all, Cancun was built for tourism and has become one of the top spots for wild spring breakers.

Cancun’s wide array of nightclubs are mainly congregated along the Hotel Zone strip, especially between KM 9 and 10. Some of the biggest are Coco Bongo, Dady’O and The City nightclubs.

There are also lots of options for pub crawl tours. Despite a large number of options, there are often still line-ups for the most popular spots.

Tulum is much more laid back by nature but there is no shortage of nightlife, it’s just a bit more chill. In Tulum Centro, there are street-side and rooftop bars offering a more casual experience.

On the beach strip, you’ll find everything from trendy lounges and fun beach bars to salsa clubs and even a few all-night dance parties in the hotels or on the beach.

In town, the go-to is Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar for awesome fresh fruit mojitos. Gitano’s sexy jungle bar alternates between DJ’s and live bands. And Papaya Playa Project is loved for their full-moon rave-style parties. Kiki is the only traditional nightclub that attracts the young and beautiful. 

Watersports

Tulum vs Cancun: Which has the Best Activities?

When it comes to Tulum vs Cancun for activities, it’s not surprising that the scale is tipped in favor of Cancun. Again, this is because the area was developed specifically for tourism. Therefore, there is an abundance of watersports, shopping, an interactive aquarium, an underwater museum, a water park and other touristic activities. 

Tulum is more about moving slowly and enjoying some relaxation on the beach. There are also some more low-key water activities and boutique shopping as well as lots of opportunities for yoga, meditation and other wellness-focused activities.

Cancun vs Tulum: Which is Best for Safety?

Despite the headlines of some media publications both Cancun and Tulum are fairly safe destinations for tourists. But, there are some things to keep in mind when traveling to popular Mexican beach spots. 

Sadly, Mexico does have its share of drug-related crime due to the presence of the cartel. However, tourists are not targeted in these crimes…unless of course, you’re interacting with drugs or dealers. Obviously, this is not a good idea anywhere if you want to avoid trouble.

Muggings and theft do happen in Cancun and Tulum as they do almost everywhere in the world. But, it is rare and generally only happens late at night in dark, secluded areas.

The best advice is to not walk alone late at night, especially after partying when you may not have your wits about you. For this reason, Cancun may be considered slightly less safe than Tulum due to the late-night party atmosphere that may have you out into the wee hours. 

Xcaret Park Mexico
Xcaret Park

Tulum vs Cancun: Which is the Best for Families?

Because of its party reputation, you may jump to the conclusion that Cancun is less family-friendly than Tulum. But, actually, this is not the case. Although there are plenty of people who choose Cancun for the nightlife it’s definitely not the only draw to this Caribbean destination.

Most of the resorts in Cancun are very family-friendly with designated children’s pools and activities so mom and dad can relax while the kids play.

There are also water parks, aquariums and lots of other family-friendly activities in Cancun as well as the beach and water sports.

Tulum, on the other hand, tends to attract a slightly more adult crowd looking for peace and relaxation as opposed to more lively pursuits. Of course, families are welcome in Tulum but it’s best for kids who enjoy nature, playing on the beach and swimming or snorkeling.

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

Cancun vs Tulum: Which is the Best Base for Excursions?

Either Tulum or Cancun makes a good base for excursions around the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula. There is so much to see and do in this region that you could spend weeks exploring and having adventures. 

If culture and history appeal to you there are many Mayan ruins to visit such as Chichen Itza and Coba. Tulum has its very own ruins overlooking the beach and there are even some smaller ruins in Cancun itself.

Adventurous excursions include swimming or diving in cenotes and ziplining or ATVing through the jungle. In addition, there are several adventure parks throughout the area including the series of Xcaret Parks each with a different theme.

Then there are water excursions like a trip to Isla Mujeres and Cozumel or a sunset or party cruise on a catamaran or pirate ship.

If we were forced to pick a winner between Cancun or Tulum as the best base for excursions we’d probably go with Tulum because of its slightly closer proximity to Mayan ruins, cenotes and adventure parks. 

Tulum vs Cancun: At a Glance

CANCUNTULUM
Distance from Airport25 km to Hotel Zone120 km to Tulum Puebla
Getting AroundBus, taxi, carTaxi, car, bike
AccommodationsMostly chain hotels & large resortsBoutique hotels & vacation rentals
BeachesBeautiful, lively, well-groomed, some wavesBeautiful, peaceful, natural, calm water
NightlifeLots of nightlife from bars to all-night clubsBeach bars, chill lounges, some low-key clubs
ActivitiesLarge variety of water sports & tourist activitiesSome water sports, yoga, wellness activities
RestaurantsLarge variety from casual American chains to high end gourmetMostly casual beach restaurants, trendy high-end restuarants & high end healthy eats
ShoppingLots of shopping: malls and smaller shopsBoutique shops
AtmosphereHigh energy, busy, party vibeChill & relaxed
Family FriendlyLots of kid-friendly resorts and activities More adult oriented, families welcome but kids activities are low key
Nature OrientedThere are beaches and the lagoon but otherwise Cancun is quite built upTulum is very nature focused with untouched jungle, natural beaches and eco activities

Tulum vs Cancun: Which is the Best Destination for Your Vacation?

Tulum vs Cancun

Have we helped you make a decision between Tulum or Cancun? Both spots have some great attributes such as awesome weather, gorgeous beaches and yummy food and drink. But as this article shows they are quite different overall.  

If you’re looking for a lively atmosphere with plenty to do both day and night plus a wide range of shopping, hotels, restaurants and bars then Cancun is probably going to suit you perfectly.

But, if peace and serenity is more your speed with long lazy days on the beach or communing with nature along with yoga, boutique hotels and shops and romantic dining then go with Tulum.

Want a bit of both? Maybe check out Playa del Carmen which sits in between Cancun and Tulum. Oops, maybe we shouldn’t add another option to confuse the issue. It’s just that Mexico has so many amazing destinations!

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