Tulum vs Playa del Carmen: Which city on the Mayan Riviera is right for your next vacation? Although Tulum and Playa del Carmen are located in close proximity to one another on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, there are many differences between the two cities. To start, here are some fast facts covering the major similarities and differences. Keep reading to learn the details of what makes one city better than the other, and which one you should choose for your next vacation.
Playa del Carmen
Mayan ruins of Tulum, Mayan ruins of Coba, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, quiet beaches, snorkeling, authentic Mexican shops and markets
Excellent beaches, world class snorkeling and scuba diving from Cozumel, motorboting, fishing, yachting, ATV tours, great nightlife
Food and Drink
Fewer options than Playa del Carmen, but excellent, authentic Mexican food, great cafes, and plenty of lunch and dinner restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options
Great Mexican food, good international choices, great seafood, bakeries, coffee shops, and plenty of vegan and vegetarian options
Fewer all-inclusive resorts than in Playa del Carmen, but plenty of boutique hotels with luxury suites, and great villas and condos for rent
World-class all-inclusive resorts with beachfront access, plenty of hotel chains, botique hotels, and condos and villas for rent
Closest airport is Cancún International Airport. Frequent buses leave from Cancún and take about 2 hours to get to Tulum. You can also rent a car and drive from Cancún to Tulum in about 90 minutes
Closest airport is Cancún International Airport. Playa del Carmen is accessible by bus or rent a car from Cancún. The trip takes about an hour
Attractions and Activities
The first thing to note when comparing Tulum vs Playa del Carmen is that the main appeal of Tulum is its close proximity to well-preserved Mayan ruins. Located on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula, about an hour’s drive south of Playa del Carmen, Tulum is the site of some of the best preserved Mayan ruins anywhere on the continent. The ruins of Tulum include three main Mayan structures–El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God.
These ruins dominate the landscape and attract tourists from around the world. 45 minutes by car outside of Tulum is another historical site, the ruins of Coba, which features even older and larger structures than the ones in Tulum. Coba features a group of pyramids, known as the Nohoch Mul, the tallest of which, called Ixmoja, towers almost 140 feet in height, making it the second largest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Aside from the historical sites, which are Tulum’s main attraction, the quiet, white sand beaches make for an excellent place to relax or swim, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds at more crowded Mayan Riviera sites. Popular activities on the beaches include snorkeling to horseback riding, kitesurfing, and beach parties. Although the nightlife in Tulum is not on par with that of the larger cities in the area, there are still plenty of bars, clubs, and lounges to choose from on a night out.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is the busier, more active city when compared with Tulum, although it is still significantly quieter and more laid back than Cancun. The beaches in Playa del Carmen are typical of the Maya Riviera–vast and beautiful, with soft white sands and turquoise Caribbean waters. Beside relaxing on the sand or swimming in the ocean, popular waterfront activities include parasailing, jet skiing, deep sea fishing, and yacht chartering.
For years, Playa del Carmen was recognized mainly as a port city for tourists to stop at on their way to the nearby island of Cozumel, which is a 45 minute ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen’s shores. In the last couple decades, however, Playa del Carmen has developed into a thriving resort city in its own right, with shopping, nightlife, tours and activities that are some of the best in the Maya Riviera.
One of Playa del Carmen’s major attractions, however, continues to be its easy access to Cozumel. Those interested in learning how to snorkel or scuba dive, or those who are already experienced in either activities, and are interested in experiencing some of the best dive sites in the world, would be well advised to make a day trip to Cozumel. The diving tours that leave from Cozumel take tourists out to some of the most beautiful sites along the Mezoamerican Barrier Reef system, where you will see tropical fish, rare sea turtles, and coral that almost seems to be painted in vibrant colors, among other unique sights.
When considering Tulum vs Playa del Carmen, an important point to keep in mind is the accommodations in each city. In Tulum, the Hotel Zone is located in the southern part of the city, along the beach. The hotels in the hotel zone are all highly rated, with luxury suites and beachfront access. Some of the hotels are seaside boutiques, others are all-inclusive resorts that have spas, restaurants, extensive pools, hot tubs, and more. Tulum’s hotels are more secluded, and less crowded than the hotels in many other cities in the Riviera Maya, including Playa del Carmen. Tulum also has plenty of villas and condos for rent.
In Playa del Carmen, the all-inclusive resorts are larger and have more amenities, including huge indoor, outdoor, and rooftop pools; multiple spas and restaurants; state-of-the-art gyms, nightclubs and bars, and more. Since the hotels are generally larger, Playa del Carmen is more crowded than Tulum, and this is noticeable, especially during peak seasons. Like Tulum, Playa del Carmen also has plenty of villas, apartments, and condos for rent if you prefer those accommodations to the hotels.
When looking at the prices in Tulum vs Playa del Carmen, a general rule to keep in mind is that Tulum is more expensive. Be prepared to pay slightly higher prices for everything from food to shopping to accommodations, especially if you are planning to stay right on the beach in Tulum. The average cost for one person to stay in Tulum for one week is $1,890 vs $1,316 per person for a one week stay in Playa del Carmen. That being said, the extra expense of staying in Tulum could be well worth it, depending on what you are interested in doing and experiencing on your vacation.
Tulum and Playa del Carmen are both excellent vacation destinations. Located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula facing the Caribbean Sea, both cities have incredible beaches, great food, and a variety of activities to partake in. The main differences between the two include the price, with Tulum being more expensive, and the local attractions, with a major focus of Tulum tourism on the historic Mayan sites in the area vs Playa del Carmen, which has a better nightlife and more waterfront activities. Ultimately the right choice for you will depend on you budget and interests.