Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a mesmerising medley of blissful Caribbean coastline, majestic Maya ruins and colourful towns. It’s a divine destination for beach bums and adventurous types alike. But where should you base yourself during your Yucatán getaway? When planning a trip here, two places will be competing for your consideration. So, join us as we compare the merits and magic of Tulum vs Cancún – a Mexican standoff that can have only one winner.
Both Tulum and Cancún are blessed with dazzling white sands and aquamarine waters. But each slice of paradise has its own unique soul. The blue skies above the city of Cancún are pierced by skyscrapers, while its shoreline is stacked with luxury resorts. Meanwhile, Tulum taps into a more boho, boutique beach town vibe – still bustling, but not so boisterous. Firmly fixed as a holiday hotspot, Cancún is home to the tourist-touting Zona Hotelera; a 14-mile seafront strip of bars, clubs and high-rise hotels. However, venture to the downtown area of Cancún Centro to find authentic loncherías (eateries serving hearty regional fare), local markets and hand-crafted souvenirs. A popular pitstop for those visiting the ancient Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá (one of the New Seven Wonders of the World), Tulum is more than just the gateway to that awe-inspiring archaeological site. It’s also one of the rare locations where you’ll find ruins overlooking the sea. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the ruins of Tulum are one of the most visited landmarks in Mexico; an ancient monument set against an azure ocean. The ruins might be modest in comparison to others, but there’s no beating that backdrop. Back in town, backpackers pedal past on rented bikes, hopping between hostel and bar. As you’d expect from a hippy haven, Tulum also has its fair share of vegan cafes, craft beers and yoga studios, all within easy reach of the beach.
Cancún is packed with vibrant personality, but Tulum wins this round for its oh-so-cool character and the accessibility of its ancient wonders. Tulum 1, Cancún 0.
When deciding between Tulum vs Cancún, beach-lovers are spoiled for choice. Pearly white sands come as standard here, so how to pick where to unfurl your towel? Many of Cancún’s best beaches are in the Zona Hotelera, where the all-inclusive resorts stray onto the sand. But there are hidden gems here too. Loved by locals, under-the-radar Playa Pez Volador has a laid-back air that often eludes you in the city, while Isla Blanca is a pristine peninsula of untouched sand. For a dreamy day trip, catch the ferry to Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres. The bluest waters meet the softest, whitest sands, shaded by hammock-strung palm trees. Sounds pretty much like paradise to us. To see Tulum’s beaches at their best, set your alarm for an early start, as the sunrise here is extra special; pause on Playa Pescadores in the glow of dawn to watch fishermen return to shore with their morning catch. This beach is also a great vantage point for admiring the Tulum ruins, which sit above the slimline stretch of Playa Ruínas, with its tantalisingly turquoise waves. To take a dip in delightful surroundings, head to Playa las Palmas. Nestled among tropical forest, this wide ribbon of powder white runs alongside tranquil waters that are perfect for swimming. Post-swim, settle down on the sand and savour the serenity of this quieter spot.
Cancún wins this round, because everyone can find a favourite among its brilliant array of beaches. That makes it Tulum 1, Cancún 1.
Beyond Cancún’s beaches and bars, you can learn more about Maya culture at the Museo Maya de Cancún. Housed in a sleek, contemporary building encircled by lush forest, the museum has a wealth of exhibits covering Maya history and artifacts. Outside, follow the path through the greenery to reach the ruins of San Miguelito, an ancient city that flourished long before the high-rise hotels. For a one-of-a-kind cultural experience, visit Museo Subacuático de Arte. This underwater museum is stocked with 500 submerged sculptures, which you can explore on a diving or snorkelling tour, or from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat. The aquatic art gallery was designed to draw divers away from the declining coral reefs, helping to protect and preserve an at-risk ecosystem. Once you’ve visited Tulum’s beachside ruins and taken a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Chichén Itzá (the heart of the Maya Empire in Mexico), there’s plenty more to discover in this coastal gem. The area around Tulum is famous for its cenotes; natural swimming holes formed when limestone bedrock collapses. Framed by tropical forest, these pristine plunge pools are filled with gin-clear water (or should that be tequila-clear?), where you can swim beneath shafts of sunlight that sparkle on the surface. The Maya believed these sacred cenotes were a portal to speak to the Gods and there’s certainly something heavenly about these subterranean swimming spots.
This round is a close call, but Tulum takes the point for its proximity to the marvel of Chichén Itzá and the magic of its cenotes. Tulum 2 – Cancún 1.
In Cancún, join a boat tour to the uninhabited Isla Contoy National Park, which is home to 170 bird species, nesting turtles and whale sharks. A maximum of 200 visitors a day are permitted in the park, so you can explore in crowd-free comfort. The Reserva de la Biósfera de Sian Ka’an, situated to the south of Tulum, is a vast reserve of forests, beaches, coral reefs and lagoons that’s both unspoilt and unmissable. The local community run guided snorkelling and kayaking tours through this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is also the largest protected region on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Whichever destination you choose, the natural beauty of Mexico is never too far away.
Exploring the breath-taking biodiversity of Sian Ka’an is a sure way to feel like an intrepid adventurer, which earns Tulum another point. So, Tulum vs Cancún ends 3 – 1 to Tulum; a comprehensive victory in this Mexican standoff.