Isla Mujeres is a champion of authenticity and simplicity, with its slow living scenes, and natural reserves. The island is also home to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Tulum, on the other hand, while staying authentic, is a mass favorite. Thanks to ruins and beaches, Tulum is perhaps the most revered seaside town on this side of Mexico.
Isla Mujeres perhaps best represents what a quaint Mexican island getaway is. Small, quiet, serene, and simple defines the beautiful island just off the shores of Cancun. Isla Mujeres is a famous day-trip itinerary if you’re staying in the Riviera Maya.
Despite the roaring thrills of mainland Yucatan, Isla Mujeres has kept its laid-back, quiet, and authentic appeal. The island remains faithful to its rustic and natural roots. Thanks to its more relaxed and lazier atmosphere, people come here to get away from the highs of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum.
What Makes Isla Mujeres Unique?
Yet Another Magic Town
Many have failed to realize how big and diverse Mexico is, and because of that, you can expect to see several draws as well. The country has an extensive roster of beaches, resort cities, historic towns, and ancient ruins. All you can do is sit at the edge of your seats waiting for the next unique destination.
One of these unique destinations is quirky towns called “Pueblos Magicos”, or Magic Towns. These places are basically towns that hold either a historical or cultural value to them, sometimes even both. These are considered to be “magical” characteristics that helped further the beauty of the country.
The federal government gives these designations to communities across the entire country. These communities have preserved their original architecture, traditions, history, and culture over time. As well as people who have played a significant role in the country’s history.
Isla Mujeres has been designated a Magic Town in 2015 because of how it preserved its original small island charms. From its local culture to its natural wonders, Isla Mujeres has kept its authentic spirit. Even if you’re only visiting for a day, you can easily get a whiff of what the magic is all about.
Thanks to how it preserved its authenticity and tranquility, the island is best for true relaxation. Without the noise, and the rowdiness of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is often a haven for slow travelers and older tourists.
Apart from its magical and relaxed vibe, the island is also small, even smaller than that of neighboring Cozumel. Isla Mujeres is only 2,000 ft (609.6 m) wide, and 5 mi (8 km) long. An island this size can easily be explored by simple vehicles in less than a day.
Despite being a small island, the island boasts a plethora of beaches and one of them is even one of the world’s most beautiful. Isla Mujeres offers several options for different kinds of travelers. And a lot of them surely provide true relaxation.
Pristine clear blue waters and expansive soft white sands define Isla Mujeres’ beaches. Most of which have swimmable conditions perfect for everyone. However, narrowing down where you can go may be a bit challenging, here are some well-known spots:
The most famous beach on the island, Playa Norte offers perhaps the most stunning pristine features a beach could ever have. The iconic Playa is so beautiful that it even bests many of Mexico’s entries. Apart from beauty, the beach also boasts the most swimmable conditions. It practically has everything.
The water is noticeably calm and gentle which allows swimming for all ages, making it a perfect spot on the island. And if you want to have some food and drink to go with the gorgeous views, you can find many bars and restaurants further inshore.
Playa Norte is a Yucatan pride, as well as Mexico’s for it is one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. Putting Isla Mujeres on the map, expect to find crowds across the expansive stretch of the beach.
As the name suggests, Playa Centro is found in the central town of Isla Mujeres. Only second to Playa Norte, Playa Centro is a popular spot but it isn’t as crowded. The playa is a perfect alternative if you would prefer to shy away from the crowds of Playa Norte.
Playa Centro offers the same classic features that make it another Isla Mujeres icon. You can enjoy white sands, and pristine waters just the same. The twist is that it sits right next to the heart of Isla Mujeres, it is probably the most accessible beach.
After exploring the town center, you can easily head to the Playa and have a quick dip. A perfect way to end your day. Plus, the shores are also lined with shops and food stalls, you can buy food, drinks, and ice cream.
Playa Garrafon is located in the southwest, near a portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. The playa is located within the Garrafon Natural Reef Park, so expect to find a well-preserved and pristine sight.
You’ll be surely taken away by the immaculate beauty of the whole expanse. Playa Garrafon is also complete with the necessary amenities and a great swimming experience. Just within the Garrafon Natural Reef Park, you could also explore the depths of the water’s accessed by snorkeling and diving.
Small Island Quirks
Just across the shores of Cancun, and north of Cozumel, you can easily surmise that Isla Mujeres is indeed small. The island only has a total land area of 1.62 sq mi (4.22 sq km). Should you want to get around the island, it can only take less than a day to do so.
Thanks to its small size, you can easily cover a lot of ground in just a short amount of time. Not to mention, you can tick off your island bucket list in just less than a day. Imagine having a stroll around the central town, taking a dip in the Playa Norte, and heading off to the Garrafon all in a day. It is that small.
But just because it is small doesn’t mean you have to take it too fast. Locals prefer to do it slowly, and rather casually. The island is best for slow-living, simple, and relaxed.
With the great accessibility and small land area, you can expect transportation to be easy as well. But the locals have devised transportation options that best represent the manner of living on the island.
Rent a Bicycle
Bicycles are the easiest and cheapest way to get around the island. Not to mention they’re also eco-friendly, further maintaining the island’s immaculate conditions. You can rent bicycles from many shops around town. And if you’re staying in a hotel, chances are they have their own bicycles for rent. Expect a 10 to 20 USD daily rental rate.
Golf carts are perhaps the quirkiest touch in Isla Mujeres. One of the most common modes of transportation, these buggies replace the classic four-wheel-drive cars on the mainland. Tourists staying on the island even rent them both as a means of transport and entertainment.
Buggies are faster, yet more expensive options as opposed to bicycles. You can find rental shops just across town. However, it is wise to first check the conditions before renting one out.
Thanks to their power and speed, golf carts can get you completely around the island in a matter of hours. This is best used when you’re only on the island for a short stay and would like to tick off as much activity in your list as possible.
Day-trippers from the mainland mostly opt for taxis as they are more practical and economical. They’re the island’s main mode of public transport. You can get taxis practically anywhere around town, hotels can even call one for you.
Marine Life Advocacy
Isla Mujeres, apart from its immaculate nature, is also a strong advocate of wild and marine life protection. You can expect to find programs geared towards the protection of turtles, and other marine animals, as well as the nearby reef.
Turtles are one of Isla Mujeres’ biggest advocacies. The island has sanctuaries and protected areas specifically for these gentle sea creatures.
During July through October, you can see turtles flocking to the sanctuary area to make nests and deliver eggs. By late October, these eggs hatch, and baby turtles will crawl for their lives to the sea. There is a program that allows both locals and tourists to participate in protecting these hatchlings.
Other than turtles, you can also check out many other marine animals protected by the island. Isla Mujeres has definitely become one of Mexico’s booming ecotourism spots. Through encounters and excursions, you can spot whale sharks, fish, and manta rays in the area.
Garrafon Natural Reef Park
Located at the southern end of the island, Garrafon Natural Park is perhaps the most picturesque and immaculate part of the island. Famous for its pristine conditions, and sweeping views of the Caribbean and Cancun, Garrafon is a must-visit.
Other than sightseeing, and taking Instagrammable photos, you can snorkel, dive, and kayak in Garrafon Park. Thanks to its proximity to the nearby reef system, you can book dive tours from here.
Garrafon Park also sits beside Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres’ southern tip. Here you can explore many features including a lighthouse and Mayan temple. You can also see Cancun clearly from Punta Sur.
From ancient ruins to sweeping beaches Tulum has it all, especially if you’re up for a bit of the old rustic vibe. You can expect to be constantly in awe of what the municipality can offer, some of which can even surprise you.
Tulum’s balance of mass appeal and old-world charm has catapulted this seemingly simple town to the ranks of Mexico’s most iconic. The once-great walled city is perfect for laid-back and equally curious travelers.
What Makes Tulum Unique?
The Riviera Maya and all of the Yucatan Peninsula are almost synonymous with ancient ruins and magical historical charms. Expect to find routes and roads taking you directly to these cultural spectacles. Tulum holds one of these ruins and may have been responsible for putting the municipality on the map.
Nestled on the top of a cliff overlooking the sea, the iconic ruins of Tulum are a sight to behold. But aesthetics aside, the ruins used to hold great importance to the Mayan world. Tulum’s ancient walled city used to function as a trading port and an important religious center housing the people’s supreme leader.
The city used to have enclosing walls used as protection from potential invaders from the east. You can easily see these protective designs from the massive limestone walls on each of the three sides of the city. This defensive design is a true testament to the city’s value.
Due to its fame and value, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are one of the most-visited sites in Mexico. Expect to find throngs of visitors not just around the ruins but also across town as well.
Here are some of the must-visit structures in the Tulum ruins:
El Castillo, also the ruins’ main pyramid is the center attraction of the city being the tallest structure. But what’s even more interesting about the pyramid is that it doubles as a residence and a lighthouse.
You can go around the pyramid, seeing all of its angles via the marked path that you can walk on during your tour. Surveying and appreciating the pyramid from the outside is the only thing you can do, however. Entering and climbing the structure isn’t allowed anymore, to preserve the structure’s integrity.
Temple of the Frescoes
The Temple of the Frescoes has to be the most well-preserved structure in the ruins. It is one of the most important sections of the entire ancient city as it is believed to be a religious center. It consists of two floors, both still in a great condition where you can still see its defining features.
The upper temple or the second floor has fascinating murals around its facade. The lower temple is decorated with stucco figures. The whole temple stands adjacent to the El Castillo, and also doubled as an observatory for studying the sun’s journey across the sky.
House of the Halach Uinic
This particular section of the ruins houses the Kuchkabal supreme leader also called the “Halach Uinic”. Kuchkabal is an ancient Mayan form of government. The supreme leader rules over the Kuchkabal, overseeing the administration of the city.
The city’s Halach Uinic also rules on behalf of the gods, making the supreme leader both a politician and a religious leader. The House of the Halach Uinic is also another well-preserved section of the ruins, still complete with a mural of a god hanging right at the entrance.
Apart from the city’s classic seaside draws such as its beaches, its quirky town, as well as its iconic ruins, Tulum has one extra thing in its arsenal. The city is situated within extremely ecologically diverse areas of the country, making it abundant in wildlife.
The area surrounding the municipality is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. You can expect to spot different kinds of animals just outside of your accommodation, especially if you’re staying on the edges of the jungle.
However, if you really want to marvel at Tulum’s natural wealth, you can visit the Si’an Kaan Biosphere. The vast expanse houses and protects several different plants and animal species.
The eco-park further conserves the ecological diversity of the area. The biosphere features many landscapes such as forests, mangroves, and a marine section – a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
You can spot different land animals in the park such as spider monkeys, jaguars, and tapirs. There are also different species of birds like heron, toucan, and the peregrine falcon. If you plan on visiting Si’an Kaan, you can book from the many tour packages available on the Si’an Kaan tour website.
When we’re talking about any point in the Riviera Maya you can always expect to be in awe at every turn. Tulum’s beaches are no stranger to picturesque views and ridiculously top-notch quality, from white sands to clear blue waters. Now, you put all of that together and add the aesthetic and historical charms of the ancient ruins, you’ll have an icon.
You can revel in Tulum’s legendary beauty in these spots:
Calm, serene, and striking, Las Palmas is the best option if you want fewer crowds and Instagrammable photos. The beach is defined by its diverse landscape and gentle, beautiful turquoise blue waters. Las Palma offers true relaxation in an otherwise crowded town.
The beach offers the same aesthetic quality as many of the Riviera Maya’s beaches. But its best-selling point is how it offers some sort of escape from Tulum’s crowds. It is so serene and calm that is rustic and traditional, you can even barely see vendors around.
Tulum’s most iconic beach offers a special twist and is perhaps the only one in the country. Playa Ruinas at first is a classic Caribbean beach with blue waters, white sand, and sweeping views. But once you look over your head, the watchtower ruins stand imposing.
Overlooking the beach below, and the Caribbean Sea ahead, the ruins provide a rather unique beach setup. You can even go up and get a tour of the ruins, or you can head down to the beach after a long and hot tour of the ruins.
Long, smooth, and beautiful define Playa Paraiso, one of Mexico’s most well-photographed beaches. You can enjoy the beach’s smooth sands and swimmable conditions making your Tulum experience one for the books … that is if you’ve been to the ruins as well.
One of the most picturesque and iconic beaches in Mexico, chances are you may have already seen Playa Paraiso in many promotion images of Mexico. Yet, with its unwavering fame and crowd, Playa Paraiso has remained rustic, and simple. Staying true to the authenticity of Tulum, it is relatively underdeveloped.
Apart from swimming, and lounging under the sun, you can also snorkel and dive from Playa Paraiso. However, since there are no rental shops, you need to bring your own equipment.
Recent Gastronomic Boom
Tulum has seen a constant influx of international beach bums and tourists from all over the world. Consequently, it has established a string of eateries that can entertain a wide international palate.
A plethora of international chefs and restaurateurs now stand beside local masters. You can experience gastronomy from Europe to the Caribbean in the many spots you can find in town.
Sample dishes from places such as Meze, Posada Margherita, and Hartwood for your western palate fix. And if you’re looking for a more local approach, try out dishes from Palma Central, a food park serving authentic Mexican street food. For more sit-down dining, Antojitos la Chiapaneca is a high-rated place.
Kaan Luum Lagoon
Just minutes southwest of Tulum lies Kaan Luum Lagoon, an underrated hidden gem right smack in the middle of a vast green expanse. Despite being far inland, the lagoon is a slice of tropical heaven itself.
Kaan Luum Lagoon features clear blue water, with a distinctly darker hue, almost cobalt, in the middle. The shallow outer rims have a light hue that’s almost mint green, resembling a pool with the same calm waves.
The darker blue in the center is due to the depth of the large hole in the middle. And what’s even more fascinating than the hole is the fact that it is a cenote — a natural sinkhole filled with water. The hole is said to be 262 feet deep (80 meters). Experienced divers can explore the depths, and revel in the mystery and beauty it holds.
However, if you’re just planning to take a quick dip and relax, the area has bathrooms and a few huts for guests. You can appreciate the lagoon by overlooking the mirador, or the viewing platform, or walking along the dock. On the water, you can have hammocks and swings for entertainment, or even for taking that coveted Instagram photo.
Tulum Pueblo is the municipality’s center defined by its rustic and simple overtones. Despite being constantly overrun by international guests, it has remained all-Mexican. The town has also seen rapid upscaling yet has remained quite balanced in its authenticity and development. This well-kept charm has been one of Tulum’s quirkiest draws.
With the revenue and influence brought by thousands and thousands of visitors from all over the world, the town has seen developments. Many of Tulum’s local and homegrown businesses have grown and thrived. But despite the foreign influx, the town is still awash with the authentic Mexican air — from the facade of the buildings to the gastronomy scene.
Aside from its well-kept cultural features, Tulum has also preserved its natural features. Just outside Pueblo’s paved roads and populated areas is the surrounding jungle serving as a sanctuary for a diverse set of wildlife.
You put all of them together in a friendly town full of life and thrills, and you’ll have the perfect recipe for a thriving tourist destination. In Tulum, you’ll find a variety of options for your accommodation needs, from luxury hotels to budget beach hostels. Even with all the developments and tourism, the Pueblo has stayed faithful to its Mexican identity.
Which Is Better – Tulum or Isla Mujeres?
If you’re looking for a jam-packed vacation experience, Tulum would be the best option. Thanks to its genius blend of nature, history, and culture, Tulum prides itself in its ingenuity. The town can offer a bit of everything any kind of traveler is looking for.
From ancient ruins and quirky Pueblo to rich nature and wildlife in protected natural parks, you will have plenty to marvel upon in Tulum. But the downside is, though it matters person to person, it can get crowded.
Expect to see throngs of tourists in its many famous sites, especially Playa Paraiso, Playa Ruinas, the Pueblo, and the Tulum Ruins.
Isla Mujeres offers great scenes as well, especially with its small island vibe and respect for nature’s gifts. But perhaps Isla Mujeres’ defining selling point is its stunning beaches that best even Tulum and Cancun. You couple its beaches with a more relaxed and quiet scene, Isla Mujeres is best reserved for those looking to have a balance of beauty and serenity.
Is It Better to Stay in Tulum or Isla Mujeres?
When it comes to a wide range of accommodations and tourist draws, Tulum offers more than Isla Mujeres can. You can have mystical ruins, natural features, and more accommodation options. Tulum can better welcome a wider range of visitors.
Is Isla Mujeres Near Tulum?
Isla Mujeres is far from Tulum, especially as Isla Mujeres sits north of the Yucatan Peninsula, and Tulum sits far south. You have to take a bus or a rental car, and then a ferry to get between them.
How Far Is Isla Mujeres From Tulum?
Isla Mujeres is approximately 85 miles or 37 km from Tulum, directly.
How to Get From Tulum to Isla Mujeres
With the sheer distance, you can either take a bus or rental car to the ferry port in Cancun and then board a ferry to Isla Mujeres.
Is There a Ferry From Tulum to Isla Mujeres?
Unfortunately, direct routes from Tulum to Isla Mujeres aren’t available. You can either drive to Playa del Carmen, or Cancun to board a ferry heading to Isla Mujeres.