Tulum is more of the destination chosen by those looking for an adventure out of the ordinary and back to nature, where everything is much more rustic, small-scale and discreet than in Playa del Carmen. Playa del Carmen is the best option for those looking for a slightly more modern and action-packed accommodation than in Tulum. Tulum is less crowded and, in my opinion, has the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. The city itself is smaller than Playa del Carmen or Cancun, and has fewer annual visitors, around 600,000 tourists per year.
That alone makes it easier to find a secluded spot in the sand to bury your toes and relax and watch the waves. Which Tulum or Cancun is better depends on personal preferences. Tulum is better for people who enjoy nature, casual bars, and a quieter environment. Cancun is a better option for travelers who want to party in clubs all night long and have easier access to some of Yucatán's most popular day trips.
If you really want to know more about culture, the further you get away from tourist areas, the more Mexican culture you'll have. In Cancun everything revolves around tourism and hotels, Playa has become much more commercial in the last 5 years and Tulum has developed its own culture. Since downtown Cancun doesn't offer much to see and do, you can easily spend your entire vacation in the Hotel Zone, where, depending on the location of your hotel, you'll be within walking distance of countless shops, restaurants, and clubs. Those who work in hotels and restaurants in Cancun speak English very well, so there will be no language barriers in this part of Mexico.
On the other hand, the Cancun hotel zone tends to have a more superficial environment, with people concerned about their outfits and riches (or, at least, about wanting to look rich). Your Cancun experience is essentially an experience of the particular resort you choose to stay at. The reason is that Cancun has a large center with more accommodation options, which helps to reduce the price compared to Tulum, where hotel and apartment options are more limited. Unlike Cancun and Playa del Carmen, you'll find fewer large all-inclusive resorts and more boutique hotels and smaller, more intimate resorts.
The fact that Cancun is famous for its festive atmosphere doesn't mean that Tulum is a quiet city (although it can be, if that's what you want). If you prefer the familiarity of staying at a certain brand of hotels when you travel or if you have a lot of free hotel stays to use, Cancun is a better option than Tulum. While it's easy to get on a huge, brand-new ADO bus to get to downtown Cancun, the downside is that ADO doesn't have a route along the hotel zone. While in Cancun you'll find plenty of people who fit the stereotype of drunks going to a party, there are also plenty of unique things to do that don't involve partying.
Sure you can take a day trip to Chechnya or even rent a car to visit Tulum and Playa del Carmen quickly, but within Cancun, your vacation is destined for your hotel. I lived and worked in Playa del Carmen about 20 years ago and I can say that, despite the enormous growth, it has not lost its charm. Alternatively, if you have already been to Cancun or Tulum, I would love to know your conclusions and the advantages or disadvantages you would add to this list. Both Cancun and Tulum have good mobile phone reception, although mobile phone reception in Tulum can be unpredictable the farther you get from the main beaches and the city.
Known for being home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico and turquoise waters around the world, Cancun is the northernmost Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula. I must say that I wasn't a fan of Cancun, I enjoyed my stay in Playa, but I fell in love with Tulum.