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tulum or akumal

Tulum or Akumal? Which Spot on the Riviera Maya To Visit

The Riviera Maya has grown steadily in popularity over recent decades and Mexico’s lusted Caribean coastline is now dotted with a host of different holiday destinations. Whatever your vacation style, there’s something for everyone, but which is better, Tulum or Akumal?

Tulum was once the site of a pre-Columbian port city and is scattered with fascinating ruins, but this Mayan gem is better known today for its raucous beach parties and backpacker hostels amid the cenotes and jungle setting of its outer neighborhoods. Akumal, on the other hand, promotes a slower pace of life with incredible marine life and barefoot beach living but there’s also a thriving restaurant scene and plenty to keep the whole family entertained. 

There are just 28 kilometers between them along the same strip of the Caribean coastline, but Tulum and Akumal are worlds apart. Find out which is best for you in our guide. Let’s get into it. 

General Vibe

Mayan beach
Photo by diegograndi/Envato Elements

They’re less than 30 kilometers apart, a distance that takes just 25 minutes by car, but Tulum and Akumal couldn’t be more different. Nestled on the Riviera Maya on southeastern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll find laid-back living, true Mexican spirit, and breathtaking Caribbean beaches in both, but when it comes to the general vibe, Tulum and Akumal attract opposite crowds. 

The overarching difference between Tulum and Akamul’s appeal is the thriving party scene and well-established reputation of Tulum compared to the latter. For starters, there’s a high chance you’ve heard of Tulum, the bohemian community being equal parts yogi paradise and equal parts party haven, while Akumal is a little less trodden. 

Tulum is somewhere in between Ibiza and Bali when it comes to vacation style and the raucous beach clubs attract a steady flow of luxury travelers, digital nomads, and holistic gurus. Head to the main town and things are a little different with the backpacker hostels and local diners that give Tulum Pueblo its rustic and authentically Mexican charm. But its still a far cry from quintessential Mexico with the inflated prices, tourist amenities, and upscale accommodation. 

Akumal, on the other hand, although just half an hour up the coast, is much more laidback. It manages to maintain somewhat of an upscale appeal with the handful of boutique hotels that dot its shores, but you’ll be able to seek a relaxing beach getaway here with Mexican character and far fewer tourists than in Tulum.

Akumal also prides itself on its conservation, and wildlife tourism takes precedence over nightlife and luxury amenities. Although easily accessible, and with a small town that is actually much closer to the beach than Tulum’s Pueblo, Akumal also upholds an off-the-beaten-path appeal. 

Both towns could be equally impressive, and likewise, equally disappointing depending on your vacation style. If it’s parties, holistic energy, amenities, and socializing that you’re after, Tulum comes out on top every time, but if you want to skip the crowds and experience true Mexican paradise, Akumal is your winner. 

Winner: Draw

Beaches

turtle
Photo by nualaimages/Envato Elements

With both Tulum and Akumal being located on Mexico’s Caribean coast, it should come as no surprise that the beaches are really worth talking about. Vastly contrasting the wild surfer’s waves of the Pacific shorelines to the east of the country, the beaches of the Riviera Maya come straight out of a travel brochure, and even bustling Tulum with its long-established tourism scene offers up serene and paradisical shores, no matter the season. 

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. Where they differ is in amenities, costs, and crowds and each town thrives in different areas. 

For such a party haven, Tulum’s beaches are surprisingly breathtaking and a far cry from the trash-laden sands of Bali’s Canggu, which is often compared side by side with the Mayan mecca. Tulum’s multitude of small bays are well-maintained, even on the public side, but with the high premiums that you’ll pay to lounge on a day bed here, it will probably come as no surprise. 

What’s more, even with the pristine sands and sparkling waters, you can’t ignore the crowds of tourists who congregate in their masses from December through till the hurricane season begins in May. Even then, Tulum is never dead. There might not be rubbish lining the beaches, but gatherings of friends drinking and playing music is a prerequisite of Tulum and the sands have got even more concentrated with the rising costs of beach clubs. 

The beaches in Akumal are very similar to Tulum’s, scenery-wise, with their calm turquoise seas and immaculate sands, but the main difference is their tranquil nature compared to Tulum’s, and you’ll find some of the least disturbed shores in all of Mexico here. Sparse and authentic, Akumal’s beaches also cover a much smaller area and are only served by the rustic town. 

Akumal is made up of three bays that cover just three miles (5 km) of coastline. Tulum also has three beaches, technically speaking, 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, and reaches down to the glitzy Zona Hotelera and Esmeralda K in the south.

Even with all that space, Tulum’s beaches are always more crowded than Akumal’s—a testament to the sheer amount of tourists that visit the bohemian city, but this doesn’t mean they’re any better. 

On top of the clear shores, perfect swimming conditions, and tropical vegetation, Akumal also shines for its unrivaled marine life. Akumal literally translates as “place of the turtles” and its coves are known for the high number of sea turtles that frequent them every year. They lay their eggs in the summer months and lucky tourists get to see them arriving from May to July in their hundreds. 

Visitors can even volunteer around town to help with nest protection and getting the beaches ready for the turtles. This adds to Akumal’s unique appeal, not to mention, snorkeling off the beaches gets you in with a good chance of swimming alongside one of the ocean’s most gentle giants.  

The paid beach in Akamul might be a turn-off, but you’ll end up paying far more to spend the day in any of Tulum’s beach clubs, even on the public side, and the clean, serene sands will be worth it. Due to the entrance fee, Akumal’s beaches are well looked after too and the fewer crowds make their quality easier to maintain while attracting more wildlife.

Winner: Akumal 

Food Scene

Mexican food
Photo by bisualphoto/Envato Elements

We don’t need to tell you why Mexican cuisine is so well-loved. Beans, chili, cactus, tomato, avocado, and a lot of corn (the tortillas aren’t made with anything else here) are all basic Mexican ingredients that you’ll find in every dish. Mexican food has Spanish influences, but it’s also all about the harvest, and in the Mayan Riviera, you’ll feel the Caribean energy coming through in the gastronomy with the fruits, spices, and plantain that are a base for many favorite dishes.

Tulum and Akumal are both great places to get a real taste of the local cuisine in Mexico and the regional favorites are largely similar. Beef, fish, and chicken are all widely eaten on the Yucatán Peninsula, and the closer you are to the beach, the more that seafood is worshipped. 

Coconut shrimp, sea bass tacos, barbecued fish fillets, and fisherman’s stew are some of the house specialties of Akumal’s seaside restaurants. There’s less variety in Akumal, and that’s what sets Tulum apart from the humble beach town, but you’ll still find great food, both of a local variety and more high-end nature in the hotels and such.

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, are a favorite in both towns. But the street taco scene is thriving in Tulum Pueblo. Ready and waiting for drunk revelers to spill from the bars and clubs, street taco stalls line the corners of the main strip and no visit to Tulum is complete without tucking into your fair share of sumptuous street treats. 

Akumal also has plenty of street food stands, but it doesn’t have the vast array of upscale eateries to contrast them that Tulum has. Tulum is also home to a thriving cafe society where digital nomads congregate over great coffee and Mexican specialties are celebrated alongside western brunch favorites.    

Tulum also famously enmeshes its nightlife with its gastronomy to bring something for everyone. It might be pricey to eat on the beach, but if you’re a budding foodie in search of ambiance and unique culinary experiences, Tulum comes out on top every time. 

Winner: Tulum

Layout

road in mexico
Photo by deigograndi/Envato Elements

Tulum’s biggest pitfall is its inconvenient layout and it’s usually the first criticism to come from any visitor’s lips. If you plan to hire a vehicle or stick to the hotel zone for your holiday, this might not seem like such a downside, but compared to Akumal, Tulum is much less accessible and a tricky place for backpackers to navigate.

As we’ve said, the blessed Caribean beaches of both these towns is one of their biggest appeals, but despite 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 five kilometers from the coast across jungle-clad national park and the beach is a real effort to reach on foot if you’re staying in the center.

Taxis cost a fortune and the local bus is unreliable with limited stops. Likewise, if you’re staying in the hotel zone, which sprawls along the south beach, you’ll be a world away from the buzzing downtown and isolated to the touristy and expensive hotel restaurants and boutiques that fail to represent real Mexico at all.  

This layout means Tulum has two very different sides, and you could say it is the best of both worlds with a thriving backpacker community in the center where locals mingle with travelers and the prices are more reflective of the rest of the Yucatán. However, this creates a lot of divide and you’re more vulnerable to scams with this huge contrast. For example, a taxi out of the hotel zone could cost twice as much as one from the center to the beach, just because they can. 

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 beachfront, stretching for just 1.5 miles which makes getting around on foot easy and safe. 

Like in Tulum, you can get around on a bike but you’ll have much smaller distances to cover and wherever you stay, you’ll never be too far from the beach. There are also plenty of taxis in the town, but you’ll only need them if you’re hoping to explore more of the Riviera Maya on your trip and it’ll cost you far less to go the distance than if you were jumping in a cab in Tulum. 

Akumal Bay is about 20 minutes on foot from South Akumal but the walk is scenic and delightful. Akumal is also slightly closer to Cancún airport which is notoriously hassle-some to get to and from when visiting this end of the Yucatán Peninsula. The drive is only half an hour less to Akumal than Tulum, but it all makes a difference with the high transfer fares you can expect from the airport taxis.

Winner: Akumal   

Places to Stay

tulum or akumal
Photo by travnikovstudio/Envato Elements

When it comes to accommodation, whatever you can find in Akumal, you can find in Tulum—and then some. Akumal is home to boutique hotels, a handful of hostels, quaint guest houses, and its fair share of vacation rentals, but Tulum has all of these and more. Although some options might be higher priced (especially in the hotel zone) there is far more variety in Tulum which could make it surprisingly better for budget travelers. 

Tulum is famous for its established hospitality industry and five-class service will be much easier to seek. Still, if it’s luxury at a discount that you’re after, Tulum isn’t the place to go. The four and five-star hotels in Akumal could be a better bet if you want fine dining and great amenities without breaking the bank, but if you’re willing to compromise on a few luxuries, Tulum has more range for every type of traveler. 

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, and vacation rentals for between $20 and $450 but with an average of $180 a night. Vacation rentals in Akumal have a similar range but average at $200 a night with less variety. 

Take a look at some of the accommodation options in both towns so you can find the right stay for your budget:

Tulum

Ché Hostel, Tulum Pueblo ($) – A lively party hostel with clean airconditioned 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.  

Akumal   

Itza Hotel Akumal ($) – With a rooftop pool, shared lounge, 24-hour reception, and clean airconditioned rooms, Itza hotel is a modern and convenient property on the edge of Akumal. Dorms start from $35 a night and doubles from $70—breakfast included.  

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 Caribean 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.

Winner: Tulum

Is Akumal safer than Tulum?

Mexico has done well to shake its violent reputation and the Yucatán Peninsula is one of the safest places in the country to visit today. 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 a safer choice thanks to the laid-back vibe. It’s a better option for families and swimming is also safer for young children. 

Is Akumal a party town?

Although close to Tulum and Cancún, Akumal isn’t one of Quintana Roo’s party towns. It’s actually a very sleepy and relaxed beach community. You can enjoy a few cocktails in the bars and hostels around town, but it doesn’t get much wilder than that and you should head 30 minutes south to Tulum if partying is what you’re after. 

When is the best time to visit the Rivier Maya?

It’s always warm in the Riviera Maya but May to November brings tropical storms as hurricane season descends on the Caribbean. It’s humid and very wet at this time of year, with the most rainfall coming down in August and September. This makes hurricane season the cheapest time to visit the Riviera Maya, but we recommend aiming for the shoulder seasons in spring or late fall if you want to skip some of the crowds but still be in with a chance of some great weather.