The Great Debate: Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen
Whether you’re the kind of person that plans their trip a year in advance or you just touched down in the Yucatan, a common scenario travelers face is deciding if they should visit Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen.
If anyone has told you that it’s easy to visit all three of these destinations, they’re right.
But I understand if your reaction is to roll your eyes—not everyone has or wants to use their precious time traveling between destinations.
So, I’ll help you sort through the positives and negatives based on my 6+ month stay in the Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen region.
By the time you reach the end of this article, you’ll have a grasp of which destination is the best fit for you.
A Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen Overview
If you’re short on time, take a look at the chart below. It covers the topics I’ll be covering in more detail next.
|Characteristic||Cancun||Tulum||Playa del Carmen|
|Good base for day trips||Yes||No||Yes|
|Need a car||Maybe||Yes||No|
The Nitty-Gritty on Cancun vs. Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen
Alright, now that we’ve taken care of the internet skimmers (speaking from a skimmer myself), grab a coffee—or may I suggest a margarita?—and settle in for this read.
Arriving at Your Destination
Of the three destinations we’re covering, Cancun is the only one with an international airport.
You can fly directly to Cancun from several places in the United States, along with Canada, Europe, and countries across Latin America.
If you’re rolling in the dough, you can arrange a private jet to take you to Playa del Carmen’s small airport.
Tulum doesn’t have that option, so going by road is your best bet (unless you want to splurge on a yacht trip).
More likely than not, even if you don’t plan to spend time in Cancun, it’ll be the place you arrive at before traveling to Tulum or Playa del Carmen.
The travel times are as follows:
Cancun – Playa del Carmen: 1 – 1.5 hours
Cancun – Tulum: 1 hour, 45 minutes – 2 hours
And while we’re at it, Playa sits between Cancun and Tulum. So, if you want to travel between Playa and Tulum, this is what the travel time will look like:
Playa – Tulum: 1 hour
Needless to say, it won’t take you that long to arrive at your final destination, even if you choose Tulum, which is the farthest point from Cancun’s international airport.
However, traffic can be a bit of a beast leaving Cancun, and depending on what road project they’re working on, it could cut into the beginning of your beach time.
So, if you’re taking a super short trip to the Yucatan, your best bet might be to stay in Cancun.
If you’re the type of person that likes to have everything at their fingertips—the beach, restaurants, shops, bars, etc., then head to Playa del Carmen.
You don’t need to rent a car or worry about figuring out public transportation in Playa.
In fact, if you drive to Playa del Carmen, you just might find that securing a parking spot is more of a hassle than it’s worth.
So, to get to Playa, I recommend either hiring a private driver or taking an ADO bus. If you take the bus, get off at the ADO Turistica station (not the Alterna station). You’ll literally be in the heart of downtown Playa the moment you step out of the Turistica station.
As for Cancun, you don’t need to rent a car. However, the beaches of Cancun go for miles. So, renting a car will give you more freedom to explore the Hotel Zone. It’s also helpful if you want to do your own self-guided day trips.
That said, you can use public buses or have a taxi take you around instead. If you choose a taxi, for safety reasons you should use an app or call a taxi company directly. That goes for taking taxis in Playa and Tulum, too.
Of these three destinations, Tulum is the one that makes the most sense to rent a car. That’s because Tulum is broken up into three main areas: The town, ruins, and beach.
There’s not a whole lot to see in Tulum’s town (although this is where the ADO bus station is located, if you’ll be traveling from Cancun or Playa del Carmen). So, tourists mostly stick to the ruins and beach.
It’s possible to ride a bike between these destinations, and you technically could walk if you really enjoy walking and don’t mind hours upon hours in the sun.
But there aren’t public buses that run along the beach to save you if you get tired. There are, however, plenty of taxis that’ll be happy to let you rest your weary legs for a hefty sum.
Like Cancun, Tulum’s beaches stretch for miles. Therefore, it’s helpful to have a car (or bike) so you can explore more of the area.
Basking on the Perfect Beach
Whereas Playa del Carmen gets two thumbs up for its accessibility, it gets 1.5 thumbs down from me for its beaches.
That’s harsh, I know.
But hear me out.
Playa is first and foremost a budget-style party town with a bit of beach as a backdrop. The strip of sandy space between the oh-so-cute restaurants and water is slim. And that’s on a weekday—don’t even get me started about the crowds on weekends.
If this doesn’t already have you rethinking your beach vacation, consider this: Playa only has small segments of beach. Compare that to Cancun and Tulum which have miles of uninterrupted beach space, and the winners here are clear.
That said, spending all day, every day, on a beach isn’t everyone’s thing. So, Playa is still a great vacation spot as long as you go with your beach expectations in check.
It’s Cancun’s turn now. If your idea of a trip to Mexico includes powdery sand beaches, beach chairs that you don’t have to wait your turn for, and space to build a sandcastle, head to Cancun.
Although Cancun is personally my least favorite of these three destinations, it’s undeniable that it encompasses everything you dream of a typical Caribbean beach having.
So, if you want to visit the Yucatan strictly to spend as much time as possible on the beach, I recommend Cancun…
…unless you love the beach and a nature environment.
In that case, Tulum is a better fit for you.
Tulum has deep, soft sand like Cancun. Just don’t sink your feet in too deep if you’re away from the shoreline—you just might hit a stick, rock, or thorn.
Needless to say, a thick layer of lush jungle lines the back of many of Tulum’s beaches. Rocks and iguanas do too. Oh, and let’s not forget about the birds that will be flying and singing everywhere you turn.
So, to anyone with a nature-loving soul, Tululm’s beaches are the perfect getaway.
Choosing the Right Atmosphere
The atmosphere of a destination can make or break a trip.
So, here’s the lowdown on what you can expect from each of these places atmosphere-wise in a single word:
Playa del Carmen: Backpacker
Yes, people do yoga in Cancun and, as you’ll soon learn, plenty of parties are to be had in all three of these destinations.
But when you go to Cancun, the party environment is palpable.
Same with Playa—there’s a notable difference in the type of people who stay there versus Cancun (you’re looking at a Playa bum, here!), primarily because of the plethora of hostels and cheaper accommodations.
And then there’s Tulum, which takes yoga, spirituality, veganism, and any other quiet, low-key, healthy, nature-oriented vibe to a whole different level.
If you happen to be like me, where Tulum’s atmosphere draws you in more than the others but you can’t afford its massive price tag, you’ll be glad to know that day trips from Playa to Tulum are easy since it’s only an hour drive by car or bus.
Taking a Hard Look at Your Wallet (or Purse)
Here’s the thing—a destination can sound great, but it doesn’t mean that you can (or should allow yourself to) afford it.
So one of the great things about choosing between Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen is that they each cater to specific budgets.
Let’s start with the least expensive.
Playa del Carmen is a backpacker’s paradise. Hostels line the street, you can get a killer deal on Airbnbs, and an even better deal if you negotiate a long-term rental deal in person upon your arrival.
Food is cheap, transportation costs are zilch, and walking down 5th Avenue is enough entertainment to fill a whole month without spending a peso.
You might be surprised at this next one—Cancun clocks in as the second cheapest of these three destinations.
Sure, you can spend hundreds of dollars per night on a beachfront suite in a 5-star hotel. But there are lots of 3-star and 4-star options that offer reasonable rates.
You can even find straight-up budget hotels and hostels, especially if you venture into downtown Cancun.
That said, it costs more to get around Cancun. Food is also more expensive around the beach. But if you head into downtown, you can snag super cheap and delicious local meals.
And finally, there’s Tulum, the master of everything expensive.
If it gives you any indication, people joke about Tulum being a hangout spot for trust fund babies. It’s also become a meeting point for cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
Needless to say, the accommodation and restaurant costs in Tulum make it untouchable for people on lower budgets to have a lengthy stay there.
Explorabilty with Day Trips
If you want to choose a destination and plop, feel free to skip this section.
But for anyone who wants to see more of the Yucatan while they’re in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum, it’s important to know what you can visit and from where.
Let’s start with Cancun, which is the best place to base yourself for day trips.
Group and private tours run daily to many places from Cancun including:
- Isla Mujeres
- Chichen Itza
- Isla Contoy
- Xcaret Park
- Xel-Há Park
- Playa del Carmen
Yes, you read that right. Tulum and Playa del Carmen are easy day trips from Cancun.
If you’re basing yourself in Playa del Carmen, you can still visit these destinations in a day, although you might not have as many tour options, and some of them might have to be in private, depending on where you want to visit. Of course, you could always hop on a bus and go there on your own (which is my preferred method anyway).
A visit to Akumal is also a great day trip from Playa del Carmen, as it’s only about a 30-minute drive.
As for Tulum, your day trip options are more limited (or, at least, you’ll spend more time traveling) because it’s further away from many of the Yucatan’s most popular attractions.
Nevertheless, you can still join a tour that visits Chichen Itza and Valladolid. A trip to Cozumel and Xcaret Park is also easy enough. And, thanks to buses passing between Tulum and Playa every few minutes, visiting Playa del Carmen is also a breeze.
Figuring Out Where the Party’s At
Last but not least, if your idea of a Mexican vacation involves parties, then you’re in good hands—Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen all offer excellent party options.
The trick is knowing what kind of party you can find at each place.
If you’re seeking a high class and/or dusk till dawn and dawn till dusk type of party atmosphere, pitch your beach towel in Cancun.
With fancy nightclubs like Mandala and an entertainment atmosphere at Coco Bongo, you’ll need to spend weeks in Cancun to hit up all the best spots.
Playa del Carmen has a pretty intense party vibe like Cancun, but there are more bars and nightclubs that cater to lower budgets. Nevertheless, you can still find places like Coco Bongo and Senor Frogs in Playa. It offers a bit of the best of both worlds between there and Cancun.
And now, let’s talk about Tulum.
Get your chakra dance on—the nightlife in Tulum is unlike anything you’ll find in Playa and Cancun. It’s an herbal kind of party scene where people balance booze with a dose of plant “medicines.”
Sure, you’ll find your fair share of marijuana there. But ayahuasca, toad licking, and other spiritual-inducing, nature-made options also abound.
If you’d rather not partake in these practices, don’t worry—there are loads of picturesque bars lining that sand where you can grab a drink and party in your own style.
Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen: What’ll It Be?
I’ve already let you in on my secret that I chose Playa del Carmen to base myself in during my time in the Yucatan. But if I had the money (c’mon blog, help me out here!), I would have stayed in Tulum.
So, now it’s your turn—which destination are you leaning towards? And do you have questions about it?
Leave a comment and let’s chat.
Laura’s love for traveling started with a trip to Jamaica. Since then, she’s spent over five years living in Latin America and four years wandering the globe. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.