Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum: Which Popular Mexico Resort Town is Best?

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Mexico undoubtedly has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  And when it comes to a beach trip to Mexico – you’ve probably found yourself weighing three options – Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum? So which one is best? It all depends on what you want to see and do while in Mexico. There are so many things to do in Mexico besides going to the beach. The country offers beautiful culture, incredible food, and amazing adventure!

The Yucatán peninsula and the coastal Mexican state of Quintana Roo is the most popular destination in Mexico among tourists, and visiting the Yucatan with kids makes for a great family vacation. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to get to, and a quick trip if you live in the continental USA or other parts of North America. It’s also just a short domestic flight from Mexico’s capital, Mexico City. There are three places in particular that people are most likely to visit in this part of the world: Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Each has its unique pros and cons.

This guide to the Yucatan Peninsula’s three most popular resort towns compares and contrasts Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – to give you a side-by-side comparison of the three cities so you can decide which one is right for you.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – our experience

We have personally traveled to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. We loved all three of these Mexico beach destinations but noticed some unique differences about them. In fact, it is hard for us to say which city is better – Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum. Despite being only 45 minutes to an hour away from each other – these three cities have their own unique vibe that will appeal to different types of travelers. So let’s get into the highlights of each of them.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – an overview

For those who like to see things laid out side-by-side, we’ve created a quick overview breaking down the unique aspects of Cancun, Playa, or Tulum. It is important to note that all three heavily cater to tourism, so whether you are looking for an adults-only romantic escape or a family-friendly resort with lots of kids activities, you will be able to find options that will fit what you are looking for in all three cities.

AttributesCancunPlaya del CarmenTulum
Distance from intern’l airport5-20 min45min-1 hr1.75-2 hrs
Shuttles, taxis, buses availableYesYesYes
Beautiful beachesYesNoYes
Quietness and seclusionNoNoYes
Budget-friendlyYesYesNo
Nearby excursions/day tripsYesYesNo
Rental car neededDependsDependsDepends
Family-friendlySomewhatYesSomewhat
Nature-orientedNoNoYes
ShoppingYesYesNo
NightlifeYesYesSomewhat

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – Cancun, Mexico

Cancun is perhaps the most popular of the three beach towns. With approximately 5 million visitors each year, Cancun’s popularity also means it is the most crowded and the most commercialized of the three Mexico beach destinations in Quintana Roo.

Hotels, Restaurants, and Shopping in Cancun

Large resorts and chain restaurants cater to the American tourist. Those working in hotels and restaurants in Cancun speak English very well, so there will be no language barrier in this part of Mexico. Although, with Spanish being the official language of Mexico, we recommend learning at least a little Spanish for your travels. Conversing with the locals, even if it is simply getting to know your server, will only enhance your trip. You might find they have interesting stories

downtown cancun shopping district - a great reason to stay in cancun if you are determining cancun vs playa del carmen vs tulum
Downtown Cancun shopping area – Photo by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay

It is only a short taxi ride from the hotel district to downtown Cancun, where you will find plenty of shops and stores if you are looking for souvenirs or simply want to spend an afternoon shopping. 

Atmosphere in Cancun

Cancun has a bit of a reputation for being a party destination full of drunken college kids.You’ll find beach clubs and massive bars for adults looking for nightlife. But that shouldn’t scare you off if you are a family visiting Cancun with kids. 

While you will find plenty of people who fit the drunken party-goer stereotype in Cancun, there are also plenty of unique things to do that don’t involve partying. A lot of the resorts and hotels are great for families and have kid zones and pools with slides and water activities specifically for little ones. 

And if you avoid the all-inclusive resorts, you’ll find it easy to visit Cancun on a budget, as well. 

Pool area at an all inclusive resort in Cancun Mexico resort
Cancun is known for its all-inclusive resorts, but lots of them are kid-friendly and offer family activities

Beaches in Cancun

If you are looking for a destination with never-ending stretches of white sand and brilliantly blue water, you can’t go wrong with Cancun. The beaches are pristine, albeit a bit crowded. For the most part, Cancun’s beaches are great for water activities like swimming and snorkeling. Occasionally, Cancun goes through a season where the seaweed blooms and washes up on shore, covering the beaches. If you happen to visit during one of those periods of time, you’ll benefit from staying at a nice all-inclusive resort that hires staff to rake it up daily.

Beach in Cancun
Beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum offer soft sand and turquoise water

Convenience – getting to, from, and around Cancun

The best part about Cancun is its proximity to the Cancun International Airport. The resorts in Cancun are about 10-20 minutes from the airport, making it ideal for those who only have a short amount of time for their vacation and want to relax by a pool or beach with a fruity drink. You can easily take a shuttle or a taxi from the airport, making it easy to visit Cancun without needing to rent a car. Cancun is also a convenient ferry ride away from Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, two of the best Caribbean islands for families.

The only one of the three cities with an international airport, Cancun is the easiest to get to. So when weighing your three options – Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – Cancun takes home the gold medal in convenience for travel.

Cancun at a glance

  • Population: 889,000
  • 15-20 minute drive from the airport
  • Excellent beaches
  • Large, all-inclusive resorts
  • High-end shopping and lots of variety
  • Lots of Nightlife
  • Mexican food is more Americanized rather than authentic
  • Not walkable but has reliable public transportation and taxi service
  • Safe and feels very commercialized
  • Good base for day trips within a 2 hour drive

Largest Pros and Cons of Cancun Mexico

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – Playa del Carmen, Mexico Carmen, Mexico

Playa del Carmen is another popular beachfront tourist town. Located in the area known as the Riviera Maya, the coastal resort community is known for its coral reefs, fun and welcoming atmosphere, and nearby adventure activities. The fastest growing city in Latin America, Playa del Carmen has a large expat population that has ballooned in recent decades. 

Hotels, Restaurants, and Shopping in Playa del Carmen

Although the hotel and shopping district does not feel as Americanized as Cancun, you will still find large all-inclusive resorts and a bustling nightlife that caters to tourists. 

There are some great shops along the popular Fifth Avenue that runs through the hotel and walkable shopping district of Playa del Carmen where you can barter and negotiate on price. However, you’ll also find plenty of American chain stores, as well. 

Atmosphere in Playa del Carmen

The town of Playa del Carmen has a more authentic vibe than Cancun, but you still won’t really have a language barrier. With a large expat population and an estimated one million tourists each year, English is widely spoken. 

Downtown Playa del Carmen, Mexico – Photo by Braden Collum from Unsplash

It is laid back and friendly but has definitely become busier in recent years. So, like Cancun, you expect crowds rather than a secluded beach escape.

Beaches in Playa del Carmen

Like in Cancun, it is easy to find a nice beach in Playa del Carmen. If you are staying at a boutique hotel, an Airbnb, or a rental apartment, the beaches in Playa del Carmen are all public beaches that are easy to access. When comparing beaches in Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum, Playa del Carmen would rank third on our list. 

Public access means residents and tourists fill the sand, so finding a quiet seaside escape is more of a challenge. But the water is nice, warm, and great for swimming, as long as they are not having mounds of seaweed wash up on the shore, which has been an unfortunate issue in the last few years due to climate change.

Statues at the entrance to one of Playa del Carmen's most popular public beaches.
The iconic entrance to one of Playa del Carmen’s most popular public beaches. Photo by Sergio Sala from Unsplash

Convenience and activities near Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is close to some of the more adventurous areas of Mexico.

If you’re interested in activities like ziplining, swimming or diving in cenotes and underground rivers, and visiting the incredible and family-friendly eco-archeological park, XCaret, Playa del Carmen may be your better option. The largest drawback to Playa del Carmen is that it’s a bit further from the airport than Cancun. You will either have to rent a car and drive or take a shuttle or taxi. 

entrance to a river that people can float into a cave at XCaret Mexico - a popular reason people stay in Playa del Carmen vs Tulum or Cancun
The popular XCaret Eco-Park in Playa del Carmen and other adventurous activities in the area is one of the reasons to stay in Playa del Carmen vs Tulum or Cancun. Photo by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay

Renting a car in Mexico and driving is the more convenient option, but the shuttle will save you money. The shuttle ride can take approximately an hour, sometimes longer if there are multiple resorts where shared riders are being dropped off. That makes it a bit more difficult to get to for a quick weekend trip.

Playa del Carmen at a glance

  • Population:305,000
  • 45 minute drive to 1 hour drive from Cancun airport
  • OK Beaches – all public
  • Large resorts with a mix of boutique hotels and rental apartments
  • Walkable commercial district with lots of shops near hotels along Fifth Avenue
  • Nightlife options, if desired
  • Lots of family-friendly options
  • More authentic vibe and atmosphere
  • Better food than Cancun
  • Safe without feeling as Americanized
  • Excellent base for day trips with lots of excursions nearby 

Largest Pros and Cons of Playa del Carmen Mexico

  • Pro: Close to adventure excursions 
  • Con: Beaches aren’t as pretty or expansive
  • Where to stay: Hotel XCaret (alll inclusive for family travel)
  • Casa Mi Playa (private house)

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is definitely the most secluded of the three options: Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum. That is mainly because it is also the farthest away. It will take you approximately 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours by shuttle or private transport to get from Cancun to Tulum.

Tulum - Mayan ruins
Mayan ruins in Tulum at sunset.

Hotels, Restaurants, and Shopping in Tulum

Unlike Cancun and Playa del Carmen you will find fewer large all-inclusive resorts and more boutique hotels and smaller, more intimate resorts. 

If you prefer the solitude of a home or apartment to an all-inclusive hotel, there are numerous Airbnbs in Tulum that offer both privacy and luxury. Many of them are just steps from the ocean’s waves!

The town of Tulum is separate from the hotels and beach, so you’ll need a car if you stay in town and want to go to the beach, about 3-5 miles away, or if you stay by the beach and want to go into town. A popular place for honeymooners, Tulum also offers more fine dining restaurants and luxurious accommodations.

Atmosphere in Tulum

Tulum has a more upscale, posh appeal to it, with more couples and families and fewer drunk college kids. While you can still find plenty of nightlife and beach clubs, the atmosphere is more artsy and laid back.

Beaches in Tulum

Tulum is less crowded, and has the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, in my opinion. The town itself is smaller than Playa del Carmen or Cancun, and it has fewer annual visitors at around 600,000 tourists per year. That alone makes it easier to find a secluded place in the sand to bury your toes and relax and watch the waves.

Convenience and activities near Tulum

One of the best things about Tulum is that beyond the stunning beaches, there are also ancient Mayan ruins that you can explore. While you can find fascinating archeological sites like Chichen Itza, throughout Mexico, the Tulum ruins are particularly spectacular because of their setting perched on the hills overlooking the Caribbean coast. However, if seeking seclusion, the beach near the Tulum ruins is not your best bet, as it is often crawling with people. While the ruins are a great place to spend some time exploring, Tulum offers plenty of other picturesque beaches that are quieter and equally lovely.

Mayan ruins in Tulum with crowds of people
The Mayan ruins in Tulum add a unique experience to Tulum, but they can get crowded. Photo by walkerssk from Unsplash

Tulum at a glance

  • Population: 46,000
  • 1.75-2 hour drive from Cancun airport
  • Beautiful beaches
  • Mayan ruins near the beaches
  • Boutique hotels and posh, private resorts
  • Nightlife, if desired
  • Artsy vibe with a laid back atmosphere
  • Good food with more high-end restaurants
  • Beaches and hotels are separate from Tulum town

Largest Pros and Cons of Tulum Mexico

  • Pro: Beaches and ruins
  • Con: Farthest away
  • Where to stay: Alaya Tulum (boutique hotel)
  • Where to stay: Dreams Resort (all inclusive)

Which is safer, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum?

Safety is always our top priority when booking a trip, particularly as parents traveling the world with a child. Mexico has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation when it comes to safety. From the capital city of Mexico City, to the Yucatan Peninsula, and even some Mexico border towns, Mexico is generally safe to visit if you use common sense.

Yes, the country has its ugly issues with drug cartels and gangs. But, if you are not involved in illegal activity and you travel with common sense, the three main resort areas on Mexico’s Caribbean coast are equally safe. Avoid going out alone late at night, drink responsibly, don’t flash money, status, or designer labels around, and generally be aware of your surroundings, and you should be just fine in this part of Mexico. 

Verdict: Cancun, or Playa del Carmen, or Tulum?

Whether you should visit Cancun, or Playa del Carmen, or Tulum really depends on what you are looking for in a trip. If you are looking for a quick easy getaway or an awesome party visit Cancun. Looking for something a bit more adventurous? Playa del Carmen is your spot. And if you want a more romantic or meditative experience, Tulum is the way to go.

All three destinations in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula offer great snorkeling in picturesque Caribbean-turquoise water, natural beauty, the ideal tropical climate, incredible Mexican food, and an awesome cultural experience. So, if you are wondering how they stack up – Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum – all three are great destinations – yet uniquely different in their own ways. 

Interest in other places along the Yucatán peninsula? Check out Mérida!

Have a question or comment about Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs or Tulum? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and let us know which one is your favorite spot on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula? 

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This Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum comparison guide was first published in 2018 and was updated in April 2022 for accuracy and current information.

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25 comments on “Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum: Which Popular Mexico Resort Town is Best?”

There are always travel warnings for Mexico. In fact, most of the countries I have visited, included Belize, have current travel warnings. I think if one uses common sense, most places are generally safe.

We go to Cancun every year to visit family. I think it is great for families–especially if you stay at the (old) Westin or Club Med where the water is calmest. Tulum is lovely (but I haven’t stayed there) but I wouldn’t stay in Playa–unless you are at a resort (so not really in Playa) the beaches are too crowded and often rocky. It makes a nice day trip for something different but not the best vacation, especially with young children.

In fact these are the three places I have heard about the most in Mexico! Perhaps because they’re the most visited? All 3 look absolutely beautiful. I do have my apprehensions about travelling to Mexico considering we keep hearing how unsafe it is but maybe one day if I do, this is a good list for me to refer to, thanks for sharing 🙂

Yep, it’s definitely much different travel/tourism styles!

I guess Cancun is great for parties and relaxing, while Playa del Carmen more for relaxing and getting to know more about the country, and Tulum about getting to know the country, relax, and go on adventures!

I was in Mexico last year, and went to all three. I have to say I wasn’t a fan of Cancun, I did enjoy my time in Playa but for me I fell in love with Tulum. I absolutely love that place 😀 from the Ruins on the cliff, the beach below it to the town itself. When I return to Mexico, because even though I spent 3 months there I feel I still haven’t scratched the surface I will be going back to Tulum 😀

Tulum is easy to fall in love with. Our last trip to Mexico we also went to Mexico City and fell in love with it,too. I agree, it is one of my favorite countries too, and like you, I have so much more of the country I have yet to see and explore.

Love Mexico but Playa Del Carmen and Cancun is too touristy for me. Sham as the scenery and history along the peninsula is wonderful.

Oh! I didn’t realize Tulum was so much known for their beaches too. Whenever I think of Tulum, I think of the ruins.

I’ve stayed in Play Del Carma before. Loved it! Really liked that it was less crowded than what I hear Cancun is.

Now I haven’t been to Cancun, but I was in Playa and Tulum earlier this year – I definitely agree with your verdict though. Tulum is much quieter and there’s less there in terms of tourist attractions, but then if that’s what you’re looking for then it’s the perfect place! x

I have never been to Mexico but my friend is inviting me to go next month. I think we’re going to Mexico City. I feel like though, based on the three you mentioned in your post, I’d go for Cancun <3

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