Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is gifted with some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean, making it a popular vacation playground for all types of travelers. Two of the region’s mainstays, Cancun and Cozumel, are known for their affordable all-inclusive resorts, stunning coastlines, and fun-loving vacation atmospheres. Though similar, there are some key differences (Cozumel is an island, for one) to consider in terms of transportation, nightlife, and activities when weighing which destination is better for your Mexico vacation. Read on for our head-to-head Cancun vs. Cozumel comparison and start planning your perfect Mexico trip today.
Right this way to the most beautiful all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean.
Getting to and Around Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun: Cancun can easily be reached via direct flight from cities around the United States, including Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York. Flights from the East Coast and Midwest are roughly 3 to 3.5 hours depending on origin, while traveling from West Coast cities like Los Angeles and Seattle will take 4.5 and 7 hours, respectively. Cancun International Airport is located due south of Cancun’s city center and just inland from the Hotel Zone. Traveling by car or taxi to the Hotel Zone’s most southerly properties will take just 10 minutes, while the northern portion is accessible in 30 minutes. Cancun’s mega-resorts wield tons of amenities, activities, and all-inclusive packages, so most travelers only venture off property for either nightlife or excursions. Transportation usually comes included with tours, whereas public bus and taxis are the main options for getting to Cancun’s legendary clubs and bars. Be sure to negotiate your price beforehand with taxis and keep smaller peso bills on hand for the bus. There’s only one street running the length of the Hotel Zone, so it’d be quite a feat to get lost.
Cozumel: Located 10 miles off the coast from Playa del Carmen, travelers will be glad to know that the island of Cozumel has an international airport and doesn’t require ferry connection. Regular flight service to Cozumel operates out of many major U.S cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto. Budget travelers should take note that flying into Cancun can be significantly cheaper, especially on budget-friendly Spirit Airlines. Getting from Cancun International Airport to Cozumel requires a one-hour bus for roughly 400 pesos (~$21) followed by a forty-minute ferry from Playa del Carmen for another 400 pesos roundtrip. For groups of four or more, booking a private shuttle may only be slightly more expensive than taking the bus. Once on Cozumel, public transportation is virtually nonexistent outside San Miguel de Cozumel. To explore Cozumel’s more remote beaches and jungle, consider renting a four-wheel-drive Jeep or moped for the day for about $70 or $20 each.
Beaches in Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun: Jutting out into the Caribbean from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun’s Hotel Zone features upscale resorts backed by gorgeous white-sand beaches and azure sea. Although the beaches lining this sandbar are technically considered public access, some hotels restrict entry to guests only. If you’re walking near the wake of the surf, you should be fine, as the main concern is barring non-guests from taking advantage of all-inclusive perks. On the Hotel Zone’s northeast corner, Playa Gaviota Azul’s expansive sand draws partygoers for its lively beachside clubs and bars. By day, Mandala’s pool and beachfront is pulsing with energy and DJ beats, while Coco Bongo picks up well after sundown. Just down the strip, Playa Chac Mool sees fewer crowds while still boasting crystal-clear water and powdery sand. More family-friendly beaches include Playa Langosta and Playa Delfines, known for their swimmable waters and undeveloped coastline, respectively. Cancun’s shoreline also features nearby coral reefs, notably off Playa Tortugas in the north and Playa Punta Nizuc on the south end. Overall, the water in Cancun is calm, warm, and entirely swimmable.
Cozumel: Cozumel is an island, but it’s not known for long, sandy beaches. Don’t worry, you can still have a variety of fun beach vacations here. Outside the urban core of San Miguel de Cozumel, the island’s coastline is largely undeveloped save for the occasional fishing village, low-key resort, or roadside cantina. Cozumel’s west coast enjoys calmer waters and less rocky beaches, granting ideal swimming conditions. For a quintessential beach day, Paradise Beach won’t disappoint with its soft sand, tranquil water, and casual restaurants. A small admission fee grants access to the pool, lounge chair, and inflatable water toys, making this a top choice for families with young kids. Kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkeling gear can be rented here as well. Further south, Palancar Beach is well-equipped for water sports excursions including Jet Skiing, paragliding, and snorkeling. Nature lovers need look no further than Punta Sur Beach — a sliver of pristine sand between Laguna Colombia and the Caribbean. The lagoon serves as habitat for numerous migratory bird species and crocodiles, so be sure to keep an eye out. Due to the stronger surf, much of Cozumel’s east coast is more sparsely developed. Still, there are a couple sheltered beaches where you can safely swim without the west coast crowds. Playa Bonita’s crescent-shaped cove is an ideal swimming spot and affords amazing sunrise views. Further north, Playa Chen Rio is one of Cozumel’s most scenic beaches with swaying palms and lush foliage lining the white sand and rocky outcrop protecting the shallow water from rolling waves.
Activities in Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun: While many flock to Cancun for its stunning beaches and epic nightlife, there’s plenty more in store for active travelers. The Yucatán Peninsula was the cradle of the Mayan empire, made evident by numerous temples and picturesque ruins. Heading inland, Chichén Itzá’s iconic pyramid and surrounding structures merit an early morning visit to avoid the sweltering heat and crowds. Down the coast, Tulum’s coastal ruins are notably smaller, but their picturesque setting on rocky cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean is a wonderful sight to behold. The surrounding Caribbean holds laidback offshore islands and underwater wonders to explore. Day-trips by catamaran can easily be arranged to Isla Mujeres or Isla Blanca to wander their less crowded beaches and snorkel offshore. There’s scuba diving and snorkeling within the Hotel Zone, too. An entire sculpture park, known as the Museo Subacuático de Arte, lies just offshore. Snorkelers can visit the four-meter-deep portion, whereas scuba and glass bottom boat tours take in the full collection. More extensive excursions can be arranged with Scuba Cancun, including PADI certification and Whale Shark Adventure snorkel tours.
Cozumel: On the surface, Cozumel isn’t a destination full of must-see attractions. However, below the surface of the green-blue Caribbean lies Cozumel’s main draw — Cozumel Reefs National Park. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an island this size with as many dive sites as Cozumel. Novice divers should opt for the relatively shallow and calm Palancar Reef, which stretches more than three miles and packs thousands of coral species. The Santa Rosa and Colombia Walls should be at the top of the list for more seasoned divers. The Santa Rosa Wall starts 50 feet below the surface and plunges deeper past rays, sea turtles, colorful reef fish, and some swim-through tunnels. The Colombia Wall stands out for its massive coral pillars and remarkable cave systems, where divers are bound to spot a variety of marine life. Cozumel’s underwater beauty can be enjoyed from the leisure of a glass bottom boat tour as well. Like its Yucatan neighbors, Cozumel has long been inhabited by the Mayan people. The most notable ruin site, San Gervasio, is composed of six picturesque temples interconnected by stone paths and surrounded by jungle. Parque Punta Sur includes a small ruin site within a protected nature reserve rich in flora and fauna.
Dining and Nightlife in Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun: The prevalence of all-inclusive hotels, many of which include all meals, drinks, and multiple restaurant options, encourages most travelers to drink and dine onsite for the majority of their trip. Though economical, it’s worth venturing out at least a couple nights for some delectable Mexican cuisine and vibrant nightlife. Downtown Cancun is bypassed by many visitors, but here you’ll find more authentic fare, such as fresh seafood at Va q’ Va and traditional dishes with tequila pairings at La Destileria. For nightlife, the aforementioned Coco Bongo, as well as The City are top choices for a full night of dancing and extravagant circus-like performances. Mandala’s dance floor and private tables are less raucous than the mega clubs, while the Paradisus Cancun’s Red Lounge offers a more laidback evening in a stylish lounge setting. Entry fees can be hefty for must clubs, but typically include an open bar for the night, so most revelers choose to stick to one venue for the evening.
Cozumel: Downtown San Miguel packs most of Cozumel’s nightlife and noteworthy eateries. Venturing a bit from the ferry docks, you’ll find more authentic, casual eats, such as fresh shrimp fajitas at La Candela and tacos at Los Otates. When tooling around Cozumel’s more out-of-the-way neighborhoods, you’ll likely find fresh seafood and more traditional Cozumel dishes, such as papadzules (tortillas with egg and pumpkin seed sauce) or frijol con puerco — a soup containing black beans and pork with flavorful herbs. For nightlife, the infamous Señor Frogs is a mainstay for its kitschy ambience and yard-length drinks. On the other end of the spectrum, Agave Cocktail Bar serves up signature cocktails in an intimate and cozy setting.
Safety in Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun: The U.S. State Department has issued a Level 2 travel advisory for all of Quintana Roo state (including Cancun), meaning that travelers should exercise increased caution. For some perspective, France, Spain, and the Bahamas have the same safety warning and all of Mexico’s 31 states rank between 2-4, so Cancun is on the safe end of the spectrum. Most violent crime is linked to targeted attacks between rival gangs. The most likely threat to tourists is theft, especially at clubs and along the beach. Many hotels maintain sound security, but there’s no reason to put your valuables at undue risk by leaving them unguarded while swimming. When preparing for a night on the town, leave your handbag at home and just bring enough pesos to cover transportation, drinks, and late-night eats. Before getting in a taxi, be sure to negotiate the trip price before departing based on distance and number of passengers to avoid any conflict or unexpected price hikes. Also, it’s worth entering your hotel as a contact in your phone so you can call for transport assistance if you’re in a pinch.
Cozumel: Cozumel is part of Quinta Roo State, and thus, also has a Level 2 advisory, putting it on par with Cancun. The coastline here is more treacherous than Cancun’s, including rocky shoreline, sharp coral, and strong undertows on the east coast. If it’s not a designated swimming area, don’t take the risk no matter how serene the water may appear. Renting a car or scooter to access Cozumel’s more remote areas is a great option for knowledgeable drivers. Still, it’s worth telling the rental agency or your hotel where you plan to visit and when you expect to return. Shops are sparse on the east coast and more rural areas, and most close on Sunday, so pack plenty of water and provisions for a full-day of exploring.
Where to Stay in Cancun and Cozumel
Amid Cancun’s hedonistic clubs and pool parties, the Paradisus Cancun stands out for catering more to families than the spring break crowd. The expansive property features a lengthy stretch of powdery white sand on the Caribbean side of the Hotel Zone, gorgeous freeform pool with swim-up bar, designated children play zones, and a nine-hole golf course. After a long day of fun in the sun, guests can unwind on private furnished balconies, join in on theme night festivities, or sample the nightlife at Coco’s Beach bar and Red Lounge nightclub.
The Fiesta American Cozumel All Inclusive has loads of family-friendly perks, including kids’ club activities, two pools, easy beach access, and five onsite restaurants. The beach leads to calm, crystal clear water, where guests can snorkel or take in the picturesque surrounds from the comfort of day beds along the dock. All rooms come with furnished balconies and modern décor, while suites afford spacious living quarters and private pools for a more secluded family getaway.
Situated on the Hotel Zone’s quieter south end, the Iberostar Cancun Star Prestige delivers all the fixings for a romantic getaway: private balconies with hot tubs, spacious rainfall showers, a beautiful white-sand beach, and comfy private cabanas. The hotel’s main infinity pool features a swim-up bar and plentiful loungers. Ponying up for a rooftop suite affords plunge pools, more privacy, and superb views over the Caribbean.
The modern Presidente Inter-Continental Cozumel Resort & Spa packs plenty of creature comforts outside the bustle of downtown San Miguel. The hotel’s gorgeous infinity pool is surrounded by stylish chaise lounges fitted with umbrellas and provides clear views over the Caribbean. The adjacent beach lines a sheltered cove with a sandy seafloor, making for perfect swimming conditions. Standard guest rooms are spacious and include walk-in showers and furnished patios. Upgrading to one of the suites grants plusher living spaces or a private pool and outdoor fire pit in the case of the Presidential Suite.
The adults-only Temptation Cancun Resort draws an international party crowd looking for some uninhibited fun in the sun. The Sexy Pool is topless-optional, and sees most of the action throughout the day, including a swim-up bar, foam parties, and theme nights. On the other hand, the Quiet Pool grants a break from the revelry, with ample sunbeds and its own swim-up bar. Tower room guests have exclusive access to the hotel’s rooftop pool and bar, where the party continues with DJ shows and entertainment. The property is set midway between the Hotel Zone and downtown, meaning that Cancun’s best nightlife is a short drive away.
The sprawling, adults-only Secrets Aura Cozumel fosters a party-oriented atmosphere with multiple swim-up bars, foam parties, all-inclusive drinks from 11 restaurants and bars. All rooms are suite-style, with balconies and comfy seating included, while plusher suites come fitted with private plunge pools. By day, guests can relax on loungers along the sandy beach or take advantage of kayaks and snorkeling gear.
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