How to choose between Cancún and Tulum

Cancún and Tulum are the crowd-pleasers of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, both swathed in powder-puff sand and lapped by the spearmint Caribbean Sea. They may be just two hours away apart by car, but they’re as different as night and day.

Cancún is vibrant and vivacious: sky-scraping hotels and extravagant resorts line the sugar-white sand, while local markets abound inland. Tulum, in contrast, is sexy and subtle. Low-key palapa huts stand alongside boho-chic boutique hotels and art galleries that blend seamlessly with the surrounding tropical jungle. 

So which beach town should you pick for your Riviera Maya getaway? If you’re torn between the two, this friendly competition might help you decide which city suits you best. 

If I’m on a budget, should I choose Cancún or Tulum? 

The Riviera Maya isn’t the cheapest part of Mexico, but there’s no shortage of world-class resorts, funky hostels, and restaurants offering great value in both Cancún and Tulum. 

Cancún’s resorts are pricey, but there’s an excellent public bus system

Cancún’s Zona Hotelera brims with all-inclusive resorts that take front-row seats on the glitzy 19km (11-mile) stretch of majestic Caribbean beaches. Blvd Kukulcán, the main drag that cuts through the Zona Hotelera, is flanked by American chain restaurants and shiny malls.

Just a 20-minute drive away is Cancún Centro, where you’ll find local flavors in colorful markets and authentic taquerias that dish out ridiculously good US$1 tacos. Centro also plays host to a smattering of budget hotels and affordable apartments, but choices are limited. 

One of Cancún’s winning trades is its efficient city bus system, which connects the two areas. Catch route R1 or R2 to downtown, and it’s a flat fee of just M$12 (US$0.50). It’s also easy to catch an Uber, a safer and cheaper option than flagging down a taxi. 

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A row of turquoise bicycles parked under palm trees
Tulum is big on bikes, and they’re cheap to hire in town © Margarita Almpanezou / Getty Images

Tulum is a bike-friendly city, but prices have soared

Tulum is a tale of two cities – the beach and pueblo (town) are around 6km (4 miles) apart. Thankfully, Tulum is big on bikes, and they’re cheap to hire in town. Ola Bike on Avenida Coba rents out the iconic turquoise bicycles for M$150 (US$7) per day.

The pueblo is compact and walkable, overflowing with low-cost taquerias and laid-back hostels where backpackers bond over craft beer and reggae music. The main drag, Avenida Tulum, can be dusty and clogged with traffic – but it redeems itself with a lineup of well-priced vegan cafes, family-run seafood restaurants, and drinking holes that don’t cost the earth. You’ll also find an extensive offering of affordable apartments available for short term rental  in the new residential areas of La Veleta and Aldea Zama, just a few blocks from the main drag.

If you’re dreaming of waking up to a view of the sea, be prepared to part with some cash. Tulum has a whole slew of boutique hotels that range from palapa-style cabañas (cabins) to barefoot luxury villas. But Tulum’s rising popularity has made prices skyrocket in recent years, and beachfront accommodation is pricier than before.

The winner: Tulum still has the edge over Cancún on this because of the budget options in the pueblo. However, this might change a few years down the road if prices in Tulum continue to increase.

Which city’s beaches are the best? 

While Cancún and Tulum are both cocooned in pearly white-sand beaches, venture further afield to discover the two cities’ under-the-radar strands.

A woman wearing hat on a white-sand beach with turquoise water, seen from behind
Cancún’s got a beach for every mood © Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Cancún has wide, windswept beaches and an untouched peninsula

Fittingly famous for its sublime sand, Cancún’s got a beach for every mood – shallow snorkeling coves, isolated spits, rave-party shores and wind-whipped kiteboarding strands. 

Playa Delfines is a hot favorite among locals, who come here for the waves and palapa shade. Slightly north is Playa Marlin, a fantastic spot for water activities like parasailing and surfing. But Cancún’s shining star is Isla Blanca: a glorious, virtually untouched peninsula 20km (12 miles) north. No traffic, no high-rise hotels, no glittery nightclubs – just a couple of beach shacks and a tourist or two.

Tulum has an array of protected nature reserves 

Tulum’s beaches stretch from the dramatic Tulum Ruins to the vast Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, with quiet pockets of sandy shores in between.

Playa Pescadores is a great place to see fishers haul in their catch in the morning. From there, you’ll have an excellent view of the Tulum ruins, perched high above the brilliant aquamarine waters of Playa Ruínas. (Playa Ruinas is accessible from the archaeological site by stairs, but the staircase has been closed since the pandemic started, and it’s not clear when it will reopen.) An 18-minute drive up the coast is Xcacel, one of the most pristine beaches in Riviera Maya. It’s part of a protected nature reserve, where hundreds of sea turtles nest each spring.

The winner:  Cancún beats Tulum just by a smidge, mainly for the wide range of beaches found here.

Is Tulum or Cancún better for arts and culture?

Both Cancún and Tulum have much more to offer than the beach, and you don’t need to go far to discover an arsenal of culture houses and artsy treasuries.

Cancún’s cultural offerings might surprise you

Cancún is famous for being party central, but rest assured you can still get your culture fix between the raves. The city’s theater, Teatro de Cancún, ​​has a regular lineup of stage plays, comedy shows and musicals, and every evening, the Ballet Folklórico de Cancún puts up an entertaining performance of traditional Mexican dances at the Cancún Convention Center.

Culture vultures will delight in browsing through the 400 Maya artifacts on display at the Museo Maya de Cancún. The exhibits are relatively small and take just a few hours to see. The museum contains one of Yucatán’s most important collections of Maya artifacts.

Tulum has a vibrant art scene and countless galleries 

As the newly minted art capital of the Riviera Maya, Tulum is a magnet for creative types. Wander barefoot through the contemporary art museum, SFER IK, and let the curving walkways and bridges made of vine-like endemic wood guide you through the art collection. Then immerse your senses in the visually stunning Mystika museum, and connect with Maya cosmology through interactive digital experiences and photography.

The winner: Tulum takes this one for its thriving art scene and one-of-a-kind museums.

Which city has the best Maya ruins?

Tulum is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the country, but don’t sleep on Cancún, especially if you’re a museum buff.

Visitors at the El Rey Archaeological site, located in the Hotel Zone of Cancun
The Zona Arqueológica El Rey is known for its small temple and ceremonial structures © Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz / Shutterstock

Cancún has a handful of small Maya ruins

Cancún’s Maya sites may not have the wow factor of Chichén Itzá, but they provide historical context when combined with a visit to the Museo Maya de Cancún. A winding path behind the museum leads to the archaeological site of San Miguelito, a Maya seafaring community that flourished between 1200 and 1350 CE.

Around 2km (1.5 miles) down the road is the Zona Arqueológica El Rey, known for its small temple and ceremonial structures. The ruins got its name from a sculpture of a rey (king) excavated here. 

Panoramic view of a white-sand beach with ruins and people in the distance
Tulum’s ruins have the rare advantage of a waterfront location © M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

Tulum’s archaeological site is one of the best in Mexico

Tulum is one of the most visited ruins in the whole of Mexico, and it’s easy to see why: the ruins are perched on the cliffs’ edge, overlooking the cobalt waves of the Caribbean Sea. The temples may not be as impressive as those of other Maya cities, but they have the rare advantage of a waterfront location.

Feel the sea breeze as you weave through the maze of ruins, hearing Maya myths and taking a peek into the past. Further south of Tulum (30 minutes by car) lie the smaller and lesser-known Muyil Ruins, which offer a starkly different and uncrowded experience. 

The winner: Tulum wins this hands down, simply because of the unique geography of its archaeological site.

Does Cancún or Tulum have better activities?

Cancún has the action, Tulum has the soul. Both cities prize the sea and jungle, but significant differences remain.

Pack a sense of adventure for Cancún

With the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – the second largest reef in the world – right at its doorstep, there are countless diving opportunities in Cancún. Scuba-dive with the rare eagle rays at Manta Valley, or swim through the shipwreck C-55/58. At the underwater Museo Subacuático de Arte, you can even dive amidst life-size sculptures off Punta Nizuc.

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A jumble of eco-parks fan out around the dense tropical forest surrounding the Ruta de los Cenotes, around 30 minutes by car from Cancún. The massive adventure park at Selvatica has 10 different zip lines, a bungee swing and flying fox circuits. Hungry for more? Hop on an ATV or a 4×4 buggy and trundle through the bush like a modern-day adventurer.

An overhead shot of people swimming in a cenote
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is blessed with thousands of cenotes, many of which are concentrated around Tulum © achinthamb / Shutterstock

Get spiritual in the cenotes and wilderness of Tulum

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is blessed with thousands of cenotes, or natural swimming holes, many of which are concentrated around Tulum. Gran Cenote is the most popular; get there at 8am to have the place to yourself, then cycle to Cenote Calavera and challenge yourself by jumping through the narrow cave opening.

Swim in the best cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

For those keen on veering off the beaten path, we’ll let you in on a secret: there’s a little-known spot with water clearer than glass and mud with healing powers, just a 15-minute drive from Tulum town. Kaan Luum is a stunning circular lagoon with shimmering waters that alternate between baby blue and dark indigo. Swing on the rainbow-colored hammocks and climb the lookout tower to get a picture-perfect view from above – it’s a slice of Tulum that you’ll want to keep to yourself.

The winner: Cancún edges Tulum out with its long list of action-packed attractions.

Which city makes a better base for exploring the region? 

Both Cancún and Tulum are well-positioned for day trips to Chichen Itza, Valladolid and nearby cenotes. But each has unique destinations that are worth dragging yourself away from the beach.

Two divers swimming with a whale shark in Mexico
Visit Isla Mujeres during migration season, and you could get the chance to swim alongside whale sharks © feel4nature / Shutterstock

Take to the water for Cancún’s island day trips 

Across the bay from Cancún, Isla Mujeres makes for an easy island escape, with a low-key atmosphere and pedestrianized main street. The best way to explore the 6.9km (4.3-mile) long island is to hire a golf cart.

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Learn about endangered sea turtles at the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm and snorkel in the shallow waters at Playa Garrafón before visiting the Maya temple at Punta Sur, the southern tip of the island. Time your trip to coincide with whale-shark migration season between May and September, and you could get the chance to swim alongside these gentle giants!

Visitors walk on a wooden boardwalk through lush green wetlands of Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is teeming with wildlife © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Head into the wilderness on Tulum’s day trips 

Sprawling across the south of Tulum is the Reserva de la Biósfera de Sian Ka’an, a 1.3-million-acre reserve of mangroves, savannas, peacock-blue lagoons and virgin beaches. The reserve is teeming with wildlife too: manatees, dolphins, giant land crabs, jaguars and tapirs all live under one roof here. The only way is to properly explore this vast wilderness is with a guide; the Maya-run Community Tours Sian Ka’an runs snorkeling tours through ancient Maya canals.

Top 5 day trips from Tulum

An alternative for those seeking dry adventures is a day trip to the Cobá archaeological site, approximately an hour inland from Tulum by car. Towering over the thick foliage, Nohoch Mul is the tallest pyramid in the entire state of Quintana Roo. Most of the ruins are yet to be restored, and excavations are still ongoing; prepare to tread on vine-covered rubble and climb up ancient mounds for an Indiana Jones–style experience. 

The winner: Tulum is the pick, essentially because its day trips have managed to stay under the radar.

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