There’s nothing like lounging on a Caribbean beach in Mexico. But with so many beach options in the Yucatan, you might be wondering about the difference between Cancun vs. Tulum.
I’ve visited Cancun at least a dozen times and have spent 2.5 months in Tulum. So, I’ll help you sort through the pros and cons of these destinations so that you can decide which is best for you.
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Cancun vs. Tulum Overview
Before I get into the nitty-gritty pros and cons of visiting Cancun or Tulum, I put together this chart to give you an overview of what each destination does—and doesn’t—offer.
|Base for day trips||Yes||Yes|
|Public bus options||Yes||Yes|
Cancun or Tulum? Pros and Cons
If you’ve talked with people who’ve been to Cancun and Tulum, you probably have some ideas (and perhaps conflicting ones) about what these destinations are like.
Since some people’s cons are other people’s pros, I’ll cover ten items that typically make or break a trip to Cancun and Tulum. Like everyone, I have my favorite, and I’ll share it with you at the end.
#1: Cancun Is Easy To Get To
All roads and airports lead to Cancun.
Okay, that might be a slight stretch, but Cancun is super easy to get to.
Cancun not only has a huge international airport, but the airport also serves as a private and public bus station.
Every terminal at the Cancun airport has a bus parking lot. You can book a local (and comfy) ADO bus on the spot to destinations like downtown Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Merida, and, yes, Tulum.
While it’s easy to hop on a massive, brand-new ADO bus to get to downtown Cancun, the downside is that ADO doesn’t have a route along the Hotel Zone. Therefore, you’ll need to book a private transfer or take a shared shuttle if you’re staying in Cancun’s famed beach district.
You can book your transfer in advance, but options are usually plentiful once you get to the airport.
#2: Tulum Is for Yogis
There’s more to Tulum than yoga. However, Tulum’s reputation as a yogi hub has its merits—yoga studios and signs pointing you to beach yoga classes are everywhere.
While you certainly don’t have to be into yoga to enjoy Tulum, craving the buenas vibras (positive vibes) lifestyle helps to make your trip more enjoyable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a heavy yoga presence in Tulum means that people tend to be less judgmental and more accepting of people from all walks of life.
On the other hand, the Hotel Zone of Cancun tends to have a more superficial feel, with people concerned about their outfits and riches (or, at least, wanting to appear rich).
Long story short?
Leave your high heels in Cancun. Tulum is for getting in touch with yourself.
#3: Cancun Is Where the Party’s At
Partying is a stereotype that rings as true for Cancun as it is misleading for Tulum. But I’m getting ahead of myself—I’ll cover Tulum’s version of partying next.
Cancun is a party lover’s paradise. You’ll have access to not only some of the most famous clubs in Mexico but in the world.
Coco Bongo is a nightclub inspired by the 1994 film, The Mask. It just so happens that The Mask’s star, Jim Carrey, owns the club. Make sure to buy your tickets in advance, for they’re known to sell out during the high season.
For a more upscale experience, head to Mandala, a nightclub brimming with plush sofas and classy decor. You also shouldn’t miss The City. With a 5,000-person capacity, The City claims to be the largest club in all of Latin America.
If you really want to get your party on, purchase an open bar package where you’ll have unlimited access to a club of your choice and its drinks the entire night.
#4: Tulum Is Where the Other Party’s At
Just because Cancun is famous for its party scene doesn’t mean that Tulum is a sleepy town (although it can be, if that’s what you want).
Tulum’s parties have a hippy kind of vibe—think smoking marijuana as you dance to Bob Marley on the beach instead of being thrown into strangers’ sweaty armpits at a rave.
Disclaimer—Marijuana is in the process of becoming legal in Mexico.
Update: As of June 2021, cannabis is legal in Mexico for private, recreational purposes. Laws can change, though. So, if you want to use marijuana in Mexico, please do your due diligence to verify whether it’s still legal.
Partiers in Tulum tend to take a more holistic approach. You’ll have access to ayahuasca ceremonies, other natural “medicines,” and even getting high from toad licking.
Of course, if you’re more of a bar and beer kind of person, there are plenty of great places along the beach where you can do your low-key partying.
#5: Cancun Is Great for Shopaholics
If a vacation isn’t a vacation for you without shopping, head to Cancun instead of Tulum.
By staying in the Hotel Zone, you’ll have access to large malls like Forum By the Sea and La Isla Shopping Village. There are also countless boutique and touristy individual shops along the way.
If you want to wander outside the Hotel Zone, you can take a taxi or bus to Plaza Las Americas for even more shopping options.
As a word of warning, don’t expect to snag cheap clothes in Cancun. Your best bet is to go a market for deals. However, the quality won’t be as good and the store owners will likely give you a higher price if they know you’re a foreigner.
#6: Tulum Is a Nature Lover’s Paradise
When comparing Cancun vs. Tulum, the verdict is clear: Tulum is for nature enthusiasts.
People in Tulum live among nature instead of adapting nature to live with them. Dense forests abound and eco-friendly restaurants and accommodations are everywhere.
You’ll have the chance to spot loads of colorful birds and gigantic iguanas. An anteater might even cross your path. Or, if you’re really lucky, a jaguar.
Tulum also has a rich underwater biodiversity, so bring your snorkel gear or sign up for a diving tour.
One of the most notable nature-related aspects that sets Tulum apart from Cancun is its cenotes (sinkholes). Dos Ojos and Casa Cenote are two sinkholes you should put on your bucket list.
However, part of the cenote fun is discovering smaller, off-the-beaten-path spots.
So, consider renting a car to do your centoe exploring. Most cenotes have an entrance fee, but in my opinion, it’s worth it!
#7: Cancun Has More Chain Hotels
If you prefer the familiarity of staying at a certain hotel brand when you travel or if you have a lot of free hotel stays to use up, Cancun is a better option than Tulum.
Cancun is home to just about any hotel chain you can possibly think of. These gigantic high-rise hotels line the beach, giving off a vibe that you arrived in Miami instead of Cancun.
If you don’t want to spend quite as much money on your chain hotel, there are inland options too. Selina Cancun Downtown is my go-to hostel chain because of its proximity to the ADO bus station.
Tulum, on the other hand, has more locally owned boutique hotels and lodges. Instead of high-rises, you’ll encounter small facilities woven through the jungle and along the beach. Many accommodations also have a strong emphasis on being eco-friendly.
#8: Tulum Is Expensive (Too)
Under most circumstances, Mexico is a cheap destination by U.S. standards. However, it has pockets of extraordinarily high prices, which happen to include Cancun and Tulum.
I’d even go as far as to say that Tulum is more expensive than Cancun.
Cancun is huge, and although most tourists flock to the Hotel Zone, there are many options for staying at hostels and hotels inland. Tulum also has an inland area, which is where the main town is.
However, the town of Tulum is super tiny and the (mostly not as nice) accommodations are still outrageously expensive for what you get.
As far as food prices go, Cancun and Tulum are pretty equal—prices are high along the beach, and in their respective downtown areas, you can get cheaper but delicious street food.
#9: Cancun’s Beaches Are Pristine
Photoshopped and all, the photos you’ve seen of Cancun online are pretty much what you can expect upon arrival. It has all the cliches you’d want from a tropical vacay—its beaches are pearly white, its ocean is turquoise blue, and its sand is powdery soft.
But that’s not to say that Tulum’s beaches are dumpy. On the contrary, when comparing Cancun vs. Tulum, many people prefer Tulum’s beaches because of their more natural appearance.
Think seaweed strung along the beach, iguanas lounging on rocks jutting out of the sand, and stepping on thorns here and there from nearby flowering bushes.
Note: Seaweed season is the exception to this rule. I’ll talk about how seaweed season affects Cancun and Tulum shortly.
When it comes to blue water and soft sand (minus the occasional thorn), Cancun and Tulum are equal, in my opinion.
As for waves, they’re pretty equal too.
In protected coves, the water is calm, but on open stretches of beach, the waves can pick up quite a bit on a windy day.
Hey, there! If you’re still on the fence about where in the Yucatan to pitch your beach umbrella, read my guide on the best Yucatan beaches. There’s a bonus in there you won’t expect.
#10: Tulum Is Closer to Chichen Itza
It’s hard to visit the Yucatan without stopping to see at least one ruin. And if you’re going to choose just one, it’ll likely be the world-famous Chichen Itza, one of the 7 New World Wonders.
Tulum is about a 2-hour drive from Chichen Itza compared to Cancun’s approximately 2.5-hour drive.
However, you also have to factor in the drive from Cancun to Tulum since you can’t fly there—the driving time between these two destinations is between 1.5 – 2 hours, depending on traffic. The adorable town of Valladolid is a common stop along this route.
So, while choosing Tulum vs. Cancun solely on the premise of visiting Chichen Itza isn’t the wisest, this leads me to another important point: Both Cancun and Tulum are excellent bases for day trips.
When it comes to islands, Isla Mujeres is a quick visit from Cancun (about 20 minutes by ferry), whereas Cozumel sits about equally between Cancun and Tulum (approximately 1 hour to Playa del Carmen followed by a 30-minute ferry).
That said, you’ll have access to more cenotes in Tulum and small beach towns like Akumal, where you can snorkel with sea turtles.
Cancun vs. Tulum: Similarities
Despite their differences, Tulum and Cancun share some similar qualities. Let’s explore them.
Both Cancun and Tulum have ADO bus stations. And it just so happens that both are in the downtown areas without offering the option to take you to the beach.
So, if you take the bus to Cancun or Tulum, you’ll need to transfer to a smaller local bus or take a taxi to your beachside accommodation.
When it comes to the bus stations themselves, Cancun is a clean, modern powerhouse. On the other hand, Tulum’s bus station is tiny and rundown.
You’ll have many more bus departure options from Cancun than Tulum. Therefore, depending on where you’re headed next, you may have to head up to Cancun to get to your next destination, even if it’s out of the way.
Check out my guide on ADO buses to learn how to explore Mexico with this long-distance bus company.
There are few activities of tourist interest in Cancun and Tulum, and both downtown areas have a rather run-down feel. Additionally, the beaches for both of these destinations aren’t within walking distance of their downtowns.
While we’re on the topic of walking, Cancun is overall more walkable than Tulum. The reason is that Tulum is split up into three parts—the beach, ruins, and downtown.
On the other hand, Cancun has two parts—the beach and downtown.
Since the downtown area of Cancun doesn’t offer much to see and do, you can easily spend your entire vacation based in the Hotel Zone where, depending on the location of your hotel, you’ll be within walking distance of countless shops, restaurants, and clubs.
Compare that to Tulum, where you’ll need a bike or vehicle to take you between its two most important tourist sites—the beach and ruins.
I’m a solo female traveler and felt quite safe during my stays in Cancun and Tulum. But of the two, I felt safer in Tulum.
Petty theft can be an issue if you don’t take proper precautions. But if you stay in the main beach zones of these destinations and practice basic common sense, you’ll likely enjoy a wonderful, safe stay.
Both destinations have a high tourist police presence, along with the national guard to ensure visitors feel safe.
I recommend avoiding downtown Cancun and Tulum at night. Other than that, by staying in well-lit areas and keeping expensive belongings tucked away, you should be just fine.
I’ve written a detailed article on safety in Cancun so that you can get a better feel of what to expect, especially if you’re a solo female traveler.
Seaweed season is heartbreaking for unsuspecting tourists. From around May to October, thick masses of brown seaweed, called sargassum, arrive on Cancun and Tulum’s shores.
The locals do their best to cart the seaweed off the beach with wheelbarrows and bulldozers, but it still makes a small dent in this Caribbean-wide problem.
As the seaweed deteriorates on shore, it smells like rotting eggs, often making it unpleasant to sit on the beach during the heart of sargassum season.
Tulum and Cancun are both pretty equally affected by seaweed season.
So if you want to travel to a Yucatan beach from May to October, I recommend visiting Isla Mujeres (just offshore from Cancun) or Cozumel. Given that both of these destinations are islands, their eastern shores catch the majority of seaweed, leaving the beaches on their western shores mostly unscathed.
WiFi & Cell Phone Reception
Both Cancun and Tulum have good cell phone reception, although Tulum’s cell phone reception can be hit or miss the further you get from the main beaches and town.
WiFi in Cancun and Tulum can be excellent or horrendous, depending on the internet plan your accommodation has.
The good news is that WiFi in both these areas is abundant. So, if you’re having trouble getting good WiFi where you’re staying, you can head to a nearby cafe or cowork space.
That said, from my experience, Cancun has more reliable WiFi than Tulum. Much of this is because the electricity in Tulum goes out even when the weather is good. The tourist areas of Cancun don’t experience such frequent power outages.
FAQs About Tulum vs. Cancun
Do you still have questions about Cancun and Tulum? I’ve answered some common ones here. But if I miss yours, leave it in the comments and I’ll be happy to help.
Brace for a couple of wild questions. Answer the Public shows them as common inquires Mexico travelers to-be have.
Is Cancun in Tulum?
Cancun isn’t in Tulum. Cancun and Tulum are two separate destinations located approximately two hours apart. Whereas Tulum is a small town with a population of under 50,000, Cancun is a larger city with a population of close to one million.
Which one is better: Tulum or Cancun?
Whether Tulum or Cancun is better depends on personal preference. Tulum is better for people who enjoy nature, casual bars, and a quieter atmosphere. Cancun is a better choice for travelers who want to party at clubs all night long and have easier access to some of the most popular day trips in the Yucatan.
Is Cancun cheaper than Tulum?
Cancun and Tulum are both expensive. But of the two, it’s easier to visit Cancun on a cheaper budget than Tulum. The reason is that Cancun has a large downtown center with more accommodation options, helping to drive down the price compared to Tulum, where hotel and apartment choices are more limited.
Is Tulum safer than Cancun?
Tulum isn’t safer than Cancun. According to the U.S. Department of State (DOS), Tulum and Cancun falls are statistically the same safety-wise, given that they sit within Quintana Roo state. The DOS categories both Tulum and Cancun as a Level 2 for safety, meaning you must exercise increased caution.
Are Cancun and Tulum safe?
Cancun and Tulum are safe as long as you practice common sense safety practices. Never walk down desolate streets during the day or night, and avoid wearing expensive jewelry and showcasing costly electronics. Drug cartels are active in both Tulum and Cancun, but they typically leave tourists alone.
Does Cancun or Tulum have better beaches?
Cancun and Tulum both have beautiful beaches. Cancun has better beaches for people who want miles of uninterrupted sand to explore with upscale amenities. In contrast, Tulum’s beaches are better for travelers who enjoy a more natural beach experience without high rises and beaches where you can spot iguanas bathing on rocks.
Why is Tulum so trendy right now?
Tulum is trendy right now because influencers discovered it as an untouched beach destination. As a result, the stunning scenery at the Tulum Ruins and the famous Ven a la Luz sculpture are popular spots for tourists that flock there as they try to mimic the photos taken by their favorite Instagrammers.
Why is Cancun the place to visit?
Cancun is the place to visit for tourists seeking a party destination and the comforts of Western amenities in Latin America. The Cancun airport offers cheap direct flights from the United States, making it a popular getaway for people in cold climates wanting to escape to warmer weather.
How many days do you need in Tulum and Cancun?
You should spend a minimum of two full days each in Tulum and Cancun. Adding on additional days is wise if you’re seeking a relaxing beach vacation or if you want to use Tulum or Cancun as a base for day trips in the Yucatan.
My Personal Favorite
You’ve likely formed an opinion at this point about whether you’re more inclined to enjoy Cancun or Tulum.
Personally, I’d choose Tulum over Cancun any day.
I love Tulum’s laid-back and eco-friendly vibe. It’s also less crowded than Cancun and, along with nearby Playa del Carmen, is a big digital nomad hub.
Ready To Hit the Beach?
I hope this post has given you insight into comparing Cancun vs. Tulum. Do you have questions about either of these destinations? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.
Alternatively, if you’ve already been to Cancun or Tulum, I’d love to hear your takeaways and any pros or cons that you’d add to this list.
Psst! Are you also trying to decide between a trip to Playa del Carmen and Tulum? Check out my post on Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen and Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun. I’ve also written a guide on Cozumel vs. Cancun.
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. 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 solo female travel and wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister.