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I recently returned from a three-month trip, traveling around all of Mexico, and I spent one of those months entirely between Tulum and Cancun. Even though the two places are only a couple of hours’ drive from each other, they are vastly different places. For example, you do not want to take your bachelorette party to Cancun over Tulum, but you may want to take your family to Cancun over Tulum.
Both Cancun and Tulum have so much to offer, and I honestly loved both. They both have pristine white beaches, fantastic food, and you will meet people from all over the world with different stories. However, there are a few fundamental aspects that people want out of their vacation that one place may be able to offer and the other can’t.
Tulum vs Cancun Up Front
Tulum and Cancun have a few key differences that make them feel like entirely different places. Tulum is an adventurous party city that is more artistic, and Cancun is a family-friendly modern destination that is very relaxing. They both have beautiful beaches with white sand and blue waters and options for excitement and relaxation.
Main Differences Between Tulum and Cancun
- Tulum is for the adventurous, whereas Cancun is for those that want to relax.
- Tulum is a Party City, whereas Cancun is more family-friendly.
- Tulum is very pricey, whereas Cancun is pricey but has budget options.
- Tulum has boutique-type resorts, whereas Cancun has all-inclusive resorts.
- Tulum is a two-hour drive from the airport, whereas Cancun is ten minutes away.
Tulum’s Key Features
- Lots of adventurous things to do
- Very photogenic
- Small town feel/ In the middle of nowhere
- It always has events and parties going on
- More Culture
- A two-hour drive from the airport
You will find the usual expeditions and tours that you see when you go on vacation, but you will also see the unique features of Tulum. Discovering cenotes, roaming ancient Mayan ruins, exploring the jungle in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and getting to know how the locals live are all things you can do without ever leaving Tulum.
The best part about Tulum is that you don’t have to hire a guide to do anything mentioned above. You can rent a car, take taxis, or walk everywhere depending on where you’re staying. My favorite mode of transportation in Tulum is to rent a bike or scooter, which you can easily find by asking your hotel or asking someone on a bike or scooter where they got it.
Even though this town seems to always be on the go with exciting new adventures, there are some calmer beaches you can enjoy a relaxing day at. Playa Paraiso (Paradise Beach) has been named one of the prettiest beaches in the world, but it can get a bit loud because the resorts nearby do have day clubs. For a quieter beach, try Playa Punta Piedra (Stone Point Beach), where the locals go.
Tulum is a town that comes alive at night, with every resort and hotel throwing a party nearly every night. I like to call it the Los Angeles of Mexico because almost anywhere you stay; there will be a day club with people showing off their hottest swimwear and sipping drinks with a DJ. They most likely also have a nightclub or evening party where the music is loud, and everyone feels that music.
For a fun beach club with comfy seating areas and delicious drinks, try Hip Hotel Tulum. They play music all day long and even carry over into the night, turning into a full moon party when it gets dark. Tulum loves their full moon parties because another great place to go for that is Papaya Playa Project. They are more than just a party, with interactive art installations, face painting, and molecular mixology drinks.
If you want more of a laid-back party, try the Mayan Monkey. This is the hostel that I stayed at while visiting Tulum and probably where I had the most fun at night. They don’t put on a party per se, but they have a DJ on their rooftop with a bar and pool, and anyone is allowed in. It’s also incredibly cheap compared to other parties put on by resorts.
Tulum is a town situated in the middle of the jungle. You won’t find skyscraper buildings, and locals shop in some of the same places you may go. It’s so small that it is possible to walk everywhere in Tulum, not that I recommend it. I walked nearly five miles one day because I kept seeing more and more that I wanted to explore and got a bit carried away.
There are two parts of Tulum that you can stay in, separated by a massive jungle. There is the beachfront resort area and the town area. You could easily ride a bike between the two, but it’s about a mile walk between the two regions. I stayed in the town area, which was quieter and filled with locals. I highly recommend walking through town to find this random street full of street food vendors.
Everything in Tulum is unique to Tulum. If you’ve seen any pictures of Tulum, you will understand what I mean because it is all like that. With a boho, rustic vibe that makes you feel carefree and like you’re in a different world at the same time.
The artistic area is more in the beach resort area, and everything is made to look like an art exhibit. From the resort signs to giant pieces of art to actual art installations made from sticks, macrame, and other parts of nature. One place that you should not miss out on while in Tulum is Sfer Ik, a building that is a piece of art itself with no straight lines in the architecture and made to be a haven for creative minds.
Another reason that I say that Tulum is the Los Angeles of Mexico is that the prices are comparable to Las Vegas prices. Expect to pay $10 to $20 for a cocktail, $20 to $40 for a meal, and at least $200 a night for accommodations. Plus you have to pay for transport to Tulum from the airport, which is a two-hour drive.
Like any other travel destination, there are some budget-friendly options in Tulum. A few hostels in Tulum, such as Hostal Chalupa and The Mayan Monkey, cost from $25 to $35 a night. You can also go on many adventures solo rather than taking a tour by renting a scooter or taking a taxi, which can save you hundreds. Also, restaurants in town are about half the price of the restaurants by the resorts.
I love Tulum’s accommodations because they are so different and unique to Tulum. All resorts and hostels are boutique-style, meaning they feel more intimate and have an unforgettable luxurious style. Tulum is all about immersing you in nature, with many structures being made and styled with trees, clay, and indoor/outdoor living.
Another aspect of Tulum’s accommodations that I love is that they incorporate many sustainable practices into their resorts. Not every Tulum resort is doing this, but you will find a lot of Tulum resorts using solar power, going plastic-free, practicing rainwater collection, and recycling or composting. Some great Eco-friendly resorts in Tulum are Prana Boutique Hotel, Casa de Las Olas, and Mangle X Eco Cabanas.
Tulum is tricky to get to because there is no international airport near Tulum. The closest international airport to Tulum is the Cancun International Airport, which is two hours away, and that means you have to add two-plus hours to whatever your flight time is. Luckily, an international airport opening near Tulum in 2023 is supposed to be located only thirty minutes away.
There are a few ways to get to Tulum from the Cancun International Airport in the meantime. The most popular method is to use a shuttle service that you can book through your hotel in advance. You can also rent a car at the airport, take a taxi, or take the bus. The bus is the most affordable option, but I do not recommend it because it will most likely take longer than two hours, and you have to switch buses in Playa Del Carmen.
Cancun’s Key Features
- Ten minutes from the airport
- Relaxing atmosphere
- You’ll feel at home
- More budget-friendly options
- There’s not much culture
- Far away from any adventure
Cancun is where you go if you don’t want to think about anything other than whether you’re going to sit by the pool or the beach that day. All of the places you stay in Cancun are right next to the beach, and the staff is there to ensure you have everything you need with the wave of a finger. Most resorts in Cancun also have a full-service spa to maximize your relaxation.
Even though people go to Cancun for majority relaxation, there are other fun things you can do in Cancun. Try parasailing or a sunset cruise. You can also book a tour to see Chichen Itza Mayan ruins, Cenote Ik Kil, or Las Coloradas (The Pink Lakes), but these adventures are two-plus hours away from Cancun and an all-day tour.
If you have children, Cancun is where you want to go. There are many kid-friendly activities to do with your child, including snorkeling at the underwater museum, floating obstacle courses, and adventure theme parks. You also do not have to worry about your child seeing anything you don’t want them to see from young adults having a bit too much fun, if you know what I mean.
Some accommodation to keep your children entertained is almost anywhere you go. Most resorts and hotels in Cancun have a kid area with fun games, like giant chess, ping-pong tables, and kiddy pools. I’ve also gone to a few restaurants that keep kids entertained while you’re waiting for food, such as playing musical chairs and creating balloon animals.
If you do find yourself in Cancun and have a situation where you are child-free, there are a few nightlife options like hookah bars, nightclubs, and Coco Bongo found in the most northern point of the hotel zone. Coco Bongo is the only place I specifically named because it is a must-visit. It’s technically a nightclub, but it’s so much more than that with aerialists, lip-syncing performers, and confetti explosions.
Even though the part of Cancun that most people see is pretty secluded since the hotel zone is on a sort of island, Cancun is a large city. If you venture out of the hotel zone, you will see giant skyscrapers, chain stores, and busy city roads. The hotel zone even seems like a large city because there is a massive mall in the middle of it, and nearly all the resorts are tall buildings with fifteen-plus stories.
You will most likely never leave the hotel zone when you visit Cancun. A walkway spans the entire length of the hotel zone, so you can walk to different places if you are close enough. However, the hotel zone is 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) long, so you cannot walk from one end to the other. You will most likely have to take taxis or shuttles while traveling around Cancun.
If you are a traveler who likes to stay within your comfort zone, Cancun is the place for you. The accommodations, restaurants, shops, and even the tours feel very similar to things you can find in the U.S.A or any other first-world country. You can find anything from large cinemas to modern accommodations and even a T.G.I Fridays in Cancun.
That being said, you won’t get much of a cultural experience in Cancun. Everything in Cancun is built to make you comfortable and feel like you have everything you could need. The only way to see any Mexican culture in Cancun is to take a tour to another location, such as the Tulum Archeological Zone or Cenote Suytun, two hours away.
Cancun is a fairly expensive place to visit if you break down everything between food, drinks, tours, and rooms. However, Cancun is full of all-inclusive resorts, an accommodation that includes meals and includes activities, room service, discounted tours, or airport transfer. All-inclusive resorts look expensive at first glance, but they are a more budget-friendly option with everything that’s included.
Depending on which all-inclusive resort you go for and what time of year you go, expect to spend between $150 and $700 a night. There are a lot of factors that go into that price difference, such as how much is included and how upscale it is. For the most budget-friendly all-inclusive resort, try Park Royal and Hyatt Ziva for the most luxurious.
Cancun’s accommodations are vastly different than the places you’ll find in Tulum. Everything is modern and built, so you never have to leave your resort if you do not wish to. They are also giant, with each hotel being ten-plus stories high, having multiple pools, activities areas, and multiple restaurants on-site. You won’t find unique architecture like Tulum, but you will have everything you need on-site.
As mentioned above, most of the accommodations in Cancun are all-inclusive resorts, meaning you do not have to worry about anything. Your meals are all paid for, there are plenty of activities to do on-site, and the things you want to go off the resort for are all taken care of by the concierge. If you wish to be waited on hand and foot on vacation, Cancun is about as close as you get.
The number one thing that Cancun has that Tulum does not is an airport ten minutes away from the hotel zone. The longest you will have to travel anywhere in Cancun’s hotel zone is twenty-five minutes. On top of that, your airport transfer to and from your hotel is probably included in the price of your hotel.
I will say that waiting for a shuttle at the Cancun airport is mayhem. Many shuttle services are sitting outside, people with signs, and sometimes you have to wait quite a while for a shuttle to have room to pick you up. Make sure you get clear instructions from your hotel on how to get picked up from the airport.
Other Places to Visit in Mexico
Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas is another resort area of Mexico that is on the Pacific side in the Baja California Penninsula. It is very similar to Cancun, with many things that remind you of home, and you don’t have to worry about much once you’re there. The difference is that it is a party city with nightclubs and bars lining the streets.
Mexico City has been booming with tourism lately, never been seen as a tourist destination before. There are many hidden gems in and around Mexico City, like Grutas Tolantongo, the Teotihuacan Pyramids, and Mercado de San Juan. You won’t get to see the beach, but you can see Mexican culture, history, and some of Mexico’s mountains.
Puerto Vallarta is another small beach town similar to Tulum but on the Pacific side of Mexico. I never had the pleasure of visiting Puerto Vallarta, but it is a place that I’ve wanted to visit due to its beautiful beach reputation. This small town is much like Tulum in that there is tons of nightlife and jungle to explore, but it also has opportunities to interact with sea life, like dolphins and sea turtles.
Answer: Tulum does not currently have an international airport, but on is reportedly opening in 2023. If you are going to Tulum before then, you have to fly into Cancun International Airport and rent a car, take a shuttle, or take a taxi. The drive between Cancun Airport and Tulum is approximately two hours.
Answer: Both of these Mexican cities are relatively safe. Tourism is a big moneymaker for Mexico, and both of these places are extremely popular amongst tourists. Therefore, they have ample security in both cities to ensure your safety. You should practice standard safety measures in Cancun and Tulum, such as not traveling alone at night and not wearing flashy things that show your wealth.
Answer: Tulum attracts a younger crowd, whereas Cancun attracts families and older generations. This is because Tulum is an adventurous town that likes to party, while Cancun is more family-friendly and relaxing. There are also a few other vital differences listed above.
Answer: Both places have budget-friendly and luxurious options. However, Cancun has more all-inclusive resort options that are cheaper than buying everything a la carte, and I think that Cancun has more value for what you are spending.
Overall Best Place to Visit
Although I love both of these places and would revisit either of them, Tulum was my favorite place out of the two. However, I am in my 20s with no kids making relatively decent money. Tulum is all about its parties, art, and adventure, so it may not be the right place for those with families who want something a bit more relaxing.