Akumal vs. Cancun: 10 Must-Know Differences

Choices, oh my! The Yucatan Peninsula is “beach-full” of beautiful destinations.

And when it comes to comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, it’s their differences that make choosing between them so challenging—especially if you’re traveling with a group of people with varying interests.

The good news?

You might be able to sneak in a day trip to Cancun or Akumal while you base yourself in the other destination.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s first explore the biggest differences between Akumal and Cancun.

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The Busy Person’s Guide to Akumal vs. Cancun

Are you always on the go? Or perhaps you just touched down in the Yucatan and your wing-it self needs to make a quick decision about where to stay?

The following chart highlights what we’ll be talking about in more detail next.

Close to airportNoYes
Number of beaches2Many
Free beaches?NoYes
TransportationNone neededTaxi or car needed
Day tripsPlaya del Carmen, Tulum, XcaretIsla Mujeres, Chichen Itza, Playa del Carmen
Good for long-term stay?NoYes
Restaurant choicesFewMany
Seaweed present?YesYes

If you’d like more context for these destinations in the Yucatan, check out my guide on Cancun vs Riviera Maya.

A Detailed Breakdown of Akumal vs. Cancun

Ready to learn more about the differences between Akumal and Cancun? Let’s dive in.

1. Ease of Arrival

ADO buses at the Cancun airport bus station.
The ADO bus station at the Cancun airport.

Whether you’re taking a quick weekend trip to Mexico or you don’t enjoy a 1.5+ hour drive after a long flight, Cancun is hands-down a better choice than Akumal.

The Cancun International Airport is a 20 – 30 minute drive from Cancun’s Hotel Zone, depending on traffic.

In contrast, getting to Akumal is at least three times the time commitment. And that’s if you’re lucky—during the approximately nine months I lived in the Yucatan, traffic and construction often backed up Highway 307.

Even so, when comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, it’s not so difficult to get to Akumal.

On the contrary, it’s a straight shot down Highway 307 from the Cancun airport.

You might be wondering—does Akumal have an airport?

No, it doesn’t.

Cancun is the closest airport to Akumal. However, you can also fly into Cozumel, take a ferry to Playa del Carmen, and grab a cab or hop on a bus from there for the short drive to Akumal. The Cancun airport is by far the quickest option, though.

2. Hotel Choices

A wooden walkway through the beach at a hotel in Cancun.
A hotel in Cancun.

Akumal and Cancun both have hotels, but the difference in choices is massive.

Cancun has many more hotels than Akumal, ranging from budget to brand names to boutique to luxury. If you choose a budget hotel in Cancun, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in the Hotel Zone (the strip of peninsula home to Cancun’s famous beaches).

Instead, to grab a real deal, you’ll need to head into downtown Cancun. This is a less touristy area about a 15-minute drive from the beach.

Buses from downtown Cancun to the Hotel Zone run multiple times an hour, so you can easily and cheaply get to the beach.

Whereas Cancun offers many budget, middle-range, and high-end accommodations, Akumal offers all of these but at about 95% fewer in quantity.

As you’d expect, the higher-end hotels in Akumal sit along the beach.

If you want a budget option, you’ll have to head across Highway 307 where the tiny town of Akumal sits. Budget accommodation in Akumal tends to be in the form of small B & Bs.

When comparing Akumal town to downtown Cancun, Akumal is cuter, quieter, and relatively safer. That said, the biggest attraction in both of these destinations is the beach.

So if you have a bit of money to splurge, it’s nice to stay at a beachfront hotel.

3. Number of Beaches

When comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, Cancun has more beaches.
A beach in Cancun.

The promise of fluffy sand and blue water is likely what’s drawn you, at least in part, to comparing Cancun and Akumal.

Here’s the good news: Provided you don’t travel during seaweed season (more on that shortly), the beaches in these destinations won’t disappoint.

If you’ve looked at a map of Akumal and Cancun, the data is undeniable—Cancun has many more beaches than Akumal.

However, it doesn’t take into consideration that Akumal receives fewer tourists than Cancun.

The result?

Even though Akumal only has two main beaches (Akumal Bay and Half Moon Bay), you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be less crowded than most beaches you visit in Cancun.

That said, there are tricks to getting around Cancun’s mass of beach crowds.

For starters, the beaches in the north part of the Hotel Zone usually have more crowds than those in the south. So, consider visiting Playa Tortugas in the morning before taking a car or bus towards Playa Delfines, once people start waking up from their hangovers.

You can also visit during the off-season. Regardless of whether you end up visiting Cancun or Akumal, the beaches will have fewer crowds during non-holiday dates between April to mid-July and mid-September to November.

4. Paid vs. Free Beach Access

A crowd-free beach in Akumal, something that makes this town stand out when comparing Akumal vs. Cancun.
The main beach in Akumal.

Among the many differences when comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, the excellent accessibility of Cancun’s beaches stands out.

All beaches in Cancun are free and open to the public.

However, the trick is getting to them.

Since resort after resort line most of the beaches in the Hotel Zone, you can’t use a hotel that isn’t yours as a door to your beach basking.

Instead, if you’re not among those with beachfront accommodation privileges, you’ll need to access the beach from one of close to a dozen public beach accesses. Parking can get tricky depending on the season, so you might be better off taking a bus or taxi to these beach access areas instead of driving.

Either way, once you’re on the beach, you’re welcome to roam the coast for as many miles as you’d like—no hotel in Cancun can legally stop you.

In contrast, Akumal charges foreigners a small fee to access its main beach.

This is a relatively new policy, and many returning Akumal beachgoers resisted the change.

However, I think there are benefits to the fee—the beach is trash-free, there are fewer people, and I felt my belongings were safer there, given how regulated the entrance is.

For more details on the Akumal fee and other tips for visiting this destination, check out my guide on Akumal Beach.

5. Atmosphere

The entrance to Coco Bongo in Cancun.
The Coco Bongo nightclub in Cancun.

You don’t need me to tell you that Cancun has a party vibe. Yes, all those stories you’ve heard of spring breakers flocking to get their fill of margaritas and tequila is 100% true.

And even when it isn’t spring break, Cancun’s massive nightclub scene draws in those looking to party year-round.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cancun attracts day-tripping cruise-goers who dock in Playa del Carmen. It’s also a good option for families, given its numerous child-friendly resorts and kid-oriented activities to do in the area.

So, when looking at Cancun vs. Akumal, you can expect to encounter a range of travelers in Cancun.

In contrast, Akumal attracts people looking for a quieter vacation.

It’s common to encounter couples on a romantic getaway, people who like off-the-beaten-path travel, and luxury seekers.

Yes, there are some bars around. But you’ll need to head north to Playa del Carmen or south to Tulum if you want better nightlife options.

If you’re traveling with young kids, they’ll likely get bored quickly in Akumal. So, consider taking them on a day trip to swim with sea turtles before heading back up to Cancun where there’s more to entertain them.

6. Need for a Car

A car driving down a street with palm trees.

You can technically get away without renting a car in both Cancun and Akumal.

However, having a car in Cancun will give you more freedom to explore. Cancun’s Hotel Zone is over 13 miles long. So, unless you’re determined to walk off that all-you-can-eat buffet food from your resort, you’ll need some wheels to explore the area outside of your hotel.

Renting a car in Cancun is also a great option if you want to take day trips.

Chichen Itza, Playa del Carmen, and even Tulum are some of the many places you can travel to in a day from Cancun.

In contrast, renting a car in Akumal isn’t as necessary.

The bays in Akumal are small, so you can walk them up and down multiple times a day. Furthermore, you’ll have several beachfront restaurants at your fingertips.

There’s little need for most people staying at a hotel on Akumal Beach to head into Akumal town. But if you feel a calling to see what it’s all about, you can head there on foot.

That said, regardless of whether you choose to visit Akumal or Cancun, renting a car is advantageous if one or both of these destinations will be a stop during your larger Yucatan road trip.

7. Day Trip Options

A motorcycle parked looking over blue water in Cozumel.
Cozumel, which makes for a great day trip from Akumal.

Akumal and Cancun both offer several day trip choices. Because of their relative proximity to each other, some of the day trips are even the same.

Day trips that are easy to take from both Akumal and Cancun include:

  • Playa del Carmen
  • Tulum
  • Xcaret

In contrast, taking a day trip to beautiful Isla Mujeres is easier to do from Cancun since it’s only a 20-minute ferry ride from the port.

But if you’re staying in Akumal and want a ferry experience, you can head to Playa del Carmen where ferries frequent Cozumel island, making this an excellent Akumal day trip.

When comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, you can visit Chichen Itza from either location. However, Cancun offers more tour options, so you’ll likely be able to snag a cheaper group tour. Taking a Chichen Itza tour from Akumal would likely need to be done with a private driver and guide.

If you’re interested in exploring cenotes (sinkholes), both Cancun and Akumal offer several options.

8. Length of Time to Spend

A boat tied to shore with pelicans.
A fishing boat in Akumal.

Because of the many activities to do in Cancun, it’s the type of destination where you can plan a one or two-week vacation and have many forms of entertainment at your fingertips.

On the other hand, Akumal is a tiny, laid-back beach destination where people usually only spend a few nights.

There’s not a lot to do in the immediate Akumal vicinity other than to beach it.

Yes, you’ll encounter a few tourist shops, particularly outside of the paid gate area. But there aren’t any malls, movie theaters, or other activities to change things up or keep you occupied on a rainy day.

Nevertheless, Cancun and Akumal are both beautiful destinations, and every traveler is different.

So, you’re on the right path by learning the differences between the two so you can choose the amount of time to spend that feels right for your travel style.

9. Restaurant Choices

A plate of fish tacos with avocado.

By now, this fact won’t surprise you—Akumal offers fewer restaurant choices than Cancun.

That said, there are a couple of restaurants you can dine at directly on Akumal Beach. By leaving the paid beach area, you’ll find a handful of other restaurants serving up local seafood dishes.

Akumal’s restaurant prices aren’t exorbitant, given its beachside location. But if you want the cheapest grub, head across Highway 307 where you’ll encounter a small selection of local Mexican restaurants in town.

As for Cancun, you’ll have a near-endless number of restaurants to choose from.

Craving street tacos? No problem.

How about some Chinese food after you’ve had one too many days of jalapeno-infused dishes? Cancun’s got you covered.

Even better, when looking at Akumal vs. Cancun, you can find the cheapest food in Cancun—as long as you stay away from the Hotel Zone.

Whether you choose to stay in downtown Cancun or are curious about taking a trip there from the Hotel Zone to see what it’s all about, I recommend visiting Parque de las Palapas. There, you can stuff yourself full of cheap, delicious street food.

10. The Seaweed Conundrum

Seaweed and rocks in Akumal.
The start of seaweed season in Akumal.

This last point isn’t a difference between Akumal and Cancun, but an unfortunate reality—seaweed.

Starting in 2011, the entire Yucatan coast fell victim to massive amounts of seaweed. The technical name for it is sargassum, and you’ll hear locals refer to it as sargazo.

Mass deforestation and agriculture, which infiltrates the Caribbean Sea with fertilizer, is the reason for this unwanted invasion. The fertilizer increases algae blooms, and the result is multi-feet deep seaweed in the water and onshore.

From there, it rots and wreaks until hurricane season arrives to whisk it away.

Luckily, massive amounts of seaweed isn’t always a problem in Cancun and Akumal; April to August are the months when it’s there the most.

The bottom line?

Regardless of whether you decide on Cancun or Akumal, it’s best to avoid the months of April – August if you don’t want to experience sargassum.

Visiting Akumal or Cancun in a Day

Now that we’ve talked about the differences (and similarities) of Akumal vs. Cancun, you might be wondering—can you visit both destinations on the same trip?

Yes, you can.

Akumal and Cancun are about a 1.5-hour drive from each other. So, they make for an easy day trip if you base yourself in one location.

Nevertheless, if you’re waffling between the two, I recommend taking your day trip from Cancun to Akumal rather than from Akumal to Cancun.

The reason?

There are so many more beaches to explore and activities to do in Cancun than in Akumal. Therefore, you can easily spend a day in Akumal and feel like you’ve seen it all whereas you likely won’t feel that way about Cancun.

Having said that, travel style matters too.

Even as I write this, I know that while Cancun offers more to do, I’d rather base myself in Akumal and visit Cancun as a day trip since I enjoy a quieter, laid-back atmosphere.

Akumal vs. Cancun: What’ll It Be?

When comparing Akumal vs. Cancun, you'll experience clear water like this outside of seaweed season.
A sunny day in Cancun.

Cancun and Akumal are such distinct destinations that it’s important to understand what each one does—and doesn’t—offer before you take the plunge in choosing where to base yourself.

If I had to pick just one distinguishing feature between the two, it would be the atmosphere. Akumal is a quiet beach town whereas Cancun has the 24/7 liveliness of Miami.

Do you still have questions about Akumal vs. Cancun? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.

Have you already been to one or both destinations? I’d love to hear about your experience and takeaways.

P.S.—If you’re still undecided about where to visit, check out my guide on Akumal vs. Tulum and Akumal vs. Playa del Carmen.

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