Cabo vs Tulum promises to be a pretty heavy showdown. Everything from white-sand beaches on the Caribbean to wild party nights in the company of Van Halen rockers is in the mix here. Oh yea, and so are spectacular sunsets, scuba diving adventures that you’ll never forget, glassy surf breaks, exquisite hotel resorts – the list goes on and on.
The point is that Cabo and Tulum aren’t up there with the most-visited towns in Mexico for nothing. They both draw in huge cohorts of vacationers each season with their mix of eye-wateringly wonderful coastline, almost unflaggingly sunny weather, Mexican seafood offerings, and laid-back vibes. It’s going to be a close-run thing.
But which is the one for you? That’s where this guide to Cabo vs Tulum comes in. Here, we’ll pit seven key aspects of both places against each other to determine which town has the finest beaches, the best nightlife scene, the top hotels, and more, all with the aim of helping you pick that next destination. Let’s go…
Cabo vs Tulum for ease of travel
It shouldn’t be a chore to get to either of these places. Millions – literally, millions – of folks manage it every year.
When it comes to Cabo, you’ve got the dedicated regional airport that’s just north of San José del Cabo. That’s served by loads of direct flights from the USA, domestic links to CDMX and Guadalajara, and longer links to Canada. The drive from the terminal to the town of Cabo itself takes about 30 minutes in a private taxi. Oh, and road trippers should remember that Cabo sits at the end of incredible Highway 1 that cuts through the whole Baja California Sur from the US border in San Diego. That will take about 22 hours but talk about drives to remember!
Over in Tulum and most travelers will jet into the passenger terminals at Cancun International Airport. That’s basically the gateway to the whole of the Riviera Maya, so it’s hardly a surprise that it reigns as the second-busiest airport in Mexico. The upshot? Services connect this one to the USA, Canada, other destinations in Latin America, and even Europe, some direct, some with stopovers. The flip side is that the transfer from the terminals to Tulum is about 1.5 hours.
Winner: Tulum – the regional airport in Cancun is bigger and better served.
Cabo vs Tulum for beaches
Cabo is on the wilder side of Mexico when it comes to beaches. Spilling from the dusty ridges of the Baja California into the Pacific, its most fantastical bays are the ones that fringe the headland known as Land’s End. They include Lover’s Beach and Playa Pedregal, where you’ll feel the salt spray roaring off the ocean and can keep watch for whale pods out in the distance. But Cabo also has another side on the Sea of Cortez. That’s where most people base themselves for beaches, since it’s home to The Corridor – a 15-mile run of hotel resorts – and glorious bays like Santa Maria Beach and Chileno.
Tulum matches all that with a bout of proper Caribbean-style sands. We’re talking sugar-soft runs backed by clusters of coconut palms, with warm, clear waters that stretch to the horizon. You can go to laze on them by hitting Esmeralda Beach to the south of town or choosing Xcacel to the north. The main beach in Tulum is something even more spectacular, because it’s topped by the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple. Cool, huh? The only downside here is the so-called seaweed season, when sargassum blooms can clog up the beaches of Tulum from May to August.
Cabo vs Tulum for nightlife
Cabo has been a place to let the hair down and fire up the hedonism valves for some decades now. The town attracts all strata of partiers, from A-listers to spring breakers. They collide in grand fashion in pretty whacky bars, like the tequila-soaked venue of Cabo Wabo (owned by Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame) and Slims Elbow Room (a pint-sized beer bar with serious character). The season to party in Cabo San Lucas is the late winter and spring, which is when the US college breaks are in full flow.
Tulum is actually one of the quieter spots on the Riviera Maya. It’s not got the no-holes-barred energy of Cancun and isn’t quite as wild as Playa del Carmen, but there are places. The good news is that the main clubs share the themed nights throughout the week, so people always gather in the same spot. Wednesdays are for Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar, Gitano takes over on Fridays, while the La Zebra Hotel hosts a dance night to see out the weekend on Sunday.
Winner: It’s got to be Cabo here.
Cabo vs Tulum for history and culture
We’ll just go right ahead and say it: No one comes to Cabo for the history or the culture. This just isn’t that sort of place. Beaches? yep! Surfing? You bet. Scuba trips? For sure. But culture. That’s just not gonna’ happen. The main place you can head is the nearby town of San José del Cabo, which still hosts a few – albeit reconstructed – colonial churches and a pretty plaza (Plaza Mijares). Apart from that, the oldest building in the town is the El Faro de Cabo Falso, which has kept watch over the Baja shoreline since the 1890s.
Tulum can smash that with a whole archaeological park that’s dedicated to preserving what we think are certainly some of the most striking Mayan ruins in the country. Cue the Tulum Archaeological Zone, where you can spy out temples and shrines and court rooms that once represented one of the most powerful 14th-century cities in the Yucatan. And it doesn’t end there, because day trips from your hotel in Tulum could be a ticket to the bucket-list relics of Chichen Itza or the secret ruined pyramids of Coba. There’s just loads to get through.
Winner: Tulum by a long shot!
Cabo vs Tulum for things to do
Rest, relaxation, and hedonism is the triumvirate that wins out in Cabo San Lucas. The town is basically a dedicated and purpose-built resort for chilling and partying. The first comes courtesy of the hotels along The Corridor, while the latter is taken care of by the marina and the downtown. If you can peel yourself away from the poolside or the tequila selection for a moment, then it’s worth thinking about doing some diving or sea safari. Cabo is near the Pulmo reefs of the eastern Baja and has coves filled with turtles and sea lions. There’s also some cracking surfing that gets rolling in the summer months.
Tulum is a different sort of place. Yes, it’s got the R&R – it caps off the southern end of the Riviera Maya, after all! However, that’s not all Tulum is good for. We’ve already mentioned the rich, enthralling historic narrative told at Chichen Itza and the Tulum dig zone. That’s bolstered by a cavalcade of cenotes that hide in the backcountry, where you can swim in cool springs shaded by the jungles. Scuba diving is also epic here, especially since the Isla Cozumel is on the horizon, offering reef after reef after reef.
Cabo vs Tulum for price
Cabo isn’t the cheapest place in Mexico. In fact, some say it’s up there with the most expensive. That’s actually mainly down to the cost of upscale hotels, which can peak in the winter months to over $300 a night. Eating out is certainly cheaper than over the border in San Diego, but you’re still looking at around $27-35 a head. Beers will cost you around $2.20 a pop, but that can often be mitigated by hitting the generous happy hours that roll through from the early afternoon to evening.
Tulum might be a part of the much-visited Riviera Maya, but we’d say that average daily budgets come in a little less than over in Cabo San Lucas. Mhmm…you can still pay over $300 a night for a hotel in Tulum but there’s lots more competition, so even the most stylish options won’t break the bank – you’re looking at $150-200 for somewhere pretty fantastic. Food is a little more affordable, sitting at around $5 for street food and about $15 in a midrange eatery. Beer, though, is generally the same as in the Baja.
Cabo vs Tulum for general vibes
For all their similarities, Cabo and Tulum are actually quite different places. Cabo channels the salt-washed, surfer vibes of the Pacific coast and mingles that with a touch of Mykonos-esque celebrity. The result is one of the most fun-loving towns on the globe, where spring breakers doing keg stands will share bar space with Kate Moss et all. Bizarre, eh! Around the edges, Cabo softens a little to offer chic hotels on The Corridor, which are great for honeymooners who want nothing more than beaches and spas.
Tulum is one of those towns that’s been transformed by Instagram. Shots of its incredible seaside temples now ensure there’s never a quiet time to visit. Expect hordes of photo-clicking travelers in the archaeological zone and on the beaches, even during the low season summer months from May to August. On top of that, we’d say that Tulum suffers from the same lack of authentic Mexicana character as the rest of the riviera. Not that Cabo has that by the bucket load, but at least it’s honest about it!
Cabo vs Tulum – a conclusion
Sadly, doing both these towns in the same trip might not be possible – they are a whopping 1,460 miles apart at different ends of the Mexican rainbow. So, we have to choose: Cabo vs Tulum. We’d say that the first is the better choice for partiers, surfers, and relaxation seekers who want to hit one of the country’s most iconic resort towns. Tulum, though, is better for families and active types, because it has history sights, cenotes, and access to the Riviera Maya.