Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – What’s the best beach destination in Mexico?

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum is a question many people planning a getaway in Mexico debate. The three are internationally known as great travel destinations, offering unique experiences, amazing activities, lovely beaches, and weather.

But which is the best option to travel? And more importantly, which fits you better? These cities offer a wide range of activities for different kinds of travelers; they are similar in many ways but also very different. Let’s quickly check their main characteristics.

Cancun vs Tulum vs Playa del Carmen – Characteristics

Cancun

  • Great Beaches
  • All-inclusive resorts
  • Party Vibe
  • Great nightlife
  • Great shopping
  • Closer to Airport
  • Many day trips
  • Day trips to Mayan Ruins
  • Cenotes close by
  • Not good for hiking
  • Ok for biking

Playa del Carmen

  • Good Beaches
  • Hotels and AirBnBs
  • City Vibe
  • Good nightlife
  • Good shopping
  • At least 1hour from Airport
  • Many day trips
  • Day trips to Mayan ruins
  • Cenotes close by
  • Good for urban and beach walking
  • Not good for cycling

Tulum

  • The best Public beaches
  • Eco-resorts / wellness retreats
  • Laid back vibe
  • Good nightlife
  • Mainly niche shopping
  • Further to Airport
  • Many day trips
  • Ruins close and in the city limits
  • Cenotes close by
  • Good for walking by the beach
  • Amazing for cycling
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum
Playa Mirador in Tulum Mexico

To better compare Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum and to help you decide which destination is best for your next vacation, we will analyze the following topics:

  • Size;
  • City Vibe;
  • Tours, attractions, and day trips;
  • Resorts;
  • Beaches;
  • Nightlife;
  • Shopping;
  • Food scene;
  • Travel Infrastructure;
  • Travel safety;
  • Costs;
  • How Touristy;

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum

City size

These three Mayan Riviera cities are very different in terms of city size. They are clearly the most popular destinations in the Yucatan region, but the cities are very different.

Cancun is the largest city, with almost 900,000 people, while Tulum is clearly the smallest, with less than 50,000. Playa del Carmen is a big city (about 350,000), or at least bigger than one might expect, but not nearly as big as Cancun.

However, we should note that the city size doesn’t make much difference if you are looking solely for a resort-like vacation.

What's the best beach destination in Mexico?
Cancun coast in Mexico | photo by jdross75 via Depositphotos

The Vibe

The size and the way they were organized make their vibe also very different.

Cancun is clearly a resort-oriented city, with lots of partying, clubs, all-inclusive resorts, and so on. The curious is that the city itself and the tourist area are separated. The resorts are in the Zona Hotelera (a few km from the city center), where the beaches and the mass tourism services are located. In the city center, you’ll find the main services, and it has a more “normal” vibe.

Playa del Carmen is smaller but sometimes feels bigger because the town center and the tourist area are mostly together. The main tourist street (5th avenue) crosses the whole town, and it’s genuinely a party area with bars, restaurants, and hotels. Some of the beaches are also close by, but the best ones are further north or south.

Tulum is completely different from Playa del Carmen or Cancun. It is really a small town, and even the main street is relatively calm. Like Cancun, the beaches and attractions are entirely separated from the center, but the vibe is much different – it is a more laid-back and bohemian vibe. There aren’t huge hotels, and it’s more about eco-friendly resorts, yoga retreats, etc.

Best beaches in Yucatan Mexico
Tulum is one of the best destinations in Mexico

Tours, attractions, and day trips

All three cities and vicinities have many landmarks, tourist attractions, and parks. In fact, most of them can be visited from Cancun, or Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. For example, Chichen Itza and Valladolid can be easily visited from any of the three.

Isla Mujeres is one of the most popular day trips from Cancun, while Cozumel is very popular in Playa del Carmen. Tulum is further south but has its own popular attractions, like Akumal and Mahahuhal. They are very popular for marine life, particularly turtles.

Cancun and Playa del Carmen also have several theme and entertainment parks in the area. Tulum has none close to the town, but it has the fantastic Xal-ha a few km north.

All in all, we think it is a tie between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, while Tulum doesn’t have the same variety because it isn’t as developed.

Which one to chose Cancun or Playa del Carnmen
Chichen Itza in Mexico, one of the seven wonders of the World

Cenotes

The cenotes are one of the most famous attractions in the region. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of cenotes in the Yucatan region, so you’ll have many cenotes to visit wherever you go.

It is challenging to argue if one destination is better than the other regarding the cenotes. The three have lovely cenotes close by, and the three have many to choose from.

So, the most important thing here is to ensure that there will be cenotes wherever you go, and you should visit a few. They are fun and unique.

Tulum or Cancun where to go
One of the most beautiful cenotes in Yucatán, Mexico

Beaches

One of the main reasons people flock to Mexico for a vacation is the beaches, so it is important to choose a destination with amazing beaches. Here, we will mostly focus on the free, public beaches, as we haven’t really tried the resorts.

Fortunately, all three have good beaches to choose from. However, we must mention that the beaches in Playa del Carmen aren’t as great as the best beaches in Cancun and Tulum. On the other hand, they are very accessible, probably the most accessible of the three.

Tulum Beaches

Our favorite beaches in the region are the public beaches in Tulum. They are as beautiful as they get, warm turquoise water, soft sand, clean. Everything you want on a beach. Unfortunately, they aren’t in the town center.

You’ll need to walk (a lot), ride a bike, or take a taxi to get there, as they are all close to each other, a little south of the famous Tulum Ruins.

Which one is the best Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen
Beach in Tulum, Mexico

Playa del Carmen Beaches

The beaches of Playa del Carmen are very accessible, and you can reach them from the city center. In fact, there are beaches right in the city center, close to the famous Fifth Avenue.

However, we advise you to go further north (Punta Esmeralda Beach) or south (Playacar Beach). The beaches there are better, less crowded, and cleaner- though not as good as those in Tulum or Cancun.

Best beaches Tulum Playa del Carmen or Cancun
Punta Esmeralda Beach in Playa del Carmen Mexico

Cancun Beaches

Similarly to Tulum, Cancun also doesn’t have beaches in the city center, so you will have to take transportation to reach them. This is not a significant problem if you are in one of the resorts, as you’ll have a private beach. In fact, most of the beaches (particularly the best beaches) are private or almost impossible to reach if you aren’t in a hotel/pay to enter.

Playa Delfines and Playa Langosta are possibly the two main public beaches in Cancun. They are great and easy to reach by public transportation, but we still prefer the public beaches of Tulum.

Next destination Playa del Carmen, Tulum or Cancun
Public Beach in Cancun, Mexico

Hotels and Resorts

All three cities have many hotels and resorts, but they are very different. In general, they all have all kinds of accommodation, but each specializes in different types.

Cancun has a wide variety of resorts, but most importantly, it has many all-inclusive resorts. If you are looking for an all-inclusive resort and are trying to choose between Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen vs. Tulum, then Cancun is the answer.

Playa del Carmen has some resorts, but they aren’t as good and as diverse as in Cancun, while Tulum has even fewer. Playa del Carmen has many hostels and guest houses, but it really excels in family tourism. It has a wide variety of hotels (from budget to high-end), perfect for families. It also has many Airbnb and short-term rentals.

Tulum is entirely different. It has numerous cheap accommodation in town that caters mostly to young backpackers, but it also has a large offer in terms of eco-friendly resorts, yoga retreats, and other general wellness offers.

Cancun is all about all-inclusive resorts, Playa Del Carmen focuses on condos and hotels, and Tulum does the eco-friendly, wellness, and hippie-chic accommodations niches.

Best place to stay in Mexico
Eco-friendly resorts in Tulum Mexico – Best destinations of Mexico

Nightlife

Regarding nightlife, Cancun and Playa del Carmen are miles away from Tulum.

As it is smaller and receives considerably fewer tourists, Tulum has a much more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. However, don’t get us wrong, it still has more than enough restaurants, bars, and parties. But, it can’t be compared with the other two options.

Cancun is the opposite. It is the party town of the Riviera Maya. There, you’ll find options for anything you want to try- clubs, bars, beach parties, really anything. Some of the most popular options include the world-famous Coco Bongo, the Congo, and the city nightclub.

Playa del Carmen is something in between, though closer to Cancun. The city, particularly around 5th Avenue, is incredibly lively. It is vivacious throughout the day, but at night, it just busts with people, restaurants, bars, shops, everything, and anything you can imagine.

Best beaches in Mexico
World-famous Coco Bongo in Cancun, Mexico | photo by czuber via Depositphotos

Shopping

As a bigger city with more tourists, Cancun has more shopping options than Playa del Carmen and most other destinations. It is impressive, really. You’ll find every brand you’ll like and then some more. Even the most exclusive one.

If shopping while traveling is your thing, some of the places you need to visit in Cancun include La Isla shopping village, Mercado 28, and the Marina.

Although it cannot compete with Cancun in terms of size and variety, Playa del Carmen also offers plenty of shopping opportunities. It has two extensive malls and the already mentioned 5th street, which is full of shops.

Plus, it has the significant advantage of being walkable, even at night. You can easily walk to the shops, bars, and restaurants. The distances are relatively short, it is safe and fun, and it is lively.

Again, Tulum is very different. It can’t compete in size or diversity, but it has some nice shops, particularly in the hippie-chic niche.

Best place to do Holidays Cancun or Tulum
5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen in Mexico is one of the best places to go shopping

Food scene

When it comes to trying local Mexican food, none of the three options is great. Neither Tulum nor Cancun or Playa del Carmen. In our opinion, the best cities to try Mexican food are Puebla and Oaxaca. Or, if you want to try typical Yucatecan food, Merida is the place to go.

Nonetheless, this article is aimed at people who are struggling to choose if they are traveling to Playa del Carmen, or Tulum, or Cancun. Thus, between the three, we believe that the best food is served in Playa del Carmen and the worst in Cancun.

Cancun is notoriously famous for not having a great Mexican food scene. It obviously has so many options for food, but they aren’t usually typical and are exclusively aimed at tourists (especially Americans). So, there are many international fast-food restaurants.

In Cancun, you can also find Mexican street food in Parque de las Palapas. It is OK, but not great.

Tulum is quite different. There are more than enough fast-food restaurants, but there are also many other options. There are vegan/vegetarian restaurants. There are some niche cafés and modern restaurants. And some street food. However, there’s not much diversity.

And again, It is very tourist-oriented – a very different kind of tourist, but still a tourist.

Playa del Carmen isn’t as niche as Tulum, nor full mass tourist like Cancun. In fact, the city existed before tourism arrived, which is why it has some (not much) local character in its food. There are many local restaurants, and some of them are pretty good.

You can also find several typical Yucatecan (and other Mexican) dishes and lots of street food. However, you have to get out of the beach and 5th Avenue. The further you get from mass tourism, the more typical (and better) Mexican food you will find.

Tulum or Cancun or Playa del Carmen
Panucho – Yucatecan dishes in Mexico

Travel Infrastructure

Cancun has a much larger travel infrastructure than Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Cancun has everything and usually several options to choose from. Either shops, bars, clubs, hotels, beaches, all-inclusive resorts, or anything you can think of. If it’s a tourist-related service, Cancun has it.

Playa del Carmen has fewer options and less diversity than Cancun, but it still has a pretty good infrastructure, and you probably won’t miss anything. And as everything is more in town, sometimes it is easier to reach or to find.

Tulum is different. As we said, Tulum is niche – there are many options in some things, like eco-resorts or hippie-chic cafes, but some things are missing. There were strangely few ATMs, for example. There aren’t all-inclusive resorts (which can be good…). Also, the city as a whole still looks like it is being developed and growing.

Also, the international airport that serves the whole region is located next to Cancun, so it’s more convenient. However, it is also easy to get there from Playa del Carmen (55 km) and Tulum (120 km). There are buses, taxis, and shuttles from each of the three to the Airport.

Where to go in Mexico
Parque los Fundadores in Playa del Carmen in Mexico

Travel safety

Which is safer? Playa del Carmen, Tulum or Cancun? In all honestly, we didn’t find much of a difference in terms of overall safety. The whole region is one of the safest in Mexico, and you shouldn’t have any problems in any town. Particularly if you stay in tourist areas.

Yet, you still need to be careful. Don’t leave your things unattended, don’t go to sketchy places, and don’t get completely wasted on the streets. Also, don’t be stupid and do illegal stuff (like drugs) in Mexico. But this should be obvious to anyone, anywhere. Plus, they use police dogs in many places!

Finally, we suggest you be more conscious of places with lots of people, like bus stops, the airport, and busy streets. This is where scams and petty theft happen.

These are all general safety tips for any city in the world. And we didn’t find Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum to be different or particularly dangerous.

how to chose between Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen
Beach in Cancun- Where to go in Mexico

Costs

Similarly to the safety, we didn’t find the prices of Tulum vs. Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen to be much different. In fact, it’s more about what kind of tourist you are and what you plan on doing than where you stay.

For example, luxury hotels are similarly expensive in the three cities, while hostel rooms are reasonably cheap and cost more or less the same wherever you stay. We also found tours to be very expensive or at least more than we expected in the three destinations.

So, if you are looking for an all-inclusive hotel, you’ll probably end up in Cancun, while if you want a short-term rental, you’ll be in Playa del Carmen. You will also indeed spend less in Playa, not because it’s less expensive, but because you chose an AirBnB and not an all-inclusive hotel.

That being said, if you are a budget traveler, we suggest Tulum (if you are a backpacker) or Playa del Carmen (if you are traveling with family). It’s not that it is less expensive, but you’ll have an easier time finding what you want and having a better time. Thus, it will be a better value for money.

Most touristic Tulum or Cancun
Beach in Playa del Carmen in Mexico

How Touristy

We have already established that Cancun is bigger than Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It receives about 5M tourists yearly, while Playa del Carmen receives about 1 Million and Tulum “only” 600 000.

So, while they have very different sizes and receive very different numbers of tourists, they are all touristy and live off tourism. It’s just different kinds of tourism. Cancun is about partying and mass tourism, Playa has a more family vibe, and Tulum has become very popular among travel bloggers, digital nomads, and Instagrammers.

Where to go Playa del Carmen, Cancun or Tulum
Playa del Carmen in Mexico

What’s the verdict: Playa del Carmen, Cancun, or Tulum

The verdict is: It depends on what you are looking for. Despite being very close to each other, each destination tries to attract a different kind of tourist and specialize in it. They have many similarities, but they are also very different.

But you should know that whatever the reason for your trip, these destinations are going to be amazing. Whether you are looking for romantic beach getaways, girls-only trips, or 40th birthday trip ideas, these Mexico beach towns have got you covered.

So, in hindsight, you should go to Cancun if:

  • You want an all-inclusive resort and large luxurious hotels;
  • An adult playground;
  • Holiday bubble, with easy access to anything you want.
  • Go partying and want massive clubs;
  • Shopping opportunities
  • Ecstatic vibe;
  • Be closer to the airport.
best destination in Mexico
Cancun Beach in Mexico | photo by michelepautasso via Depositphotos

Playa del Carmen is the best fit for:

  • Want more of a city experience;
  • Urban beaches;
  • Hotels and short-term rentals;
  • Try better local Mexican food;
  • Family trip;
  • Nightlife and shopping but as much as Cancun;
Beaches in Playa del Carmen Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum - What's the best beach destination in Mexico?
Beach in Playa del Carmen

Tulum is the best option for:

  • Backpackers who can stay in hostels and go to Public beaches;
  • Instagrammers, Digital Nomads, and content creators;
  • Young travelers;
  • Want to stay in eco-resorts;
  • Looking for niche retreats (yoga, vegan, wellness);
  • More of laid back vibe
Visiting Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Cancun
Playa Santa Fé in Tulum Mexico

Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun – why not two or three?

On the other hand, if you have more than a week, you may equate visiting two of them on the same trip. If you end up going to two of the three, I would suggest including Tulum, as it is very different, while Cancun and Playa del Carmen are somehow more similar.

It is also possible to take a day trip, but you won’t get as much from it. I would only suggest day-tripping to Cancun or Playa del Carmen if you didn’t find any other option. They are better and easier day trips.

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