Nothing beats the idea of lounging in a beach chair, with your feet on the pristine white sand as you sip on your favorite cocktails and listen to the melody of the turquoise waves crashing ashore.
Both Tulum and Cancun are two top vacation destinations in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and can deliver on the image I just described. So how do you pick one? What makes one better than the other?
Since I’ve visited both destinations a handful of times, I can give you the low-down. Knowing the pros and cons can help you decide which one is best for your next vacation.
Cancun Vs. Tulum: Quick Check
Both these towns on the Mexican shores are spectacular!
Cancun is a bustling city, home to beautiful, powdery beaches and a great hotel zone that is perfect for a family-friendly vacation. Tulum is an Instagram-worthy bohemian beach town that used to be an ancient port, so you get a mixture of modern yet island-style boutique hotels and numerous historic sites.
Before we take a deep dive into the pros and cons of Cancun and Tulum, here’s a quick overview of what these destinations offer:
|Can be explored on foot or bicycles
|Rental cars, buses, or taxis are required
|Close to Nature
|Impressive cenotes, jungles, and natural beauty
|Not much to see other than the beaches
|Perfect for A Day Trip
|Plenty of options nearby
|Laidback, boho beach town
|A bustling Mexican city
|Peaceful beach vibe, often affected by sargassum
|Turquoise water with soft sand, safe beaches for swimming
|Plenty of beach clubs and party spots in town
|Huge clubs with a younger crowd
|Public Transport Availability
|Has a few options
|During peak season, it can get expensive
|Fantastic beachside boutique hotels
|All-inclusive hotels and resorts
Tulum Vs. Cancun: Comparisons
These two vacation destinations offer vastly different experiences. Tulum is an old-school beach town with a boho vibe, while Cancun is a representation of modern Mexico.
If you’ve talked to anyone who has visited Cancun or Tulum; or both, you’ve probably gotten more confused (rather than being able to pick one). This is because one person’s pros can be another person’s cons.
So, let’s take a look at these nine essential factors I like to consider when trying to pick my beach holiday destination. These should give you a better sense of whether Tulum or Cancun will be the right pick for your next vacation.
Tulum: Yogi Hub
Imagine doing yoga on a beautiful beach with a tropical vibe and the calming sounds of the waves gently crashing against the shore.
As you walk around town, you’ll spot a lot of yoga studios and beachside classes being held, especially during sunrise and sunset. This predominant yogi culture is reflected in the atmosphere of this place.
You’ll see that people tend to be more open-minded, understanding, and accommodating towards people from all walks of life. If you’re looking for positive vibes for your health and well-being, this is where you will find it!
But you don’t have to be a yogi to enjoy this beautiful beach town. There are a lot of ways to enjoy your time here. So put on some comfy cotton tropical outfits and set out to explore the town. But this is not the case in Cancun.
Over there, you’ll find that the vibe is a little more uptight, making the place feel more international and standardized. So if you’re looking for a laid-back, non-judgemental, and relaxing vibe, Tulum is the place to be.
Cancun: Easy to Go
Even if you decide to visit Tulum, you will most likely fly into Cancun International Airport. So you’ll have to make arrangements to get to Tulum from the airport. But Cancun is easy to get to. And the best part? The airport is only 10 miles away from its Hotel Zone.
The airport also has both private and public bus stations, with each terminal having its own bus parking spot. You can take a quick private transfer, shared shuttle, or ADO (local) bus journey to your hotel, and you’ll be there in no time. Since ADO buses don’t have a route along the Hotel Zone, they’ll drop you off downtown.
If you’re a creature of comfort and convenience like I am, try booking your transfer in advance to make your journey seamless. Although, you will also get plenty of options once you land there.
Cancun is a Party Paradise
Cancun is where the party’s at. It’s the epitome of an active day and night party scene. From bars to nightclubs, there is no shortage of places to visit.
You can dance the night away at some of the best nightclubs with popular DJs, listen to live music while enjoying a pleasant meal, or sit back and enjoy the relaxed vibe of a sports bar or pub.
This town is home to some of the best party spots in Mexico and even the world. The most famous ones are Congo Bongo, a nightclub inspired by the 1994 film, The Mask (also owned by that movie’s star Jim Carrey), and Mandala, a very upscale and classy club with exquisite interior decor.
You should also check out The City Nightclub, one of the largest of its kind in Latin America. It has a capacity of up to 6000 people! So if you like the rave-crowd vibes, you will love the atmosphere.
Whichever club you hop to, you are sure to find plenty of all-inclusive or unlimited packages for each night. These can really bring down the total expense with the same amount of partying and entertainment.
Tulum is No Less (for Party)
Tulum isn’t so bad for partying, either! It used to be a small beach town famous among backpackers, yogis, and budget travelers, but that isn’t the case anymore. Thanks to its social media fame, all sorts of travelers come here now.
In Cancun, it’s tough to escape the party scene. But this town can be whatever you want it to be, whether you want it to be a sleepy town for relaxation or a beach party hotspot for dancing all night long.
The party vibe here is a little more tropical and hippie. You can definitely go to regular bars, clubs, and pubs. Most of them are either in the city center or the Zona Hotelera.
The beach is where the town’s true essence is. To make the most out of your experience, you must enjoy at least one beach club party. Imagine dancing the night away with your feet in fine sand on the edge of a beach under the blanket of stars above you. That’s the Tulum way!
Cancun: Better for Branded Hotels
Booking your accommodation for a place you’re visiting for the first time can seem daunting. Your choice of hotels can make or break your entire vacation.
Many feel that opting for a hotel chain or a well-known brand you already have faith in is the best option. Especially when traveling with family, you want the standard, safe option. So, if you have a love for branded hotels, you will adore Cancun!
Here. you can pick from all the reputed chains like Hyatt, Marriott, and Wyndham. Along its beachside hotel zone, you’ll find well-constructed high-rise building complexes one after the other (like you would find in the US) with every amenity you can think of. These all-inclusive hotels have facilities like massive pools, bars, free airport shuttles, jacuzzis, and spas.
You won’t find any of these hotel chains in Tulum. Over there, you’ll have to pick from a variety of boutique hotels and lodges. Some of these are locally owned, while others were set up by foreign investors.
Instead of high-rises, there are small properties on the beach, in the jungle, and downtown. Many of them are eco-friendly and sustainably operated.
Tulum: Best for Exploring Nature
Cancun has been a tourist hotspot for as long as I can recall. This has resulted in the town losing its rawness and untouched charm. But Tulum has risen to fame quite recently, so it still has somewhat of its wilderness and plenty of hidden gems to explore.
If you’re a nature enthusiast, then this is where you will feel one with nature. Unlike most overdeveloped places, you’ll see that the town has been developed around nature rather than replacing it.
Get lost in the bliss of the wild with eco-conscious boutique accommodations and restaurants right in the thicket of the jungle. Don’t be surprised if you spot gigantic iguanas or vibrant and colorful birds!
Some people have even spotted anteaters and jaguars. To take it a step further, the underwater biodiversity is a sight to behold if you’re into deep-sea diving or snorkeling. The town is famous for its numerous cenotes and variety of day trip destinations not too far from town.
Which one is more expensive? Tulum or Cancun
Mexico is considered the hub of budget travel destinations for a lot of tourists from the US. But Tulum and Cancun sit on the pricier end of the spectrum.
Cancun is a fairly large city with plenty of hotel options inland and along the beach, which makes Tulum seem smaller and with limited options in comparison. This means you will see a steep difference between the demand and supply of hotels and restaurants, especially during peak season. But it isn’t all that bad.
If you’re on a shoestring budget or are looking to splurge, there is something for everyone. For a budget-friendly trip, you will find plenty of accommodation options like backpacker hostels and inland hotels. And for an extravagant trip, you can stay in one of the beachside, jungle-themed luxury hotels or resorts.
The best way to bring down your cost is to pick the correct time to visit. I’d recommend going during shoulder season or off-season for a budget-friendly vacation.
Tulum: Easy to Visit Chichen Itza
If you’re in this part of Mexico, you can’t miss out on the state of Yucatan ruins, especially not the famous Chichen Itza. It is considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world!
These ruins are a comfortable two-hour drive from Tulum and about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancun. So you can definitely make a day trip out of it.
But if you’re not too keen on spending this much time on the road, you’re in luck. The town is home to some of the most famous Mayan archeological ruins directly overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
If you travel half an hour to the south of the town you will find the hidden gem called Muyil Ruins. It’s another ancient Mayan pyramid that you must see while there. However, I would not suggest missing out on Chichen Itza as it is truly a sight to behold!
Cancun Has the Picture Perfect Beaches
Cancun is one of the rare places in the world where reality matches what you see on the internet. The images of all the pristine beaches that show up on your search look pretty much the same in reality.
I know this sounds a little too hard to believe. But that’s what I thought too until I saw it with my own eyes. With a pristine turquoise ocean, powdery soft white sand, and spectacular views as far as the eye goes. It’s a true tropical haven!
Nature can sometimes become a little unreasonable at Tulum, especially during the seaweed season. And there are parts of the beach there, where you might not be able to swim. You will notice a difference in the texture of sand on different beaches. Some are even rocky rather than sandy.
In comparison, Cancun beaches, with their deep indigo waters, are incomparable.
Tulum Vs. Cancun: Similarities
Cancun and Tulum are similar in more ways than you can think. From their geographical location, public transport, seasons, and network connectivity, both these famous tourist destinations have a lot in common.
When you look at most travel destinations around the world, you’ll notice one thing in common: they have some of the most lively and happening downtowns or city centers. It’s the same in Tulum and Cancun.
Even though their downtowns are a bit underdeveloped, you will still find plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars to spend your vacation days. Cancun is comparatively a little more advanced than Tulum, which is why you will find more shops there that sell both local goodies and international products.
The food scene in both downtowns must be explored, especially if you want to eat delicious local cuisines. You are bound to find some of the best tacos and empanadas, each with its own special local taste.
Both these places are known for their extensive walking cultures to explore the town. But neither of them has any beaches located within walking distance. If you decide to walk to a beach from their downtown, it’ll be more of an intense workout.
Like most of Mexico, Cancun and Tulum are well-connected thanks to the ADO buses that run in the country. Both places have ADO bus stations. The drawback is that neither ply on routes along the beach. They’ll take you as far as their respective downtowns.
If your accommodation booking is close to the beachside, you will have to take the ADO bus to the downtown area and then take another ride on the local buses or hire a taxi (which is exorbitantly priced) to reach your final destination.
You’ll notice a stark difference in the bus stations of both towns. Cancun’s stations are sleek, modern, and clean. But Tulum’s bus stations can feel a bit rundown.
Since Cancun is bigger and sees more visitor traffic, it has a higher frequency of bus departures than Tulum. If you’re staying in Tulum and planning to take the bus, you may have to go all the way to Cancun first, even if it’s out of your way!
So, I’d recommend checking the ADO bus timetable before you make any plans to explore nearby destinations.
Seaweed Season is Heartbreaking for Both
If you’re an obsessive traveler like me and like to plan things in advance, you’ll probably scour the internet for every possible piece of information about the place you’re visiting.
From the best time to visit, temperature, culture, food, and everything in between. But not everyone plans their vacations like that.
A lot of people like to be spontaneous and make plans on the go. That may seem great most of the time, but it can backfire too. It can be very disappointing, especially if you’re caught off guard during seaweed season.
Thick masses of seaweed called Sargassum arrive at the shore of Cancun and Tulum from around May to October. Though the locals try their best to remove this seaweed using wheelbarrows and bulldozers, it’s difficult to outdo nature and its ways.
This is a common problem along the Carribean, and it is not that easy to remove. As this seaweed sits on the shore, it tends to rot, emitting a pungent smell. It even makes it difficult to stand on the beach during its peak season.
So it’s best to avoid both of these destinations during this time if possible. However, Sargassum season is when you get the lowest prices in hotels.
If you aren’t big on beaches and ocean swimming, you can visit either of the towns and explore the other things they have to offer, like food, nightlife, and culture.
Cell Phone and Wi-Fi
The good thing is both places have Wi-Fi available pretty much everywhere. You’ll be able to find a moderate internet speed at your hotel or resort. If that’s not the case, you can easily head to any nearby cafe or coworking space to get better internet.
Both Tulum and Cancun have decent mobile network coverage. But the network can get a bit unstable in Tulum as you move further away from the downtown or beach area, especially towards the jungle. Whereas in Cancun the quality of the network depends on the service carrier.
Based on my personal experience, Cancun has better internet coverage, which might be due to the low frequency of power outages. But that is not the case in Tulum as many places run on generators and even alternative eco-friendly power sources like wind or solar.
Safety in Cancun and Tulum
I’ve visited both places with my group of girlfriends and family. In both places, you’ll find all sorts of travelers, whether it’s solo travelers, family groups, friend groups, or even couples.
If I compare the general vibe of both places, Cancun felt much safer to me. It felt safer in both places when we stuck to the well-lit and populated tourist spots like the Zona Hotelera. There was a heavy presence of police and the National Guard to ensure the safety of all visitors.
Irrespective of who you’re traveling with and where you go, it’s best to stay aware of your surroundings and take care of your belongings.
Now you know what makes these two destinations so similar and yet so different at the same time. Which of these two Mexican paradise is right for you depends on what you are looking for.
Tulum is better for those who enjoy nature with a relaxed vibe, laidback bars, a quiet atmosphere, and plenty of beach clubs. Cancun suits those who enjoy clubbing and prefer to live in more standardized hotel chains.
Since these two locations are only two hours apart, you have the golden opportunity to pick one and make a day trip to the other one. This way, you won’t have to miss out on either place.
Why is Tulum so trendy rather than Cancun right now?
Tulum has been all the rage on the internet for a while now. It gained popularity among social media influencers thanks to its beautiful untouched beaches, boho-chic vibes, and scenic archeological ruins.
Is Tulum safer than Cancun?
If we go by the statistics, Tulum and Cancun are the same in terms of safety. But Cancun is often deemed safer due to tourists staying within the all-inclusive resorts.