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Cancun vs. Tulum – Which Should You Visit Next?

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Choosing between Cancun and Tulum for your next vacation spot is like deciding between two perfect tacos, each made to order and each with its own unique flavor. Both destinations offer stunning Caribbean coastlines along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, but cater to different tastes, preferences and budgets.

Micki and I have spent ample time in both Cancun and Tulum and love each of them for different reasons. While both offer something unique, we’ve found that we enjoyed our time in each place more once we defined what exactly we were looking for and matched it to our moods and expectations before arriving in Mexico.

Cancun or Tulum? Which is the Best Vacation Destination for You?

Though it can be an easy answer for those who’ve had the good fortune of visiting each destination previously, the decision essentially boils down to what features you’re looking for in a getaway as well as your budget, expectations, ease of arrival and even your timelines.

Key Takeaways

  • Cancun is for you if you want an easy, all-inclusive experience, nightlife, and the convenience of modern amenities.
  • Tulum is for you if you want an Instagram vibe, stunning white sand beaches, and a more laid back experience.

So, whether you’re in for vibrant nightlife and luxury resorts or a more serene getaway close to nature and ancient ruins, this guide will hopefully help you decide which destination suits you best.

Cancun: Vibrant Nightlife with Modern Luxuries

Cancun, often synonymous with the Spring Break crowd, is a well known resort town on the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The famous Hotel Zone is a long, beachfront strip of high-end hotels, nightclubs, shops, and restaurants, all facing the breathtakingly blue Caribbean Sea. Cancun is ultimately designed for travelers seeking a luxurious, all-inclusive experience with the convenience of modern amenities.

Why Choose Cancun?

  • Vibrant Nightlife: Cancun’s nightclubs and bars offer an electrifying atmosphere with world-class DJs and parties that last until dawn.
  • All-Inclusive Resorts: The city is known for its vast array of all-inclusive resorts catering to every type of traveler, from families to party goers to couples seeking high class romance.
  • Shopping and Dining: With an extensive selection of shopping malls, boutique stores, and dining options, Cancun is a hub for those who enjoy urban conveniences by the beach.
  • Activities and Excursions: Beyond the beach, Cancun offers numerous activities such as golfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and visiting nearby Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza.

Tulum: Bohemian Charm Meets Ancient History

A couple of hours south of Cancun, Tulum presents a contrasting vibe that’s more laid-back and immersed in nature. Known for its eco-friendly boutique hotels, Tulum is the epitome of a bohemian paradise, with yoga retreats, organic cafes, and artisan shops. Its beach is dotted with palm trees and rustic cabanas, with the ancient Mayan ruins overlooking the sea, offering a unique backdrop.

Why Choose Tulum?

  • Eco-Chic Lifestyle: Tulum’s accommodations tend to be designed more in harmony with nature, often offering a sustainable and intimate experience.
  • Cultural Richness: The town is close to some of the most significant Mayan archaeological sites, including the Tulum Ruins and Coba.
  • Natural Wonders: From the nearby stunning cenotes (natural sinkholes) to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Tulum is a haven for nature lovers and adventurers.
  • Wellness and Relaxation: With a focus on wellness, Tulum tends to attract those looking to unwind through yoga, meditation, and spa treatments using natural, local ingredients.

Things to do in Cancun

There are a myriad of things to do in Cancun from adventure tours to spas. Here’s a few of our favorites:

Playa Delfines stands out for its expansive stretches of sand and vibrant turquoise waters, perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and even surfing. For those interested in marine life, the Interactive Aquarium Cancun allows visitors to get up close with dolphins, sharks, and a variety of tropical fish in interactive experiences.

Beyond the beaches, Cancun serves as a hub for exploring historical and natural wonders. The Mayan ruins at El Rey offer a glimpse into the ancient civilization right in the heart of the Hotel Zone. For a day trip, the majestic Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is within reach, offering insights into the Mayan culture and architecture.

Nature lovers will be drawn to the natural beauty of the cenotes, such as Cenote Ik Kil, with its crystal-clear waters ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Adventure parks like Xcaret and Xel-Há combine the beauty of the natural environment with thrilling activities, from zip lines and river tubing to snorkeling and cultural shows.

We also love heading over to Isla Mujeres for the day and if you had a group, taking a catamaran cruise over to it would be a fun way to get to and from the island.

Things to do in Tulum

Tulum’s charm lies in its ability to blend culture, history, and natural beauty into a serene and enriching experience.

The Tulum Ruins are the town’s most iconic attraction, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. These ruins offer breathtaking views and a chance to walk through the remnants of a once-thriving Mayan port city.

Beach lovers will find their slice of paradise at Playa Paraíso, known for its powdery white sand and clear, calm waters, providing a more relaxed atmosphere compared to Cancun. For a unique experience, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve offers a chance to explore untouched landscapes, including beaches, coral reefs, and jungles teeming with wildlife.

Tulum is also famous for its cenotes, natural sinkholes filled with fresh water. Cenote Dos Ojos, for example, is a popular spot for snorkeling and diving, with its clear, turquoise waters and intricate cave systems. We enjoyed our first time at Cenote Dos Ojos a few years ago. These natural pools offer a cool respite from the heat and a small peek into the geological wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula. Locally, there’s also Cenote Sac Actun and Gran Cenote that are very close to Tulum proper.

The town itself is a haven for foodies and those seeking wellness experiences. Tulum’s culinary scene is diverse, focusing on fresh, local ingredients and innovative dishes. Many restaurants offer outdoor seating, allowing diners to enjoy their meals in the open air. Wellness retreats and yoga studios are abundant, promoting relaxation and mindfulness amidst the natural beauty of Tulum.

Iguana at Tulum
Our kiddos loved this big iguana at Tulum

Making the Decision: Cancun or Tulum?

The choice between Cancun and Tulum ultimately boils down to the type of vacation you want.

Cancun is ideal for those who:

  • Crave the excitement of a bustling city’s nightlife and entertainment.
  • Prefer the convenience and luxury of large, all-inclusive resorts.
  • Enjoy having plenty of shopping and dining options at their doorstep.
  • Are looking for a vacation where everything is within reach, offering a mix of relaxation and adventure.
  • Are okay with being near to resort properties along the beach.
  • Want to be at their resort within 20 minutes of getting off their plane.

Tulum suits travelers who:

  • Want a quieter, more serene setting that’s close to nature.
  • Appreciate the charm of small-scale, eco-friendly accommodations.
  • Desire a cultural experience, exploring ancient ruins and engaging with local traditions.
  • Value sustainability and wellness as integral parts of their travel experience.
  • Enjoy long stretches of beach with minimal large resorts.
  • Are okay with longer drives to get where they want to be.
Tulum Beach

More to think about…

Both Cancun and Tulum are gateways to Mexico’s stunning Caribbean coast, but cater to distinct tastes and experiences. Cancun’s allure lies in its vibrant nightlife, luxurious amenities, and city convenience, making it a perfect choice for those who seek an energetic and pampered vacation.

Tulum, on the other hand, appeals to the soul seeking tranquility, natural beauty, and a touch of history, all wrapped in an eco-conscious and wellness-oriented package with a smaller city to explore and closer to ruins and cenotes.

Your decision may also depend on the kind of memories you wish to create. Are you looking to dance the night away and indulge in the epitome of resort living with dozens of restaurants within a few blocks of your resort, or do you envision yourself waking up in a beachfront cabana to the sound of waves, ready to explore the depths of a cenote or walk around a Mayan ruin?

All this isn’t to say that you can’t find relaxation and tranquility in Cancun or a few wild parties in Tulum. Each location has its share of both, but Cancun’s tourist roots stretch farther back so in general, the hotels, restaurants and attractions cater to a larger, more boisterous crowd. What Tulum might turn into in 20+ years is still up for debate however now the building and style trend is definitely towards the more ecological side.

Kids on the Beach in Cancun at Chokmal
on the beach in Cancun

Where to Stay in Tulum

We’ve stayed in small hotels, condos and even more traditional all-inclusive resorts in and around Tulum over the years. Here’s a few personal favorites we’ve stayed at or had friends and family rave about.

Kanan Tulum Hotel and Spa – Gorgeous bohemian chic beachside resort

La Zebra Boutique Hotel – Smaller upscale boutique hotel on the beach

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa – One of the larger more traditional all-inclusive hotels in Tulum

Copal Tulum Hotel – Tons of greenery and nice rooms right in town

Hotel Posada 06 Tulum – I stayed here a few years ago with Micki and the kids and had a great time. Quaint and quiet in town hotel close to shops and restaurants

Kanan Tulum Hotel and Spa
Kanan Tulum Hotel and Spa

Where to Stay in Cancun

We’ve done plenty of all-inclusives when staying in Cancun though we have stayed in a few condos and even a normal hotel when we had an early flight the next day. HZ refers to the Hotel Zone strip which runs north to south outside of the main city in Cancun.

Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun – A personal favorite from when we stayed here last! Great spa and calm oceanfront at the northern end of the Hotel Zone.

Paradisus Cancun – Center of HZ with great views, tons of restaurants/nightlife and nice beachfront

The Westin Resort & Spa Cancun – Quieter location on south side of HZ giving you a nice tropical feel

Sun Palace – Couples only boutique retreat on the south of HZ

Ambiance Suites Cancun – Clean in town hotel great for a cheap overnight stay when needed

Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun All Inclusive
view from the Fiesta Americana

Getting There

Getting to Cancun or Tulum is relatively straightforward.

Cancun

Cancun has been on the tourist radar for decades now and has a popular and busy international airport only 20 minutes away from the Hotel Zone. Flights to Cancun tend to be cheap and plentiful from most North America, South American and European countries. Local buses are easy to jump on and off and taxis are everywhere plus ride sharing sites like Uber also exist.

Tulum

Tulum opened their very own international airport recently (Tulum Airport (TQO) | Felipe Carrillo Puerto Airport). However there are only a fraction of flights currently landing compared to Cancun, so if choosing Tulum, realize that you might be forced to land in Cancun and have to drive or take a bus or shuttle service (approximately 2 hrs from Cancun airport).

There’s a train route under construction from Cancun to Tulum, called the Tren Maya, which is sometimes referred to as the Mayan Train or Maya Train. The current projection is that the Cancun to Tulum route will be open in June 2024, but there’s a solid possibility of delays, so make sure it’s running if you plan to use it to get down to Tulum for your stay.

Taxis are easy enough to find though collectivos (small van-like local buses) are more the norm there for farther jaunts. Of course, both cities have good long distance ADO buses that can get you anywhere in the peninsula and even down to Belize or central Mexico.

Things to do on the Riviera Maya - walking along Tulum beach
Walking onto Tulum Beach

Cancun or Tulum, Both Are Awesome

Whether you choose Cancun or Tulum, both destinations promise an unforgettable escape to the Riviera Maya. We’ve had amazing experiences in both places both with our kids and without and tend to call the Riviera Maya our unofficial second home. We’re excited to see how the new international airport in Tulum and the new Yucatan train changes both the landscape and the possibilities in the region. but time will tell if the train helps or hinders the areas it’s opening up.

In either case, you can’t go wrong with either location as the beaches are beautiful, the food is delicious and the people are welcoming.

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