After this past year, we could sure all use a vacation. Naturally, you only want it to be to the best possible destination (this is the FOMO generation after all). So if you’re forced to choose between Tulum and Playa Del Carmen, Mexico … how do you decide?
Don’t worry – I’ll walk you through the decision tree in this article. Picking between them is honestly a pretty common question we get at this blog, especially because these two coastal Riviera Maya destinations are so popular yet so different.
I’ve spent a substantial amount of time in both Playa del Carmen and Tulum to date, and have found some pretty clear differences between the two. With a population of over 300,000, Playa del Carmen offers a full array of amenities and attractions, while Tulum is substantially smaller, eco-focused, and refined. The short answer is: Playa del Carmen has an urban feel, while Tulum is decidedly more bohemian.
What’s In this Article (click to navigate):
- 🌴 The case for Tulum
- 🍹 The case for Playa del Carmen
- 🕶️ Key Differences Between Tulum and Playa del Carmen
- ✔️ Should you visit both Playa del Carmen and Tulum?
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The Case for Tulum
- Excellent beaches
- Local population of 46,000
- Has three distinct areas (beach, town, and ruins)
- It’s not very walkable
- Known for its boutique hotels
- Has an artistic, bohemian vibe
- Very laid back
- Plenty of high-end restaurants
- Great nightlife options
- Emphasis on eco-travel
- 90-minute drive to the Cancun airport
- Easy to visit the nearby Tulum or Coba Mayan Ruins, the Muyil Ruins, and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Want to learn more about the local ruins? Then check out our comprehensive Tulum Ruins travel guide!
Tulum is Better For:
Tulum is better than Playa del Carmen for the bohemian beach bum who is looking for a comfortable, relaxing escape full of beautiful nature, boutique experiences, and upscale cuisine.
The Case for Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen Characteristics
- A very walkable core
- Plenty of shopping along Fifth Avenue
- Population of over 300,000
- The beach and the town are nestled together
- Great backpacker and ex-pat scenes
- Plenty of nightlife
- Many kid-friendly options
- 45-minute drive to the Cancun airport
- Plenty of public beaches
- A mix of boutique, private, and all-inclusive accommodations
- Very developed
- Two large malls
Playa del Carmen is Better For:
The active traveler who loves the bustle of a city, takes plenty of day trips, and likes having an established tourist trail.
Key Differences Between Tulum and Playa del Carmen
They’re both tropical beach destinations and just 64km (39 miles) apart, but the vibe in Playa del Carmen vs Tulum is distinct.
With a population of over a quarter-million, Playa del Carmen feels much more urban than Tulum. In Playa del Carmen, you’ll find malls, busy city streets, plenty of activities, and a variety of restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Budget backpackers love Playa del Carmen because of the affordable accommodation options, and families love it due to the kid-friendly activities and all-inclusive options.
On the other hand, though Tulum definitely attracts its fair share of backpackers and digital nomads, it has a more chic, yet relaxed, atmosphere.
Due to its higher prices, Tulum has been able to maintain much of its jungle essence and has become a popular eco-tourism destination in recent years. In fact, because there are limited all-inclusive resorts directly in Tulum, the boutique hotel experience is booming.
Though both known for their oceanfronts, the beaches in Playa del Carmen vs Tulum have unique characteristics.
⛱️ Beaches in Playa del Carmen
While the beaches in Playa del Carmen are accessible, they are often narrow and, in general, not as picturesque as Tulum. That said, the beach is easy to walk to from downtown and there are plenty of public spots.
Some of the best beaches in Playa del Carmen include Parque Fundadores, Calle 10 Beach, Playacar Beach, and Calle 2 Beach.
⛱️ Beaches in Tulum
In contrast, Tulum’s best beaches are decidedly prettier, wider, and more “untouched”.
However, these beaches are not a walkable distance from Tulum town. If you plan on staying in the downtown Tulum area, you’ll have to take a taxi, rent a car, or ride a bike down to the beach.
Like Playa, there are plenty of public and private beach options available in Tulum. Some of the best are Playa Ruinas, Playa Paraiso, Las Palmas, and South Beach.
Also, I found the taxis from downtown Tulum to the beach area much more expensive than a relative trip in Playa del Carmen.
The Hotel Scene
When choosing a hotel in Tulum or Playa del Carmen, consider both your budget and style.
Both Tulum and Playa del Carmen have a wide array of accommodation options, but Playa del Carmen does it best in terms of value for money, while Tulum is known for its unique boutique stays.
The hotel scene in Playa del Carmen is generally more established and competitive, meaning there are excellent options for luxury, mid-range, and backpacker budgets alike. Think hostels, Air Bnb’s, boutique hotels, chain hotels, and all-inclusive resorts.
🏨 Hotels in Tulum
On the other hand, while Tulum does have some wallet-friendly options (mostly in the form of hostels), most of the more affordable accommodation options require staying in Tulum town. Particularly if you want to stay within walking distance to the beach, Tulum is known for its more upscale, boutique accommodation. The local market specializes in eco-friendly stays, and there are plenty of Tulum hotels to choose from.
It’s also wise to note that there are limited all-inclusive options in Tulum, as it maintains its eco/jungle vibe through upscale hotels.
✔️ Always Forget Something? Don’t be left shopping for necessities while abroad — check out our Mexico packing list and be sure you have everything you need before you leave.
Things to Do and Activities
When researching Playa del Carmen or Tulum for your vacation, you’ll find that they’re both chock-full of things to do. Seriously, no trip to either of these destinations will leave you bored or lacking in any way.
The struggle comes more down to which activities to do with a limited amount of time in either destination.
🚣 Epic things to do in Tulum:
- Take a Tulum Ruins tour
- Hang out on Tulum’s best beaches
- Take a mud bath at the Laguna Kaan Luum
- Explore the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
- Take a day trip to the Coba Ruins
- Explore the Tulum cenotes
- Go boutique shopping
- Snorkel with sea turtles on a guided tour
- Experience the best of the local beach clubs and parties
🚣 Best things to do in Playa del Carmen:
- Hang out at Lido’s beach club
- Swim in Be Playa’s rooftop pool
- Have tacos at El Fogon
- Explore one of the many nearby cenotes (limestone sinkholes)
- Go shopping on 5th Avenue
- Take a day trip to Cozumel
- Salsa dance at Zenzi
- Take a day trip to Valladolid and a tour of Chichen Itza
🕶️ Pro Tip: Check out our list of the 15 best day trips from Playa del Carmen for great activity ideas no matter your speed.
In choosing Playa del Carmen or Tulum for your vacation, cost will be a big factor.
While both destinations offer a range of cost options, Tulum’s price point is roughly 20-30% higher than Playa del Carmen when you factor in accommodation, restaurants, and travel. While the price is justified for value and vibe, it is something to take into consideration.
If you’re looking to stay on a backpacker budget while in Tulum, then I’d recommend searching for accommodation in Tulum Town itself. It’s farther away from the beach, but it can be much more cost-effective in a variety of ways.
A rule of thumb for Tulum is that the closer to the beach you are, the more you’ll have to shell out.
While Playa del Carmen’s costs vary by neighborhood, if you’re looking to stay on a strict budget then I’d recommend booking just outside of the downtown core. You’ll still be able to walk or bike everywhere but save a few bucks at the same time.
💸 Pro Tip: remember to invest in some travel insurance covering Mexico. It could save you quite a bit of money in the long run if you end up having to file for a covered loss!
Should you visit both Playa del Carmen and Tulum?
Honestly, if you’ll be in the area for more than a few days, then there is no reason why you can’t visit both Playa del Carmen and Tulum. I recommend picking one and planning a day trip to the other destination that you don’t end up booking accommodation in.
Playa del Carmen and Tulum are only an hour’s drive away from each other, there are so many attractions and activities in between, and seeing both is a great way to get a well-rounded picture of the Riviera Maya.
On my trip, I based myself in Playa del Carmen and took multiple day trips out to Tulum. To get around, you can drive, take the bus (the Mexican brand ADO is the way to go), or hop in a shared sprinter van (colectivo).
That’s it for my comparison of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mexico!
I hope this helped you decide which destination is better for your particular expectations, style, and budget.
Oh, and before you go, sure to check out our best tips for your Mexico visit!
Have fun exploring the Riviera Maya!