Tulum Vs Playa Del Carmen: Where in Mexico is Better?

Despite their close proximity, Tulum and Playa Del Carmen offer different experiences, so if you are heading to the Riviera Maya you may face a bit of a conundrum choosing between the two.

Each town has its own unique charm and reasons which set them apart so it ultimately comes down to what you are looking to get out of your vacation. Neither town saw significant growth until the 1990s when they started to make a name for themselves as holiday destinations – in just 20 years, Playa Del Carmen’s population grew from 18,000 to 215,000!

Tulum on the other hand is much smaller with a population of around 30,000 and a much more relaxed, bohemian, even ‘hippy’ atmosphere, with a focus on being an eco-friendly holiday town.

In this article we will compare both towns in a number of categories, including accommodation, pricing, eating out and nightlife to determine which is the right one for you.

Is accommodation better in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen?

Tulum coastline from above
Photo by Spencer Watson

Playa Del Carmen and Tulum both offer excellent accommodation options but if you are looking for a more unique, up-market place to stay then Tulum might be the town for you.

Tulum offers a much more rustic and traditional feel in terms of its accommodation compared to neighbouring Playa Del Carmen. Accommodation here is close to the beach and tries to blend in with the natural coastline. Its Hotel Zone is made up of many independent, boutique hotels, eco-lodges and B&Bs, while the the standard all-inclusive hotels are situated out of town.

Luxury cabañas (cabins) are dotted all along the coastline in Tulum, fitted with air-con and modern comforts. These little wooden lodges blend into their surroundings perfectly with straw roofs and wooden beams, built within groves of palm trees.

This blend of luxury and ambient atmosphere also comes at a cost, with accommodation in Tulum’s Hotel Zone usually more expensive than other parts of Riviera Maya. Finding a hotel slightly away from the main beach, or in downtown can be much affordable, including hostels, providing an option for all budgets.

hotel playa del carmen
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

Camping options are also available and navigating the town by bicycle is easy and fun, if eco-friendly tourism is important to you.

Alternatively, accommodation in Playa Del Carmen is generally what you would expect from a traditional beach resort, with large all-inclusive hotels which cater for all the family. Many vacation rentals are available in the area which can be found on websites such as AirBnB – this makes Playa Del Carmen a great option for large groups.

Hotels which are closer to the main strip ‘5th Avenue’ typically cost more per night, even though they may not necessarily be of a better quality than the ones slightly further away. So if being within stumbling distance from the nightlife and restaurants is not important for you, then you can save money by booking accommodation in the town’s more residential area.

Many of the well-known hotel chains are represented here, including; Hilton, Iberostar, Hyatt, Thompson & Holiday Inn – perfect for families who enjoy a bit of familiarity and a consistent level of quality.

Is Tulum cheaper than Playa Del Carmen?

Mexico beach

The costs for things like attractions, food, alcohol and transport are very similar in both resorts but the main difference is accommodation, where prices are typically much higher in Tulum if you want to stay close to the beach.

According to the crowd-sourced database, Numbeo these are the prices you can expect to pay for the following items:

Meal in an inexpensive restaurant – $4-$4.50

Meal for two in a mid-range restaurant, three courses – $25

Domestic Beer – $1.50-$2

Imported Beer – $2.50-$3

Cappuccino -$2.25-$2.50

Bottled Water – $0.60-$0.70

Taxi per 1km (Normal Tariff) – $0.50-$0.85

One-Way ticket on local transport – $0.40-$1.50

The top restaurants in Tulum are generally priced higher than the equivalent in Playa Del Carmen but the main difference, as mentioned earlier is the cost of accommodation, particularly the boutique hotels. Due to Tulum’s prominence on social media, especially Instagram, the top hotels and lodges in the resort have become very expensive and not all of them justify the cost.

Is the food better in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen?

Some Mexican tacos
When in Mexico, eat tacos!

Purely for the variety of different cuisines, Playa Del Carmen edges it in terms of food and eating out, although Tulum does have a number of outstanding restauarants with Riviera Maya becoming somewhat of a foodie paradise.

Due to the mix of cultures in Play Del Carmen, you can find cuisine from all over the world and plenty of Mexican fusions, or if you’re in a hurry, you can also find plenty of the well-known fast food chains. Due to the sheer amount of restaurants in the town, the price of a meal is usually much cheaper than in Tulum, helping your Pesos go further.

The highest rated restaurants in Playa Del Carmen are:

Breakfast

Lara & Luca is a French/ European style cafe that fuses food from different countries and keeps customers coming back for its breakfast. A safe bet for vegans, vegetarians and people looking for gluten free options, with excellent service.

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Lunch

Ferron’s Jerk Chicken offers authentic, low-cost Caribbean food and is an excellent lunch option in Playa del Carmen. As well as its signature Jerk Chicken, Ferron’s also has a reputation for its pork ribs.

Dinner

For a highly rated Mexican grill, Porfirio’s Restaurante is a contemporary restaurant with quality service, grilling up a range of fish and meat in a relaxed, Mexican atmosphere. Porfirio’s is also well renowned for its tasty cocktails.

Cheap Eat

Kaxapa Factory is a hidden, Veneuzelan gem and serves meals with a price range of between $7-$9. Located close to 5th Avenue, this family owned restaurant focuses on strong, delicious flavours and guarantees to fill your stomach while being easy on the pocket.

Gourmet

The Traveler’s Table serves high end Mexican food in an ambient atmosphere and reviews describe the restaurant as a ‘world-class’ & ‘unique culinary’ experience. Traveler’s Table takes guests through Mexican history with its bespoke culinary experience, providing information on each dish and its origins. In this experience, chefs curate 5 dishes which are paired with wine, including a background story in one of the resort’s most popular ‘things to do’.

mexico tacos
Image by Yezmin Barreto from Pixabay

According to TripAdvisor, the highest rated restaurants in Tulum are:

Breakfast

Tunich is a popular beach-side, breakfast spot, serving all-day brunch from 7am-7pm, using fresh and local ingredients. Located within a traditional thatched-roof Palapa, this quaint restaurant also earns good reviews for its espresso and smoothies.

Lunch

Everybody loves a quick taco and one of the best places to pick one up in Tulum is Taqueria Honorio, well liked for its fresh meat and addictive seasonings. This place is also one of the best value for money eateries in the area.

Dinner

With almost 2,400 reviews, a local institution in Tulum is La Zebra Beach Restaurant & Bar. As the name suggests, La Zebra is located on the beach and serves modern Mexican cuisine, using the freshest ingredients. A popular dish is the Octopus, grilled shrimp, chips & guacamole.

Cheap Eat

Paquino Coffee Shop serves great value coffee and Italian food and is highly recommended for its friendly staff and authentic food. Avoiding the pretentious atmosphere of some of its rivals, you can grab a quick, filling meal here, including classics such as Lasagne.

Gourmet

On the other end of the scale, if you are looking for a spot of fine dining then look no further than Rosa Negra, with its Latin American food that focuses on gastronomic tradition from countries such as; Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Colombia & Brazil. Each dish uses ingredients from its country of origin and the chefs here are not afraid to try unusual food combinations to create high quality meals.

Restaurants on Tulum’s main hotel strip are much pricier than those found elsewhere in the area, so if you are looking for a more affordable meal then it is wise to head downtown. There isn’t a great deal of variety in Tulum, from high end restaurants to more local eateries, however, it makes up for it with the quality of food on offer.

Popular Dishes in Riviera Maya

Cochinita Pibil Possibly the most famous dish in the Yucatan region – shredded pork meat, marinated in annatto, cornmeal & garlic, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked, usually served with red onions and chilli sauce.

Salbutes – Fried corn tortilla, topped with black bean puree & chicken or pork as one of the most popular snacks in the region.

Poc Chuc – Marinated pork steaks, grilled over charcoal in a sour orange sauce.

Tikin Xic – Grilled fish in a spicy annatto sauce, served on a bed of banana leaves.

Sea Snail Ceviche – This tropical dish combines the unusual sea snail with a classic ceviche.

Chicken & Lime Soup – Dating back to Mayan times, this classic is a tangy chicken soup, topped with fried tortilla strips for an added crunch.

Pozole – Said to date back before Hispanic times, this broth is made of pork, red chilli and dried maize.

Are the beaches better in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen?

Life guard on beach at sunset
Photo by Conor Luddy

Riviera Maya, Mexico is well known for its picturesque beaches but if you are looking to avoid the crowds then Tulum is the place for you as it offers a more peaceful and romantic setting compared to the hustle and bustle of Playa Del Carmen, or other popular Mexican resorts such as Cancun.

The white sand beaches in Tulum are long and wide, making it easy to find a secluded spot and your own piece of paradise, with its over hanging palm trees and crystal blue waters. Home to turtles and a host of marine life, the beaches here provide an unforgettable experience.

In contrast, large parts of the beach in Playa del Carmen are narrow and prone to crowds which can be off putting if you are looking for a relaxed, quiet place to top up your tan. As a popular family resort, your chances of lounging near noisy children are also increased.

That’s not to say you are not able to find quiet beaches in Playa Del Carmen but they are fewer and further between than neighbouring Tulum, however, it certainly has the edge if you are looking for party beaches and lively bars by the sea.

Best beaches in Tulum

  • Playa Ruinas
  • Playa Paraiso
  • Las Palmas Public Beach
  • Akumal Beach
  • Secret Beach

Best beaches in Playa del Carmen

  • Playa Maroma
  • Xpu-Ha
  • Playa Mamitas
  • Playa Akumal
  • Playa Paamul
  • Los Pinos
  • Xcacel

Are there more things to do in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen?

diving in mexico
Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

Playa Del Carmen is the place to be if you are looking for a wide range of activities and overall fun, whereas Tulum focuses on a relaxed, ‘go at your own’ pace experience with its main attractions being its natural surroundings and historic ruins.

Things to do in Playa Del Carmen

Take a Catamaran Tour – Enjoy the fantastic coastline from afar in a luxury catamaran, with an open bar and lunch buffet, also providing an excellent opportunity for snorkeling to meet the local marine life of the Great Mayan Reef.

Go for a swim in a Cenote – These underground pools are formed when limestone bedrock gives way to underground rivers, streams and freshwater springs, creating beautiful swimming holes, with thousands located on the Yucatan peninsula and Riviera Maya.

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Relax and drink at a beach club – Most beach clubs in the town do not charge for sun loungers as long as sunbathers are making use of the bar facilities – a great way to enjoy the afternoon sun.

Enjoy the rooftop pools – Many hotels here have their own rooftop pools and even if you are not a resident, you can still pay around 200 pesos per person to use the facilities.

Frida Kahlo Museum – Check out the works of Mexico’s most famous portrait artist and learn about her life and history.

Explore the caves – The Rio Secreto Caverns are 5 spectacular caves with underground rivers and springs. You can even hire a wet suit and go on a guided swimming expedition in a pitch black cave pool.

Other popular activities include; salsa dancing, paddle boarding, snorkeling, swimming with turtles and jet skiing. You can even organise a day trip to the stunning island of Cozumel.

Things to in Tulum

Visit Chichen Itza – You can visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza from both towns and take a guided tour around the site to learn about this fascinating, ancient civilisation. Tours can include lunch and added extras such as tequila tasting to prolong this historic Mexican experience.

Mayan ruins
Photo by Sebastian Gomez

Check out the ruins – One of the best thins to do in Tulum is to visit the largest Mayan ruins in Mexico, situated on a cliff that overlooks the beach. Entry fee is less than $4, although it is advised to get there early to avoid the crowds.

Take a mud bath – Laguna de Kaan Luum is 9km south of Tulum town and is a large mud bath cenote which is said to have healing powers. The entrance fee is just 50 pesos.

Go on a tour to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere – This protected marine park is home to a wide range of flora and fauna, the crystal clear waters here also provide a habitat for dolphins, turtles and a variety of birds.

A jungle hike and more ruins – The Coba Ruins are probably not as impressive as those in Chichen Itza but the trek through the jungle to get there certainly makes for a more exciting, Indiana Jones-style experience. You can pass through the jungle by renting a bike, or on foot and further more, you can also climb the pyramid here unlike Chichen Itza.

Visit the caves at Cenote Caracol – located a few miles north of the town, the cave complex here has an almost intergalactic look to it, with the stalactites reflecting in the clear spring water with some expert lighting.

Other things to do in Tulum include: kite surfing, cycling, cocktail bars and boutique shopping.

Is the nightlife better in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen?

nightlife in mexico
Image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay

Playa del Carmen perfectly caters for both families, couples and party animals and certainly offers a much more lively experience than Tulum. If nightlife is going to be a deciding factor when trying to decide which is the destination for you then the choice is relatively easy.

Our top five night clubs in Playa Del Carmen:

Coco Bongo – This nightclub provides a shock to the senses with DJs, dancers, trapeze artists and even canons to provide a memorable, action packed night and lots of tequila.

Coralina Daylight Club – Keep the party going all day in this poolside club, located right on the beach.

Palazzo – Possibly the most glamorous nightclub in town, Palazzo books top DJs and is furnished in the most extravagant way possible.

Mandala Playacar – This late night, cosmopolitan club brings in party-goers from far and wide.

La Vaquita Playa – Dancing is the name of the game in ‘Little Cow’, a two-floor, open air nightclub.

nightlife in mexico
Image by Olga Oginskaya from Pixabay

Our top five beach bars in Tulum:

Nomade Tulum Beach Bar – This bohemian bar is one of the most popular in Tulum and the perfect place to lounge in a hammock with a cold drink.

Ciel Rose Sunset Bar – Thanks to its high view point this bar is the no.1 spot to enjoy the Mexican sunset with a cocktail.

Punta Piedra Beach Posada – With a world class wine list and other great food and drink options, this beach bar is a must-visit for a romantic evening.

Azulik – This eco-bar is the epitome of chilled out with hammocks and netting to lie on, akin to a Caribbean pirate’s luxury den.

Coco Beach Bar – With shaded swings located around the bar, this is a great place to cool down and also has an excellent food menu.

Tulum vs Playa Del Carmen: Where is better?

Octopus mural
Photo by Laura Shannonhouse

As the above overview shows, each town offers a different experience and it is difficult to say which destination is ‘better’. However, if you are looking for a family vacation, or a party holiday where you can hit the the night clubs then Playa Del Carmen is for you. Tulum on the other hand is better catered for couples and solo travellers looking to have a relaxing time on the beach.

Playa Del Carmen

  • An upscale, developed, almost city-feel to this coastal resort
  • Popular with families and young people attracted by the night clubs and party scene
  • Excellent shopping, restaurants and bars on the main strip
  • Enough to do in the tourist area without having to leave the town
  • Beaches are quite narrow and are often quite crowded

Tulum

  • An almost untouched and natural coastline
  • An artistic and bohemian atmosphere and much less commercialised than its rival
  • Hotel Zone located on the coast, away from the urban centre of the town
  • Many independent eateries offering a more local experience than the large chains
  • Large, sparsely populated beaches, adding to the relaxed atmosphere

If you are still trying to decide then the close proximity of the two places (61km) makes it entirely possible to tick off both destinations in one holiday, spending a few days in each resort – some all-inclusive partying, followed by a relaxing time on the beach.