This post was written by Emily Becker, our resident Mexico travel expert:
You’ve just booked your flight to Cancún. So now what? Since there isn’t an international airport in Tulum, getting there from Cancún takes a bit of planning. Thankfully, there are plenty of options, including public transportation, private shuttles, and car rentals.
Here is your comprehensive guide, with everything you need to know about making the trip from the Cancún airport to just about anywhere on the Riviera Maya, as far south as Tulum (and back). You’ll find helpful advice, transportation recommendations, and even a map with places to see along the way:
Take a colectivo
Colectivos, also known as combis, are white minibuses that are common in Mexico. They are surprisingly easy to use and the cheapest option for getting around. I also find them to be easier than the regular buses, because they don’t run on a fixed schedule but usually leave every 30 minutes. The most I’ve ever had to wait for a combi to leave was 20 minutes.
If you have a lot of luggage, however, a colectivo is not a great option for you. There isn’t a lot of space for it due to the vehicles’ size and the fact that people use them to travel to and from work mostly. If you just have a backpack, though, you’re good to go.
If you don’t speak Spanish, there are a couple phrases you will need to remember. When you first board the colectivo, simply tell the driver your destination. Then bring up a map on your phone to see when you’re getting close, at which point tell the driver: “Parada en ______” with the name of where you’re going. For example, if you’re getting off in Akumal, you’ll tell the driver: “Parada en Akumal, por favor.”
Prices for colectivos are impossible to find online, so to make sure you are getting the correct price, you can ask to see the tabla de precios. Sometimes this table is taped to the inside of the colectivo and sometimes it’s not. The driver will always have one, though. However, it’s unlikely that the driver will try to swindle you. I lived on the Riviera Maya for a year and was never once overcharged for a colectivo ride.
From the Cancún airport to Tulum
You cannot take a colectivo from the Cancún airport because they only operate along the highway. If you’re going straight from the airport to Tulum and not planning on spending any time in Cancún, I suggest taking an ADO (Autobuses de Oriente) bus to Playa del Carmen and then taking a colectivo from there. That’s the best plan if you absolutely want to take a colectivo instead of a bus. Otherwise, the most convenient option to get to Playa del Carmen or Tulum from the airport is an ADO bus.
From Tulum to the Cancún airport
If you’re heading back to the Cancún airport, you can easily catch a colectivo in Tulum (see map below). The colectivos do not go to the airport, though, so you have two options: The first is to take the colectivo to Playa del Carmen and then take an ADO bus to the Cancún airport. The second is to take the colectivo all the way to downtown Cancún and then take an ADO bus to the airport.
Since downtown Cancún is further north than the airport, the first option is the most logical way to get from Tulum to the airport by colectivo.
If you are planning to explore the Riviera Maya, taking a colectivo is a great way to do so, because you can get off at any point along the stretch of highway between Cancún and Tulum. This gives you more freedom than a bus, which has fixed stops along the way. If you do want to stop somewhere — say, Akumal — just let the driver know and he will stop to let you out.
Another perk of taking a colectivo is that you’ll get to feel more like a local and less like a tourist. Chances are, you might be the only foreigner aboard.
Colectivos are just as safe as buses and can actually be much quicker, depending on how many stops they make. As far as comfort goes, they’re fine for short spurts, but definitely not suited for napping the same way the buses are.
Take a bus
The bus system in the Riviera Maya is a breeze. I was actually quite impressed with how well it worked when I first moved there (granted I had just spent two years living in Mozambique, where transportation can be a nightmare). There are two main bus companies that operate in the state of Quintana Roo: ADO and Mayab.
There are a couple small differences between the two. ADO is a national company that operates all over Mexico; its buses are slightly bigger, almost always have AC, and tend to be a bit more comfortable. Its routes are almost the same, but Mayab operates in smaller towns throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and tends to make more stops along the way. Mayab tickets are occasionally cheaper than ADO tickets, but you can easily compare the two, as they are both sold on ADO’s website and at bus stations. The only bus company that runs out of the Cancún airport is ADO.
From the Cancún airport
As soon as you exit the terminal at the airport, you’ll see an ADO ticket station. The only destinations between Cancún airport and Tulum currently are: downtown Cancún, Puerto Morelos, and Playa del Carmen (then Tulum). If you want to go to any other destination, you’ll have to either transfer buses at the downtown Cancún station, or take a colectivo.
Getting from Tulum to Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, downtown Cancún, or the Cancún airport is possible with an ADO bus, which you can find at the ADO station in Tulum. To purchase tickets or check the bus schedule, visit ADO’s website or visit the ADO station in downtown Tulum. Always purchase your bus tickets at least a day ahead of time to secure your spot, as these buses often sell out, and you don’t want to risk missing your flight!
The ADO bus pulls right up to the Cancún airport, making it super easy to plan your flight home if you’re relying on public transportation.
Rent a car
If you don’t want to rely on public transportation, renting a car definitely gives you more freedom to visit all of the amazing places on the Riviera Maya. Some cenotes and beaches are tricky to reach via public transit, and renting a car in Mexico is generally much cheaper than in the United States.
I’ve found that having a good experience renting a car can depend on various factors. Foremost, choosing the right company is crucial. Some companies have extremely low ratings, and customers have shared horror stories about their rental experiences. Here are a couple companies that come highly recommended, along with a few that should be avoided:
- Alamo: The prices include the mandatory insurance cost, and they are more up front about the cost. They also have some of the best reviews online, and I have personally had a very positive experience with Alamo.
- Enterprise Rent-A-Car: This is the second-highest rated company at the Cancún airport. They are the best for booking ahead of time, because they will give you the actual price online (with no surprise insurance add-ons at the end). Most reviews report Enterprise being very fast, easy, and trustworthy.
- National Car Rental: They are known for having excellent service and up-front prices with no surprise fees. National is top-rated on Google, with several rave reviews about how fast customers were able to pick up their rental car.
- Fox: They are known for having a shortage of cars and promising one type of vehicle and charging for it despite changing the model at the last minute. This can result in customers paying more for a car that they didn’t ask for in the first place.
- Mex Rent a Car: They are notorious for giving customers a quote online that doesn’t include the mandatory insurance. When customers come to pick up the car they already paid the deposit on, they are surprised by the additional insurance costs.
- ACE Rent a Car: There are quite a few reviews online claiming this company doubled or even tripled the price of the rental car when customers went to pick up their vehicle after booking online through a third-party website.
Where to rent
You can easily rent a car at the Cancún airport, or in Playa del Carmen or Tulum. If you rent from a company that has locations in all three, you might be able to pick up the car in one location and drop it off in another. I did this once with Alamo, renting the car in Tulum and dropping it off in Cancún.
Enterprise has locations at the Cancún airport, and in downtown Cancún, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. National Car Rental has a location at the Cancún airport, and in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. For both Enterprise and National, the locations that are not at the Cancún airport are not nearly as convenient and are in unmarked buildings that are difficult to find. Alamo’s locations in Tulum and Playa del Carmen are much easier to find.
Renting from the Cancún airport might be the most convenient, but it is also the most expensive. Companies take advantage of the fact that people want to be able to get off their plane and immediately grab a car at the airport. There can be as much as a $10-per-day difference. However, if you get to the counter with a cheaper quote from the same company but a different location, they will usually honor it and give you the lower price.
- If you are traveling during low season (the spring and summer months), wait to book your rental car until you land in Cancún. That way you can discuss prices in person. You might even be able to haggle down to a better price.
- If you are traveling during high season (winter), book your rental up to 7 days before your trip. Most companies offer the best promotions and discounts within this window.
- There is a mandatory insurance in Mexico called Third-Party Liability (TPL)/Public Liability Insurance (PLI). When you look at a daily rate for the car, make sure to ask if the TPL/PLI is already included, because if not, they will add it on at the end and it will increase the price significantly.
- If you do not have an international driving permit, you can still rent a car in Mexico. However, having one helps, because your driver’s license will be translated to Spanish, which can give you peace of mind if you get pulled over.
- It’s a common scam for gas station attendants to overcharge you on gas if you pay with a card, and they pocket the difference. Make sure you check the amount before you insert your card in the machine. This happened to me in Chiapas, and when I pointed out the difference, the attendant gave it to me in cash and pretended it was an accident.
- Avoid driving at night. There are occasionally roadblocks at night on the highway between Cancún and Chetumal, which are notorious for stopping cars and demanding money.
- Make sure to tip parking lot attendants for keeping an eye on your car. 5-10 pesos will do.
Hire a private shuttle
If you’re staying at a resort somewhere between Cancún and Tulum, they will most likely have their own shuttle service, or you can hire a private shuttle to take you. Some even have Wi-fi on board and will pick you up at the airport. If you’re staying in Cancún, check with your hotel or hostel to see if it has such a service.
If not, there are plenty of options for shuttles from the Cancún airport to Tulum. Happy Shuttle Cancún comes highly recommended and claims to be the cheapest shuttle around. Even so, a one-way shuttle service through this company can cost up to $118 from the Cancún airport to a Tulum hotel.
Another reputable shuttle service from the airport to Playa del Carmen or Tulum is Cancún Shuttle. You can specify your drop-off point, which is very convenient. Check the website for their rates.
I understand why shuttles are so appealing, but unless you have a bunch of large, heavy suitcases, I can’t imagine how they could be more convenient than hopping on an ADO bus straight from the airport. I don’t see an absolute need for hiring one.
However, if the idea of having a designated person waiting for you at the airport is a must, a shuttle is your best bet. Sometimes solo travelers find comfort in this, and it can be a way to take the pressure off of getting from place to place.
Stops along the way
If you’re wondering where to stop along the way from Cancún to Tulum, I’ve got you covered! There is so much to see in this area of Mexico, and the absolute best way to do so is by renting a car, so you’ll have the freedom to visit the sites that appeal the most to you.
Towns worth stopping in
- Puerto Morelos: This is a pretty small town right on the beach. There are a lot of foreigners that live there, and you’ll see several gated communities around town with villas and vacation homes. The beach is less crowded there than in some other places, and it’s a fun spot to spend a day or two.
- Playa del Carmen: A huge vacation spot and a big party destination, Playa del Carmen is more like a small city than a town. It’s not exactly an ideal place to go and relax, as there is a lot of hustle and bustle there.
- Cozumel: You can easily take a ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen. This island is beautiful and one of the country’s top destinations for snorkeling and scuba diving.
- Akumal: This beach paradise is one of the best places in the area to see sea turtles. The town itself is quite small, but there is plenty to do there. Even if you don’t stay at a big resort hotel, you can easily access the beach and cenotes around town.
- Playa Xpu-Ha: This stunning white-sand beach is a local favorite and is much more off the beaten path than others in the area. Even during high season, this beach rarely gets crowded and maintains a laid-back atmosphere all year round.
- Playa Kantenah: This is another more chill beach, where you’ll find very few people at any given time. Even though there are two big hotels right on the beach, the water is accessible to the public, and it isn’t difficult to get there.
- Playa Chemuyil: Known as one of Riviera Maya’s best-kept secrets, this beach can be accessed from Ciudad Chemuyil and is one of the only ones that charges admission to enter: about 40 pesos ($2 USD).
- Cenote Yal Ku: Located in Akumal, this cenote and lagoon has some of the best snorkeling in the area. It’s easy to access if you have a rental car, but you can also ask a taxi driver in Akumal or Playa del Carmen to take you.
- Casa Cenote, aka Cenote Manatí: While one of the pricier cenotes in the area (150 pesos, or $7.50 USD, to enter), this one is known for having great snorkeling and for being one of the least crowded. It’s just outside of Tulum, and you can either drive there or get a taxi from Tulum to take you.
Now that you’re ready to travel from Cancún to Tulum, check out this map with everything you need plotted out:
Make sure you check out all the amazing things to do in and around Cancún while you’re planning your next trip. We’ve also got you covered with plenty of ideas for your next Tulum adventure as well. There are so many incredible places to visit on the Riviera Maya, so let us know if you find any other hidden gems!
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About the author: Emily is a Mexico travel enthusiast based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. She is a part-time freelance writer for BMTM and part-time doula.