Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum: Which Mexico resort town is best?

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Mexico undoubtedly has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. However, 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 is the most popular destination in Mexico among tourists. It is a relatively inexpensive, easy, and quick trip if you live in the continental USA. It’s also just a short flight from the country’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.

Cancun, Mexico

Cancun Mexico resort

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. Large resorts and chain restaurants cater to the American tourist. Everyone in Cancun speaks 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. I would recommend conversing with the locals because you might find they have interesting stories. Cancun also has a bit of a reputation for being a party destination full of drunken college kids.

While you will find plenty of people who fit that 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. The best part about Cancun is its proximity to the 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.

Pro: Close to the airport

Con: Crowded

Where to stay: Fiesta Americana Condesa

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

ziplining in Playa Del Carmen at XPlore

Playa del Carmen is another popular beachfront tourist town. Although not quite as Americanized as Cancun, you will still find large all-inclusive resorts and a bustling nightlife that caters to tourists. I feel like the town of Playa del Carmen is a bit more authentic than Cancun, but you still won’t really have a language barrier. There are some great shops where you can barter and negotiate on price, but there are also American chains. Playa del Carmen is also closer 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. You will either have to rent a car and drive or take a shuttle or taxi. Renting a car in Mexico and driving is the more convenient option, but the shuttle will save you money. Although 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.

Pro: Close to adventure excursions 

Con: Beaches aren’t as pretty or expansive

Where to stay: Occidental XCaret (for family travel) or The Royal (adults only)

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum - Mayan ruins

Tulum is definitely the most secluded of the three options. That’s 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 is less crowded, and has the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, in my opinion. 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 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.

Pro: Beaches and ruins

Con: Farthest away

Where to stay: Alaya Tulum

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!

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

Tulum beaches

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 cultural and a less crowded experience Tulum is the way to go.

All three destinations in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula offer great snorkeling in beautiful turquoise water, natural beauty, the ideal tropical climate, incredible Mexican food, and an awesome cultural experience.

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

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Have you visited Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum? What is your favorite spot on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula? Let us know in the comments below!

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25 comments on “Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum: Which 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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