We absolutely love Mexico’s picture-perfect pristine beaches, sunny skies, tequila-clear waters and… well, you get the picture.
There’s just one problem. There are so many beautiful beach towns in Mexico – how can you possibly narrow down your decision?
Should you be thinking Cabo vs Cancun? (Or what about Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta?) No, you definitely want to go to the east coast this vacation. One of the best things to do in Mexico is to visit the Mexican Caribbean.
Cancun looks really appealing. Then again, what about Cozumel?
Yikes! How do you choose?
Don’t panic, we’re here to help. In this guide, we compare Cancun and Cozumel. Both are stunning locations that come with pros and cons, which we’ll get into later.
So read on if you’re wondering: Is Cancun or Cozumel better?
Cancun vs Cozumel in a nutshell
Geographically, the main difference between Cancun and Cozumel is that Cancun is on the mainland of Mexico, whereas Cozumel is an island further south.
So, exactly where is Cozumel?
The island is located off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, opposite the town of Playa del Carmen.
Cancun is the most popular destination in Mexico’s State of Quintana Roo for travelers looking for a jam-packed and affordable vacation, with lots of day trip activities.
It’s most famous for its soft white sandy beaches and turquoise Caribbean waters.
As well as those postcard-perfect beaches, Cancun is also ideally located close to many of the top attractions and things to do in the Riviera Maya.
Exploring the Maya archeological sites? Searching for whale sharks in the Mesoamerican Reef (the second-largest reef in the world)? Diving in Mexico’s unique cenotes?
All of these Mayan Riviera experiences are doable from Cancun.
Most visitors stay in the “Hotel Zone” (Zona Hotelera) in the tourist district. This 15-mile stretch of sandbar is home to a wide range of accommodations, from charming hotels to luxurious all-inclusive resorts.
And for beach-loving travelers keen on an easy stress-free vacay, Cancun does the all-inclusive experience right. (You’ll feel like a kid in a candy store as you check out various choices!)
Cancun is also famous for its nightlife and party scene.
If catching some rays and playing on the beach, while also being close to buzzing bars and nightclubs, sounds like holiday bliss, Cancun is ideal for you.
Like Cancun, Cozumel also has white sandy beaches and great R&R resorts.
But Cozumel is less developed and more remote than Cancun. While it’s Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, it only has 100,000 inhabitants.
You get the beach resort experience, but with much fewer crowds than in Cancun.
Does kicking back quietly on the beach with a Mexican margarita and book in hand sound like a good idea? You’ll find that in Cozumel.
That being said, Cozumel can still be lively. If you’re looking for nightlife in Cozumel, the local bars, restaurants and nightclubs won’t disappoint.
What really attracts people to Cozumel, though, is the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. Part of the Mesoamerican Reef, it’s a scuba diver’s paradise!
Being so close to the reef puts you right in the thick of the action. Not crowds of people. Rather, clouds of colorful fish and abundant coral life – and maybe even a sea turtle or two.
Getting to Cancun and Cozumel
Flying to Cancun:
As Cancun is a tourist hot spot, there are many direct flights to get there.
Most big cities in the U.S., such as Dallas, Miami and L.A., all offer direct flights (often year-round) to the Cancun International Airport (CUN).
Travelers from European destinations such as London, Madrid, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Paris can also find direct flights to Cancun. It’s actually becoming increasingly easy to get to Cancun from most places around the world.
However, the airport is located in the very north of the Yucatan Peninsula, and it can take up to an hour to reach the Hotel Zone.
You’d be wise to arrange transport to your hotel before you arrive.
Taxis are readily available from the airport, but they can be costly, especially if your resort is in the Hotel Zone. Fortunately, many resorts offer transfer services, so ask.
Getting to Cozumel:
Interesting factoid: Many tourists visit Cozumel for the day on a cruise ship.
But if you’re flying, Cozumel has an airport, the Cozumel International Airport (CZM). Flights from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico City service this airport.
The other way to get to Cozumel is via Cancun.
There are two ways to travel from Cancun to Cozumel – by air or by ground and water. Let’s look at the two options now.
Getting from Cancun to Cozumel:
The most convenient way to get from Cancun to Cozumel is to take a direct flight with Maya Air from the Cancun Airport to the Cozumel International airport.
Flights leave several times a day and take only 15 to 20 minutes. They’re on a small 5- to 9-seater prop plane or 50-seater plane. You get amazing views – and it’s affordable too!
If you don’t fancy flying, the land-and-sea option is also an easy and affordable way to travel, though it takes a bit longer.
So, how far is Cozumel from Cancun if you go this route? It’s a 53-mile (86-km) journey, and it takes about 2½ hours in total to reach Cozumel.
You first take the bus to Playa del Carmen. The ADO Bus runs frequently from the airport and the journey is about 60 minutes.
We’ve taken several first-class buses in Mexico, and this class of bus service is very comfortable!
From Playa del Carmen, you board a ferry that takes approximately 45 minutes.
There’s no direct Cancun to Cozumel ferry service; you have to go via Playa Del Carmen first.
The ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel operates frequently (at least every hour) from 7 am to 11 pm, so you don’t need to worry about running to catch the ferry.
Weather in Cancun and Cozumel
The best time to visit Cancun and Cozumel is during the peak season from December through to April, when the weather is the driest.
The temperature this time of year hovers around 82 F (28 C) in the daytime – perfect for basking on those beautiful beaches!
Spring breakers descend on Cancun during spring break – March to early April.
To avoid the crowds, visit in May, after both the high season visitors and students have gone home and the rainy season hasn’t yet started.
The hottest month in Cancun and Cozumel is June, with average daytime highs hitting around 88 F (31 C).
June also signals the start of the hurricane season in Cancun and Cozumel, which lasts until the end of November. For obvious reasons, this isn’t the best time to visit.
We were once on a Caribbean cruise in September that called in at Cancun – and it poured cats and dogs the whole day we were ashore. Mind you, it was warm rain. And it didn’t spoil our time too much, as we ended up wet anyway, snorkeling on an excursion to the underground rivers at Xcaret.
Still, we’d recommend visiting Cancun and Cozumel in the winter months instead – for the sunniest weather and to escape the cold weather back home.
Cozumel vs Cancun: Beaches
With 15 miles of beautiful beaches at your disposal, the best thing about Cancun is you’ll always be a stone’s throw away from a gorgeous beach.
Made of powder-fine pieces of white coral, the sand is cool and soft underfoot.
The only thing is that the beaches along the Hotel Zone, which are lined by a string of resorts, get crowded.
For a change, head to Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach), just south of the Hotel Zone.
One of the most popular beaches in Cancun, it’s a local favorite with a panoramic view of Cancun. It tends to be quieter as there are no beach bars or restaurants.
Watersport enthusiasts will find jet ski, kayak and SUP board rentals at Playa Chac Mool.
Shopping at the markets or from beach vendors? Read how to bargain in Mexico like a pro – and have fun too
The beaches in Cozumel are smaller and rockier than Cancun. But they’re also closer to Cozumel’s reef system (part of the Mesoamerican Reef), perfect for snorkeling and diving.
Most Cozumel visitors shake their towels out on the west side of the island, where the water is calm (and most resorts are found). Those pictures of pristine white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters come to life here!
The east side also has some stunning beaches for swimming and snorkeling, such as Punta Morena. However, some beaches on the east side, particularly Playa San Martin, have stronger waves, so swimming is sometimes dangerous there.
If you want seclusion, visit Isla de Pasion, a beach retreat on the northern side of the island, connected to the mainland by a sand bridge.
(Plan your outing when there are no cruise ships in port, so you don’t have to share the place with cruise passengers.)
Hop on a boat from the Punta Langosta cruise terminal to get there. The ride takes about 45 minutes. Beause it’s a bit out of the way, it’s rarely busy.
At Isla de Pasion, you can find a restaurant, sun loungers, umbrellas and palm trees waving over white beaches. What more could you want for an idyllic beach day?
Which is better for activities? Cancun or Cozumel?
Snorkeling and scuba diving in Cozumel and Cancun:
With the Mesoamerican Reef offshore, both Cancun and Cozumel are popular spots for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Water temperatures average 78 F (25 C) in winter – comfortable for diving if wearing a wetsuit. (We always wear a wetsuit diving, no matter where we go.) May to September are the months with the warmest waters for diving.
In Cancun, don’t miss the fascinating 500+ life-size sculptures at the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA), which can only be reached by boat.
Planted on the sea bed, the underwater art installation acts as an artificial reef to attract coral formation and sea life. Here’s a top-rated snorkeling tour of MUSA.
To snorkel with whale sharks, you need to visit Cancun between June and early September.
Boat tours take you to the nearby Mexican Caribbean islands of Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy or Isla Holbox to swim and snorkel with the whale sharks that gather in the summer months to feed on plankton.
Speaking of Isla Contoy, it’s a protected sanctuary and worth visiting outside of the whale shark season too.
More than 150 bird species migrate to the small island during winter. To limit the impact of humans, only 200 visitors a day are allowed to set foot on it.
Isla Contoy may be people-free, but the uninhabited island paradise is rich in other life – snorkel with endangered sea turtles and see dozens of iguanas, hermit crabs, frigate birds and pelicans.
Check out this small group day tour which visits both Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres (and includes hotel transfers).
Still, Cozumel is more renowned for its snorkeling and scuba diving than Cancun.
Famous French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau raved that Cozumel is one of the world’s best places to dive, thanks to its “fantastic visibility” and “wonderful marine life.”
You can snorkel right from the beach in Cozumel, without paying for a snorkeling tour.
As for diving, drift dives have you floating past amazing coral formations, where you see rays, lobster, nurse sharks, barracudas, turtles and all sorts of candy-colored tropical fish. The Palancar Reef has enormous caverns which you can swim through.
Wherever you dive, keep your eyes peeled for the island’s famous Splendid Toadfish (endemic to Cozumel).
If you’re wondering what to do in Cancun beyond snorkeling, diving and chillaxing on the beach, you’re in luck. Cancun has plenty of tourist attractions.
In particular, it’s an excellent base for exploring the many historical Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The grand-daddy of them all is Chichen Itza.
One of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” Chichen Itza is a 3-hour drive from Cancun. Full day tours from Cancun take you to these impressive ruins.
Beat the crowds and be the first to arrive in Chichen Itza with this well-planned tour by Alltournative, which also includes cenote swimming in the afternoon. (We’ve taken their tours – highly recommended!)
Then there are the well-preserved Mayan ruins of Tulum, about a 2-hour drive south of Cancun.
What makes the Tulum ruins special is that they’re perched on high cliffs overlooking one of the prettiest beaches in the world.
After admiring the ruins, walk down the long wooden staircase and cool off with a swim in the Caribbean Sea.
Also in the area are the Coba ruins, nestled deep in the overgrown jungle. You can climb the 120 stone steps up to the top of its largest pyramid.
On Cozumel, there’s a small Mayan ruin on the south side of the island called El Cedral, along with another cool archeological site called Zona Arquelogica San Gervasio on the northern side of the island.
Other day trips and surrounding places to visit:
Another big attraction to Cancun are the cenotes.
Cenotes are natural deep-water caves (or sinkholes) that have been filled by either rain or currents of underground rivers. In the blazing Mexican sun, they’re cool and refreshing spots for swimming and diving.
Many of the best cenotes are in the Riviera Maya, easily accessible from Cancun.
From Cozumel? Not so easy. You’ll have to head back on the ferry to the mainland.
Read next: Check out the best Mexican souvenirs to bring home!
Dining and nightlife
Cancun nightlife and dining:
There’s a reason Cancun is a beacon for spring breakers.
The nightlife in Cancun is legendary.
The party doesn’t stop until the sun comes up.
Not only this, but Cancun lures in foodies with countless restaurants serving all types of cuisines, both in the Hotel Zone and downtown Cancun.
Puerto Madero is a fine steakhouse perched at the edge of Nichupte Lagoon.
For Asian food, pair sakes with sashimi, sliced duck and wok shrimp at the elegant Indochine in the Nizuc Resort & Spa.
Cozumel nightlife and dining:
But you won’t starve in Cozumel. Cozumel has food to suit everyone.
And while Cozumel is much quieter than Cancun, it still has a nightlife scene.
In the high winter season, one of the top things to do at night in Cozumel is to put on your dancing shoes and check out the salsa clubs.
Cancun vs Cozumel: Resorts
With more than 300 hotels in Cancun (and almost 6,000 in the whole Riviera Maya), finding the right one is not an easy task.
Perhaps the most luxurious hotel in the Hotel Zone is The Ritz-Carlton Cancun, a 5-star retreat in the heart of Cancun.
Lounge like a lazy lizard on plush sunbeds on the sand, swim in two pools, play tennis – perhaps take a mixology class by the pool or a cooking class. For world-class luxury, this is the perfect place.
Families are welcome.
One of the best all-inclusive resorts is Le Blanc Spa Resort Cancun.
Sidling up to a tranquil beach in the Hotel Zone, the adults-only luxury resort comes with a modern gym (with tons of classes), an infinity beach pool (plus a rooftop pool), butlers to unpack your suitcases and top-shelf cocktails (no watery drinks here).
This is next-level sophistication.
We also like the quietly elegant Nizuc Resort & Spa.
Nestled on the secluded Punta Nizu, it features its own spa, private dock and six onsite restaurants.
And if you venture south of Cancun to the Riviera Maya, there are many more resorts to choose from, such as the uber-luxurious all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya – its restaurants are fabulous!
The InterContinental Presidente Cozumel Resort & Spa is probably the most deluxe hotel in Cozumel.
Snooze under a thatch palapa on the private beach, dine at four restaurants, swing on the hammock on your terrace and explore underwater on dives organized through the 5-star PADI dive center.
For more intimate digs, the all-inclusive resort Explorean Cozumel (with 56 rooms) is another one of the best places to stay in Cozumel.
Luxury accommodation, meals and all activities are included in the price.
They pride themselves on tailoring their services to offer you the best experience, for example, when it comes to snorkeling activities or bicycle rentals.
Then there’s the 4-star Hotel B Cozumel.
This laidback 44-room boutique hotel attracts a younger set with its retro-mod rooms; moderate prices; and activities like morning yoga, kayaking, SUP board rentals and painting and tequila workshops.
The snorkeling right in front of the hotel is excellent.
Cancun or Cozumel: Which is safer?
If you’re worried about safety, you might be asking yourself: Is Cancun safe? What about Cozumel? Is Cozumel safe?
Compared to other cities in Mexico, Cancun is safe, as long as you stick to the tourist destinations and don’t go wandering around downtown Cancun late at night. (That could be a little risky.)
The U.S. State Advisory on Mexico recommends you “exercise increased caution due to crime” when visiting anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo (which includes Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya).
Personally, we’ve never felt unsafe when visiting Cancun. But as you would anywhere, you should exercise caution and look out for pickpockets, especially if you leave your bag on the beach when swimming or when out and about in bars and nightclubs.
Is Cozumel safer than Cancun? Because Cozumel is more laidback than Cancun, some people think that Cozumel might be safer than Cancun.
It’s about the same, though. There’s a police presence around the island for the safety of tourists.
The biggest threat in Cancun and Cozumel is sunburn.
The UV strength in this part of Mexico is incredibly strong. But because there’s often a breeze, you may not notice it.
Be sun-smart, and make sure you regularly apply sunscreen – because sunburn in Mexico is no joke!
Water and food:
You should also consider what you eat and drink.
Tap water is a no-go zone in Mexico, and only bottled water is safe to drink.
Your hotel will no doubt supply you with bottled water.
If you need to buy water, only buy from supermarkets and not from vendors on the street or beaches, as those bottles may have been filled with tap water and resealed.
As for ice, at good resorts and restaurants, you should feel comfortable having drinks with ice. (Businesses rely on tourists for income and don’t want you to get sick.)
Also, you can safely eat the fruit, salads and veggies at good resorts. In fact, the fruit in Mexico is some of the juiciest and most delicious fruit in the world!
Of course, if you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to be extra cautious about what you eat and drink.
Cancun vs Cozumel for families
For families, we’d personally recommend Cancun as a better option, because there’s more for kids to do.
They’ll love visiting adventure theme parks like Xcaret in the Riviera Maya, riding ATVs, jumping into cenotes, visiting aquariums and more.
And if the kids are happy, the parents will be too, right?
Cozumel or Cancun for couples
We may be biased because we had such a good time diving in Cozumel. But we’d say the best place for couples is Cozumel – if you’d like to scuba dive.
We’d also pick Cozumel for couples if you’d like a casual, carefree and chilled vacay.
Last thoughts on Cancun or Cozumel: Which is better?
Cancun is the more popular tourist destination. When you consider day trips, there’s more to do in Cancun than in Cozumel.
From its vibrant nightlife, great beaches and shopping to its nearby Mayan ruins and cenotes, Cancun appeals to fun-seeking luxury lovers.
It’s also a popular spot for college students looking for a rocking spring break vacation.
Cozumel is smaller, quieter, more relaxed and less crowded. It’s closer to the coral reefs, and it offers the best diving.
Still can’t decide which one to visit?
You can have your tacos and eat them too – because it’s entirely possible to visit Cozumel and Cancun on the same trip.
If you have a week or more, stay two or three days on the island of Cozumel and spend the rest of the time in Cancun and exploring the Riviera Maya.
So there you have it! Let us know which is your favorite – you can share your thoughts in the Comments below.
Adios for now!
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