Mexico is a stunning destination to explore some of the clearest beaches in the world, eat unique cuisine that would make anyone’s taste buds happy, soak in the history of the Mayan ruins, and more.
No matter where you go, you are sure to have a fabulous time. But between Tulum or Cancun, which is going to be the most gratifying experience?
Tulum or Cancun? The Best Mexican city to visit in my opinion is Tulum. It depends on your personal preference for crowds and what you’re aiming to do with your time in Mexico. I choose Tulum because you get all of the things I adore about Mexico with slightly less crowds. If you feel home in the tourist heavy locations, Cancun is probably the way to go!
You’re heading to Mexico but now what? I will discuss an in-depth comparison, so you can make the best decision based on how much you want to spend, what you see the whole family doing together, and more.
In my opinion, they’re both stunning places that you should see in your lifetime but let’s figure out which is the best fit for your family!
Tulum or Cancun? Best Mexican City to Visit in My Opinion
First, I’d like to say, there’s no wrong decision. I can tell you they are both dreamy havens filled with fruity cocktails, sandy beaches, vitamin D showering over you from the sun, and amazing cuisine.
They are each an oasis in their own right, so I’d like to acknowledge that early on before we dive in.
I am never trash talking either location, only playing devil’s advocate to give you the best argument for and against each destination.
Each has its pros and its cons, respectively. So, this guide will help you weigh out factors you may not have considered yet, and the answer should be clear fairly early-on if you know where your values lie.
It seems like the ideal place to start is what you’ll be doing on your getaway. Which leads us swiftly into our activity comparison of the two destinations.
- Eco-chic and sort of the hippie town of Mexico, Tulum is split into two parts. The beachy side that is less full of shops will be known for its eco-chic hotels. Cheaper accommodations will be farther down the beach.
- Tons of restaurants that attract celebrities, tourists, and locals alike.
- Rich history and nearby the ruins
- Less tourists than other places in Mexico
- Potentially more expensive because the packages in places like Cancun or Cozumel are incredibly cheap.
- No shopping malls or a ton of movie theaters here. This town is less about entertaining you and more about relaxing and soaking in the history. If that doesn’t appeal to you, go for Cancun.
- More tame than Cancun, not a party town necessarily
- Lots of vacation packages which makes it affordable and easily accessible for families or groups
- Party town. Can be a pro or a con depending on who you are.
- Tons of restaurants and things to do
- Historical and calmer activities nearby but not too close, about 1-3 hours’ drive away
- Many speak English as it’s a tourist destination
- Cancun was made for tourists. This is either a huge turn on or turn-off for you. Depends on how authentic you want your experience to be or if you want more English undertones to your stay.
- A lot of the hotels are older so show their wear and tear.
- Many salespeople preying on the tourists. They’ll try to sell you timeshares, souvenirs, and more.
- Busy and crowded beaches, no alone time really
- Lots of children. If you want an all adult location, this may not be it. There will be families with kids and young Spring Breakers getting wild.
With all of these factors to influence your decision, let’s jump into what makes each place unique.
What Makes Tulum Special?
Tulum is a more eco-conscious and hippie side to Mexico. If you love anything bohemian and down to earth, Tulum will be more your speed.
It is also located near the rainforest so expect this feel to Tulum and bring the bug spray!
The city is built on the edge of a cliff with the perk of mountains, sea views, and a fortress surrounding your city.
You get every dose of nature along with the historical factor that can really bring a place to live in your memories.
Some things you can’t miss include:
- Tulum’s Wall – walking downtown you’ll experience where the deep cliffs rest against the seaside. The way is 8 meters thick and is truly a fortress. The wall was created by the Maya, and they chose their site in Tulum very carefully by the looks of it. We’ve identified watchtowers and other advanced structures that show how forward thinking the Maya really were.
- El Castillo – if you are religious, the next three are built just for reverence and worship. El Castillo is a cove on the seaside, used as a small shrine area now. The shrine was even used almost as a lighthouse at one point and is very distinctly placed. It shows why the Maya chose for Tulum to be here and what made it a bustling port town.
- The Temple of the Frescos – The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. With Mayan gods etched into the building, it is a very intriguing point of history to explore through.
- The Temple of the Descending God – This is actually a single room with a staircase to another temple which is its base. This is known as a point to get higher and closer to god, revered for its height and prominence in the city line.
Of course, you can go to the beach and explore the nearby historical sites. It may take a drive for a few of them, but they are well worth it when you’ve already come this far!
I recommend Chichén Itzá and to swim through a private cenote oasis!
PERSONAL OPINION: Part of why I believe Tulum is the more authentic option is that you’re getting similar activities, foods, and safety levels while Tulum has much lower rates of tourism. This will mean fewer crowds and more enjoying yourself.
Places to Stay in Tulum
Staying where you feel safe and taken care of is essential to having an amazing getaway.
Some of the top-rated hotels and stays in Tulum include:
- Papaya Playa Project – This hotel has stunning rooms located right on the beach. The top floor is basically a giant hot tub, and the hotel is known for friendly staff and clean water. With vegan food options, drinks on tap all day, and views of a lifetime, this is a stay worth considering.
- Los Amigos – this is in the town of Tulum so not on the beach section. It’s a small boutique hotel that you can even find on Airbnb! They offer bikes for you to borrow and ride around town as a unique way to explore. With a rooftop pool, central location, and friendly staff, this is an ideal hotel for the right price.
- Coco Tulum – rated #2 of all places to stay in Tulum on Trip Advisor, this location has earned it’s excellent reputation by working hard and maintaining quality. With chic vibes and top-notch luxury, this beach-side resort includes pools, gardens to roam, a restaurant overlooking the beach, and your own beach bed! What more could you need while losing yourself in Tulum?
ADVICE: When booking would don’t choose based on price but to read reviews and know they’re accredited.
Even when booking for Airbnb, be sure these are trustworthy homeowners that will not scam you. If it seems too cheap or good to be true, it most likely is.
What Makes Cancun Special?
Cancun attracts millions of tourists each year that wish to sit beside the crystal-clear waters, relax in the sand, and drink a margarita.
Cancun is about relaxing on the beach during the day and then dancing the night away each evening.
If you want a more active vacation that feels like a party-scene, Cancun is a magnet to Spring Breakers and older generations alike.
With over 40 million a year visiting Cancun, this is the top pick for many people visiting for the first time and wanting a bite-sized taste of what Mexico has to offer.
If you’ve never been to Mexico before, I would recommend Cancun over Tulum as it will ease you into the new culture in a less rapid way.
With tons of American influence, the same fast food restaurants you’ll recognize from home, and more English speakers, this will be an easier choice if you don’t know the language and don’t plan to learn it.
Some of the best things to do in Cancun include:
- Xcaret Park – this is a theme park on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico and offers a unique experience to visitors! There is a river that goes through it, a coral reef with turtle nesting site, swim with dolphins, and more! This is the place to visit unique sea life and watch entertaining shows while snacking on delicious cuisine. There’s even a spa for mom and dad if you need some R&R time!
- El Rey Archaeological Zone – With nearly 5 stars on Google, this is a local favorite to get that dose of history on your adventure. Excavated Mayan ruins date to 250 A.D., comprising 47 buildings, including a pyramid-shaped temple. It is very cheap as well so it won’t break the bank. With practically being free, why not include it in your itinerary?
- Swim in a Cenote – some of the most beautiful parts of Mexico are the lost oasis in the jungle. Hundreds of them are open to be visited and can be swam in, while some are closed for water purification. The most popular Cenotes near Cancun include the Cenote Yokdzonot near Chichén Itzá, Cenote Dos Ojos, Gran Cenote near Tulum and Cenote Azul near Playa del Carmen.
- Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville – You’re in Cancun which is the center where tourists flock. So why not embrace it? Margaritaville is the perfect Spanish bar to own that you’re a tourist and flaunt it. Throw back a few margs and sing along with the band as the sun goes down!
- Nightlife – there is a solid 8-mile stretch on the northern end of the hotel stretch. This is dedicated to partying the night away and losing yourself to dance! Many people come here just for this, so if you’re in Cancun, it will be a must-see part of your trip.
There are many resorts with all-inclusive packages to make it a very affordable option.
Cancun is more accessible with cruises coming through town all year-round and the highest density of English-speakers in the area. This makes it a top pick for beach-relaxers and party-unwinders!
Where to Stay in Cancun
Some of the most popular and safest places to stay in Cancun, based on popular review include:
- The Grand Fiesta Americana – Coral Beach Cancun – with ocean views in every room and proximity to downtown, this hotel has it all along with a 5-star rating. Everything will be in reach, and you won’t have to wander downtown late at night to find your way back. If you want everything in Cancun to be at your fingertips, this is an amazing option for luxury and convenience.
- Hard Rock Hotel Cancun – you’re embracing your touristic label by now, si? So live it up Rockstar style at the Hard Rock! It’s a little cheesy, but it’s also unadulterated fun. Surprisingly the rooms here are quite luxurious, and you’ll get a unique experience for your time in Mexico. A 5-star hotel with all the pools, views, and amenities you could ask for. Not to mention the hot tub in your bedroom!
- Hyatt Zilara Cancun- Adults Only – I recommend this one if you don’t want to be surrounded by children and simply want a peaceful beach to drink your frozen beverage on. This is an all-inclusive resort with stunning sunset views for dinner, all the pools you could dream of, lush trees surrounding and more. Truly deluxe and a quieter stay if you’re looking for some adult time and romance.
These are obviously a mere few of the hundreds of hotels and resorts in Cancun.
The things you should consider when booking are – proximity to the activities you want to take part on, inclusiveness for drinks and meals to make it all around cheaper, and of course, ratings. Always read the ratings!
Things to Know Before Traveling to Mexico
Some things to know before making your decision between Tulum and Cancun include:
- The weather is basically perfect year-round. Rarely dropping below 70-degrees Fahrenheit, time of year doesn’t need to greatly impact your decision.
- Be careful when purchasing souvenirs because many of the wooden handmade ones that look so beautiful here will expand and flake once they get home to your unique climate. Don’t take them anywhere cold and you should be safe.
- There are lots of mosquitoes in Mexico so bring bug spray!
- Don’t wander around downtown of either location unless you’re in a group. I would advise not to wander at night under any condition and want to make it clear that the safest part for you as a tourist will be at the resort.
- There is a tax when you leave in Mexico. It is usually paid when you’re going through the airport, it is around $50-60 a person.
- You can spend US dollars in the highly touristic spots. If you didn’t have time to switch to pesos, just know your dollars may work at certain locations and are often accepted by locals.
- Don’t wear fine jewelry or things that can attract too much attention. This is the time to where your most touristy fanny pack and blend in. Drawing to many eyes your way in Mexico is a dangerous play.
- The cheapest time to travel to Mexico will be in off season, so basically any time but summer. September and October are rainy months, so they are the cheapest. Christmas is actually quite expensive as it’s a popular time to travel until after New Year’s. Sometimes early summer around May and June can have incredible deals. By July through August, it will be full price.
- Crime levels are similar in each Tulum and Cancun, so this shouldn’t greatly alter your decision. Be careful and keep your wits about you while not wandering too far on your own, and you should be fine. In all statistical likelihood, nothing will happen.
- Foods are similar as well, so this doesn’t need to greatly influence your decision. There may be more authentic cuisine in Tulum, but if you crave a more American fusion, Cancun may be better suited to your taste buds.
Since many factors remain similar between the two locations, it will really come down to how touristic you prefer your vacation to be, and the activities you’d like to do.
My final thought is that they’re both stunning locations that you need to see in your lifetime.
Either way, you’re in Mexico, so you’re already in an amazing place with history, culture, and food.
There is so much to do in either destination that it’s almost impossible to get bored.
The bottom line, Tulum is less of a touristic town, so you’ll be able to enjoy the sights with fewer crowds. I prefer this as I get a more authentic experience.
But if you’re traveling with children or as young women alone, this can be less safe than Cancun.
Cancun may be cheaper as well as slightly safer, with more English speakers which may seal-the-deal for you.
If you can’t decide, make it a Mexican grand tour and see them both! Adios amigo and hasta luego!