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Playa del Carmen VS Tulum: Which to Choose?

Playa del Carmen VS Tulum: Which to Choose?

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Are you looking to compare Playa del Carmen vs Tulum? What to know which you should spend more of your vacation time?

With the Riviera Maya growing as a traveler’s hot spot you might start to wonder in which city you will spend your time. 

Playa del Carmen and Tulum are both cities that are growing incredibly fast and are offering more new and exciting things by the day. 

Beaches, nightlife, shopping, restaurants, excursions, hotels, Airbnb, and more, each city offers it all but with many differences. 

This article is your guide to comparing all the beautiful features of Playa del Carmen Vs Tulum. If you are trying to decide between Cancun and Tulum, check out that comparison here.

Getting Between Tulum and Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen and Tulum are very close together with only about one hour of travel time to reach each other. 

The Carretera Federal 307 is the highway that joins the two beach cities and you can get to both Playa del Carmen or Tulum via car or public transport. 

The highway is safe to drive yourself so if you have a rental car don’t be afraid to make the journey on your own. 

Along the highway, you will find vast jungles, gas stations, small markets, and many cenotes. If your time allows I absolutely recommend checking out a few if you can.

To get a real feel of each city, spending a few nights in both is the best way to try it out.  This way you can be the judge and decide which location you like best. 

This article is full of information about my personal experiences and opinions, so keep on reading to help you decide between Tulum or Playa del Carmen. 

Playa del Carmen Vs Tulum at a Glance

Quick information on each city’s features.

man on a hammock in a cool hotel in tulum

The hotels in Tulum are some of the most unique and stunning (and expensive) places in Mexico.

Playa del Carmen

  • Tourists of all ages, families, couples, and expats
  • Many public beaches with easy access
  • Clean soft sandy beaches
  • The downtown  core is within the same vicinity as the beach
  • Boutique hotels in the downtown 
  • All-inclusive resorts on the outskirts of the city 
  • Famous 5th avenue with restaurants and shopping
  • Exciting nightlife and venues with live music


beaches in playa del carmen vs tulum

Beachs in Tulum.

Playa del Carmen Vs Tulum: Beaches

All across the shoreline of the Riviera Maya, you have the Caribbean Sea. It is to be expected that you will find brilliant shades of blue water, powdery soft white sand, and calm waves. When the question comes to who has the better beaches? My answer is Tulum.

I find the beaches in Tulum to be magical. You will find long sandy stretches with calm waves breaking on the shore. The sand and the waters are both impeccably clean. You can easily see down to the bottom of the sea as the water is clear as glass. 

The sand in Tulum is also softer than the beaches in Playa del Carmen.

Why I say it is magical is because in the evening as the sun is setting the sky lights up with soft pink and blue and the sand is a beautiful beige. The colors are really incredible and create a calm, and blissful energy.  

In Playa del Carmen, the beaches are clean and very easily accessible but I find they don’t have the same calm serenity as the beaches of Tulum.

Yes, the water is still beautiful and blue and clean sand, but there is something really unexplainably special about the beaches in Tulum. Maybe it is the magic and the mystery that comes with the old Mayan culture. 

beaches in tulum with archaeological site.

Visit the beach with views of ancient Maya history in Tulum.

Playa del Carmen or Tulum: Accessibility of Beaches

This topic is quite important because in Playa del Carmen all of the beaches are very easy to access. Tulum on the other hand isn’t quite so simple. 

In Playa del Carmen, you can find free beach access on almost every block with many public entrances and paid or free parking.  You can simply enter from the street.

The downtown Centro zone is located within a few minutes walk from the beach so if you are not staying in a beachfront hotel (which is quite normal in Playa del Carmen) you can easily grab your gear and hit the beach by walking there. 

In Tulum, it is a bit different. You have three major parts to the city. The “Hotel Zone”, the “Archeological Zone”, and “Downtown”.

The Hotel Zone in Tulum is a long stretch of beach lined with fabulous boutique hotels, high-end beach clubs, trendy shopping, and beautiful restaurants. The aesthetic of the Hotel Zone is otherworldly with a decor style now referred to as “Tulumanati” style. 

Accessing the beach in the hotel zone can sometimes be difficult. When trying to enter the beach as a “public” patron, the hotels won’t allow access through their property for you to reach the beach as well as many of the higher-end beach clubs. 

Of course, to use the facilities of the beach club you must pay a minimum spend but the experience is absolutely worth it. Check out the best beach clubs in Tulum here.

Some of the smaller beach restaurants and beach bars will let you pass through their venues to reach the public beach, which by law is free to use by all patrons.

For this reason, trying to find access to the beach in the hotel zone can be frustrating. But once you are there it is an amazing place to spend the day. 

On the northern end of the beach stretch, you have the Archeological Zone. Easily accessible by a road off of the Carretera Federal.  Here as well, you will find hotels, glamping, and restaurants but not as in an abundance as the Hotel Zone. 

At the Archeological Zone of the Tulum beachfront, there are many paths with public assess to the beach making it easy to park your car, grab your bag, and hit the beach at your own leisure.  

chic hotels in tulum vs playa del carmen.

There are great hotels in both Playa del Carmen or Tulum depending on your price point.

Playa del Carmen VS Tulum: Restaurants

When it comes to the topic of who has the better restaurants, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, they both offer a lot of the same things.

You will find both cities have a wide range of options for styles of cuisine and price points. From small bakeries, pizza joints, Indian food, sushi restaurants, and lavish steak houses the choices are endless.

Playa del Carmen features the famous 5th avenue where you will find a bustling restaurant scene. Mexican, seafood, Thai, Sushi, Italian, Vegan, and Greek cuisine is all available at your fingertips. Check out our top picks for Playa del Carmen restaurants here.

A majority of the restaurants in Playa del Carmen are locally or family-owned, offering delicious meals, welcoming and entertaining atmospheres, and reasonable price points.

In Tulum, you will find all of the same options of cuisine and even some of the same restaurants. But what Tulum has that Playa del Carmen does not is a new style of large lavish dinner club restaurants.

These restaurants are located in the Hotel Zone and offer an exhilarating experience. Exquisite menus of both food and drinks, lavish decor, live entertainment, and 5-star service are to be expected.

Make reservations and enjoy an evening at Mamazzita to experience exactly what I am talking about.

Price points in Tulum are generally higher than prices in Playa del Carmen because the restaurants are also selling you a dining experience rather than just a simple meal.

5th avenue in playa del carmen with papel picado flying in the wind.

5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.

Playa Del Carmen Vs Tulum: Things to Do

The argument of who has better things to do is a tough one. Tulum or Playa del Carmen both have great locations for exploring the area and offer many of the same activities, tours, and excursions to surrounding attractions. 

Personally, I think Playa del Carmen is a bit more of a vibrant city and offers more activities than Tulum. This could be because it is an older city than Tulum. 

Check out our list of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen here and awesome things to do in Tulum here.

In Tulum, you have the hotel zone, which offers a whole different level of vibrance, but we will get to that later. 

Playa Del Carmen is located between Tulum and Cancun, so if you are staying in Playa del Carmen you can easily explore the other two cities with the commute to each only being roughly one hour.

If you are staying in Tulum and wish to visit Cancun your travel time might be about two hours and 30 minutes. 

Attractions such as Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xplore, Rio Secreto, and the Akumal Monkey Sanctuary are all located on the stretch of highway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, but they are all closer to Playa del Carmen. 

Along the highway, you will also find many many cenotes. On the side closer to Playa del Camen you will find Cenotes Azul, Garden of Eden, and Crystallino which are all perfect for a shallow swim or sunbathing. 

Closer to Tulum you have Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Angelita, and The Pit. These cenotes are famous for scuba diving and free diving. 

Due to the number of cenotes with great depth close to Tulum, Tulum has become a hot spot for freedivers, training courses, and exploring the underwater world. 

In Tulum, you also have the Tulum Ruins, which is an old Mayan city full of mystery and culture. Admission is only 80 pesos ($4 USD), I really recommend checking it out regardless of which town you choose to base yourself in.

Off of the shoreline of both cities lies the Mesoamerican Barrier reef, great for scuba and snorkeling activities. 

Playa del Carmen features a great scene of salsa dancing classes and socials, and Tulum has a great scene for yoga and wellness retreats.

sunsets over the ocean

Both Playa del Carmen and Tulum have incredible sunsets (and even better sunrises!).

Playa del Carmen Vs Tulum: Night Life

Again in this category, when considering Playa del Carmen or Tulum, you have two totally different cities offering totally different experiences. How you like to spend your evenings will determine which is the place for you. 

Playa del Carmen features the famous 5th Avenue. A 50-block walking street with many restaurants, bars, shopping, and live entertainment.  5th avenue really comes to life in the evenings as the tourists gather to get a taste of the excitement. Check out our Playa nightlife guide here.

Calle 12 in Playa del Carmen is a fabulous street where you can find a big party. There are about 6 or 7 different nightclubs that are all open-air, play different styles of music, and offer a wild time.

The Hotel Zone in Tulum is known as a huge party destination. Various day clubs turn into dinner clubs which then turn into wild nighttime parties. Champagne bottles and sparklers light up the venues as DJs play vibey music to keep the crowds alive. 

High-end restaurants come alive in the evenings as well with beautiful candle-lit ambiance, entertainment, and music. 

In downtown Tulum, the scene is a bit different.  You will find normal restaurants and bars playing live music. 

There are nightclubs, pubs, and even secret bars all offering a great night out in Tulum. 

incredible view of two hot tubs on the roof of your hotel in tulum

Hotels in Tulum take the cake for sure, but you’ll pay significantly more for the style.

Playa del Carmen or Tulum: Hotels and Accommodations

The topic of who has the better accommodations, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, comes down to your personal preference, travel style, and budget. 

In Playa del Carmen, the area that you normally want to stay in will be the Centro Zone. Within the Center, you will find an abundance of different lodging options 

Trendy boutique hotels, beachfront properties, large-scale hotels (ie Hyatt and Hilton), backpackers hostels, and many Airbnb options are available at your convenience. 

Price points are quite reasonable in Playa del Carmen. You can easily find standard hotel rooms for $60 USD a night.

Luxury hotels will start at around $200 USD a night and will even offer all-inclusive add-on options. Backpacker’s hostel beds might start as low as $7 USD a night which is great if you are looking to be budget-friendly. 

Tulum on the other hand, you will need to decide where you will want to stay. In the downtown area or the Hotel Zone. Both have their benefits.

The benefit of staying in the hotel zone is that most of the properties are beachfront. You will find chic, minimalistic, beautiful eco-friendly boutique hotels offering a zen Tulum experience. Hotels here will start around $130 USD a night and can run up to $1200 a night. 

Don’t forget, with the high price point you are paying for the experience, location, architecture, and brand name, along with your accommodation. 

In the downtown area of Tulum, you are able to book accommodations with more of a modest budget.  Standard hotel and Airbnb rooms start at $60 USD and travel upwards from there. A lot of the accommodations will have rooftop pools and cute views of the city. 

To travel from the downtown of Tulum to the beach you will need a bicycle, car, or scooter as the two zones are quite far apart and not close enough to access by walking.

woman on the beach leaning against a palm tree.

Which would you choose, Playa del Carmen or Tulum?

Playa del Carmen Vs Tulum: Final Decision

I can say that I really love both cities as each offers a totally different experience. You won’t be disappointed in spending your time in either location. 

Playa del Carmen offers vibrant city experiences, easily accessible beaches, and is relatively budget-friendly. 

In Tulum, the atmosphere is zen, upscale, relaxing, and exciting all at the same time. 

Depending on what style of experience you are looking for will determine what location you might like best. 

Personally, I love spending my time in Playa del Carmen, exploring the city and its surrounding areas. 

There is so much to see and do that it is difficult to be bored. When I am craving an escape from my busy city life a small trip to Tulum is a great refresher to unwind, unplug and splurge and experience the beauty that it offers. 

Trying to decide if you should also throw Cancun into the mix? Check out our comparison of Playa and Cancun here.