Cancun vs. Tulum: 10 Make-or-Break Pros & Cons
You found this article, so you likely know this much—you want to lounge on a Caribbean beach in Mexico. But when it comes to the Yucatan, options can feel overwhelming. I’ll help you sort through the pros and cons of Cancun vs. Tulum so you can decide which is best for you.
Cancun vs. Tulum Overview
Before we 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.
In fact, 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 parking station. Here, you can book a local (and comfy) ADO bus 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’ll be 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, you should crave the buenas vibras (positive vibes) lifestyle.
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 here—we’ll cover Tulum’s version of partying in point #4.
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 that has comfy 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 particular club 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 more 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.
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 aren’t from there.
#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 that you should definitely put on your bucket list.
However, part of the cenote fun is discovering smaller, off-the-beaten-path spots, so consider renting a car. Most cenotes have an entrance fee, but in my opinion, it’s worth it!
#7: Cancun Has More Chain Hotels
If you’re the type that likes 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 for you 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 feeling 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.
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 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 lots of 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 cheap and 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 want from a tropical vacay—its beaches are pearly white, its ocean turquoise blue, and its sand powdery soft.
That’s not to say that Tulum’s beaches are a dump, though. On the contrary, when comparing Cancun vs. Tulum, many people prefer Tulum’s beaches because of their more rustic 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.
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.
#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.
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.
There are few things of touristic 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 being 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 safe during my stays in Cancun and Tulum.
That said, 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.
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.
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 information has given you a little more 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 and/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’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.