If you are considering Cancun vs Tulum for your next vacation, there are a couple of factors you should take into account. Although both Cancun and Tulum are located in the same region of Mexico, 80 miles apart on the Yucatan Peninsula, the two destinations are very different, and largely cater to two distinct types of vacationers, although there is some overlap. Here are the major factors you should take into account before deciding on Cancun vs Tulum for your next vacation.
Despite their close proximity, the histories of Cancun and Tulum could not be further apart. Tulum’s history goes back to ancient times, with monoliths discovered in the area that are estimated to have been built in the 6th century. By the 13th century, Tulum was a major Mayan city, and was inhabited until the late 15th century, when it was abandoned. Today, the area is the site of a modern town called Tulum Pueblo, but many of the Mayan ruins are still standing.
Cancun, on the other hand, has a much shorter history. Until 1970, Cancun was the site of a small fishing village that was home to around 100 people. Throughout the 70s, the Mexican federal government purchased land and made significant investments into developing the area, with the goal of turning it into a major resort city on the Caribbean Sea. Today, Cancun is home to nearly 900,000 residents and attracts over 6 million foreign tourists per year.
Attractions and Atmosphere
As the former site of a major Mayan city, Tulum is renowned for its ruins and historical sites. By far, the main attraction at Tulum is the ruins. The ruins at Tulum are some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in the world. Tulum is surrounded by a stone wall standing 10 – 16 feet in height, much of which is still standing to this day. In the historic city, there are three main Mayan buildings–El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God.
El Castillo (the castle) is an edifice standing in the middle of the city. El Castillo dominates the site, sitting on a hilltop overlooking the water. The building also aligns directly with a break in the barrier reef that surrounds the coast of Tulum, and it is believed that it served as a kind of “lighthouse,” marking the safe entrance to the city for trading canoes.
The Temple of the Frescoes is a two story building that served as an observatory, for the Mayans to track the movement of the sun. It is also believed to have served as a temple of sorts, as it is covered in frescos of various gods.
The Temple of the Descending God is a one room building with a staircase leading up to its entrance. In the temple, above the door is a sculpture of a god positioned upside down. This mysterious god is called the “Descending God” or “Diving God” and his likeness can be found all over Tulum, although what exactly he represents is unclear.
Aside from the ruins and historical sites, the modern city of Tulum is a bustling hub, with plenty of restaurants, inns, hotels, spas, and supermarkets, and the beach in close proximity. The food in Tulum is excellent, with an authentic Mexican taste, as opposed to the more tourist-friendly and Americanized food found in Cancun.
Tulum’s beautiful beaches are also full of plenty of activities to keep you busy. From swimming and snorkeling to horseback riding, kitesurfing, and beach parties, the beaches are full of entertainment, and much less crowded than those at Cancun or other major Riviera Maya destinations. The nightlife in Tulum is modest, although there are still plenty of bars to entertain anyone looking to spend a night on the town.
Another popular activity in Tulum is diving at the local cenote, or underground caves and tunnels that fill with rainwater and become excellent freshwater swimming holes.
Cancun is a city that needs no introduction. Since its establishment in the 1970s, Cancun has become one of the most popular and well-known tourist attractions in the world. Known for its beautiful, white sand Caribbean beaches, all-inclusive luxury resorts, watersports and other activities, and, of course, its famous nightlife, Cancun is an excellent vacation spot for everyone from spring breakers to honeymooners to families.
The hot, sandy beaches and cool Caribbean waters of Cancun make its beaches some of the nicest in the world, and a major reason for Cancun’s popularity. Aside some relaxing on the beaches and cooling off in the waters, popular activities on the beaches or in the ocean include snorkeling and scuba diving at nearby Mesoamerican Barrier Reef sites, motorboating, jet skiing, waterskiing, hoverboarding, jetpacking, parasailing, paddleboarding, deep sea fishing, and much more.
If you get tired of the beach or are looking to experience a little of everything Cancun has to offer, the day trips and excursions through the jungle and to the ruins of the nearby Mayan site of Chichen Itza is well worth the trip. Other popular activities in Cancun include ATV tours, ziplining through the jungle, swimming with dolphins and other marine life at the interactive aquariums, swimming at the locale cenotes, and more.
Perhaps not other city in the world is more famous for its nightlife than Cancun. In fact, a large part of the reason Cancun is so popular, particularly among the younger crowd, is the nightlife. That being said, nightclubs and bars in Cancun cater to all ages, and you are more than welcome to join the party even if you’re older than the average spring breaker.
Cancun’s nightlife is famous for its wide variety of nightclubs and bars featuring everything from open-air locations to rooftops, live DJs and entertainment, theme nights, and low-cost drinks. The nightclubs are perhaps an even bigger attraction than the beaches and beachfront activities, and are one of the main reasons that Cancun is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Tulum is generally significantly less expensive than Cancun. Since its founding and the development of the “Hotel Zone,” a 15-mile stretch of luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts along the beach, Cancun has become a tourist hot spot. The resorts in Cancun are some of the nicest in the world, with extensive pools with ocean views, spas, beachfront access, five-star dining, bars, and more. On the other end of the spectrum, Tulum’s accommodations consist mostly of boutique hotels, oceanfront cabañas, and villas for rent. The accommodations are much lower key than those in Cancun, although there are a few all-inclusive resorts with luxury suites and beachfront access.
Even comparing the costs of the all-inclusive hotels in Cancun vs Tulum or the rental villas in Cancun vs Tulum, Tulum is significantly cheaper. The same goes for the food, bars and clubs, activities, and just about everything else. The prices in Tulum are lower than in Cancun across the board.
The Bottom Line
On the spectrum of Mexican vacation destinations, Cancun and Tulum could not be much further apart. If you are interested in a lower-key vacation relaxing on the beach, taking part in day trips and watersports, and exploring Mayan ruins, Tulum is the destination for you. On the other hand, if you prefer to go where the crowds are, experience great nightlife, social activities, and some of the nicest beaches and most exciting waterfront activities in the world, Cancun is the better choice. Be sure to take all of these factors into account before deciding on Cancun vs Tulum for your next vacation.