Last Updated on April 1, 2023
Planning a trip to Mexico? If you’re heading to the Yucatan Peninsula, one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country, deciding where to stay can be overwhelming. There are quite a few beloved cities and towns to choose from. Among them, two of the most popular are Cancun and Tulum.
When considering the pros and cons of Cancun vs Tulum, you’ll undoubtedly find that the two destinations are very similar in some ways – gorgeous coastline, mouth watering Mexican cuisine, and friendly locals. However, they are also completely opposite in other ways. Deciding whether Cancun or Tulum is right for you essentially boils down to your personal interests and travel style.
We’ve broken down the key similarities and differences, logistics of each Tulum vs Cancun, as well as some of the highlights and perks of each different region. Ultimately, when it comes to Cancun vs Tulum, only you can decide which is right for you.
If you’re still torn, fret not. You can easily visit both destinations during one trip. They are relatively close and easy to go between! You may end up deciding to split your time evenly between the two, or taking a day trip to one or the other. It takes on average, a little over two hours to get from Cancun to Tulum, depending upon your mode of transportation.
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Table of Contents
First things first, how do you get to Cancun or Tulum? Regardless of which destination you choose, you will fly into Cancun International Airport.
An increasingly popular way to go from point A to point B is to use a rideshare service. However, there is a lot of gray area when it comes to Uber and other rideshare services in Mexico. Uber is illegal in Cancun and is not allowed to operate at the airport. That being said, Uber does operate in Cancun city, and you can use the service at your own risk, just not from the airport.
A word on taxi safety – Cab drivers in Mexico are required to display their permits in a visible location. Always cross-check the permit with the license plate number to ensure it is a valid taxi.
Considering proximity to the airport, Cancun is much easier to reach from abroad. Depending on whether you stay in El Centro (downtown) or in the hotel zone, your options are pretty similar. The hotel zone and downtown are about 20 minutes drive from each other by car.
Private transfers are a convenient option if you’ve got room in your budget and are looking for something fast, convenient, safe, and easy. If you want a private or luxury transfer, rates start at $35 USD for a group of three, and there are great rates available for private transfer for larger groups.
Another easy option would be to take a taxi. The ride takes about 30 minutes and will cost about 600 MXN ($29 USD).
The airport offers shared shuttle services as well. This is slightly cheaper depending on the number of people in your group. Shared shuttle services are around $10 USD per person. So if you’re traveling solo or in a small group, this is your best bet and should be reserved in advance.
If you’re traveling on a budget, public transportation is the most affordable option to reach downtown Cancun. The bus costs a little less than $7 USD per person and will drop you off downtown. The ride takes around 35 minutes.
There are time restrictions for the buses, however. They run as early as 8:15 AM and as late as 11:45 PM. If your plane is arriving outside the hours of operation, consider a taxi or shared shuttle.
If access from the airport is a deciding factor when considering Cancun vs Tulum, Cancun wins. Still, the airport offers a number of options to reach Tulum (though you can expect a longer ride). The drive from Cancun airport to Tulum is about 1.5 hours, depending on traffic.
A private transfer would be the most convenient option, with a driver meeting you upon arrival at the airport. The cost of a private transfer starts at around $100 USD for a group of 1-3 people, with savings available when purchasing a round-trip transfer.
Alternatively, a taxi is another convenient option. The cost of a taxi is about 1,700 MXN (around $81 USD). A private transfer or taxi ride from the airport to Tulum takes a little over an hour and a half.
Shared shuttles are slightly less expensive, no matter if you opt for Tulum vs Cancun. Prices start around $50 USD per person, so if you are traveling as a group you would be better off choosing a private transfer for cost savings, and more comfort. As with the shared shuttles to Cancun, these seats need to be reserved in advance.
There are also buses that go from the airport to Tulum. Tickets are around $20 USD and the ride takes about two hours. Thankfully, the buses are air conditioned, modern, and quite convenient. Hours of operation for the bus to Tulum from the airport are between 10:55 AM and 9:45 PM.
Getting around Cancun or Tulum can be easy or incredibly frustrating, depending on where you are going and your choice of transportation!
If you’re based in Cancun, you’ll find that most of the local attractions are found in the hotel zone. If you want to head into the city center, you’ll need a way to get around.
There’s no shortage of taxis in Cancun, be it the hotel zone or El Centro. The best way to get a fair price is to negotiate with your driver beforehand, as there are no meters. You’ll find that there is a slight increase in fares late at night or early in the morning (and sometimes if you’re drunk).
When you negotiate the price, the driver will often include a small tip for him. If you wish to leave extra, 5 or 10 pesos is sufficient. While most taxis in Mexico will (begrudgingly) accept US dollars, you’re not likely to receive any change. Try to keep some pesos on you at all times – particularly in smaller denominations.
Uber is another alternative, however they operate in a bit of a legal gray zone. We used Uber to get around Cancun, however the service was spotty at best. Sometimes we opened the app to get a ride and there were no cars for over 20 minutes.
Even though Uber is considered illegal, we consider it a much safer option than taking a taxi. We also preferred having a clear upfront price along with location tracking. All Uber drivers we had were super friendly, and the service is surprisingly inexpensive when compared to a taxi.
Getting around by bus in Cancun is pretty straightforward. You’ll find all of the buses stop frequently and are very affordable. A one-way ticket is 12 MXN (around $0.60 USD).
Perhaps the most intimidating part of navigating public transportation, particularly buses and trains, in a foreign country is not knowing where your stop is. That’s no problem in Cancun – just let your driver know where you’re going, and they will be happy to tell you when to get off.
Virtually everything you want to see in Cancun is accessible by bus. The routes span the hotel zone, Blvd. Kukulcán, and into El Centro. The most popular routes are R1 and R2.
A popular way for vacationers to plan their bus routes in Cancun is to use RutaDirecta. This site allows you to input your destination and starting point in order to find the best bus route.
Lastly, you have the option of renting a car, which can be incredibly convenient if you plan to complete a lot of excursions or day trips outside of Cancun. We’ve had three separate car rentals while we were in Cancun and loved the freedom that comes with having your own car. We always use Rentalcars.com to book the cheapest car rentals.
Tulum is much smaller than Cancun, which would make you think that it’s much easier to get around. This is mostly true, however in Tulum, your options of getting around are a little less varied than in Cancun.
Tulum also has a distinct hotel zone and a downtown area (the Pueblo). The hotel zone is concentrated near the beach. The two are about 3 miles (5 km) from each other. Despite their close proximity, there is only one connecting road, meaning lots of traffic and expensive transportation costs.
One of the most popular ways visitors choose to explore Tulum is on bike. Depending on where you stay, a bicycle rental may even be included in your accommodation fees. If it’s not included, you can find a wide variety of bike rental shops. Costs are usually around $6 USD per day.
If you plan on riding between the Pueblo and the hotel zone at night, it’s wise to rent a headlamp, as there are no street lights on the beach road and there are many potholes and other obstacles along the way.
Taxis in Tulum are convenient, yet severely overpriced. Traveling the 3 miles between the Pueblo and the hotel zone is often a minimum of 100 pesos (around $6 USD). This price is often much higher during the nighttime hours.
However, taxis can be a useful option for visiting nearby cenotes, ruins, etc. Apply the same safety principles to taxis regardless of whether you’re based in Tulum or Cancun – cross-reference the permit and license plate number being first and foremost and be sure to negotiate your price beforehand.
Another way to get around Tulum is by colectivo. Colectivos are essentially small, white, shared vans that only make certain stops. They are more intimate than a bus, but more public than a taxi.
Colectivos are geared more towards locals, however, and don’t always stop for tourists. For this reason, pick-up and drop-off near the beach can be tricky. If you want to take a colectivo in Pueblo, just wait at the bus stop.
An appealing aspect of taking a colectivo is the price – only 15 pesos (around $0.80 USD) for a ride, which definitely beats the money you’ll shell out for an overpriced taxi.
You may see some adventurous travelers hitchhiking in Tulum. Though not as socially acceptable (or safe) in other parts of the world, here it’s pretty standard and common practice for backpackers.
If you’re staying within town, a rental car in Tulum is highly unnecessary. However, if you plan on taking a lot of day trips or excursions, it could be a valid option. Note that parking in the hotel zone is extremely limited, and you will have to pay everywhere. Additionally, during peak hours, driving between the hotel zone and Pueblo can be extremely frustrating due to the heavy traffic.
However, we’ve always rented a car for our trips to Tulum and loved the freedom that comes with having your own car. We always use Rentalcars.com to find the cheapest car rentals and book through them. You can check the prices and availability for your car rental here.
When it comes to Cancun vs Tulum, both have pretty stunning beaches. Regardless of whether you opt to base yourself in Cancun or Tulum, you won’t be disappointed by the beaches or the insane turquoise color of the water.
Are you more interested in working on your tan and having table service? Or would you prefer beaches with calmer waters and younger crowds?
The main difference in beaches when considering Tulum vs Cancun comes down to the simple fact that Tulum beaches are slightly more wild and raw in comparison with those in Cancun.
The beaches in Cancun are home to some of the most beautiful, sparkling white sand and bright, turquoise waters you have ever seen. Given Cancun’s prime location at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, its tropical beauty is unmistakable.
Many of Cancun’s beaches are associated with beachfront hotels. With beachfront service coupled with high-end chaises and umbrellas available to rent, the beaches of Cancun are perfect for those seeking a bit of luxury during their trip.
The shoreline in Cancun has a steep drop-off, which can be a surprise to unsuspecting swimmers. The waters can also be rather choppy, with large waves and oftentimes a strong current. Be sure to keep an eye out for red or yellow flags, indicating the level of swimming safety.
On the northern end of the hotel zone is where you’ll find calmer waters, perfect for swimming with kids and less experienced swimmers.
Some of the most popular beaches in Cancun include Playa Gaviota Azul Beach and Playa Delfines. Playa Gaviota Azul is definitely where you want to head for calmer waters, whereas Playa Delfines is a great option if your hotel doesn’t have its own beach. The beach at Le Blanc Cancun is one of our favorites!
Similar to the beaches in Cancun, Tulum’s beaches also boast white sands and turquoise waters. A bit more raw and wild, nestled adjacent to the jungle, Tulum’s beaches also offer calmer waters. The shoreline isn’t nearly as steep, meaning you can wade into the water quite far without going in too deep.
Occasionally the gentle breezes may make the water appear choppy, but the riptide is comparatively nonexistent. The waves in Tulum are much more mild than those in Cancun.
Tulum’s beaches are primarily associated with the famous Tulum beach clubs. Given Tulum’s rise in popularity over the years, particularly with celebrities and influencers, the prices to access these beach clubs have also sharply risen. This may make some of Tulum’s beaches less accessible than their Cancun counterparts. Many of the beach clubs are popular Tulum Instagram spots or hotels in their own right.
Things to Do in Cancun vs Tulum
Considering the different ambiance in each destination, it should come as no surprise that the activities in Cancun vs Tulum are equally different. There are, of course, a few activities that you can find in both Cancun and Tulum. Both destinations offer activities such as SUP (stand up paddleboarding), kayaking, and other typical water sports.
Is this your first time traveling to Mexico? Read the Essential Cancun Travel Tips before you go!
Things to Do in Cancun
Aside from the obvious activities, such as spending a day at the beach or going shopping, there are a number of fun (and less conventional) things to do in Cancun.
One fun day could be spent at MUSA, an actual underwater museum. Here, you can find over 500 different sculptures constructed out of materials that promote coral reef development. A snorkeling tour of the museum is available with everything included once you arrive. A complete snorkeling tour with transportation from your hotel included is also available.
Instead of shopping at chain stores, get your souvenirs from Mercado 28. This is essentially a huge flea market, with hundreds of vendors all eager to show you their wares.
Panoramic Views at Torre Escenica
If you’re not afraid of heights, head up the 300 foot (91 m) Torre Escenica to enjoy 360 degree panoramic views of Cancun and the surrounding sea.
Check out all of the best Cancun tours!
It’d be impossible to talk about Cancun without at least a mention of the epic nightlife and party scene. This is particularly true during the spring months, when college kids from around the USA and beyond flock to Mexico’s party capital for Spring Break. For the most quintessential Cancun night out, head to Coco Bongo or Señor Frogs.
Things to Do in Tulum
Undoubtedly the most popular thing to do in Tulum is to visit the ruins, which you can easily do as they are located so close to Tulum. The Tulum ruins are certainly not the biggest nor most impressive on the Yucatan peninsula; however, their picture-perfect location on a seaside cliff makes them among the most beautiful and popular among Instagrammers and photographers alike.
One seriously underrated thing to do in Tulum is to head to Laguna de Kaan Luum for a mud bath in a cenote. There are a ton (over 30,000, actually) of cenotes on the Yucatan and along the Riviera Maya, but this one is perfectly central to Tulum. And for a modest price of 50 MXN (approximately $3 USD), it’s perfect for traveling to Tulum on a budget.
Check out the best Tulum tours to make the most of your vacation!
For your daily dose of nature, head to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. This is a sprawling nature preserve home to some of the most plant and animal species in the area. You will have to take a tour (or rent a Jeep) to explore this biodiversity hotspot, however.
Considering the fact that Cancun and Tulum are in relatively close proximity to one another, you can probably imagine that they share many of the same day trip opportunities. Despite one route generally being slightly shorter than the other, when debating Cancun vs Tulum and factoring in day trips, they’re about even.
These are some of our favorite day trips from Cancun and Tulum which cannot be missed on your perfect Tulum or Cancun vacation itinerary.
Valladolid is known for its colonial buildings, folk-ish vibes, art and architecture. Though it’s very worthy of a few days (at least), it’s also a popular day trip to take in the Yucatan.
In terms of proximity by car, Cancun is slightly farther. The drive from Cancun to Valladolid takes just over 2 hours, whereas the journey is around 1.5 hours from Tulum.
Izamal is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, or, magical towns. It’s known for its special cultural heritage and vibrant yellow buildings. It’s an ambitious day trip regardless of whether you’re starting from Cancun or Tulum.
Izamal is about equidistant from Cancun and Tulum. By car, the ride takes just under 3 hours Cancun. From Tulum, the drive is shortened to 2.5 hours.
By bus, from Cancun the ride takes approximately 5 hours. From Tulum, the bus ride is about the same, but involves a transfer. If you’re restricted to taking public transportation, your best option would be to spend the night in Izamal. Alternatively, consider a guided tour from either Cancun or Tulum!
Merida is the largest city on the Yucatan whose popularity has risen in recent years, since the towns and cities on the Riviera Maya have become more and more concentrated with tourists. Similar to Izamal, Merida is a very ambitious day trip regardless of whether you’re starting from Cancun or Tulum.
From both Tulum and Cancun, a bus takes around 5 to 6 hours, whereas a drive will take a little over 3 hours.
Once in Merida there is so much to see and explore. The historic center is very walkable with many beautiful buildings. The food scene is also excellent, with foodie tours being very popular.
If you’re not driving, consider spending a night or two to enjoy the seamless amalgam of Mayan and colonial culture that Merida has to offer.
When it comes to Cancun vs Tulum, the world-famous Chichén Itzá is an easy day trip from either! This beautifully-preserved Mesoamerican step pyramid and Mayan ruins attracts hordes of tourists each year due to its beauty and status as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Thankfully, it’s easily accessible from either Cancun or Tulum.
From Cancun, a bus takes about the same as driving at around 2 hours.
From Tulum, there is no direct bus route, making the ride much longer. It takes around 3.5 hours with a connection to reach Chichén Itzá from Tulum by bus. By car, it takes roughly the same amount of time as Cancun – just over 2 hours.
Regardless of whether you’re based in Cancun or Tulum, you’ll have plenty of guided tours to choose from.
Las Coloradas, translated to ‘the red ones’, are the Yucatan’s famous pink lakes. They are located on the northern coast of the peninsula, making for a long ride from either Cancun or Tulum.
By car, driving to Las Coloradas from both Tulum and Cancun takes about 3.5 hours, maybe slightly less from Tulum.
Unless you’re backpacking and have ample time to kill, avoid public transportation. The bus routes from either Tulum or Cancun are not direct and take upwards of 5 hours.
There are also guided day trips available from both Cancun and Tulum which may be the best option to see the lakes and relax on the drive to and from Las Coloradas. You can even find a tour that groups both Las Coloradas and Chichen Itza into one tour.
The ‘island of women’ is a popular island off the coast of Cancun to visit as a day trip, particularly for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts.
This is one day trip that is exponentially closer to one destination over the other. When contemplating Cancun vs Tulum, if you’re looking to visit Isla Mujeres, Cancun wins hands-down. The island also has some amazing Isla Mujeres Instagram spots!
From Cancun, simply hop on a ferry ride from Punta Sam. Punta Sam can be reached in 10 minutes by taxi or Uber from the hotel zone, and the ferry ride takes about 20 minutes. However if you’re looking to travel in a catamaran instead of the ferry, this tour has you covered, including snorkeling!
From Tulum, it’s a bit tricker to reach the island. If you’re taking a bus, you’ll have to take the bus to Playa Tortuga and catch the ferry from there. The entire trip takes around 4 hours!
If you have your own car, Punta Sam has a large secured parking garage where you can park your car and then take the ferry over to Isla Mujeres. The parking cost is very reasonable, and it depends on how long you spend on Isla Mujeres.
And finally, we have the world-renowned cenotes. There are literally thousands of cenotes scattered throughout the Yucatan peninsula, so you can visit them easily from either Cancun or Tulum. We even have a guide on the best Tulum cenotes!
Unfortunately, there are none that are actually in Cancun. To visit cenotes from Cancun, you’ll have to head further south or inland, either to Playa del Carmen, Valladolid, or even to Tulum. You can reach Playa del Carmen in an hour by car or an hour and twenty minutes by bus. There are also plenty of guided tours that will bring you to a number of cenotes in one trip, giving you the opportunity to visit a few during the course of your day.
There is a much denser concentration of cenotes in the vicinity of Tulum. You can reach them easily by colectivo, taxi, or even bus, depending on which you want to visit. Similar to Cancun, there are also guided cenote tours that will bring you to some of the best cenotes in Tulum and the vicinity, allowing you to visit a few different cenotes in one day.
If visiting cenotes is a deciding factor in choosing Cancun vs Tulum, Tulum wins.
Shopping in Cancun vs Tulum offers very different experiences. While Cancun is focused on name brands and indoor malls, Tulum offers more intimate boutiques in which to purchase goods and souvenirs from your trip.
You’ll be able to find all you need in Cancun when it comes to shopping. Whether you’re in search of designer goods, chain stores, malls, flea markets, or boutiques, Cancun has it all.
For the most part, however, most of the shopping in Cancun is located in its many malls.
Popular places to go shopping in Cancun include Plaza las Americas, La Isla Cancun Shopping Village, Kukulcan Plaza, and Marina Puerto Cancun. And don’t forget about Mercado 28!
For the smaller shops that cater more to locals, you’ll have to venture into El Centro (downtown). They’re a bit far removed from the touristic areas, but worth the trip if you’re looking for authenticity.
Shopping in Tulum is a completely different experience than in Cancun. You won’t find any megamalls here! There are, however, a few shopping centers in Pueblo and on the outskirts.
Plaza Anador and Tulum Bazaar are the main shopping centers. Tulum Bazaar has a number of vendors right in the center, with an eclectic mix of kitschy souvenirs and handcrafted goods.
The best shopping in Tulum is at one of its many boutiques. Popular boutiques in and around Tulum include Mixik, Mexicarte Tulum, Confucion’s Shop, and Kaahal Home Tulum. This list is by no means exhaustive, however. There are tons of awesome boutiques in downtown Tulum offering everything from hemp clothes, tie-dye dresses, eco-friendly sandals, yoga mats, prayer flags, and more.
If you’re looking to party with some great nightlife, Mexico has many incredible destinations – will Cancun or Tulum be better for your trip?
Unofficially known as the party capital of Mexico, the nightlife in Cancun is revered around the world. If you’re looking for a traditional club scene, look no further. But the party doesn’t necessarily start at night – expect conga lines to break out at any time of day. Not to mention foam parties, bikini and wet t-shirt contests, and more.
We’ve talked about Cancun’s two districts already – downtown and the hotel zone. There is an unofficial third zone, however, known as the party zone. The party zone is located in Punta Cancun.
Coco Bongo is the gold standard for nightlife in Cancun. Situated smack dab in the middle of Punta Cancun, you can expect wild shows complete with circus and acrobatic performances, open bar for $85 USD, and long entrance lines.
Other popular clubs include Dady’O, Mandala Beach Club, Señor Frogs, Congo Bar, and Palazzo Nightclub.
A fun option for a night out in Cancun might be to take a CunCrawl, which is the city’s wild take on a bar crawl. With CunCrawl, you will go to three different clubs each night. At two of the clubs you will get unlimited bottle service.
At all three clubs, you get open bar all night. Check the schedule, as the clubs you visit vary depending on which day of the week you choose. There are many nightclub crawls available to suit everyone’s needs.
If the idea of a night spent dancing on the beach with sand between your toes amid the jungle sounds appealing, Tulum might win in the Cancun vs Tulum battle for nightlife. As with all things Tulum, even the nightlife here gives off serious boho vibes. Many of the restaurants and beach clubs in the hotel zone transform into wild dance parties once dinner service ends.
One really cool aspect of nightlife in Tulum is that, despite all of them being open every day, the main bars and clubs take turns hosting the biggest party depending on the day of the week.
For the biggest party on Tuesday and Wednesday, head to Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar in Pueblo. On Thursdays it’s at Casa Jaguar and Fridays at Gitano, both in the Middle Beach Zone. Saturdays head to Papaya Playa Project in Beach Town and Sundays the week wraps up with Salsa Night at La Zebra Hotel in the Middle Beach Zone.
Be sure to keep pesos on you, as most of the clubs and bars in Tulum will either not accept cards or will add a hefty surcharge.
While the many chain restaurants in Cancun will have safe options for people with all different tastes, Tulum’s independent restaurants are on the trendier side, with ‘foodie’ farm-to-table options and innovative cuisine. When contemplating Cancun vs Tulum in terms of food, it largely depends on personal preference.
You’ll find a lot of chain restaurants in Cancun. Of course, that’s not all you will find. Some of the best restaurants in Cancun include La Playita, Kiosco Verde Marisquería, and El Socio Naiz Taquería.
People who have visited Tulum before are all familiar with Burrito Amor, which is perhaps the best place to grab a snack in Pueblo. Other popular places to eat in Tulum include Fresco’s and Arca.
Regardless of whether you choose Cancun or Tulum, be sure to check your bill for a service charge, known as a propina. If this charge isn’t on your bill, be sure to leave a tip. Tipping 10-20% is customary, expected, and appreciated.
The hotels in Tulum vs Cancun vary greatly. Do you want to stay in a high rise, explore the all-inclusive hotels, or do you prefer something more along the lines of boutique hotels?
It’s no secret that Tulum has been steadily rising in popularity among couples seeking romance, influencers and celebrities, and solo backpackers alike. With this rise in demand comes higher prices in accommodation.
Hotels in Cancun are generally more affordable (and abundant) than in Tulum. Still, regardless of your budget, you’ll be able to find something in either destination.
Some of our favorite travel experiences have been a vacation at the JW Marriott Cancun and an intimate, romantic stay at the Sun Palace Cancun. For more of a backpackers budget, try Hostel Ka’beh Cancun.
For an upscale stay in Tulum, consider Azulik, La Valise Tulum, or Papaya Playa Project. Don’t forget your camera – these hotels are some of the most instagrammable places in Tulum! On the other end of the spectrum, Lum or the Weary Traveler Hostel are both great options.
When considering Cancun vs Tulum, as you undoubtedly know by now, it all comes down to personal preference. Depending on your travel style, one destination may really stand out to you over the other. Both destinations are truly incredible depending on what you are looking for in your Riviera Maya vacation. With white sand beaches and crystal, turquoise waters, Cancun and Tulum both offer up the stuff Caribbean Sea dreams are made of.
Tulum is more geared toward earthy, nature-lovers who appreciate a more laid-back ambiance. Its (relatively) untouched nature, jungle haciendas, and abundance of yoga studios appeal to the bohemian spirit in all of us.
Cancun is better if you’d like to enjoy all-inclusive resort amenities, commercial shopping malls, guided tours, and a more regulated environment.
Which sounds more appealing, Cancun or Tulum? Have you visited both and have a strong preference, one way or the other? Let us know in the comments whether Tulum or Cancun is the better destination for you!
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