Picking between Cancun or Tulum for your next Mexican vacation? Worry not.
Cancun and Tulum are two of the most popular destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula, both sporting amazing sun-soaked beaches, vibrant nightlife, and rich history. As someone who has been to both cities many times, I know that deciding between the two can be difficult.
The main difference between Cancun and Tulum is their overall ambiance and activities. Cancun boasts an energetic nightlife, expansive shopping centers, and all-inclusive resorts for an action-packed vacation.
On the other hand, Tulum has serene beaches, ancient archaeological sites, and an emphasis on wellness and sustainability, attracting those seeking a more relaxed, culturally immersive experience.
But after spending some considerable time in both places, the difference is more than just that. That is why I’ve decided to write this article on Cancun vs Tulum, so you can ultimately decide which destination is better for you.
We’ll be comparing and contrasting them in 10 different categories so you can get a fuller and bigger picture.
What Is Cancun Like?
With stunning crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, super soft white sand, and gorgeous weather for at least six months of the year, it’s no wonder why Cancun is consistently one of the world’s top holiday destinations.
Perched right on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, most people (myself included) come to this tropical Mexican paradise because of the five-star all-inclusive beach resorts and the access to stunning beaches, beautifully blue water, and also to enjoy a wide mix of water sports like snorkeling, scuba diving, and parasailing.
I thought that outside of relaxing, there wasn’t much to do in Cancun. But I soon discovered that there is a sizeable chunk of Mexican culture to be found not too far away.
Outside of the ‘Cancun Hotel Zone’, you have downtown Cancun which offers a much more authentic Mexican experience with local markets, shops, and restaurants vying for your custom.
Head even further out of the main ‘strip’ area and you’ll find some of Latin America’s most famous Mayan ruins and national parks complete with natural water-filled sinkholes known as cenotes.
What Is Tulum Like?
Being just an hour and 45 minutes further down south, you might not think that Tulum is much different than Cancun, or even Playa del Carmen. Well, yes and no. Tulum is a beach destination first and foremost, so it’s similar in that sense.
But where Cancun is a massive, sprawling mini-metropolis full of all-inclusive hotels and the like, Tulum is a much smaller area with barely any high-rise buildings or luxury hotels, towering over its visitors.
That’s not to say that downtown Tulum isn’t busy or overrun with tourists because for the most part, it is, it’s just a different kind of busy due to its smaller nature.
Aside from Tulum’s beautiful beaches, the city is also surrounded by a dense jungle canopy that is dotted with cenotes and historic Mayan Ruins. You get the feeling that this is perhaps what Cancun was like before the all-inclusive resorts took over.
And one thing that impressed me about my visit to Tulum, was the amount of Mayan ruins that can be found on and around the beach area. Tulum was once believed to be an area for the high society of the Mayans and even today, you can still see the crumbling remnants of this once major trading hub.
Cancun or Tulum: How Do They Compare and Contrast?
Which Is Better To Stay: Cancun or Tulum?
If we’re talking purely hotels, then Cancun hotels are better.
There is a wide variety that suits all kinds of budgets but most people end up staying in the all-inclusive beach resort hotels that the city is famous for. You’ll be close to Cancun International Airport, right on the beach, and have large well-decorated rooms to come back to once you’re finished enjoying the day.
You’ll also likely have several different on-site restaurants to choose from that all serve a fresh and delicious variety of food too so you won’t even need to venture far to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This experience is what many people are after when they head to Cancun as it’s easy and relaxing.
Tulum on the other hand is more laid-back and that shows in the types of accommodation on offer. They tend to be much smaller, mostly independent boutique hotels with the occasional recently built big luxury chain. Many of Tulum’s hotels are eco-friendly, and many of the accompanying restaurants focus on local and sustainable cuisine.
You’ll find the majority of these hotels along Tulum Beach and they all perfectly suit Tulum’s sleepy hippy-esque vibe, so if you think you’d prefer that atmosphere over the raucous Cancun, then Tulum is your choice.
In our case, we prefer Tulum over Cancun.
Which Has Better Nightlife: Cancun or Tulum?
Cancun has a bigger and more vibrant nightlife than Tulum. The resort’s ‘Hotel Zone’ is primarily where all of the nightlife happens and is renowned for having a wide variety of nightclubs, bars, and entertainment venues.
International DJs regularly play slots at clubs like Coco Bongo alongside themed parties and impressive acrobatic performances at Mandala and La Vaquita. If you’re not that big into thumping nightclubs, then the Cancun Hotel Zone still has plenty of laid-back bars and lounges for you to chill out in and enjoy cocktails with friends or family.
Tulum’s nightlife is much more subdued in comparison to Cancun. Whilst there are plenty of options, there aren’t any large superclubs like there are in Cancun. You’ll primarily be limited to bars with DJs and restaurants that turn into a bit of a bar-cum-club like atmosphere which is great for keeping it low-key.
Some beachfront bars and restaurants offer a nice selection of music and some even have bonfires on the beach, for that real tropical island feeling. I personally prefer a more relaxed vibe to my nightlife, so for me Tulum is better for me.
Which Is Better For Beaches: Cancun or Tulum?
If you are like me, then one of the reasons you are coming to Mexico is for its beaches. Cancun’s pristine beaches are unequivocally one of the many reasons millions of people come to the resort city every year, but personally, Tulum’s beaches are just that bit better.
As well as being drop-dead gorgeous, they have a much more rustic feel to them and blend in well with the unsophisticated feeling of the area. Playa Ruinas is one of the more dramatic ones, right underneath the cliffside.
Mostly, they’re also a little quieter too, offering a more secluded, relaxing beach vacation.
That’s all not to say that the Cancun beaches are not equally as pretty, because they are. You’ve got soft white sand, and crystal-clear water backed up by a maze of swaying palm trees which really reinforces that true tropical holiday feeling.
Because there are a lot of all-inclusive hotel resorts right on the beach, they can become quite crowded, especially during peak season. If you are into water sports such as snorkeling, diving, parasailing, and jet-skiing, you’ll have an easier time finding them in Cancun’s beaches.
Which Is Better For Shopping: Tulum or Cancun?
Cancun is definitely the better place when it comes to shopping. It has several large malls like La Isla Cancun Shopping Village which is one of the best things to do in the city. It’s a beautifully designed open-air mall that houses a huge variety of designer brands and more local shops with restaurants and cafes to indulge in.
Puerto Cancun Marina Town Center is another excellent option for some shopping, and for something a little more local and authentic, Mercado 23 is one of the oldest markets in the city. Here, you can bargain for unique Cancun souvenirs to bring home for friends and family and also feast on true Mexican street food.
In keeping with Tulum’s more laid-back theme and atmosphere, you’ll be able to find a nice range of art and craft shops, souvenirs, and authentic handmade goods across the town. This gives you the opportunity to support local producers and perhaps purchase one-of-a-kind items.
Tulum Beach Road features plenty of small shops selling all kinds of little gifts, and Mercado Maya Tulum is a famous market that has stunning items of Mayan origin like hand-woven textiles, wooden handicrafts, and even fresh fruit and vegetables all made and grown by the indigenous Mayan communities themselves.
Which Has Better Attractions: Tulum or Cancun?
Tulum has better attractions than Cancun, but both offer tons of things to do. While both coastal cities offer pristine sandy beaches, amazing watersports, clear Caribbean waters, beach clubs, and great nightlife, Tulum has definitely more vairty thanks to its geographical location.
There is a great number of things to do in Cancun but I think you wouldn’t be able to stay there for much longer than a week. Outside of enjoying your all inclusive hotels, partying, activities involving the beach and sea, there really isn’t much more.
Yes, there are many day trips from Cancun, such as Holbox and Isla Mujeres, but those beach destinations offer similar activities.
In Tulum, you have a lot more to do. The mystical Mayan jungle is at your doorstep, and you can explore all of the the Mayan Ruins and ancient cenotes that make Mexico famous. Tulum is also starting to become a digital nomad hub, with plenty of wellness studios and unique events for travelers to participate.
Both Cancun and Tulum have access to the legendary Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza, so visitors are not missing out by choosing Tulum over Cancun.
Which Is Better Cenotes: Tulum or Cancun?
Tulum has better Cenotes than Cancun simply because of its diversity. Though the two cities are only 1.5 hours away from each other, you’ll have access to more and better cenotes in Tulum than in Cancun.
Fun Fact: There is an estimated amount of over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula!
Some of the cenotes near Tulum are completely open to the elements like the Gran Cenote, allowing the beautiful blue color of the water to really shine through, and others are hidden within caves like Casa Cenote, and some even come with dramatic cliffs and naturally occurring rock formations like Cenote Suytun.
There aren’t that many cenotes in Cancun, the closest ones are the cenotes in Riviera Maya, which are often over 30 minutes of a drive away. Some of the more famous cenotes near Cancun are Cenote Chaak Tun, Cenote Yum Ki’n, and Cenote Azul.
The latter is just a short 25-minute drive from the Hotel Zone and features some of the bluest waters you’re ever likely to see.
Which Is More Affordable: Cancun or Tulum?
While both destinations are pricey compared to the rest of Mexico, Tulum is slightly cheaper than Cancun.
When it comes to accommodations, both Cancun and Tulum have a wide variety of places to pick from. Beachfront accommodations such as all-inclusive resorts and boutique hotels in Tulum and Cancun are both pricey without a doubt, but both cities have a city center (Downtown Cancun and Tulum Town) that offer much more affordable accommodations such as budget hotels and hostels.
However, the main difference we found was Tulum’s access to more affordable dining options. You can find tons of affordable family-run restaurants in Tulum Town that serve good authentic Mexican food without breaking the bank.
The price of transportation is slightly lower in Tulum, simply because it is a smaller town and most things are within walking distance or cycling distance.
Which Is Better For Families: Cancun vs Tulum?
Cancun is definitely a better destination than Tulum for families because of the stunning family-friendly hotel resorts that line the beach along the Hotel Zone.
Not only are they mostly all-inclusive making it super easy for those with children to eat in the hotel restaurants, but they also offer a great selection of activities that are perfect for a relaxing vacation and for keeping the children entertained.
Kids’ clubs, pools with slides, tennis, and a variety of water sports are all on offer in certain hotels, and all of this is in addition to being right on the powdery white sand of Cancun’s famous beaches.
Whilst Tulum can still be an excellent family holiday destination, the overall chilled-out vibe and crowd of Tulum are just more suited to couples, friends, and solo travelers.
It’s also a bit more of a headache to get to Tulum. You’ll have to fly into Cancun Airport and then drive over an hour and a half down south in order to get there. Arranging this transport from Cancun Airport with your children could be another added headache that you might not want.
Which Has Better Safety: Cancun or Tulum?
Thanks to the huge amount of tourist presence, both Cancun and Tulum are very safe. The Mexican government has done everything they can to make sure both cities are as safe as possible because tourists bring in so much money for the country.
Cancun may feel ever so slightly safer due to the fact it’s a very large and very populated resort destination and Tulum is a little more laid-back and smaller. Cancun is one of the most visited places in the world year after year and therefore has a well-established infrastructure that lends itself well to tourists.
As you walk through Cancun’s Hotel Zone you’ll notice countless security guards, tourist police, and the official police on patrol giving you peace of mind. Even in downtown Cancun itself, there is a significant police presence that obviously deters opportunistic criminals.
Tulum has a more authentic feeling to it which means in terms of safety there may be an increased risk of something happening down a quiet road at night or something. For the most part, as long as you exercise caution you’ll be fine as Tulum is not exactly off the beaten track these days.
Keep an eye on your belongings, don’t show them off, and definitely don’t aimlessly wander the streets at night, especially if you are intoxicated.
Which Has Better Weather: Tulum or Cancun
All of the popular Yucatan Peninsula destinations like Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya all offer visitors stunning weather for a good chunk of the year, thanks to their close proximity to the Caribbean and the Equator. For that reason, both Tulum and Cancun have similar weather.
In Cancun, it rarely ever gets cooler than 20 degrees Celsius, even during the dry season on a bad day. The wet season is when things really start to heat up, however, thanks to the intense humidity. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach the mid 30’s which can be very intense.
It’s a similar story down the coast in Tulum too, unsurprisingly. Being just over an hour and a half away from each other, they both have very similar weather patterns, and so too does Playa del Carmen. The only difference with Tulum is that it can get slightly cooler than Cancun due to its more mainland, coastal location.
For both Tulum and Cancun, the wet season (May to October) is also known as the low season, so good deals on flights and accommodations can usually be found at this time.
Cancun or Tulum Comparison Table
|Better for Shopping
|Better for Families
|Similar Weather To Tulum
|Similar Weather To Cancun
Tulum vs Cancun FAQs
Is Tulum or Cancun better?
Whether Tulum is better than Cancun hugely depends on your preference. If you ar seeking lively nightlife, luxurious all-inclusive resorts, and a wide array of activities like water sports, shopping, and entertainment shows, then pick Cancun. But if you are into a more laid-back and relaxed vibe close to archaeological sites and beautiful beaches, pick Tulum.
Is Chichen Itza Closer to Tulum or Cancun?
Chichen Itza is closer to Tulum than Cancun. The distance from Tulum to Chichen Itza varies slightly depending on the route, but it is approximately 150 kilometers (93 miles), with a driving time of about 2 hours. In contrast, the distance from Cancun to Chichen Itza is about 197 kilometers (122 miles), which typically takes around 2.5 to 3 hours to drive
Is Cozumel or Cancun Closer to Tulum?
Tulum is closer to Cancun than to Cozumel. The distance from Cancun to Tulum is approximately 131 kilometers (81 miles), with a travel time of about 1.5 to 2 hours by car. While Cozumel is geographically quite close to Tulum, getting there involves either a ferry ride from Playa del Carmen or a longer drive around the bay, which makes the journey longer.
Is Snorkeling Better in Cancun or Tulum?
Tulum offers a more diverse snorkeling experience than Cancun. Not only can you explore the clear waters and abundant sea life, but you also have the opportunity to snorkel in unique environments like cenotes (natural sinkholes).
How Far is Tulum from Cancun?
The distance from Cancun to Tulum is approximately 131 kilometers (81 miles). The journey by road usually takes between 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic and weather conditions
Is Cancun in Tulum?
No, Cancun is not in Tulum. They are two distinct cities located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. The distance between them is approximately 131 kilometers (81 miles), with a travel time of about 1.5 to 2 hours by car.
Final Thought: Cancun vs Tulum
As you can see, though the two destinations are less than two hours apart, they offer a very different experience for travelers. Generally speaking, if you are looking for a great nightlife scene or traveling with family, you might want to pick Cancun. But if you want a more laid-back atmosphere and more cultural activities, go for Tulum
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