Cozumel Or Playa Del Carmen? Mainland Or Island In Mex?

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen
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If you’re travel deliberations have come down to Cozumel or Playa del Carmen this year, then get ready…Get ready for sun-soaked beaches and bath-warm seas. Get ready for sugar-soft sands and zingy margarita cocktails on the shore. Both of these places offer all that and more. But what if you can only pick one?

That’s where this guide comes in. It will run through several aspects of both places to help you discern which is best for you and your travel buddies in the coming season. We’ve got info on everything from the general feel and atmosphere of the places to more specific info on the nightlife scene and the beaches.

There’s lots to compare, too. Cozumel, on the one hand, is among the most famous diving destinations in the Americas, offering reefs and coves for all sorts. Playa del Carmen, on the other, is more of a bustling city with glinting golden beaches and oodles of nightlife to boot. Let’s delve in a little further…

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for ease of travel?

A monument in Playa del Carmen
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Cozumel is an island, and that usually means it’s going to be a little trickier to get over here. Thankfully, that’s mitigated a touch by the presence of the Cozumel International Airport, which now hosts direct arrivals from Canada, the US, and Mexico City. However, the vast majority of travelers still use the boat, and that typically means going through the port in Playa del Carmen itself. Ferries take between 20 and 40 minutes and go multiple times each day in the high season – see why we say do both Cozumel and Playa del Carmen? The nearest major airport arrival point is in Cancun to the north.

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Getting to Playa del Carmen is usually a case of finding a flight into Cancun International Airport and then transferring down from there. The first step is super-easy, since it’s the second-largest airport in the country and has countless flight links to the US, Europe, and the rest of Latin America alike. The second step is also easy – a direct road transfer from the terminals to Playa is something like 45 minutes, so shouldn’t be too expensive in a taxi.

Winner: Playa del Carmen. You’ll probably need to go through this town to get to Cozumel anyway.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for things to do?

A stingray in Cozumel
Photo by Fernando Jorge/Unsplash

Playa del Carmen has risen to become one of the most popular spots on the Riviera Maya because it offers a whole medley of activities. You can go to the beaches to the east of the center and simply laze your whole trip away – Punta Esmeralda and Playa Xcalacoco are two of our favorites. Shoppers and people watchers cannot miss Quinta Avenida. It’s a hubbub of markets and bars that’s always buzzing with life. Then you get the eco tours of the region, which include visits to cenotes and wetlands, and even trips to the legendary ruins of Coba and Chichen Itza.

Cozumel can’t quite match all that because it’s an island, which means you’ll be a bit more cut off from the draws of the greater Yucatan Peninsula. However, it does excel in one thing: Diving. Yep, there are more reefs and underwater caves than you can shake your O2 cylinders at in these parts. PADI courses and drift dives are popular, with the Palancar Reef reigning as the must-see location among the lot. Those who don’t want to commit to the deep water can enjoy oodles of amazing snorkeling spots, or head to a handful of lesser-known Maya sites around the island.

Winner: Playa del Carmen.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for nightlife?

A bar in Cozumel
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Cozumel’s night scene is chilled like you’d expect of a Caribbean isle. The liveliest location going is the main city of San Miguel de Cozumel. There, the big plaza of Benito Juarez Park comes hemmed in by little cantinas that serve cold beers and salty margaritas when the evening sets in. The shorelines of the hotel zones to the south and north also have their fair share of bars. Further away from the crowds, you can find seriously enticing venues like the salt-washed Rasta Bar near El Caracol, though their for chilling to the max, not dancing until sunup.

When you swap the island for the mainland, expect things to get a whole load rowdier. Playa del Carmen is now a rival to even the mighty Cancun for the most hedonistic spot on the Riviera Maya. It’s now host to offshoots of iconic venues like Coco Bongo and Mandala, which ensure a steady stream of spring breakers are diverted this way in the main party season of February and March. There are also chic beach clubs running chill-hop sessions from midday near the main playa, and countless local bars with tacos and tequilas on Quinta Avenida.

Winner: Playa del Carmen.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for history?

Ruins of Coba, near Playa del Carmen
Photo by Robin Canfield/Unsplash

Forget the party nights and the beaches, there are plenty of folks who stray to the Riveira Maya for the rich history. Playa del Carmen is actually a fantastic base for checking off the region’s most incredible sites. First, it’s a prime jump-off for the UNESCO ruins at Chichen Itza, which showcase arguably the most incredible pre-Columbian temple complexes in the world. Then there’s the Coba Archaeological Site, which is even closer to town and reveals an intricate web of paved roads that are pretty unique for their era. Then there’s Tulum, a short jaunt south, where Maya temples cap the cliffs above shimmering beaches.

Cozumel isn’t without its history. The Maya peoples built temples and shrines on the island as well as on the mainland. You can witness them at the San Gervasio Mayan Archaeological Site, where religious buildings that date back to something like the 6th century still lurk between the mangroves and the forests. There’s also a Maya-era lighthouse on the extreme southeastern tip of the island, along with a smattering of other ancient archaeological complexes, plus a great local museum in the main town.

Winner: Playa del Carmen – but be ready to do day trips to get to the main history sites.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for beaches?

Beaches in Playa del Carmen
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It should hardly come as a surprise that Playa del Carmen is famed for its beaches – the clue is in the name. True enough, the sands here are darn lovely. There are about four or five individual options in the town itself, including the namesake Playa Carmen (home to lots of bars and a walking prom) and quieter Playa Coco (lovely for a sunrise dip). That’s just scratching the surface, though, since the rest of the Riviera Maya is also on the menu, including the legendary inlets of Xcaret Park and the chilled sands of Puerto Morelos. One thing to remember is that Playa’s beaches are heavily affected by the summer seaweed season, which can ruin them in June, July, and August.

Cozumel’s a different sort of thing. The west coast, the most popular area, is rock-ribbed and rugged from tip to toe. It’s a stretch that’s mainly about finding little coves where you can dive in and snorkel in the shoreline reefs. There are beaches, but they are often manmade, like the ones at Chankanaab and Playa Uvas. The top options in these parts are farthest from the ferry docks. Punta Sur and El Cielo are glimmering white runs on the south, while Chen Rio and Punta Morena are fantastic on the east. Western beaches in Cozumel also don’t get hit by the summertime seaweed swells – worth remembering.

Winner: Probably Cozumel, but just!

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for day trips?

The roads in the Cozumel backcountry
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There are oodles of day trips you can do from Playa del Carmen. In fact, we’d say that the town has just about the perfect location for exploring the Riviera Maya and the vast Yucatan Peninsula beyond it – it’s roughly midway from the north and south ends of that famous stretch. Cenote tours should be top of the list. They will take you to amazing sinkholes in the jungles where you’re free to swim in cooling underground waters. A jaunt to Chichen Itza is also one for the bucket list, though families might prefer an outing to meet the turtles at Akumal Beach. That’s just a taster, too.

There are two main day trip options on Cozumel that we think are worth a mention. The first is also what really puts the island on the map: Diving. PADI courses, drift dives, free dives, beginner taster dives – you name it, it happens here. There are over 35 named sites on the west coast alone, so there’s something for all levels. The second thing is a self-planned route around the island. A road links up the whole thing and it’s actually cyclable in a single day (65km). Do that to see the sands of Punta Sur, a couple of Maya ruins, and the inland forests in one single session.

Winner: Playa del Carmen.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen for general vibe?

Beach clubs in Playa del Carmen
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Playa del Carmen has boomed in the last decade or so, largely down to an influx of digital nomads on the hunt for affordable beach life in Mexico. Anyway, it’s now a real hustle and bustle, with Quinta Avenida fizzing with shoppers and diners and drinkers all hours of the day. The beaches have gotten busier, but we’d still put them down as a more chilled affair than in nearby Cancun. And there’s a lived-in side to Playa because it’s not an out-and-out resort. That means you can hit local markets and eat in local cantinas whenever you like.

Cozumel channels the chillax feel of the Caribbean and mingles that with the energy of a world-class dive site. It’s a lot slower-pace than the mainland in general and has plenty of hammock-swinging Rasta bars and boutique hotels where you can find peace and quiet. The only thing letting that down is the colossal cruise port, which will pour thousands of visitors into San Miguel on any given day. We’d recommend steering clear of the city when there’s a ship in town.

Winner: Cozumel for us.

Cozumel or Playa del Carmen – our conclusion

You know, you don’t have to decide between Cozumel or Playa del Carmen. Ferries link these two places in as little as 20 minutes, so it’s easy enough to put together a trip that does both. If you simply don’t have the time or inclination for that, then we’d put it like this: Cozumel is more relaxed and better for divers and couples, while Playa del Carmen is the place to go if you want to explore the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula and party in the evening.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.