Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen: 8 Mistakes to Avoid

Let me start with this—visiting Tulum or Playa del Carmen isn’t a mistake in and of itself. However, after spending over three months between these destinations, I heard too many people say, “I wish I had known…”

I’m here to make sure you don’t feel the same way about your trip. In this Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen comparison, I’ll share the most common mistakes and misconceptions people have when visiting these (stunning) Caribbean destinations.

Accessibility Note: If you’re a wheelchair user, make sure to check out our blog posts on accessibility in Tulum and Playa del Carmen.

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Mistake #1: Renting a Car in Playa del Carmen

5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.

One of the biggest differences when comparing Playa del Carmen vs. Tulum is how walking-friendly Playa is.

In fact, Playa del Carmen is such a great destination to explore by foot that if you rent a car, you likely won’t see it again until you leave the city…that is, after you find a parking spot, which is often another struggle.

You’ll do yourself a disservice by renting a car to explore Playa del Carmen because most of Playa’s attractions are on 5th Avenue, which is a 5-mile pedestrian boulevard that runs just a block up from the ocean. It’s packed with restaurants, hotels, performers, and the ADO bus station.

That isn’t to say you should never rent a car in Playa del Carmen though.

On the contrary, renting a car in Playa with the purpose of taking day trips to places like Chichén Itzá and Tulum is an excellent option. There are plenty of car rental agencies in Playa, so it’s easy to rent one on the spot.

Mistake #2: Thinking You Can Explore Tulum on Foot

Tulum Ruins.
Tulum Ruins.

Just like it’s a mistake to rent a car in Playa del Carmen, it’s an equal mistake to think that you can easily explore Tulum on foot (unless you’ve got a few days to spend there and don’t mind a mostly shade-free walk under the Mexican sun).

Tulum is divided into three parts: Downtown (far from the beach), the hotel zone (beachside), and the ruins (within walking distance to Tulum’s northern beaches).

Here are some approximate walking times between Tulum’s most popular areas:

  • Downtown Tulum to the Tulum Ruins: 4.5 km / ~1-hour walk
  • Downtown Tulum to the beginning of the beachside hotel zone: 4.6 km / ~ 1-hour walk
  • Tulum Ruins to the beginning of the beachside hotel zone: 3.8 km / ~45-minute walk
  • Beginning of the beachside hotel zone to the end of the hotel zone: 7.6 km / ~1.5-hour walk

My favorite way to explore Tulum is by bike, and luckily there’s no shortage of bike rental shops. Just make sure to bring an ID with you and be prepared to leave it at the bike shop until you bring back your unscathed bike. You can also rent a car and drive around.

Regardless of how you choose to get around, don’t let distance deter you—Tulum’s spread-out design makes it an attractive place for nature lovers and people who want to avoid crowds.

Mistake #3: Believing Playa del Carmen Has Great Beaches

Narrow beach in Playa del Carmen, which is one of the biggest differences when comparing Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen.

Playa del Carmen is a beach destination, but in my opinion, it has terrible beaches (sorry, Playa).

If you have any doubts about rising sea levels, prepare to change your ‘tude—the beaches in downtown Playa are unbearably narrow, consumed by the tide line. Even worse, they’re narrow and packed with people.

Here’s a silver lining, though—Playa’s northernmost beaches attract more locals than tourists, giving your beach towel more wiggle room. You can also opt to stay in Playacar, a gated community with better-maintained beaches and fewer crowds.

However, I wasn’t impressed with any of Playa’s beaches after spending time in Tulum’s less crowded and wide white sand beaches.

That said, regardless of whether you spend time in Playa del Carmen or Tulum, I recommend taking a half-day trip to Akumal, which is a secluded beach between these two destinations. You have to pay an entrance fee (around $5 USD per person) but it’s so worth it since you’ll gain access to quiet, pristine beaches and crystal clear water that’s calmer due to a bay.

Mistake #4: Expecting Mexican Prices in Tulum

Sign showing taco prices. Budget is a big difference when comparing Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen.

Mexico is a great destination for budget travelers with the exception of a few destinations, including Tulum.

Tulum is outrageously expensive—so much so that people joke it’s a hub for trust fund babies. Expect American prices for food, accommodation, and taxis.

Actually, scratch that.

When you’re in the hotel zone of Tulum, expect American resort prices.

If you’re working with a tight budget, I recommend staying in Playa del Carmen (check out my review of Selina Playa del Carmen if you want to stay at an economical hostel one block from the beach). From there, you can easily take a day trip to Tulum.

That said, you can find some cheap Mexican restaurants in downtown Tulum along with cheaper accommodations, relatively speaking.

Mistake #5: Seeking Wildlife in Playa del Carmen

Shopping street in Playa del Carmen.

The underwater world aside, the “wildest” things you’ll encounter in Playa del Carmen are seagulls and partiers.

I know what you’re thinking—but it’s a tropical environment!

That’s true, but so is this: Playa del Carmen is a bulldozed town along the Caribbean complete with two upscale shopping malls and people. Lots of people causing a lot of ruckus at bars and clubs into the wee hours of the morning.

Don’t get me wrong—Playa’s liveliness is what makes it such a fun place to visit. But if you’re a nature lover looking for a quiet, eco-friendly spot along the Mexican Caribbean, you’re better off heading to Tulum.

Mistake #6: Kicking it in Downtown Tulum

Sidewalk in downtown Tulum.

If you’re like me, you love exploring downtowns. After all, they’re often the pulse of an area, giving you an understanding of a city’s roots and history.

Unfortunately, downtown Tulum is rather run-down and crime is increasing (you’ll be fine in its main areas during the day—the bad stuff mostly happens at night).

People “in the know” usually head directly to the Tulum Ruins or beach. However, if you’re arriving by bus (the ADO bus station is in the heart of downtown) or simply want to check it out, make sure to hit up downtown during mealtime—you’ll get to indulge in some delicious, cheap food (and yes, that includes vegetarian and vegan restaurants).

When comparing Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen, Playa is an excellent place to spend downtown. It’s a hopping place with street performers and activities day and night.

Mistake #7: Thinking that Playa del Carmen Isn’t For Yogis

Beach in Playa del Carmen with blue water.

Tulum is famous for its bohemian, artsy vibe, and yoga-friendly atmosphere. There’s a good reason for it—you’ll encounter people taking beach yoga classes in the morning and others leaving yoga studios in the evening, yoga mats wedged in armpits.

But here’s the thing—there are a lot of people that do yoga in Playa del Carmen too.

In fact, most people I met during my trip visited both Tulum and Playa del Carmen. So, you can expect some overlap with the types of people that these two destinations attract.

That said, there’s still a distinction when comparing Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen, for many yogis truly prefer making Tulum their hub; Playa del Carmen tends to attract more long-term backpackers and people looking to do upscale shopping. But hey, plenty of these people practice yoga too!

Mistake #8: Believing People Don’t Party in Tulum

Large toad in the mud.

Yes, Playa del Carmen is a party hub. But it doesn’t mean that despite Tulum’s eco-friendly lodges, animal sightings, and spread-out design, that it’s a dead zone when the evening rolls around.

On the contrary, Tulum has amazing bars and hostels, such as Selina, that host beachside parties until the morning. Tulum even takes partying one step further than Playa—it’s a mecca for lesser-known drugs like ayahuasca and Cane toad licking.

You read that right.

I learned (through second-hand accounts) that you can lick the back of a Cane toad in Tulum and get a hit of bufotenine. This (shall we say, disgusting?) practice leads to hallucinations.

To be fair, Tulum isn’t the only place where you can lick a toad to get high. Arizona even offers an addiction recovery center specializing in helping patients overcome their toad licking urges.

Which Destination is Right for You?

The mistakes above should give you a feel for whether Playa del Carmen or Tulum is a better fit for you (or if both of them are!).

But to help you further, I’ve put together a list of comparing Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen when it comes to their similarities and differences.

Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen: Similarities

  • Beach destinations in the Mexican Caribbean
  • Easy drive from Cancun (Playa del Carmen is about one hour and Cancun is less than 2.5 hours)
  • Great bases for day trips to New World Wonder Chichén Itzá, cenotes (sinkholes), and Akumal
  • Well connected by ADO buses

Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen: Differences

  • Playa del Carmen is pedestrian-friendly; Tulum is best explored by bike or vehicle
  • Tulum is more expensive
  • Playa del Carmen has tons of clubs; Tulum’s party scene tends to center around beach bars
  • Tulum draws in an artsy, bohemian crowd; Playa attracts a budget-friendly crowd
  • Playa del Carmen is more commercialized than Tulum
  • Tulum has more vegetarian/vegan restaurants
  • Playa del Carmen has less wildlife than Tulum
  • Tulum has wider, less populated beaches
  • Playa del Carmen has the only ferry port to travel to Cozumel
Beach view at the Tulum Ruins.
Beach view at the Tulum Ruins.

Got Your Bags Packed?

Yes, people make mistakes through their misconceptions when visiting Tulum and Playa del Carmen, but who hasn’t been on a trip where they didn’t say, “I wish I knew…”?

I hope this post gave you insight into the many wonderful but different qualities that Tulum and Playa del Carmen have. If you’ve already visited one or both of these destinations, I’d love to hear about your impressions in the comments section—let me know what mistakes you’d add to this list.

Similarly, if you have lingering questions about visiting Tulum or Playa del Carmen, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help.

P.S.- Are you also trying to decide between Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun? If so, check out my post covering 10 pros and cons of Cancun vs. Tulum and Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun.