Despite being less than an hour’s drive from each other, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are as different as they are alike. This year we’ve spent a lot of time vacationing in Tulum and Playa del Carmen. We know how hard it can be to choose between the two. Need some help deciding which is best for you? Here’s our 2023 comparison of vacationing in Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen.
Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen
While Tulum and Playa del Carmen are known for their delicious, traditional food and stunning Caribbean beaches, they have stark differences, mainly concerning the general vibe and price point.
Playa del Carmen is ideal for all budgets, from backpackers to bougies. At the same time, Tulum remains one of the most expensive cities in all of Mexico.
Still, if you’re looking for a back-to-nature escape with verdant jungle views, Tulum is your best bet. Playa del Carmen will appeal to those who enjoy amenities and city breaks while looking for all the charms of a typical Mexican town.
Location, Getting There, & Getting Around
Playa del Carmen and Tulum are two of the most popular destinations in the Riviera Maya. Situated along the coast, although not far from the jungles tendrils, these coastal hubs require a bit of forethought to navigate. Here are some of our favorite ways to get to and around Tulum and Playa del Carmen and some key differences between the two.
Playa del Carmen is a fast-growing urban hot spot carved out of the jungle, while Tulum still embraces its jungle roots. While Tulum and Playa del Carmen are in similar locations in the Mayan Riviera, sandwiched between a lush jungle and a beautiful coastline, Tulum embraces its wild roots.
At the same time, Playa del Carmen is more devoted to city life. In perspective, Tulum has a population of around 30,000 year-round residents. At the same time, Playa del Carmen is home to a whopping 250,000 people.
Tulum is one of our favorite destinations in Mexico because of its laid-back and free-spirited vibe. The bohemian, boutique atmosphere has attracted those seeking serenity and a spiritual connection in nature; we can’t deny this serene energy is evident! Tulum is a more secluded, eco/wellness destination than the busy cityscape of Playa del Carmen.
If you’re looking for unique excursions, Tulum is an excellent destination with ancient Mayan ruins, indigo cenotes, and jungle treks nearby. Pristine beaches and wildlife are also plentiful.
Playa del Carmen is a dynamic destination with opulent, all-inclusive resorts and cool hostels. If you’re looking for a beachfront city with endless restaurants and bars, you’ve found the right place! Playa del Carmen isn’t far from the Yucatan Peninsula’s adventures, making it a versatile locale.
Getting to Tulum and Playa del Carmen is straightforward. Still, a little planning and forethought will go a long way, as both cities are about an hour from the nearest airport. We highly recommend flying into Cancun International Airport, about 1 ½ hours from Tulum and 50 minutes from Playa del Carmen.
You’ll want to arrange your onward travel well in advance. A taxi costs about $70 to reach Playa del Carmen and over $100 to Tulum, while the ADO bus is a mere $10 to Playa del Carmen and around $14 to Tulum. There is also an airport shuttle option to both cities that costs around $70. Our preference is the airport shuttle as it’s a great mixture of affordability and drops you right at the entrance to your accommodations.
Getting around Tulum and Playa del Carmen is one of the stark differences between the two locations. While one is very walkable and easy to get around, the other isn’t easily explored unless by bike. Traffic can be a bear in both cities, making renting a car more or less a headache.
Tulum isn’t a very walkable destination unless you plan to spend your time solely in the city center or along the beach. Traffic between these two neighborhoods can be annoyingly dense. The best way to get around is by renting a bike or other human-powered transportation. Cruising the lush palm-covered paths with the ocean in sight is truly a spiritual experience.
You’ll find bike rentals all over Tulum, but our favorite is Ola Bike Tulum. Their prices are incredibly affordable, the staff is accommodating, and they even provide a Whatsapp number if you have any issues while out and about. Taxis are common in Tulum but know that this certainly isn’t the fastest mode of transportation, and we prefer biking as the best mode of transportation for getting around the city.
Playa del Carmen couldn’t be easier to navigate, the best way being on foot. The city is highly walkable. No matter where you stay, you’re only a short stroll from bars, beaches, and delicious restaurants. Although you might be tempted to rent a car to explore further flung ruins and cenotes, parking in Playa del Carmen can be challenging. Taxis are also common and typically inexpensive here, making it even easier to get around!
Both Tulum and Playa del Carmen have beautiful beaches.
Tulum’s pristine, uncrowded, powdered sugar beaches and calm, turquoise waters are undeniably stunning. The quintessential Mexican beach aesthetic goes one step further with the Tulum ruins overlooking the most famous strip of sand in town, Playa Ruinas. Another popular beach in Tulum is the more rugged but less visited beach of Las Palmas. Tulum Public Beach also offers an equally gorgeous coastline with amenities like palapas and endless margaritas.
Playa del Carmen is also a great destination for Caribbean beaches and warm aqua waters. However, its beaches are known to be more narrow due to erosion and much more crowded.
If you’re a beach bum who loves to lounge in the sand and doesn’t mind people-watching, Playa del Carmen’s coast is still a fantastic option. The most popular beaches in Playa del Carmen are Playa Mamitas and Playa Incluyente. Here you can visit several beach clubs like INTI, Señor Frogs, and Mamitas Beach Club to get the whole experience.
Each has a different vibe, from a party atmosphere to a more sophisticated one. Our favorite beach is Punta Esmeralda, especially if you’re looking for a little more secluded beach.
Things to Do
Tulum and Playa del Carmen are two of the most exciting destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula and in Quintana Roo. Whether you’re looking to peruse trendy boutiques, scuba dive with sea turtles, or climb crumbling Mayan ruins, there’s something for everyone in these beach towns.
Tulum’s location along some of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya and a more remote jungle area has created a mecca for fun and adventurous activities.
The city has its own set of famous oceanfront ruins overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Some of the best cenotes in the area include El Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos. Suppose you’re looking for more off-the-beaten-path cenotes. In that case, we highly recommend seeking a cenote tour that will take you deep into the jungle and away from the more tourist-frequented hot spots.
We took a private tour of three different cenotes based on which specific ones we were interested in, and it was an incredible time and gave us the privacy and more off-the-beaten-path feel we were looking for.
The gorgeous Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is only 20 minutes from Tulum and one of the most unspoiled natural areas on the Yucatan Peninsula, featuring dense mangrove forests and staggeringly blue water.
Playa del Carmen also has a wide variety of activities centered on shopping and watersports. However, the famous attractions of the Riviera Maya aren’t more than a few hours away. Our top recommendations are La Quinta Avenida for a shopping spree, a snorkeling expedition to Akumal, a jet ski in the idyllic Caribbean Sea, or a day trip to the Xcaret theme park.
Things to do around Playa del Carmen can feel heavily touristed but are a fun part of the trip nonetheless.
Tulum and Playa del Carmen are only about an hour from each other. Day trips are relatively similar and focus on the area’s plentiful cenotes, Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, and beach activities like snorkeling and scuba diving.
Eat & Drink
When it comes to food and drink along the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen has more variety of restaurants, from fine dining to simple street stalls. In contrast, Tulum is centered on health-focused, upscale fare, especially vegan and vegetarian options.
Tulum’s dedication to wellness and the eco-friendly vibe is reflected in the restaurants and bars you’ll find. The eateries here are of a bit higher caliber than most of what you’ll find in Playa del Carmen.
In the center of town, some of the best places to grab a bite include Cetli, Taqueria la Chiapaneca, and Taquería Honoro.
At Tulum Beach, the fine dining scene revs up a notch with incredible restaurants like Gitano, Bak, and Rosa Negra.
Tulum’s city center and beach neighborhoods have a great selection of restaurants. Still, we typically prefer heading to the beach for an upscale night out, and we head to town for more of a casual dining experience. Tulum is also well known for its smoothie and juice bars.
On the flip side, Playa del Carmen has everything, from typical American fast food like Mcdonald’s to fine dining at trendy Mexican restaurants like the Instagram-worthy Alux. Street food stalls and local hole-in-the-walls are complemented by mid-range spots serving everything from American fare to ramen and sushi. If you love seafood, you must stop by Las Hijas de la Tostada for fresh, traditional cuisine.
You’ll be able to find mouth-watering, traditional Mexican cuisine in both towns. However, we think Playa del Carmen seems to have a bit more variety. Tulum’s city center is the best spot to search for Yucatan fare. At the same time, you’ll be able to find them virtually around every corner in Playa del Carmen.
Look for specialties like cochinita pibil, pork that marinates and stews for hours, and sopa de lima, a soup made from lime juice and chicken.
Nightlife in Mexico’s Riviera Maya is at a premium. You can find everything from local cantinas to full-blown Playa del Carmen nightclubs. Still, if you want to party hard and let loose, there’s an obvious winner. Sleepy Tulum can’t compete with the radiant bar and club scene in Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen comes alive at night with hip bars, hookah cafes, and clubs galore. The raucous parties at popular nightclubs like Coco Bongo, La Vaquita, and Mandala are legendary and what many travelers specifically come to this section of the Riviera Maya for. There is an endless array of bars, both oceanfront and within the city.
Although Tulum is decidedly more devoted to spirituality, jungle excursions, and relaxation, you’ll still find everything from casual beachside bars to clubs, just not quite in the abundance you might see in Playa del Carmen. We love Papaya Playa Project and Kiki for a true nightclub scene and Habitas or Ciel Rose Sunset Bar for your quintessential bar hangout.
Places to Stay
Tulum’s least expensive accommodations will be in the city center. This area of town may feel far from the ocean, but it is only 17 minutes by bike and 12 minutes by taxi away from the beach, meaning that it’s just a quick trip away.
In fact, we bike back and forth between town often! For those who want to stay in the more popular Tulum beach area, you’re looking to spend a minimum of $100 a night. Although Tulum is more pricey, you’ll be rewarded with unique, bohemian accommodation options.
One of our favorite Tulum experiences was staying in a treehouse hotel. Such an unforgettable memory and something you can only do in a destination like Tulum. This is just one of the things that makes Tulum so unique, in our opinion.
Playa del Carmen has much broader accommodation options, from hostels with co-working spaces to luxurious oceanfront resorts. In fact, most places to stay in Playa del Carmen are traditional hotels, backpacker hostels, or resorts like the ultra-luxe Grand Velas Riviera Maya. You won’t find unique accommodation options like treehouses or secluded beachfront huts like you can in Tulum.
Ultimately, where to stay in Tulum and Playa del Carmen comes down to price and what vibe you’re going for.
On a strict budget? You might be shocked by the cost of accommodation in Tulum and find it challenging to find a suitable place in your price range. Your best bet is Playa del Carmen!
Looking to stay in a secluded jungle paradise with a private pool? You’ll be spoiled for choice in Tulum.
Cost & Budget
The costs between Tulum and Playa del Carmen can be vastly different. Tulum is more expensive than Playa del Carmen by a landslide, and you can expect American prices or even higher.
Playa del Carmen can accommodate virtually any budget and appeals to everyone, including those on a more stringent budget and those looking to splash out.
The average price per night in peak season for Playa del Carmen can be as low as $10 for a hostel. Tulum is similarly priced for bare-bones dorms at around $15 a night in high season.
Where the real difference shows is in the price of private rooms. It would be difficult to find something less than $100 a night in Tulum during peak season, while Playa del Carmen offers private options for as little as $30.
From our experience, you’ll want to book your accommodation well in advance in the high season, from November to April, to ensure you can snag the best hotels and AirBNBs.
Food and drink prices are similar, although Tulum will be slightly more expensive than Playa del Carmen. We notice that Playa del Carmen typically has less expensive options than Tulum.
Beach chair rentals will run you roughly the same price in both towns.
However, Tulum taxis can be drastically more costly than Playa del Carmen. Overall, you can expect that Tulum will be about 20% more expensive than Playa del Carmen. You’re paying more for Tulum’s aesthetic and general vibe, which explains that slight price hike.
Many first-time visitors to Mexico have questions and concerns about their safety, and rightly so! Riviera Maya has seen a recent uptick in gang-related crime, stretching from Cancun to Tulum.
Security in the area has increased in relation to this shift, and you’ll probably see police and military presence during your stay. However, this isn’t uncommon in any corner of Mexico.
Safety in Tulum and Playa del Carmen is comparable. However, Tulum has seen a particular increase in violent crime in recent years, mainly in the city center. As recently as 2021, two travelers were killed in the crossfire of a gang-related incident in Tulum’s city center.
While no major incidents of quite the same magnitude against tourists have occurred in Playa del Carmen, the city is certainly not immune to petty and violent crime.
The reality is that most visitors will never come in contact with crime in Mexico. Still, it’s always good to keep your wits about you when traveling somewhere unfamiliar.
Drug use is the commonality of most violence in Mexico, making it even more important for visitors to refrain from partaking in illicit activities while on vacation, as this usually leads to violence against tourists. Most cities in Mexico are as safe as many major American cities. Check your country’s travel warnings for the most up-to-date information regarding safety in Mexico.
Whether you choose the cerulean, ruin-capped beaches of Tulum, or the dynamic city scene of Playa del Carmen, you’re bound to have an incredible time in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Go the budget route in Playa and take part in its legendary nightlife, or splurge for a relaxing getaway surrounded by nature in Tulum. You can’t go wrong with either destination! Overall, Tulum will always be our first choice because of its easy-going ambiance and connection to nature while having incredible accommodations and an array of exciting restaurants.