We all know how Cancun can be, beautiful, loud, and full of energy, especially with its dynamic scene, while Tulum is authentic, relaxed, and rustic, best for cultural immersion, with a background of lush forests rich in wildlife, and history perched on top of natural beauty. The only question that remains is which one floats your boat.
Magical is the key word that describes the enchanting nature of this piece of ancient history. If honest-to-goodness R&R is what you are looking for, Tulum has all the common denominators of what the Riviera Maya is known for — world-class beaches, sacred cenotes, underground rivers, priceless ruins, epicurean delights, and the hospitality and charm of the locals, all of which are refreshing breaks from all the debauchery from the other towns and cities.
Tradition, customs, and culture are what this destination is all about. There’s not much of the partying and electricity-in-the-air type of vibe. Peace, serenity, tranquility, spirituality, communing with nature, and pondering the fate of civilizations, among others, are what Tulum will inspire in you. So, what are you waiting for? Let your hair down in one of the most revitalizing places in Mexico!
What Makes Tulum Unique?
Ruins Ready to Hit the Beach
When you look at Tulum without any background research, you could understand it to be a city of the ancients that has a resort-like feel to it. It was probably their take on a resort. Some ‘experts’ would disagree with such a small-minded idea, but it’s not like archaeology is an exact science. The idea that the Tulum ruins were simply for maritime commerce is bland and boring, yeah? Whatever the case may be, it sure draws resort lovers like gangbusters!
The proximity to the beach’s white confectioner-sugar sands lapped by gentle surf from the never-ending expanse that is the Caribbean … a beachgoer’s wet dream. And when you get into the turquoise waters while facing the shore, you will be greeted by geometric stone structures — a sublime juxtaposition with the lush vegetation on the cliff.
Tulum Ruin’s Triple Tap
Set aside the beach for a moment and put on your archeological hat — or better yet, your Indiana Jones fedora — and soak in the major sights on the ruin’s main grounds. The scholar in you will be happy to know that there are three structures that stand out among the temples, monuments, and carefully crafted constructions. Know more about them in the listing below.
Temple of the Frescoes
From a distance, this temple has a very staunched, rigid, and square aesthetic, complete with a colonnade at the lower gallery. It stands at a modest two floors wherein the galleries are perhaps concentric when viewed from the heavens.
As you move in closer, the previously amorphous façade increases in detail as the intricate reliefs of the Maya god come alive from the flat surface. It is a testament to the incredible technical artistry of the ancients even in the most difficult of mediums, which seem almost absent in the modern era.
Temple of the Descending God
The Descending God is a common theme of the whole of the site. It appears to be some upside-down dude, conceivably depicting someone diving into the sea (some say he’s a skydiver though)? It’s remarkably convenient for the place; it seems like the perfect symbolic representation of what the city stood for.
The temple itself is a curiosity. It’s a place in the site with slanting walls, almost as though an upside-down pyramid was stabbed onto the temple below it.
This ‘castle’ could very well be a beacon in the olden times that nowadays are known as lighthouses. Its strategic position was posited to have guided seafarers through the opening of the treacherous reef further offshore.
It is an imposing structure atop the cliff overlooking the sultry sands and sea. It is the veritable poster child of Tulum. And perhaps without it, the ruin, and ultimately Tulum, would not be the same.
Cenote Nonstop Till You Drop
Sick and tired of beaches? Briny air? Saltwater getting in your mouth? As luck would have it, Mexico has something special in store for your very conundrum. The Riviera Maya is known to have cenotes in one form or another, and Tulum is no exception. And if you are clueless about what they are, here’s a refresher: cenotes are collapsed limestone sinkholes or pits; limestone dissolves readily in water, hence the pits.
Explore Tulum’s handful of cenotes scattered across the landscape. For an easier time deciding where to go, here are some of them:
As the name suggests, this cenote is grand in both popularity and size. This is a must-visit if ever you get to Tulum. Its sheer size allows for a spacious retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday living; you don’t have to rub elbows with strangers if you don’t want to. It’s the perfect way to channel the spiritual energies long believed to emanate from the earth.
Bask in the sunlight peeking from a lush canopy of the local forest. Hear and feel nature herself above and below the water by being still in mind and body. Seek out the pockets of life under the water, be it fish or turtles; the supreme clarity of the water will aid you in this endeavor.
Business-minded individuals have had a eureka moment and decided to monetize to the max these wonders of nature. Enter Clan-Destino; it is a cenote encircled by bars with tables right at the edge of the water for the epicures out there who want to have a nature-based pool-party vibe and maybe drink and dive!
Temple of Doom Cenote
Calavera Cenote aka Temple of Doom aka “Skull” cenote, for lack of a better explanation, looks like a skull from a bird’s-eye view. The monikers alone are enough to hype up the place, but the fact of the matter is that it’s just two small ground openings for the eyes and a big opening for the mouth that lead into the cenote proper.
Because it is a semi-open cenote, cliff-jump from any of its mouths as it is invariably the highlight of the place’s tight setup, that is, if you have the intestinal fortitude.
Tulum is prized in Mexico as a Magical Town. It is not magic in the supernatural and superstitious sense, rather, it is more on the original charms of the area, which have been preserved thoughtfully for generations.
Architectural, traditional, historical, and cultural safeguarding efforts bolster the classical atmosphere, attitudes, and the heritage handed over from the olden times … those are what constitute the true and palpable ‘magic’ of a Pueblo Mágico.
The modern-day Tulum environment, the city itself, is an expression of the rustic and unassuming Mexican ambiance, nothing of the sort that you would find in highly developed, fast-paced cities like Cancun. The locals represent this Mexican homey quality and traditional hospitality the best. So if you want to hang loose, this magical town will turn any frown upside down.
No article would do justice to ever describing the atmosphere at the tip of the Yucatan once you step foot on the renowned party beaches that have deeply rooted themselves into the culture of Cancun, Quintana Roo, and the hearts and minds of party people all over the world. [party people everywhere put their hands up in the air!]
Cancun’s got certified Blue Flag public beaches with world-class activities to match, an interweaving of ancient archaeological sites and modern-day existence, a fusion of flavors from an eclectic selection of backgrounds, an international party scene, and a cosmopolitan downtown fit for any city slicker.
How the heck could you even resist such a location that could very well rival even the Cities of Sin themselves! Excited to know the sultry details? Read on!
What Makes Cancun Unique?
The Biggest Nightlife Scene in the Caribbean
Punta Cancun’s blazing beaches are some of the best in terms of fun under the sun, but what sets it apart from all the quaint other Mexican beaches is that things don’t end when the sun goes down — not by a long shot. The whole area is armed to the teeth with killer nightclubs, bars, food, dancing, and the list goes on.
With the area being transformed into a vast nightlife space, it’s not exactly the most family-friendly location to be in, especially when the booze starts flowing like a river. That said, being with kids should be in the morning and the earlier part of the evening when the establishments are in their demure state, and before the wildlings and creatures of the night begin their ‘day.’
Rock one of the world’s best spring break spots like a college kid. Below are 3 of some of the hippest nightclubs the cool kids are hitting that are mainstays in online rankings.
Coco Bongo Cancun
Tired of the basic drink and dance type of gig? Coco Bongo has an impressive array of entertainment options and settings that cater to a range of patron tastes.
For the adults or the adulting in your group, enjoy the Broadway-esque or Cirque du Soleil–type production for shows with uncanny acting, jaw-dropping acrobatics, and marvelous musicals. Their roster of performances includes the most memorable of movies, places, and faces — Rio de Janeiro Carnival, 300, and The Beatles, to name a few.
Are you still doing ye olde nightclub scene? You might regret not getting into a private club for a privileged experience with a flair for the stylish and the highbrow. Their hashtag, #notforeveryone, puts their exclusive nature in the limelight.
Bask in the mix of the all-encompassing embrace of darkness, flickering laser lights, and gently glowing neon all tied together with electrifying DJ sets.
Pirate Show Cancun Aboard the Jolly Roger
Nightlife aboard the friggin’ Jolly Rogers mate! [fist shaking] Now this is not one of those nonfunctional replicas; you’re going to get on board a triple-masted beast of the Caribbean that will actually sail out to sea while you drink and dine and watch the pirate performances and pyrotechnics.
The ‘Roger’ galleon is a state-of-the-art seafaring vessel clad with a 16th-century wooden personality, a homage to the Marigalante. It is perfectly safe and has all the modern conveniences that should satisfy even the most untrusting of landlubbers.
Even your kids will revel in the most worthwhile Caribbean nightlife for youngsters. Have you and/or your kids’ interests piqued in The Curse of the Golden Fleece show, especially if there are pirate wannabees in your group. Embark on a treasure hunt, among other family-oriented activities, that will work your body and mind. And the list goes on.
Pure adult groups have a place on the ship too. Savor a gourmet dinner from a world-class chef. Sing “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” while you swig your favorite liquor or grog, if you are so inclined, in the open bar. Hum to the tune of live music suffusing the ship. And so much more!
The Ancients: Up Close and Personal … the Easy Way
Even though Cancun, or more specifically the State of Quintana Roo, has a ton of discovered archaeological sites under its belt, they are some distance apart. Some tourists consider this a hassle unless you are absolutely dedicated and determined to get the ‘complete’ experience. If you or your group are not known for patience, there is a convenient alternative right in the Hotel Zone —
The unthinkably easy way to immerse yourself in the greatness of the ancients, without having to waste your valuable time crammed into your vehicle of choice for the several hours(-ish) needed to reach a site or string of sites, is the super convenient Mayan Museum of Cancun.
This museum is for those who have curious respect for the ancients and their somewhat immortal achievements. It is the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to representing the various sites unearthed in Quintana Roo.
View its respectable number of relics from sites like Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Comalcalco, and the like. The intricate steles and stone reliefs typical of South America’s pre-Columbian culture are arguably the best displays that not all ancient museums can muster — it could very well be the defining factor.
The museum also has an entry point to a live archaeological site, ripe for the interaction of kids, kids at heart, and the supremely inquisitive. Now spend that roughly MXN 80 ($4) a pop, it is a cheap way for interacting with the ancients, and it is the ultimate time-saver as well.
Family Fun Beyond Beaches
Partying is usually for the grown-ups, so what about family groups? Small and small-ish children? Beaches, again? It’s a good thing Cancun has alternatives at the ready. Water and theme parks abound roughly within a 62 mi (100 km) line from the city proper.
These draws are not your everyday, ordinary parks. They make the most out of the wild beauty of the region by making it an integral part of the outdoor fun under the sun. The feeling of being in the presence of nature while maintaining the safety of civilization at arm’s reach makes for a perfect venue to get into what is otherwise a risky endeavor.
Below are some of the attractions you can partake in, especially for the child in you.
A 47 mi (76 km) drive away from downtown, Xcaret Park’s acreage contains several lures that will satisfy even the most hardened of explorers. Imagine you machete your path through the thick Mayan jungle to rediscover sacred cenotes and underground rivers, amidst a sanctuary of fauna and flora ready to be experienced. Below is a taste of what they offer —
As the name suggests, this attraction is more of an exploratory extravaganza. Witness your natural environment through unique perspectives.
With a trusty zip line, view the verdant foliage astride the path and hover over the crystal clear bodies of water, possibly spotting a fish or turtle like a bird of prey looking for its next meal. Or perhaps walk, swim, snorkel, or raft away in an underground cavern, lit enough to make it less intimidating and more pleasant.
This branch of the park is mostly mand-made and twists your senses and perception like wringing fresh laundry — except the laundry here is your brain. The goal here, apparently, is to overdrive your brain cells; it’s filled with illusions, some sort of partial sensory deprivation, disorientating environments, and a multitude of mind-blowing stuff.
Check out Xcaret’s website for other attractions nearby that will suit your specific needs.
A close 12.4 mi (20 km) drive from downtown, this joint is for adrenaline savages. Run through suspended rope courses, kayak in canals, run amok in a monster truck, hit some whitewater, and so much more activities that require your full-on immersion.
Ventura Park Cancún
Not too far from Xavage, this could very well exemplify the classic definition of a theme park if not for the jungle landscape and Caribbean seascape. It’s got the staples for a wonderous water park — pools, toboggans, float-tube sailing, zip-lining over the Caribbean. And of course, it has the theme park essentials, such as a carousel, crazy chairs, roller coaster, and the like. You and your youngins will have a swell time here!
Sometimes, when you hit a destination or country, you are not always able to go everywhere you want to or should get to. For that unfortunate situation, the next best solution is to safely get to the highest vantage point you can in order to scope out the terrain. Luckily, Cancun has at least two premium spots for you to not be lying, per se, when you say you saw everything to see in Cancun.
Climb aboard the following man-made marvels of engineering to get the best views in Cancun —
This tower boasts the penultimate 360-degree unobstructed view of the majestic Caribbean Sea, Nichupté Lagoon, and Zona Hotelera. On a clear day, you can even snipe Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.
El Sol de Cancun
Ferris Wheels are always a fun attraction with a little fear factor in the mix no matter the location. With that in mind, what do you think about a wheel in between Nichupté Lagoon and the Caribbean Sea?
If Xcaret’s tower is the “penultimate,” this — hands down — is the ultimate god’s-eye view if there ever was one. C’mon now! Varying elevations bestows a dynamic appreciation of the wonderful destination that is Cancun. It may be a fleeting experience, but — oh man, oh man — nothing beats the imprint on your psyche when viewing the glory of sunset when viewed from the clouds.
Which Is Better – Tulum or Cancun?
Tulum and Cancun may be situated on the same peninsula, in the same state, and on the same coast, but these two could never be any more different. Cancun, the big player of Quintana Roo, and the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula is more a tourist mecca than a cultural heritage center, thanks to its ever-dynamic setting, and an animated flavor that reverberates across the travelsphere.
Tulum, on the other hand, is meant for those looking for a less noisy, and less rowdy approach to tourism, while it may not offer the same highs of fun Cancun does, what Tulum has is the magic of history, natural beauty, and wildlife, all wrapped in one enchanting ball of an authentic Mexican seaside town. If you love the beach, rich history, and a rather simple tourist, Tulum is your best bet.
However, what constitutes the best will always depend on what a traveler wants to experience, and that will always vary depending on what a certain destination can offer. So the decision rests upon you, dear traveler, magical Tulum or fun Cancun?
Tulum vs. Cancun – Beaches
This is a tough one to beat as Tulum’s beaches, though not as many, and isn’t as long as Cancun’s can definitely compete. Spare the developments of Cancun’s beaches, Tulum’s are more authentic and tropical because, contrary to popular belief, a lot of people still prefer a rustic beach, full of palm trees, the occasional seaweed, and fewer crowds.
Cancun’s appeal when it comes to beaches is how well-developed, and how well-equipped they are, especially in beaches across resorts. Gone are those aesthetic palm trees, and that authentic feeling of being in a tropical seaside city to make way for mass tourism, and urban development.
Tulum’s beaches, despite the town’s famous reputation, when it comes to culture and history, still feel rustic and authentic.
The beaches are as clear, and as bright as Cancun’s but don’t expect anything fancy like high-rise hotels behind you, umbrellas, beach chairs, and lifeguards. Instead, expect a bit of sargassum washed ashore, animals lounging with you, and the occasional beach vendors selling you simple crafts. But, you still have that notable cobalt-blue waters, and powder-fine white sand you’ve fantasized about.
Tulum vs. Cancun – Nightlife
Without a shadow of a doubt, Cancun still takes the throne when it comes to nightlife, and downright partying, probably taking the crown all the way across the entire Caribbean, and Mexico. Apart from the beaches, Cancun is synonymous with nightlife and parties.
But this doesn’t say that nightlife in Tulum is pretty much non-existent, in fact, it does, the town just isn’t all about that. Tulum on the other hand is a little less party central and has a more laid-back nightlife scene without taking away the fun. It will feel like Tulum is made for those who would rather take traveling in a more culturally enriching experience.
As for Cancun, let’s face it, almost everything you look up online about the best draws of the city will always have “best nightlife”, or “fun parties” smack-dab on body texts, trying to sell the place to people who are considering the fabled city. From parties and booze in clubs to well-organized international events, Cancun’s nightlife remains undefeated.
Tulum vs. Cancun for Families
Tulum and Cancun offer distinct flavors for families vacationing around the Riviera Maya, and it depends on what you deem more proper for your family. In both cities, you can have the beach, amazing local scene, good food, and plenty of adventures, but their differences may be ideal or anything less than ideal.
For one Cancun’s energetic atmosphere and luxury resorts are best for families of all kinds, whether a family has small children or young adults, Cancun always delivers. The city itself is a tourism development success, so you can expect to have every woe answered. However, you can expect higher prices, crowded areas, packed tours, and an atmosphere that is less authentic and tropical.
As for Tulum, it’s more rustic, from the beach to the resorts. The seaside town stays true to its Mexican identity, with the pueblo as the center of its culture and history, despite the lack of exciting family-oriented activities, the tours around ruins, and many natural wonders minutes outside of the town can be perfect for kids.
What Is the Difference Between Cancun and Tulum?
Cancun and Tulum are two of the most famous destinations in the Riviera Maya, among the few, and yet they both have obvious differences that can give any traveler a sort of variety in the same stretch of land and cost.
Cancun, first off, is a city, bigger than Tulum by size, and by magnitude, with the sheer number of its tourist draws, including its exquisite beaches that stretch on for miles, its lively center, and well-developed delights, not to mention the coveted parties at night, Cancun is perfect for the animated traveler.
Tulum may be overshadowed by Cancun when it comes to size, and the number of draws, but Tulum’s charms are simple, and authentic but more often than we thought these things are enough. The seaside town is characterized by ruins perched on a cliff, right over a gorgeous beach, with strong rustic, charming, and authentic overtones. Tulum is best reserved for those looking to have a cultural and social enriching time in the Riviera Maya.
Is Tulum Safer Than Cancun?
To get a broader picture when it comes to safety, Riviera Maya is considered to be generally safe for tourists. Despite the bad rep Mexico gets from misleading mainstream media representation, while a bit of it is realistic, the country itself isn’t one big crime den.
Riviera Maya is known for its beauty and overall safety, drawing in visitors by the numbers, especially North Americans and Europeans. So in short, both Tulum and Cancun are equally safe for everyone to visit and explore all their magnificence and full splendor.
However, exercising caution everywhere is still the best practice to steer clear of any mishaps such as: staying out of isolated and dark places at night, and leaving your valuables unattended, even your drinks.