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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.
|Attributes||Cancun||Playa del Carmen||Tulum|
|Distance from intern’l airport||5-20 min||45min-1 hr||1.75-2 hrs|
|Shuttles, taxis, buses available||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Quietness and seclusion||No||No||Yes|
|Nearby excursions/day trips||Yes||Yes||No|
|Rental car needed||Depends||Depends||Depends|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
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.
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.
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
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.