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Cancun Vs Tulum: Which to Choose?

Cancun Vs Tulum: Which to Choose?

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Trying to decide between Cancun Vs Tulum? This a question that everyone asks when planning a trip to the Riviera Maya.

Both cities are incredibly popular, offering many of the same things: soft sandy beaches, clear blue water, restaurants, nightlife, and much more.  

But on the other hand, both cities are completely different. The atmospheres and energies of each city offer different vibes and the size and development of the cities are very different as well.

Cancun is an older much more developed city whereas Tulum is a younger city and developing very rapidly. 

Depending on your travel style will determine where you might want to spend your time. 

When it comes to the distance between Cancun and Tulum, they are quite far apart. Day trips to one another might not be the easiest because the travel time is about two hours. It’s about 80 miles or 130 km between the two.

If you have a rental car the trip between the cities is more convenient. Public transportation is available as well. 

Cancun or Tulum, both are vibrant cities and absolutely worth a visit. Is Tulum better than Cancun? Or Vice versa? This article will go over all the best points of each city to help you decide where you will want to spend your vacation. 

Cancun Vs Tulum at a Glance

Quick facts about each city’s qualities.

Cancun

  • Large hotel zone with grand all-inclusive resorts 
  • Many activities and excursions nearby 
  • Large soft sandy beaches 
  • Isla Mujeres is a short 30-minute ferry ride away 
  • Beautiful blue and turquoise waters 
  • Large-scale shopping with designer and brand-name stores 
  • Fantastic nightlife with big nightclubs such as CocoBongo and Mandala 
  • Scuba diving and the underwater museum excursion are very easy to participate 

Tulum

  • Features the Tulum Ruins
  • Otherworldly Tulumanti Vibe 
  • Has many Cenotes nearby perfect for scuba diving and freediving 
  • Soft powdery large sandy beaches 
  • Small waves good for surfing 
  • Beautiful and stylish hotel zone 
  • Close to the Coba Ruins and Valladolid 
  • Trendy “Puebla” downtown with chic market shopping, restaurants, and nightlife 
  • Fancy restaurants and Day Clubs in the Hotel Zone 
flying into cancun in the airplane over caribbean sea

Both locations require you to fly into Cancun, not a bad view when you land!

Cancun Vs Tulum: Beaches

Of course, with the Caribbean Sea, it is to be expected that the water is beautifully blue and the sand is almost blindingly white.  Waves break along the shores as tourists lay out in the sun. 

When it comes to the beaches in Cancun or Tulum I can say that both beaches are equally beautiful but they both offer a different aesthetic and vibe. 

Cancun Beaches

In Cancun, you have the hotel zone, which is a vast stretch of beach occupied by all-inclusive hotels and restaurants. 

The beaches in the hotel zone in Cancun are wide and the water extends far with quite a shallow depth. It’s perfect for wading in the water and cooling off from that hot Caribbean sun. Here you will find many families, couples, and groups of friends. 

Hotels on the beachfront have cleaning programs that remove garbage and seaweed that washes up on the shore. Beaches are cleaned daily so you can expect that the beach will be impeccable. 

Because of the number of large hotels, access to the beach can be a bit difficult as the properties won’t let you pass. There are many free entryways to the beach between hotels and restaurants. 

Whether you are looking to hit up a beach club for the day or pack a cooler and enjoy the beach on your own, you won’t be let down by the softness of the sand and the beautiful shades of blue water. 

cancun hotel zone from above

Cancun Hotel Zone.

Tulum Beaches

Tulum on the other hand has 2 different beach zones. The hotel zone and the archeological zone. Both beach zones are incredibly fabulous. They both have long, wide beaches with powdery soft clean white sand and clear water. 

The archeological zone starts at the beach by the Tulum ruins and runs for a long stretch extending to the beginning of the hotel zone. Rocks in the water and a large cliff-like formation of land separate the archeological zone from the hotel zone. 

Along the archeological zone, there are many footpaths that lead to the beach, making free access incredibly easy. This area is slowly being developed with serene beach clubs, glamping, and chic hut-style accommodations, but none of them are interrupting the stunning view or access to the beach.  

In this area, travelers of all sorts gather to enjoy the magic of Tulum beaches. Bringing your own beach gear, reaching the beach, and spending the day as you wish is quite simple.  

Car parking is available at several private lots along the road behind the beach. The last time I visited I paid 500 pesos for the full day (about $25 USD).

Bicycle and moto parking is free. Hotels and restaurants also provide free parking if you are a customer.

tulum beach in the archeological zone

Tulum’s archeological zone beach is truly magical.

The hotel zone beachfront of Tulum is a completely different world. First of all, there is only one road in and the same road to take you out.  Depending on the time of day and the season, traffic can accumulate making for a long, traffic-filled journey. 

But at least the view is amazing while you’re waiting. On this incredible road of the Tulum hotel zone, your eyes will be in awe.

There is so much to take in and look at. The road is laced with trendy beach clubs and boutique hotels, restaurants, and shops. It reaches its southern point which is the entrance to the Sian Kian Bio Reserve.

There is an abundance of beach clubs and restaurants that have access to the beach. To use the facilities like beach chairs, umbrellas, or tables, a cover charge or minimum spend will be required. Read more about the Tulum beach clubs here

Fancy beach clubs like Taboo, Bagatelle, and Rosa Negra Beach Club all offer tranquil beach party-style atmospheres with great DJs.

You can expect chic sun loungers, day beds, bottle service, exquisite menus, and 5-star service. These beach clubs are beautifully designed and decorated, a social media paradise. 

If you don’t wish to spend the day at one of the beach clubs or eat at a restaurant,  some of the properties will allow you to pass through to access the beach.  This way you can enjoy the beach at your own leisure.

Restaurants and hotels will have their own parking, as well as paid parking lots for public use.

In my opinion, the sand is nicer in Tulum than in Cancun because it is more untouched and virgin. As the sun sets over the horizon in the Tulum Jungle, the sky lights up with magical pinks and oranges, and a calm blue lines the water.

Depending on the weather, small waves can break on the shore. Sometimes these waves are big enough to surf, making Tulum a popular area for wave surfing and on windy days, kite surfing.

entrance to a cool beach club in Tulum vs Cancun

Tulum restaurants are a little bit more over the top with decor than just about anywhere in Mexico.

Cancun Vs Tulum: Restaurants

Cancun and Tulum both have fantastic culinary scenes offering restaurants of all cuisines. Tacos, Mexican cuisine, American, Italian, Greek … you name it the option is there! 

In Cancun, you can find your American favorite chains such as Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.  There are also tons of fantastic fine dining restaurants located in the Cancun hotel. 

If you head into the center of downtown Cancun, you can find cheaper dining options such as taco stands and family-run restaurants. A budget for every tastebud. 

In Tulum, expect to find a lot of the same cuisine options but at a higher price. 

Most of the restaurants in Tulum are taken to the next level with menu ingredients, cocktail lists, ambiance, decor, and service standards. Check out our favorites listed here.

It’s as if a jungle treehouse meets a 5-star restaurant. The smell, design, lighting, and vibe of a majority of the restaurants in Tulum are boho chic and create memorable experiences.

A sign that says stay present on the beach in Cancun

Beaches in Cancun vs Tulum.

Cancun Vs Tulum: Things to Do

Besides enjoying the beach and the warm weather, each city has a lot of different activities to offer.  In my opinion, there is more to explore and see in Tulum.

Cancun offers a lot of boat, catamaran, and yacht, tours as they have several marinas on its shores.

As well, Isla Mujeres is a short 30-minute ferry ride to reach the island. You can easily spend an entire day there exploring the island.  

Ocean scuba diving is also fantastic around Isla Mujeres so if you are staying in Cancun it makes the journey really easy. 

Because Tulum has three different zones you can spend a lot of time exploring. 

You won’t want to skip a trip to the Tulum ruins. It is a great learning experience about old Maya culture and admission only costs 80 pesos ($4 USD). 

Popular Mayan ruins Coba and Chichen Itza are closer in proximity to Tulum than Cancun making the journey shorter. 

Off the beaches of Tulum, you can take a small snorkel tour out to the reef. Salesmen and boat captains will be waiting on the beach if you are interested. 

Surrounding Tulum there is also an abundance of cenotes perfect for scuba diving. These cenotes are also a great place for freediving. This sport is becoming more popular, so you will find a lot of dive shops offering training courses. 

In Tulum, you will also find a lot of yoga retreats, wellness workshops, Temazcal ceremonies (sweat lodges), and more. 

stylish hotel in Tulum with a hammock and a man sitting on it with jungle behind it.

Tulum hotels are almost as extra as the beach clubs and restaurants in their design.

Tulum Vs Cancun: Accommodations

Cancun and Tulum offer completely different hotels and lodging options. Depending on your travel style, and budget might determine which city is better suited for you in this category.

Cancun has an abundance of all-inclusive resorts. In the hotel zone, the resorts are all beachfront and spaced one next to another.

You will also find beautiful high-rise condo buildings overlooking the sea which can be booked on Air Bnb or Vrbo.

A week’s stay at your typical all-inclusive resort will cost around $1500 USD. As the name states, all your food and drinks will be included. 

Outside of the Cancun hotel zone, you can find standard hotel rooms and hostel options at lower prices. 

bed in a hotel room

Hotel rooms in Tulum vs Cancun.

Tulum accommodations are the complete opposite. The beach is lined with beautiful boutique hotels. These hotels aren’t far from luxury either. 

They are designed with inspiration from nature and boast beautiful minimalistic décor playing off of the features of the jungle. 

Hotel rooms start at $200 USD per night in the hotel zone and can reach $1200 USD. 

In Tulum town, which is slightly away from the beach, you can find budget-friendly accommodations. Standard hotel rooms, Air Bnb, and hostels are all available but will be at a higher cost compared to the standard cost in Cancun. 

tulum rooftop pools on top of hotels surrounded by jungle.

In Tulum, you’ll find hotels like this.

Cancun Vs Tulum: Shopping

Tulum and Cancun both have fantastic shopping but again on completely different scales. 

Cancun is very well-developed and has several shopping malls. It is more like your average city in North America, so you’ll find everything from Forever 21 and American Eagle to H&M and Zara. 

If you are looking for large ticket stores such as Rolex, Hermes, and Louis Vutton then Plaza La Isla is the place you will want to stop. 

I love shopping at the markets in Cancun.  In the downtown area of the city, you will find Mercado 23 and Mercado 28. Both are packed with vendors selling fruits, souvenirs, clothing, handcrafted articles, tequila, and much more.

At these markets don’t be afraid to put your bargaining skills to use. But you’ll need to make sure you have cash as most don’t accept card payments. Read about our tips for getting cash in Mexico here.

Tulum on the other hand offers boutique-style shopping with that specific Tulumanti aesthetic. 

Many of the articles sold in the stores are handmade, hand-sewn, and hand-crafted. Often you’ll be able to find one-of-a-kind pieces at the shops around Tulum. 

There are a lot of beautiful pieces to be found in Tulum, but with a price tag to match.  That being said, all of the pieces are very unique and just might be worth the splurge. 

Rumor has it, due to the rapid rate of growth of Tulum, a shopping mall will soon be in development. 

sunset at the beach with a single palm tree behind the water in a pool deciding between cancun vs tulum.

Sunsets in Cancun or Tulum, which would you choose?

Tulum Vs Cancun: Nightlife

Again, this category is very hard to compare the two because both Tulum and Cancun offer such different nightlife experiences.

Cancun is a well-known spring break party destination, and that party scene remains the same all year round. Whether you come in March or September, you can enjoy “spring break.”

In the hotel zone of Cancun, you will find huge dance clubs such as Coco Bongo, Mandala, and La Vaquita. These clubs have a grand capacity and will keep you dancing to party music all night long.

In its earlier days, Tulum used to be a small tranquil beach town perfect for a peaceful escape.

Over the past few years, the popularity of Tulum has begun to grow rapidly as well as its party scene. You will find numerous restaurants, pubs, bars, and nightclubs all offering a fun nighttime experience.

Within the hotel zone of Tulum is a separate zone called the party zone and this is where the party is most nights of the week.

Beach day clubs turn into night clubs and drinks continue to flow. DJs playing jungle beats will have the crowds bouncing up and down.

Dancers, acrobats, and live entertainment all add to the attractiveness of the party. People are dressed to impress with eco-chic beach attire. Again a social media paradise, definitely a place to be seen.

looking at the stars at the beach with light from a hotel in the background.

Nightlife in Cancun or Tulum, both offer great options.

Cancun Vs Tulum: The Final Decision

My personal favorite between Cancun or Tulum is Tulum. 

For me, it is the perfect place to unplug and unwind from a busy city lifestyle.

Yes, the cost of most things in Tulum is higher but for me, it is worth it. The calmness of the beach and the vibe of the city is something not found in many places around Mexico.  You will just have to check it out for yourself to get the full understanding.  

Plan your next trip to the Riviera Maya so that you can experience both cities and be the judge for yourself. You might even want to consider adding Playa del Carmen to the list, too! Whatever location you choose, it is hard to be disappointed.