Tulum or Akumal? That’s a choice between two of the most popular resort towns on the now-uber-popular Riveira Maya. They stand out as hotspots for hotels and condos overlooking the glistening waters of the Mexican Caribbean, but they aren’t both made equal. In fact, there’s quite a few things that set them apart…
On the one hand, you have Tulum. Once the site of a pre-Columbian port city and scattered with fascinating ruins, that old Mayan town has risen to become synonymous with wild parties a la Cancun. It’s also one of the de facto hubs for digital nomads in the region, and a backpacker staple with access to cenote swimming pools and top-notch beaches.
Akumal, for its part, was one of the OG resort areas of the Riveira Maya. People have been flocking to its coves and beaches to meet the resident turtles for decades. Today, it’s known for it chilled pace, gorgeous sands, marine life, and family vibes. This guide will compare both spots to help you pick the one that’s right for you this year…
Tulum or Akumal: General vibe
Although they’re less than 30 kilometers apart, a distance that takes just 25 minutes by car, Tulum and Akumal could hardly be more different…
First off, Tulum is somewhere in between Ibiza and Bali when it comes to vacation style. Its raucous beach clubs attract a steady flow of luxury travelers, digital nomads, and holistic gurus. Most will base themselves along the beach area, which is now an endless string of boho lounge bars and eateries, cool hotels and coffee spots. It’s very developed and almost always busy.
There is another side to Tulum: Tulum Pueblo. That’s the heart of the main city itself and it’s still lively and built up. But it is grittier than the beaches, offering backpacker hostels and local diners that bring a rustic and authentically Mexican charm.
Akuma is much more laidback. It manages to maintain somewhat of an upscale appeal thanks to the handful of boutique hotels that dot its shores, and there’s loads for families here in the way of spacious condo hotels to boot.
What’s key with Akumal is that wildlife tourism and beach going take precedence over nightlife and influencer travel. That helps it keep a bit of that off-the-beaten-path appeal and means the pace of life is a whole load slower.
Winner: Draw. This is all personal preference but know that Tulum is bigger, wilder, and more energetic than Akumal, by a long way!
Tulum or Akumal: Beaches
With both Tulum and Akumal being located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, it should come as no surprise that the beaches are one of the main talking point here. Gleaming white sands, like powdered sugar underfoot, lapped by lapis lazuli waters that are teaming with marine life are characteristic of both Tulum and Akumal’s shores. But which has the better beaches?
For such a party haven, Tulum’s beaches are surprisingly breathtaking and a far cry from the trash-laden sands of, say, Bali’s Canggu. Technically speaking, the town is home to three beaches, but there are tons of little bays along the more than 10 km stretch of coast that starts at the Tulum Archaeological Zone and Playa Ruinas in the north, reaching down to the glitzy Zona Hotelera and Esmeralda K in the south. We think the best on offer here are:
- Playa Ruínas – An iconic Insta shot of a beach that’s famed for the half-ruined Mayan temple on the cliffs overhead.
- Playa las Palmas – A shallow sand shelf makes this one a cracker for swimming in the Caribbean. Just avoid the seaweed blooms that come through in the summer.
- Playa Pescadores – The one to visit for sunrise and photography. The local fishing crews moor their boats up on the sand.
Scenery-wise, the beaches in Akumal are very similar to those in Tulum. They have calm, turquoise seas and immaculate white sands. The main difference is their tranquil nature and the wildlife, since Akumal is known as one of the best places to see turtles on the wild. The negative is that the beaches of Akumal are often private or semi-private, and you’ll find it hard to get to them through the rows of hotels and condos.
We wouldn’t leave without visiting…
- Playa Free Tortugas – A gap in the reefs on the main point of Akumal is known to be one of the best places to swim with sea turtles.
- Soliman Bay – This one has everything you could want, from soft white sands to stooping coconut palms. The downside? It’s developed all the way along and the condos block access to pretty much anyone who isn’t staying here.
- Xcacel – Wilder Xcacel is for the kiteboarders and the turtle viewers.
Winner: Akumal has the better beaches, even if they are sometimes private.
Tulum or Akumal: Food and dining
Tulum and Akumal are both great places to get a real taste of the local cuisine in Mexico. Remember, though, both these towns are on the Yucatán Peninsula, which means the local delicacies are essential exactly the same in both…
Coconut shrimp, sea bass tacos, barbecued fish fillets, and fisherman’s stew are some of the house specialties of Akumal and Tulum. You’ll also be able to taste the most famous national dishes; things like Tacos al pastor, which takes the traditional pork taco of Mexico and combines a Mexican-Middle Eastern blend of spices with onions and generous sprinklings of cilantro.
What’s for certain is that there’s more choice on offer in Tulum. The town is bigger and more popular. Plus, it’s grown into a bit of an international hub in the last 20 years, which means you can now score everything from mezze platters to falafel wraps to proper Italiano pizzas. Oh, and perhaps the best brunch spots on the riviera await with sourdough and avo down on the playa area of Tulum.
In Akumal, there are fewer places to eat but the quality is generally fantastic. The town, with its following of families and returnee condo goers, tends to edge a bit more towards the upmarket end of the spectrum. While the street-food scene is alive and kicking in Tulum, it’s more about fancy trattoria (try Taverna Akumal or Turtle Bay) and family friendly seafood taverns (La Cueva del Pescador) in these parts.
Winner: Tulum. You can eat pretty much anything there these days, from international dishes to local fish tacos.
Tulum or Akumal: The town itself
Tulum’s biggest pitfall is perhaps the inconvenient layout of the place. As we’ve already said, the stunning Caribbean beaches of both these towns is one of their biggest appeals, but despite the common misconception, Tulum isn’t a beach town at all! It might have served as a port city for Coba, a large and influential Mayan archaeological site, but modern Tulum is actually five kilometers from the coast across jungle-clad national park.
There is an area to stay that’s near the beach: The Hotel Zone along the southern beaches. However, that’s not fantastically well linked to the center of the city, which is known as Tulum Centro or Tulum Pueblo, and basically feels like a whole other destination to the buzzy heart of the town. Taxis cost a fortune and the local bus is unreliable with limited stops. It’s often the case that travelers are isolated to the touristy and expensive hotel restaurants and boutiques that fail to represent real Mexico at all.
Akumal, on the other hand, is the beach town it appears to be. There are fewer amenities for tourists but the small resort community is located right on the sands themselves, stretching for over 1.5 miles along the Caribbean shore. Step out of your hotel door and bingo, you’ll be facing the lapping waves.
In Akumal, you’ll have much smaller distances to cover between bars and restaurants, and no matter where you stay, you’ll never be too far from the beach. Akumal Bay is about 20 minutes on foot from South Akumal, but the walk is scenic and delightful. Finally, Akumal is also slightly closer to Cancun Airport, which is notoriously troublesome to get to and from when visiting this end of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Tulum or Akumal: Hotels and accommodation
When it comes to accommodation, whatever you can find in Akumal, you can find in Tulum—and then some. Tulum is a bigger town, with options for all sorts of travelers. We’ll get to that later, but first…
Akumal is mainly home to boutique hotels, a handful of hostels, quaint guest houses, and plenty of condos. Many of them fringe the main shoreline and face the beaches, which makes for lovely morning viewing over the Caribbean.
Some of the very best accommodation options in the town are:
- Itza Hotel Akumal ($) – With a rooftop pool, shared lounge, 24-hour reception, and air-conditioned rooms, Itza hotel is a modern and convenient property on the edge of Akumal’s town center, just over the main coast road from the beach.
- Maya Eco Village ($$) – With its own restaurant, pool, parking, and bungalow rooms, Maya Eco Village is a tranquil property located in a jungle-like setting with rooms starting at $130 a night.
- Sunscape Akumal Beach Resort & Spa ($$$) – This beachfront resort overlooks the Caribbean sea with its own private cove, water sports facilities, 24-hour room service, spa, and on-site restaurant. Ocean-view suites begin at $290 a night, or go all-inclusive for $430 per day.
Then there’s Tulum. Booking.com reveals that there’s a whopping 837 individual hotel and rental options in this town at the bottom end of the riviera. The run the gamut from high-class five-star spots to backpacker hostels tucked into the urban buzz of Tulum Centro. To be honest, the biggest decision you’ll make here is not what hotel but whether to stay in Centro or along the beaches.
Anyhow, some of our favorite hotel picks in Tulum are:
- Ché Hostel, Tulum Pueblo ($) – A lively party hostel with clean, air-conditioned dorms, communal working space, and a large outdoor pool located right in the center of Tulum, Pueblo, Ché is a hub of the backpacker community with nightly parties but a serene daytime vibe. Dorms start from $20 a night.
- Irie Tulum Boutique Hotel ($$) – With a communal pool, fitness center, terrace rooms, and stylish decor, Irie is conveniently located in between the beach and Tulum Pueblo with king rooms starting at $125 a night.
- Dune Boutique Hotel, Zona Hotelera ($$$) – Located on the beachfront in Tulum’s elusive beach zone, Dune is a luxurious four-star hotel with a private beach, restaurant, and elegant rooms. Prices start from $564 a night with an exceptional breakfast included.
Winner: Tulum – just for the sheer choice of options!
Tulum or Akumal: Price
Price is a strange one here. Akumal is cheaper than Tulum for most things, especially accommodation. However, Tulum has a more intact backpacker scene, so we’d say that true shoestring travelers will almost have to pick the pricer place. Let’s start with the cost of accommodation…
You’ll pay around $216 to spend the night in a four-star hotel in Akumal, but closer to $387 in Tulum. Likewise, a five-star hotel can be around $512 in Akumal compared to $646 in Tulum. However, you’ll find hostels for $10 a night and three-star accommodation for as little as $30 in Tulum, which is why Tulum tends to be the better – AKA, the only – option here for the backpacker crowd.
When it comes to food, it’s a similar story. Tulum Pueblo is riddled with street-food options that mean tacos for as little as $1 a pop. There are similar options in Akumal but nowhere near as many. Up there, it’s more of a question of proper sit-down restaurants that will be $20-30 a head.
Winner: Tulum. It’s actually more expensive in Tulum than Akumal, but we think backpackers should choose it because of the array of hostels and cheap eats.
Tulum or Akumal – our verdict
Tulum and Akumal both offer a stay on the legendary Riviera Maya of the Mexican Yucatan. But they’re quite different spots that are suited to different sorts of travelers…
For a quintessential R&R holiday of chilling on the beachfront, lazing by the hotel pool, enjoying good seafood tacos, and meeting the local marine wildlife, Akumal is the one to go for. It’s got family-friendly bays and is generally regarded as the more traditional and laid-back resort here.
Tulum is a proper town but also a beach resort. Indeed, it’s split in two, with big hotels along the shoreline Hotel Zone and a bustling center some 5km inland. You’ll get to enjoy both here but remember that they aren’t super-easy to travel between. What that does mean is loads of dining choices, plenty of backpacker hostels, and one of the best nightlife scenes in the region bar Cancun.
Is Akumal safer than Tulum?
Tulum is relatively problem-free and a great choice for backpackers, but it isn’t completely free from gang and drug-related incidents and walking around at night isn’t advised. For this reason, Akumal is generally seen as the safer choice thanks to the laid-back vibe. It’s a better option for families and swimming is also safer for young children on the beaches here.