Cancun vs Tulum: Which Mexico Destination is Better?

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Thinking about spending your vacation in the Yucatan Peninsula?

Cancun and Tulum rank among the top tourist destinations in Mexico and they have so much to offer visitors who want to take advantage of their unspoiled natural beauty and warm climate all year round.

However, there are some key differences between these two destinations that you need to consider before booking your trip.

Cancun is famous for its nightlife and mega-resorts that cater to tourists from all over the world.

On the other hand, Tulum is less commercialized than its neighbor; it’s more laid-back and has more boutique hotels and charm.

In this article, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about Cancun vs Tulum so you can make the right decision when choosing which one is best for your vacation.

Is Cancun or Tulum Better?

What is Cancun Known For?

Those who like to stay within the resort bubble will find Cancun the answer to all their wants.

Food, beach, parties and more are all within arm’s reach. It’s the Mexican destination for modern comforts and epic night outs, garnished with historical attractions.

Cancun’s long list of fun indoor-outdoor activities allows many young adults to customize their itinerary, but family groups can find their own niche too.

Tulum Ruins and beach
Tulum Ruins and beach

What is Tulum Known For?

14 kilometers of beach and lush jungle barely summarize what Tulum has to offer.

The eco-conscious resorts and tours appeal to outdoor lovers, while the less commercialized setting makes it an ideal nature retreat.

In particular, couples and honeymooners are drawn to the intimate hotel setups while indulging in the stunning landscape.

Families too, will find Tulum a great holiday destination, as the kids have a massive playground to explore.

Beaches

What Are the Beaches Like in Cancun?

You can’t miss Cancun on any map because its beach-surround coastline is a gleaming beacon of white.

Private and public beaches link up, with the Hotel Zone lassoed by the most popular of them all.

Lifeguards, gear rental and beach clubs are expected amenities. Sunbeds and loungers too, are often provided by the beachfront resorts that these sandy strips belong to.

Larger beaches like Playa Chacmool and Playa Forum act as a hub for water sports.

You’ll see the inner swatches taken over by families with kids, while the active crowd the surfs and jet skis.

Other beach activities include beach volleyball, paddleboarding; and during Spring Break, most likely partying.

Cancun beach and Iberostar Selection Cancun Resort Seadust Cancun Family Resort panorama aerial view 1
Cancun Hotel Zone beach

What Are the Beaches Like in Tulum?

Beaches in Tulum keep the Caribbean promise as well. Swaying palms, clean sand, warm and calm waters – it’s heaven for swimmers.

Rather than extreme water sports, many like to melt into the relaxing atmosphere. Sun lounging is a prime activity here.

Tulum beaches also stick closely together, but with a slightly more diverse cast. 

Playa Ruinas hosts Mayan ruins, literally steps into the palm-tree jungle.

For mingling, Playa Paraiso comes with plenty of beach bars and shallow waters, great for a drink and dip.

You can also spend the day in the water at Akumal Bay, which offers up vibrant reefs for snorkeling.

Does Cancun or Tulum Have Better Beaches?

Cancun and Tulum both offer some of the best beaches in the world. 

Beaches in Cancun look almost endless and feature numerous activities, but tend to be crowded during peak seasons. 

Tulum beaches are often quieter and cozier, perfect for afternoon naps.

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Things to Do

Things to Do in Cancun

Cancun’s top things to do can be split into three main categories: urban entertainment, outdoor action, and heritage tours.

It goes without saying that nightlife is prime metropolis material, but Cancun’s urban comforts extend far beyond the evenings.

La Isla Cancun Shopping Village, Plaza Las Americas, and Kukulcan Plaza are just few of your many shopping stops.

There are also indoor museums and other city trips that your hotel’s entertainment team can easily arrange for you.

Don’t forget to look beyond the beaches for outdoor excursions too.

While beach lounging and scuba diving at the Banco Chinchorro reef are two popular activities, in-land adventures are many as well.

Stop by the nearest Xcaret Park or Ventura Park Cancun for its incredible play structures, or the Kabah Ecological Park and its kid-friendly petting zoo.

Nearby Contoy Island is also an amazing natural park to explore.

Finally, to complete the Cancun trifecta, tours to ancient historical sites are a must.

You’ll learn riveting history via Cancun day trips to Chichen Itza and El Rey Maya Ruins.

Not keen on going far? El Meco Archaeological Site sits within the Hotel Zone, while tiny Casa Maya Museum is in the heart of Cancun’s ecological park.

Xcaret Playa Del Carmen Parrott
Xcaret Park parrot

Things to Do in Tulum

Tulum leans into beauty of the Yucatan Peninsula. The ‘tourist city’ moniker isn’t welcome; the more natural the better!

And so, instead of shopping centers and metropolitan set-ups, you’ll find yourself exploring both coast and jungle.

Beach clubs line the Tulum ocean side, with enough sun loungers that everyone can claim one.

Further inland are amazing nature excursions that bring you into 300 miles of underwater tunnels.

The Cenotes dos Ojos invite swimmers and scuba divers, as well as zip-line enthusiasts.

To throw more names at you, because they’re absolutely inspiring places to visit: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Gran Cenote, Parque Ecological & Cenotes LabnaHa, and Xel-Ha Eco-adventure Park are must-sees.

Try a bit of everything between zip-lining and wildlife spotting, maybe even ATV tours.

Mayan ruins are promising too; Parque Nacional Tulum features archeological digs along a dramatic cliffside, and at affordable entry rate.

Apart from this seaport fortress, other historical landmarks nearby include the Coba ruins and its gigantic pyramid.

To learn more about the local community, you might also want to visit the multidisciplinary museum SFER IK.

Are There More Things to Do in Cancun or Tulum?

There’s no winner of this debate as it depends on what you like to do! 

Cancun and Tulum both offer a wide range of activities that fit both the laidback traveler and the action-seeker. 

We will say; Cancun is more commercialized if you pine over modern-day luxuries, while Tulum is the authentic Mexican getaway others desire.

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Nightlife

Nightlife in Cancun

We all know of Cancun’s reputation when it comes to nightlife – explosive.

In most cases, it’s an explosion of the senses, as all sorts of themed parties evoke animal prints, foam sprays, neon-colored shots and probably disco lights.

For spring breakers, March and April in Cancun is the peak of their clubbing experience.

Most nightclubs and bars actually find home in the many all-inclusive resorts, some accompanied by quieter lounges.

The younger crowd typically gravitates towards the dance floors and poolside parties, while older night outers may skip past Coco Bongo and Mandala for casual pubs instead.

Honeymooners also turn to tamer options like a romantic dinner out.

Playa Papaya Project
Photo by Playa Papaya Project

Nightlife in Tulum

In comparison, Tulum doesn’t seem to have that wild of nightlife. The Beach Zone, much loved by travelers, welcomes party goers into jungle-themed clubs.

These upscale venues however, have competition in the cheaper Downtown Tulum clubs.

For the most hedonistic party in any week, turn up at Papaya Playa Project on Saturday nights. Their Full Moon Parties, MC-ed by famous DJs, are quite loco.

Most likely, you’ll be nestled in a rooftop bar or other chill evening haunts.

The musical Batey Mojito and Kin Toh, which features literal outdoor nests, are great examples.

There’s also the laidback Pasito Tun Tun bar and their popular mezcal cocktails.

Which destination has the better nightlife?

Cancun is definitely the life of the party, as there’s no end to nightly events. 

While Tulum puts up a good fight, the sheer range of clubs and themed parties make Cancun the stronger contender.

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Dining & Restaurants

Both Tulum and Cancun thrive on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, sharing in cheap food costs and mouthwatering eats.

The biggest difference between the two lies in the kind of cuisine they have on offer.

Dining in Cancun

Dining in Cancun runs from hole-in-the-wall to very swanky. Within the hotel zone, restaurants are tailored towards the international crowd.

Chain restaurants, foreign cuisines and fusion menus make up the majority of your options.

While your all-inclusive coverage may not be as Mexican-focused as you hope for, the sea views complement these higher-end dining selections.

The cheaper and more authentic eateries are clustered in downtown Cancun.

If you prefer local flavors and late-night socializing, its casual diners and cozy restaurants will appeal.

That’s not to say that you won’t find classy rooftop hangouts, but expect everything to be more low-key and affordable.

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Dining in Tulum

Tulum dining is more localized; a true foodie’s destination for Mexican food.

Yucatecan dishes snatch the top-most pages of menus, showing off fresh catches of the day.

Aside from seafood, Riviera Maya loves their local produce.

Breakfast tortillas and slow-roasted pork are two common orders, as are egg enchiladas.

If you’re missing your international dishes, Tulum Beach does feature a decent range of Thai, Italian and Japanese restaurants.

American grills wiggle their way into beach club menus as well, the heavier meat-based dishes pairing well with tropical cocktails.

Luckily, Mexican and foreign dining in Tulum isn’t separated into zones. You can easily access both whenever and wherever you want.

Where to Stay

Where to Stay in Cancun

Cancun’s all-inclusive resorts give you the best deals.

Atelier

All-inclusive Atelier is for ages 16 and over, planting a lush respite along Playa Mujeres.

Each of the 431 suites are filled with luxury amenities and furnishing inspired by contemporary Mexican art.

What draws your attention, however, is the massive 18-hole golf course framed by the Caribbean Sea.

Not a golfer? The highly praised staff also directs you to other on-site facilities such as the spa, beach cabanas, 8 international restaurants and pool.

Make easy reservations for fun classes like aqua Zumba, or sunset yacht cruises.

 

Haven Riviera Cancun

With 250-acres of landscaped grounds, the horse-shoed Haven Riviera Cancun sections off a quiet spot on the Cancun coast.

Reviews describe it as “spotless”, giving thumbs up for housekeeping and the oceanfront rooms.

The staff also helps organize a range of activities and excursions, including beach volleyball and casino nights.

There’s no shortage of lounge space either, whether at your swim-out pool or hammocks on the beach.

To complete this tranquil retreat, their hydro spa therapies are top-notch.

 

Le Blanc

Clean, understated, elegant – Le Blanc is quoted to be “an oasis in a world of crazy”.

Outfitted with BVLGARI bath amenities (you read that right) and lagoon views, each room is comfort personified.

The all-inclusive package for this adults-only resort covers everything: complimentary hydrotherapy, outstanding fine dining, and immaculate pool and beach days.

Even standard bookings net you 10/10 staff service and activities! If paddleboard yoga and aquatic spinning aren’t up your alley, maybe private cabanas and golf course visits are.

Ahau Tulum Ocean front
Photo by Ahau Tulum

Where to Stay in Tulum

In Tulum, unique boutique hotels steal the show.

Mezzanine Colibri Boutique Hotel

Mezzanine Tulum is cozy, functional, and perfect for honeymoons.

Just steps from a shallow beach, this boutique accommodation brings you into a naturalist setting without stripping away comfort.

Start the day with morning coffee service, then book an outdoor massage or lounge under shade.

When you leave your balcony Jacuzzi and sea-facing suite, the specialized Thai restaurant and bar treats you to authentic dishes.

Downtown Tulum isn’t far either, especially with desk-arranged transportation.

 

Ahau Tulum

Magical and mystical, Ahau Tulum’s décor choices show off Tulum’s natural riches. The eco-conscious huts and cabanas sit equally on sand and in greenery.

The 3-star hotel also offers daily meditation and yoga sessions, after which you can hop over to nearby restaurants for refreshments.

But what makes it stand out are the diverse services; couples’ massages and bridal suites cater to romantics, while family rooms and pet-friendly policies attract casual travelers.

 

Playa Papaya Project

Young adults who love to mingle will find Playa Papaya Project to be one of Tulum’s coolest and hottest spots.

Quirky-shaped pools are cut into the white-cast buildings; as private balcony pools or hotel-wide shared spaces.

Natural stone finishes and thatched coverings blend seamlessly with the palms and beachfront.

Artists find even more to love – sustainable art installations are always up on the property.

Best of all, this Caribbean hideaway transforms into nightlife central every weekend, featuring prominent DJs and cocktail crushers.

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Cost & Budget

The Cancun and Tulum 7-day budget for an average couple may show a rather huge gap in total cost but know that your trip is as cheap as you make it.

Average Budget for 1 Week in Cancun

The average one-week Cancun trip budget for two is approximately $3200.

Here’s the breakdown:

Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs around $150-350 per person.

Note that international flights (not from the States) may cost a lot more.

Accommodation – Cancun hostels with bare necessities cost between $25 and $50 per night.

Your standard double is typically priced at $300-$400, while all-inclusive stays tend towards $500 up.

Ocean-facing suites with VIP services can peak at $2000 per night; a huge jump! Accommodation costs average $2800 a week.

Food – Bless Mexico’s low food expenses.Breakfast and street eats average $3; lunch and dinner average $13.

The average weekly food costs for two amounts to $420.Fine dining will cost more though, so account for that.

Activities – All-inclusive deals cover your daily activities but expect to pay for extreme adventure tours and historical sites’ entry fee.

Outdoor tours start from $60 up. Clubbing is another huge expense, starting at $30 per entry; ladies do get discounts.

If you’re doing at least two major tours, expect to spend around $300 for two.

Ven a la Luz Sculpture
Ven a la Luz Sculpture

Average Budget for 1 Week in Tulum

The average one-week Tulum trip budget for two is approximately $2,180.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip averages $320-500 per person.

Prices jack up during peak season, with December being the most popular month of visit.

Accommodation – For hostel rooms with decent amenities, expect prices from $39 per person.

Mid-range hotels are priced around $130 per night, including access to on-site facilities and basic amenities.

Boutique top-tier suites may cost double of that. You pay anywhere from $546 to $910 a week in Tulum.

Food – Again, food is cheap in Mexico! In Tulum, budget meals average $5 and mid-range eateries cost around $15 per meal. The average weekly food cost for two amounts to $350.

Activities – There are plenty of self-guided tours and free activities in Tulum (like spending time on the beach), which lowers expenses.

Regular museum visits and day tours cost relatively little, starting at $21. If you’re doing one activity every day, expect to spend around $280 for two.

Is Cancun or Tulum Cheaper to Visit?

Tulum is noticeably cheaper to visit thanks to lower accommodation and activities costs. 

It’s also not as crowded of a holiday destination as Cancun, which keeps the cost of living low.

Do note however, that Cancun’s all-inclusive hotel packages can cover majority of your holiday spending. Solo travelers may also save up a lot by staying at hostels downtown.

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