Can’t decide between Tulum or Cancun? We can see why. These are both shining examples of the famed Riviera Maya, a land of glowing white beaches and turquoise seas, coral reefs and stunning hotels you’ll never want to leave. But which is better for you?
That’s what this guide is all about. It will run through five key aspects of both destinations to help you pick the perfect vacation spot this year, offering insights into where has the finest beaches, where is the better base for day trips, and which town comes with the livelier nightlife.
One warning: It won’t be an easy choice. On one hand, there’s Cancun, a pumping party mecca that’s fringed by more white-sand beaches than you can shake your mojito at. On the other is Tulum, a temple-topped resort with cenotes and jungles and more in the offing. Let’s go…
Tulum or Cancun for ease of travel
The Cancún International Airport (CUN) – or the Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún in Spanish – is not just the gateway to its namesake city. It’s also the gateway to the whole of the Yucatan region, which means you’ll almost certainly need to travel here first if you want to get to Tulum.
Naturally, Cancun and the Hotel Zone there is closer to the arrivals hall. There’s public bus that runs the route in just under an hour, costing about $5 per person. Plus, you can get a shared shuttle bus for $39 in all to do the trip a little quicker. Some of the top hotels in the area will also have a gratis shuttle with a driver that will be waiting for you when you touch down.
Getting to Tulum from Cancun airport means adding a longer transfer into the mix. You can still make use of the same overload of international air links that jet over to CUN from both the USA, Europe, and beyond. But then you’re looking at a drive of about 1.5 hours in all, going south almost the whole length of the Riviera Maya. The good news is that it’s a popular transfer to make, so there are plenty of companies that run the route, many of which can now be booked online long before you go.
Tulum or Cancun for beaches
The beaches are the big pull in Cancun. There are stacks and stacks of them, running the whole length of the so-called Hotel Zone – that’s over 12 miles in all. Almost all of the beachfronts here follow the same style. We’re talking proper, sugar-soft white sand, bath-warm waters that are great for swimming, and a backing of hotels and bars. As a general rule, you get quieter, more romantic sands the further south you head in the Hotel Zone and busier but more swimmable beaches in the north.
The best of the beaches in Cancun include:
- Playa Langosta – A great one for families with the kids in tow, Playa Langosta is well-protected, has its own sheltered swimming area, and even a playground for the little ones.
- Playa Chacmool – the first of the east-facing beaches in the Cancun Hotel Zone, Playa Chacmool has sparkling white sands and loads of hotels right behind.
- Playa Delfines – Playa Delfines is one of the least busy beaches in the region, although it’s still busier compared to others down the Riviera Maya. We think it’s a great choice for honeymooners.
Tulum also has beaches that will take the breath away. They curve up and down the whole shoreline of the town and offer the same talcum-white sands and sky-blue seas as the ones in Cancun. Here’s the downside…they suffer from bad seaweed blooms in the summer months, when pungent sargassum washes up on the sands. (It’s not such a problem in Cancun, since most of the resorts on the Hotel Zone routinely clean the coast, plus the beaches there are more protected.)
Either way, there are still some downright lovely beaches to enjoy here, including:
- Playa Ruinas – This is the Instagram shot you’ve been waiting for. Ruinas is the beach that hosts that ancient Maya temple above a run of ridiculously white sand. Gorgeous stuff.
- Playa Santa Fe – Wide and perfectly white, this northern beach is good for escaping the crowds to score plenty of sunbathing space for yourself.
- Playa Paraiso – The liveliest of the Tulum beaches, this one has a clutch of breakfast bars and nightlife spots hidden in the palm trees just behind.
Winner: Cancun pips Tulum to the post here. The big city has loads of different sorts of beaches on its Hotel Zone and doesn’t get bad seaweed blooms in the summer months.
Tulum or Cancun for things to do
Top of the to-do list for most visitors to Cancun is lazing on the beach. This is a resort town at heart and it shows. The whole of the Hotel Zone is a long run of white sand that’s washed by impossibly turquoise Caribbean waters. The southern part of that tends to be more remote and empty. The north has more protected beaches for families but gets busier in the peak of the season. Then there’s the nightlife. We’ll talk more about that later but suffice to say it’s one of the major activities in Cancun and gets positively wild, particularly during spring break.
Tulum also has beaches that are to die for. But the main attraction is probably the incredible Tulum Archaeological Zone. Go there to wander ancient Mayan temples on plinths above the teal-blue Caribbean Sea. That’s now entirely surrounded by the Parque Nacional Tulum, a wild swathe of coastal jungles that has its own set of cenotes (sink holes you can often swim in). We’d also recommend shopping through the Centro part of Tulum, which is filled quirky art-craft stores and loads of local eateries and taquerias.
Of course, day trips are also a big thing from both Cancun and Tulum. The good news is you’ll be able to do all the same ones from both towns. We get to them in more detail below. However, the main gist is island adventures to Cozumel and Mujeres, and history jaunts to Chichen Itza and the like.
Winner: Draw – both of these towns offer plenty to do.
Tulum or Cancun for day trips
There are some very special day trips to launch from Tulum and from Cancun. That’s largely because you’ll be doing the same excursions from both towns, since they both offer access to the Yucatan and the whole of the Riviera Maya, plus a series of glorious offshore islands that are nothing short of diving meccas.
Some of the most popular trips to do from both of these towns include:
- A cenotes tour – Usually a half or full day that takes you around the amazing sinkhole swimming spots of the Yucatan Peninsula. We’d say the very best cenotes are probably closer to Tulum but these are easy enough to access from Cancun, too.
- Chichen Itza – A must for history buffs, Chichen Itza is the old capital of the Maya in the region and now hailed as one of the most incredible archaeological dig sites in the whole of the Americas.
- Valladolid – A Spanish-era city with some serious style, Valladolid offers exquisite Baroque plazas, a gorgeous Gothic church with roots in the 1400s, and all manner of other European-linked attractions.
There are just one or two day outings that are best done from one or the other of these two destinations. The Isla Mujeres, for example, is easier to reach from Cancun. It’s known for its white-sand beaches and luxury hotels. Meanwhile, the Isla Cozumel – arguably Mexico’s pre-eminent diving destination – is better accessed from Tulum.
Winner: This one’s a draw. You’re essentially looking at the same array of day trips from both of these towns.
Tulum or Cancun for nightlife
Tulum has a pretty pumping nightlife scene these days, as do lots of spots along the Riviera Maya. But there’s no doubt that Cancun comes out on top here. It’s up there with Cabo and Puerto Vallarta among the most hedonistic places in the whole country. Come February, it’s also a major spring-break destination for American snowbirds.
The main part of town to let loose is the Hotel Zone. Specifically, the area around Punta Cancun has some of the most electrifying clubs on the Mexican Caribbean. Go there to find the likes of Senor Frogs and Coco Bongo, both of which stay open well into the early hours most nights. The Hotel Zone also hosts sleek cocktail bars like the Hard Rock. Or you could head over to Centro Cancun for more local cantinas and night markets.
Over in Tulum, there are two main centers of nightlife. There are some salt-washed beach bars and day-party spots near the beaches, stringing down from Playa Las Palmas to Tulum Playa. They are great for chilled afternoon sessions mixed in with sunbathing on the side of the Caribbean. Later, head up to the old heart of Tulum. There, classic mojito holes-in-the-wall mingle with sidewalk jazz bars. It’s a touch more chilled than Cancun and not as famous but still sufficient for those on a more relaxed vacation.
Winner: Cancun can be the only winner here. It’s one of the nightlife hubs in Mexico.
Tulum or Cancun? Our conclusion
Both Tulum and Cancun are pretty darn awesome. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed with either. That said, Cancun is certainly better for the dedicated partiers out there – it’s Mexico’s Caribbean nightlife hub. It’s also home to more massive resort hotels, so suits the honeymoon crowd. Tulum has more in the way of Mayan history, local food, and access to quieter beaches, plus good links to the Isla Cozumel for divers.