A few years ago, we were planning our first trip to Mexico and needed help deciding where to go. We always wanted to visit the Mexican Caribbean and narrowed down our options to either Cancun or Tulum.
We eventually decided on Tulum for our first vacation, but since then, we’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in both locations.
They are less than a two-hour drive apart and have some similarities, but each location offers a totally different vacation. We put together this guide to compare Cancun vs. Tulum (and make it much easier to decide which one is best for you.)
Tulum vs Cancun (Comparison)
Tulum and Cancun are both popular tourist destinations. They both offer beautiful beaches, breathtaking coastlines, and comforting weather.
Their main differences rest in the type of experience you are looking for. Cancun tends to be more upbeat and caters more to the tourist crowd. Tulum is more relaxing and gives you a greater authentic local experience.
Location, Getting There, & Getting Around
Tulum and Cancun are only about 80 miles from each other, so ideally, you could visit both places in one trip to experience the best of both worlds. However, if you only want to see one or the other, here are some helpful tips on getting around.
Both Cancun and Tulum are located near sandy beaches, blue ocean water, and beautiful Mexican landmarks.
With its tourist-friendly vibe, Cancun is surrounded by numerous restaurants, nightclubs and bars, hotels, and shopping centers. Cancun is like a resort oasis, so depending on where you stay, you can have an enjoyable trip without having to leave where you are.
We love staying at the all-inclusive resorts but highly recommend checking out the downtown area to experience more of the local life. This area still keeps tourists in mind as it is lined with hotels and authentic restaurants.
Tulum also has easy access to gorgeous beaches. We’ve visited almost all of them; they always feel more tranquil than Cancun beaches. We also love the Tulum town, which has a much more laid-back local feel. In town, you will see smaller hotels and shops and other businesses you’d find in any other city, such as banks and convenience stores.
Tulum is also located near many archaeological landmarks, including the Tulum Ruins and the Mayan Jungle, both incredibly popular destinations for touring. The ruins do get really crowded, taking in about 2,000 visitors each day, so we recommend going early in the morning at opening to beat the crowds.
Between these two locations, Cancun is the only one with an international airport, so chances are, even if you go to Tulum, you will fly into the Cancun airport.
Tulum is about an hour and a half drive from the Cancun International Airport, so you should factor that into planning your trip and arranging transportation to and from the airport in advance.
We prefer the van and shuttle service from the airport to Tulum. This service is pre-scheduled, so they will be already waiting for you at the airport. There are also private car options that will drop you off directly at your hotel. There is also an inexpensive bus route, the ADO, that will take you from Cancun to Tulum.
One benefit of staying in Cancun is that the airport is less than ten miles from the “Hotel Zone,” where most tourists tend to stay, so finding transportation will be easier than getting to Tulum.
We’ve used this airport transfer service a few times, which is always fast and comfortable. Believe us when we say it is much better than waiting in the long airport taxi lines, which can sometimes take a while.
Another helpful tip would be to contact the hotel where you plan to stay. Many of them either offer a service or will have information on how to get to your destination. Keep in mind that these are often the more expensive option.
It is relatively easy to get around Cancun, with multiple options available for your preference. Since most of the attractions in Cancun are within the Hotel Zone, which is about six miles long, most things are walkable. However, if you don’t want to walk, other options are also available. Cancun has a bus system that takes you to places inside and outside the Hotel Zone.
Renting a car is also an excellent option for those who want to explore the surrounding areas independently. The world’s major car rental companies, such as Hertz and Enterprise, are available in Cancun right at the airport.
Taxis are also an option, but we’d recommend that you check the prices before making that your source of transportation as the prices vary, and some tend to be a bit expensive. Many hotels will offer this information to you.
It is harder to get around Tulum since it is not as tourist-centered as Cancun, but it is still possible. Biking is one of the most popular ways of getting around Tulum.
One of our favorite activities is renting a bike to explore the beaches or tour downtown. There are so many places in Tulum to rent bikes, but our favorite is Ola Bike Tulum. The bikes are comfortable, most of them with baskets attached for convenience, and they have very accommodating and friendly staff.
If you stay in Tulum’s hotel zone, many things are walkable, like the beach, the Archaeological Zone, and local restaurants. So, you can still enjoy your vacation without spending additional money on transportation.
There are no rideshare options available in Tulum. While taxis are an option, they are very pricey (even more so than Cancun), so if you are trying to save money, other options would be more economically friendly.
Additional options for getting around include scooter rental, buses, and colectivos (essentially shuttle buses that can take you a bit farther than walking or biking can). We recommend that you familiarize yourself with the schedule for all modes of public transportation that you plan to use to make sure you do not miss any of the pickups.
Also, car rental is an option in Tulum. They are mostly local companies, so if you want to rent with major companies, your best bet is to rent your car in Cancun and drive to Tulum!
We’ve visited most of the beaches in Cancun and Tulum, and both locations have stunning beaches. With white sand and clear blue water, they both are a paradise lover’s dream when it comes to the beach. While the overall look of the beaches in both locations is the same, there are a few differences.
Cancun beaches are more upbeat and lively, so if you are looking for parties and high energy on the beach, then Cancun is for you. However, you will want to be aware of the waves and currents of the beach that you choose to go to. Some of the beaches in Cancun tend to have high currents, which are excellent for surfers, but not so much for swimmers or families with small children.
There is no shortage of beaches in Cancun. You can visit a new beach every day with eleven beaches to choose from in the Hotel Zone. One of the beaches is pet-friendly, and each beach is rated on its wave swell, the typical strength of the waves.
One of our favorite Cancun beaches is Playa Delfines, known for its stunning ocean views. Every time we are in Cancun, we add it to our itinerary. It gets crowded sometimes, but if you love crystal blue water and light waves, you will love it here.
Tulum beaches are as pristine as Cancun but quieter and more relaxing. If your idea of a vacation is relaxing quietly on the beach, then Tulum will be your better option! The water is typically calmer, too, making it friendly for swimmers.
Tulum has only three beaches, compared to Cancun’s eleven, but they have many more nearby. Tulum has fantastic beach clubs with cabanas that are to die for! They are lovely and relaxing, and many of them have staff available who are friendly and attentive.
Both locations do have water sports and amenities available. Still, the options are much more varied in Cancun than in Tulum.
Things to Do
Cancun and Tulum have standard amenities for a typical vacation: restaurants, shops, and beaches. They both also have all-inclusive resorts if you would prefer to not veer far off from where you are staying and have your basic vacation needs met. However, these two locations offer very different experiences regarding what to do.
Cancun offers plenty to do both indoors and outdoors. Are you looking to explore Mayan culture? In that case, Cancun has a few archaeological sites, such as San Miguelito and El Rey. There is also a Mayan Museum of Cancun available to tour.
For the adventurer, there is scuba diving with bull sharks, eagle rays, and sailfish, swimming with whale sharks and turtles, and the Underwater Museum of Art, where you can put on scuba gear and dive below the water to view some impressive Mayan art. A waterpark, Ventura Park, is also located in the Hotel Zone.
Cancun also has a lively nightlife. There is a party center right in the Hotel Zone that is lined with nightclubs and bars.
Cancun has a lagoon called Nichupté Lagoon which is one of Cancun’s most beautiful natural resources. One of our favorite things is to tour the jungle on this lagoon, kayak, and observe wildlife. Many restaurants overlook this lagoon and offer additional day and nightlife activities, such as fireworks shows, live music (including mariachi bands), and dancing.
For the person who wants to get away from the high energy, other options are available in Cancun too. There are numerous spas and golf courses for those who prefer to be in a more restful space, away from the crowds.
When visiting Tulum, way more options are available to experience authentic Mayan culture and history. The Tulum Mayan Ruins, located on the Eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, bring most visitors to Tulum.
The Tulum Ruins hold a lot of significant history. The first time we toured the ruins, we were taken away by the views, as they are some of the most well-preserved Mayan ruins you will see. If you’ve ever seen pictures of someone visiting Tulum, you likely saw them here.
Another popular attraction in Tulum is the cenotes (pronounced seh-NO-tay). Cenote is Spanish for sinkhole. Tulum has hundreds of cenotes available to swim, snorkel, or walk through, many of which are available for touring alone or with a guide.
We’ve visited most of them, and if you only have time to see a few, we recommend Cenote Dos Ojos and El Gran Cenote. The guided Cenote tours are also a useful option if you’d like to visit multiple cenotes at one time and not have to worry about planning for them all.
Finally, if you’re feeling wild and adventurous, you can journey through the Tulum jungles. If you prefer to take a tour, plenty of them are available with ATV riding and zip lining. Touring is also available through some of Tulum’s adventure parks.
In terms of things to do, both Cancun and Tulum offer their own unique experiences. Cancun is the option if you are looking for something to do that is more familiar to you. Tulum may be the way to go if you want to have a more unique Mayan experience and see new things.
Eat and Drink
One of our favorite things about Mexico is getting to experience authentic Mexican cuisine. Luckily, you can try authentic Mexican food in both Tulum and Cancun, and both places have a range of restaurants to fit any budget.
The difference you will find between the two is that Cancun offers a few major chain restaurants that aren’t available in Tulum.
While Cancun does have a large number of restaurants offering authentic Mexican cuisine, they also have other restaurants offering international food, such as Thai, Italian, and sushi.
We would recommend trying restaurants like Restaurante Käajal, Captain’s Cove, and Marakame Brunch Buffet. The service is wonderful. You get to experience authentic Mexican food, take in stunning views, and the prices are affordable.
Tulum is a great place to be bold and try authentic Mayan cuisine. Most restaurants are local, so you will get authentic local recipes with every meal.
Many restaurants in the town are affordable. Although, they do have upscale, pricier dining options, too, if preferred. Tulum also caters to many dietary restrictions that will be noted on the menu, so if you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or something in between, there are options available for you in Tulum.
Both places also offer unique drinks, but they will be noticeably cheaper in Cancun, given it is a larger party and tourist scene.
Some people may assume that Tulum is less of a tourist attraction with a more relaxing atmosphere, so they won’t have a nightlife. Luckily this is not true. If you’re looking for a nightlife scene, both locations offer individual experiences.
Cancun is the epitome of an active night scene. There is no shortage of energetic spaces at night, from bars to nightclubs. The options are incredibly versatile, as you can dance the night away at one of the clubs with popular DJs, listen to live music while eating a good meal, or lay back at a sports bar or pub.
Many of these places are in the Hotel Zone, so they are walkable if you would like to hop around and visit multiple locations. Some hotels have bars and clubs inside the hotel as well. It’s worth noting that many clubs have a cover charge, and a few have a dress code, so be sure to be prepared or even call ahead to find out.
Tulum’s nightlife centers around local bars, so no big nightclub scene exists. However, even with its more laidback, local feel, it still has nightlife worth exploring. Nightlife in Tulum is not as vigorous as Cancun, nor is everything as close in proximity (so planning ahead will be helpful). Still, several bars and restaurants serve wonderful drinks, and many play music to give patrons a chill, enjoyable night.
While Cancun’s nightlife is mainly located in the Hotel Zone, Tulum’s is spread around the city. The beach zone is where you can find beach and dinner parties.
Downtown Tulum is where you will experience the most local nightlife, so the atmosphere will undoubtedly be more laid back. Both downtown Tulum and the hotel zone have a great nightlife. Still, we tend to prefer the uniqueness of Tulum’s nightlife because we get to experience the authenticity of the area, like Nana Rooftop Bar, where you can sip cocktails, view Tulum, and party to live music, or Kin Toh, a restaurant and bar with hanging nests and views of the Yucatan Jungle.
Jungle parties are also a worthwhile experience in Tulum. These parties are typically not within walking distance, but a shuttle service is usually available to and from these parties if you choose to go.
Overall, Cancun offers nightlife with a lot to do in close proximity. In contrast, Tulum offers less to do that will require organizing transportation to get there. Even though there is less active nightlife, Tulum’s is more authentic to the local lifestyle.
Places to Stay
The great thing about staying in either Tulum or Cancun is that both places offer an abundance of options for places to stay. These options are available for any style and budget, and both cities have unique experiences.
Cancun has a wide range of options for every traveler. There are hotels and condos for budget-friendly, mid-level, and high-end budgets. There are all-inclusive resorts available, as well as simple hotels. Cancun also has more internationally known chain resorts and hotels that are less abundant in Tulum, such as Hilton, Marriott, and Hotel Riu.
Tulum’s options are smaller, but they are definitely more unique. One of the main attractions of Tulum is its extraordinary living arrangements for travelers. This is honestly part of what makes Tulum one of our favorite destinations.
Many of their living options cannot be found elsewhere. Some options include boutique hotels, rustic oasis retreats, hotels in the jungle, cabins, and even treehouses. Tulum’s properties are stunning and worth the additional cost to experience their one-of-a-kind stays. Tulum’s resorts also offer more privacy as many of the properties are smaller, and some even have private pools.
One of our goals is to find a unique hotel whenever we stay here. One of our most memorable experiences so far was our treehouse hotel room with a private pool at Papaya Playa Project.
Cost and Budget
Generally speaking, it is cheaper to vacation in Cancun vs Tulum, but it is possible to do either trip lavishly or on a budget. Overall, here is what you can expect for your bare minimum needs:
- Your stay: Both locations offer a wide range of properties for any budget. You can find properties in either city for less than $100 per night and going all the way up to thousands per night.
- Transportation: The significant difference between these two cities is the taxi cost, which is significantly higher in Tulum than in Cancun. You will probably spend more on transportation if you go to Tulum rather than Cancun as many places are further spread out than Cancun. You will likely not need additional transportation outside of getting to and from the airport in Cancun. This is less likely in Tulum, but it is still possible. It will just require additional planning.
- Food and Drink: The average cost of food and drink is higher in Tulum (averaging about $39.13 per person per day). Cancun (averages about $26.04 per day). This difference comes mainly from the cost of drinks, which tends to be significantly higher in Tulum than in Cancun.
Overall, the amount you spend will truly depend on where you decide to stay and what outside activities you would like to do.
When it comes to safety in both of these locations, most people’s primary concern is similar to that of other international travel: money and whether or not they will be scammed out of it, so the first thing is to make sure you take proper safety precautions when it comes to your money.
Withdraw cash (if you plan to use cash) ahead of time at a reputable ATM or bank. Do not wave money around openly, but keep it in a safe and secure place.
Both locations are generally rated safe, and Cancun tends to be safer than most Mexican destinations. Being a tourist spot, authorities take extra precautions to make sure it is safe and welcoming for tourists.
Tulum is also rated as generally safe. However, there have been alerts listed by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) to be aware of, including unsafe drinking water and cartel presence.
Is Tulum better than Cancun? Is Cancun better than Tulum? There is no right or wrong answer. Each destination will depend on the type of vacation you are looking for.
If you are looking for a more upbeat, party, high-energy vacation that caters to tourists, Cancun will be the better choice for you.
If you are looking to soak up some tranquility and learn more about the Mayan history as well as experience authentic Mayan culture, Tulum may be the better choice.
Overall, they are both great destinations with beautiful views that you will remember no matter which one you choose.
Personally, we prefer Tulum over Cancun. We get to have tourist-friendly experiences, but we also get to relax, unwind, and feel at home and part of the culture. When in Tulum, we get the best of both worlds.