The Riviera Maya is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world -- and rightly so. The region is blessed with white-sand beaches, neon-blue seas, palm-lined shores, busy beachside cities and tranquil fishing hamlets -- to say nothing of ancient ruins, luxe all-inclusives, and natural landscapes. While Cancun gets the lion's share of attention in this region, Tulum and Playa del Carmen are much-coveted beach destinations in their own right. In fact, you've probably seen envy-inducing pictures from both Riviera Maya towns on your friends' social media feeds in the last several years. To help you figure out which town is right for you, we're breaking down the good, the bad, and the beautiful in both of these dreamy vacation destinations.
When it comes to overall atmosphere in Tulum and Playa del Carmen, the vibe is almost night and day — almost. Travelers who would like to have the option of a quiet beach escape right alongside wilder nightlife, shopping, and a more urban scene should absolutely choose Playa del Carmen. Here, you’ll find a tourist-primed city with a pretty, developed beach. Within a five- to 15-minute drive from the center of town are some of the Riviera Maya’s chicest luxury beachfront hotels as well as dozens of all-inclusive resorts for travelers who prefer to have their every need catered to. There are a number of bars and nightclubs found in town, along Fifth Avenue (La Quinta to the locals), and there are bustling local markets as well as ferries to the cruise city Cozumel, which is 12 miles offshore (which means lots of day-tripping cruisers in Playa del Carmen).
Tulum, which is about an hour south of Playa del Carmen, is the Riviera Maya destination for those seeking boho beachy vibes with escapist leanings. Here, there is a town — Tulum Pueblo — which is where you’ll find local shops, a market, and inexpensive authentic cuisine. However, most tourists will find themselves bedding down in the hotel zone. Here, the name of the game is relaxation and unplugging — within reason. Instead of big resorts lining the road, you’ll find palm trees and jungle. The scene revolves around the rustic-chic beachfront bars at the low-key hotels in the area, and there’s a thriving yoga and wellness scene here as well.
The Hotel Scene
While the style of hotel that you’ll find in Tulum and Playa del Carmen are starkly different, both destinations do offer a relatively wide spectrum of properties for travelers within a range of budgets. However, you will have to make some sacrifices in both if you’re looking to spend the least amount of money possible. In both Tulum and Playa del Carmen, the crop of budget hotels are located inland. In Playa del Carmen, those are generally clustered in the middle of town, where it can be busy and loud. The beach will generally be a five- to 10-minute walk from these hotels. In Tulum, the cheapest properties are in Tulum Pueblo and will require a taxi or bike ride to reach the beach.
Aside from that, the hotel scene is quite distinct. Tulum — with its low-key, all-chill vibe — tries harder to retain its unassuming former fishing village history. That means beachfront bungalow properties galore, some of which are actually crafted from former fishermen’s quarters (like the aptly named Villa Pescadores). The look ranges from humble to beach chic, with all sorts of locally sourced and millennial-friendly variations in between. Keep in mind that most properties in Tulum lack much wiring, and generally lack TVs (and sometimes only have electricity part of the day). That’s intentional — and helps set the unplugged, more natural vibe here. You’re also likely to find beachside yoga classes and trendy trappings like artisanal cold-pressed juice cocktails at many hotels.
Playa del Carmen’s hotel offerings are much closer to what most travelers imagine when they think of the Riviera Maya. While options found right in town are generally on the lower-frills end of the spectrum, the beaches just north and south of the downtown core are packed with large-scale resorts that range from mid-range all-inclusive properties to sleek and sexy intimate luxury resorts. Here, you’ll find plenty of travelers who don’t leave their resort’s grounds for the duration of their vacations, similar to the vibe found in mega-resort areas across the Caribbean region.
Which Has the Best Beach?
No matter where you land in the Riviera Maya, you’re bound to find blazing white sand and picture-perfect blue waters. With that in mind, both Playa del Carmen and Tulum might seem to be evenly matched. However, there are important distinctions between the two. For starters, you should know that all beaches in Mexico are technically public, so even those fancy resorts that advertise private beaches in Playa del Carmen will only have a private section on the beach. That means that if you’re vacationing in a hotel that’s close to the city center, you should expect beach vendors, crowds, and a generally higher level of buzz. It’s not quite the free-for-all you’ll find in other Mexican beach destinations like Cabo San Lucas or Cancun, but parts of the beach can be quite busy. Outside of downtown Playa del Carmen, the vibe along the beach is significantly calmer and less overtly built up.
Tulum’s beach hews closely to the Tulum ethos overall — it’s far less crowded and the energy is entirely calmer along almost the entire stretch of sand that makes up Tulum’s hotel zone. The beaches here are white and powder-white, and given the less dense development in Tulum when compared to Playa del Carmen, they also tend to feel less crowded. That’s not to say the some of the area’s most popular strips of sand — like Playa Ruinas (which sits just below the 13th-century Mayan ruins of Tulum) — don’t see their fair share of visitors. However, it all has a more natural vibe. If you really want to feel like you’re away from it all, make the trek south of town to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, where the shoreline feels untouched. It takes about an hour to reach by bike from Tulum.
Things to Do Nearby
Whether you choose Tulum or Playa del Carmen, you’ll be within a relatively easy trip of a number of cool sights. However, each one is a bit more convenient to its own set of sights and destinations. Of course, for travelers who want a glimpse of Mexico’s fascinating pre-Hispanic cultural riches, Tulum itself is home to 13th-century ruins. About 45 minute by car inland and you’ll find yourself at the fascinating Coba ruins as well.
Travelers who’d prefer to stick to the water can head to the almost empty beaches of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which are also within an easy one-hour bike ride, or 45-minute drive south of the city (the road isn’t paved — be warned). Offshore snorkeling is also a delight here, though you’ll likely have to rent your own gear in town. If you’d like a break from the dazzling coastline of the Tulum region, head inland to the Gran Cenote, which is only a 10-minute drive from the center of the hotel zone.
Playa del Carmen is, as you can probably guess, packed with a bit more tourist-friendly activities in the surrounding region. One of the biggest draws is the Xcaret theme park, where everything from snorkeling to cultural shows to interactive exhibits draws tourists in droves. There are several cenotes within a quick drive of downtown as well, though they’re likely to be more crowded than what you’ll find in the southern Riviera Maya around Tulum.
Day trips to Cozumel — the offshore island — are also popular from Playa del Carmen. It’s a 40-minute ferry trip from Playa del Carmen. Once there, the town of San Miguel is quaint enough to be explored for a day, or you can rent a scooter and head to the wild beaches on the east side of the island (which are mostly undeveloped). Beware that Cozumel is a major cruise port and the west side of the island can be busy when ships are docked.
Tulum is all about breezy, boho beach getaways, and there are almost too many options to count that in that category. Be Tulum is one of our favorite beachfront options, with its upscale finish, gorgeous setting, and beach-meets-urban design. Hotel Cabanas Tulum also packs a number of amenities into a small package, while Villa Pescadores Tulum brings eclectic boho-chic style to its low-key (and sometime low frills) rooms. Coco Tulum is a reliably more affordable (by Tulum standards) beachfront option with a rustic, simple style.
Playa del Carmen has a more diverse array of hotel offerings, largely because you’ll find a number of brand-name luxury resorts and all-inclusive properties in the region. In the luxury category, the Fairmont Mayakoba, Rosewood Mayakoba, and Banyan Tree Mayakoba all make fine candidates for travelers with cash to spare. For a great all-inclusive escape, check out the Royal Hideaway Playacar or Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun. Want to combine boutique atmosphere with all-inclusive perks and relatively reasonable rates? Check out the Le Reve Hotel & Spa. Budget travelers will have the best luck in the city center, at quaint and cheerful spots like Luna Blue Hotel and Barrio Latino Hotel.
Don’t ruin your vacation with a bad burn–make sure on your next trip to Mexico, bring along some sunscreen.
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