When it comes to life decisions, choosing where to go on holiday is among the most pleasant, and if you've set your sights on Mexico's eastern coastline, you might be wondering whether to visit Cancun or Tulum. The better destination depends on what kind of holiday you want. If you're in the mood to unwind and recharge, Tulum might be the right call. It's less razzle-dazzle, and many consider it a favorite. But ever-popular Cancun could refuel your batteries too.
Cancun is all about chain hotels and full-on resort vibes. You can tell it's an established travel hub with a developed shoreline, tall buildings, and a Miami-esque aesthetic. But it has plenty of inland options, and the scale means you might get better value than in Tulum. Tulum is a little more low-key and earthy, with lots of boho-chic accommodation and some upscale lodges.
The nightlife is a major draw in Cancun—Mexico's best clubs are here, and they're world-class. From Coco Bongo and Mandala to The City, one of the biggest clubs in all of Latin America, party people will have their pick of dance floors in high-energy settings. If you're not hankering for a full-on rave but wouldn't mind moving your body to some ska and reggaeton on a beach, Tulum is the place for you. Full moon parties at Papaya Playa Project may hit the spot too.
It's close, but Tulum wins this category. The focus on sustainability and eco-friendly offerings is great, but what's unique here is the abundance of cenotes, which are influencer catnip because they're insanely beautiful. There are thousands of these swimmable sinkholes—Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote are two of the most-visited ones. You can make friends with turtles or learn about the Mayans' sacred rituals in these sunken sanctuaries. The Sian Kaʼan Biosphere Reserve presents opportunities to spot jaguars, ocelots, and pumas. On the other hand, a trip to Cancun revolves around beaches.
In a social media world driven by likes and enhancements, many holiday destinations don't live up to the pictures. But this slice of the Caribbean is just as gorgeous in person, with beryl-colored waters and sands as soft and white as cake flour. It makes for delicious sun-soaked memories of snorkeling, diving coral reefs, and enjoying the earth's bounties. Both Cancun and Tulum have spectacular beaches for a tropical escape, but some people may give the edge to Cancun—Tulum's beach strip is relatively rustic and quiet. Lather on the sunblock and swim at the quiet Playa las Palmas or lounge at the stunning Playa Pescadores. In Cancun, Playa Langosta is a good choice if you have kids. Playa Delfines has lifeguards and restrooms, and the archaeological site El Rey is just a stone's throw away. Playa Marlin offers watersports galore.
Rejuvenating your mind and body is Tulum's whole shtick. Think boho bars, happy hippies, cacao rituals, and ayahuasca ceremonies. Tulum is where you go when you want to get in touch with your spiritual side, do yoga in exceptional surroundings, or get copious ayurvedic massages in between reiki and Mayan healing sessions. There are numerous health and wellness retreats and plant-based eating options. Jungle Gym is a pretty unique fitness center, so if you're into gyms, be sure to pop by to test out the equipment, whereas when it comes to Cancun, you won't struggle to find a spa close to where you're staying.
If retail therapy is a big part of your downtime, you'll want to head to Cancun. The Hotel Zone is packed full of stores and malls where you can spend your dollars and pesos on gifts and goodies. Outside the Hotel Zone, Plaza Las Americas should satisfy shopaholics, and bargain-hunters can try negotiating at the local markets.
In Tulum, you'll find artisan-made goods from around the globe, clean beauty products, astrology-inspired skincare, and exceptional jewelry, textiles, and homeware.
If you play your cards right, the Mayan Riviera isn't likely to elicit an 'I'm bored' from young children any time soon. There's loads of family-friendly entertainment beyond the beaches. Avoid the drunken spring break revelers in March and April and hurricane season in September and October. When the coast is clear, it's fun with a capital F. The theme park Xcaret is close to both Cancun and Tulum and features more than 50 eco-archaeological attractions, and Tulum is closer to the adventure park Xel-Ha.
Tulum has Mayan ruins overlooking one of its beaches, and it also happens to be a tad closer to Chichen Itza, the most famous of Mayan ruins. The stuff of bucket lists, Chichén-Itzá is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, a site rich in ancient architecture and artifacts. History and culture buffs in Cancun can check out the Museo Maya de Cancún, folkloric ballet, or Mexican rodeo. You can see Mayan ruins within the Hotel Zone too.
A recent spate of gang-related violence has done little to temper the appetite for a Riviera Maya vacation. Both Tulum and Cancun are in the fray, but the Mexican government has increased security in the broader region with patrols conducted by members of the National Guard. Since the cartel incidents, millions of tourists have safely traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula, though avoid the downtown areas after sunset if you're feeling cautious.
Why choose when you can do both? There's an international airport in Cancun, and Tulum is only an hour and a half away. You could easily split a week's vacation between the two spots and get the complete experience—high-octane Cancun with its bustling crowds and laidback, blissed-out Tulum. Remember, you can kiss a frog or two, but don't lick any hallucinogenic toads, period.