Cozumel Or Cancun? Deciding Between Island Or Resort Town

Cozumel or Cancun
Photo by jarmoluk/Pixabay
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So, you’re planning a sun-soaked adventure to the Mexican Caribbean and it’s come down to Cozumel or Cancun. The good news is that we think both of these places are up there with the hottest – literally! – spots on this side of the land of tacos and tequila. You’re sure to have a cracking trip no matter which you go for.

But if you only have the time and budget to visit one, then this guide can help. It will run through several things about each destination to help you pick the one that’s right for you and your travel crew, whether that’s the nightlife offering, the range of things to do, or the practicalities of traveling there in the first place.

Deciding between Cozumel or Cancun shouldn’t actually be all that difficult. The reason? They are quite different places. You’ve got the pumping spring-break party hub of the Yucatan on the one hand and a chilled tropical isle diving mecca on the other. Let’s get stuck in, shall we?

Cozumel or Cancun for ease of travel?

The main hotel strip in Cancun
Photo by Michelle_Raponi/Pixabay

Cancun is home to the second-largest airport in the whole of Mexico: The Cancun International Airport. In fact, it’s one of the busiest hubs in the whole of Latin America, with something in the region of 22 million people passing through its concourses every year. That translates into myriad arrival options from all over the globe, especially when it comes to direct connections from major US cities and transatlantic flights from the EU. After landing, it usually takes about 25 minutes in a taxi to reach your pad in the Hotel Zone. Simple.

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Cozumel does have an airport but it’s WAY smaller. Yep, the Cozumel International Airport caters to just 530,000 passengers annually, which means you get only a handful of arrivals – some from Canada and the US, but also a few that come from Mexico City. The vast majority of people who come to this reef-ringed island still do so by boat. They leave from the port of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya, so you’re actually looking at flying into Cancun first and then making an onward trip of a few hours.

Winner: Cancun. Most people who go to Cozumel still go through Cancun’s airport anyhow.

Cozumel or Cancun for things to do?

Exploring Cozumel
Photo by Caleb George/Unsplash

The headlines in Cancun are the nightlife and the chilling. The town has cut its teeth as one of the great party meccas of the Mexican Caribbean coast. Every year in February and March, the strips of Punta Cancun go into overdrive with spring break revelers, who then proceed to hit the white-sand beaches or the hotel pools the next day to sizzle off the headaches. That’s not all you can do, though. Families will find historic ruins like Chichen Itza aren’t too far, while adventure travelers can plan cenote tours to swim in wild sinkholes in the Yucatan jungle.

Cozumel also has one standout attraction: The diving. This is like Mexico’s answer to the Red Sea of Egypt or the kohs of south Thailand. A long dash of the famous Mesoamerican Reef runs up the western haunch of the island, offering iconic drift dive sections like the Palancar Reef and the Paso de Cedral for experienced bubble tankers. If you’re not PADI qualified yet, then know this is also a snorkel mecca with oodles of top swim-out spots where you can meet starfish and turtles. Out of the water, Cozumel is for slowing down the vibes and chilling in reggae bars by the Caribbean Sea.

Winner: Draw – one is for diving but the other has history sites and nightlife.

Cozumel or Cancun for hotels?

Hotel in Cozumel
Photo by Meritt Thomas/Unsplash

There’s arguably no better array of hotels in Mexico than the one found in Cancun. Seriously, the city even has a whole district called the Hotel Zone, where you get everything from ocean-side condos to sleek five-star inclusive hotels for honeymooners only. Here’s a look at just a few of the most tempting options in that part of the city:

  • Marriott Cancun Resort ($$$) – Let the tried-and-tested Marriott brand take car of that sand-side pool and Carib-view suite.
  • Hotel NYX Cancun ($$-$$$) – A four-star option with serious style and class, very near the party hub of Punta Cancun.
  • Sina Suites ($-$$) – Simple but affordable, these suites with a pool put you in the very heart of the Cancun Hotel Zone.

The Cozumel hotel scene is nowhere near as prolific as the one in Cancun – shows that the island has just 190 accommodation options to Cancun’s 1,133! There are some very nice options among that, though, particularly if you’re keen to swap big all-inclusive resorts for more boho, boutique lodgings on quieter shores. Check it out:

Winner: Cancun – there’s nearly 1,000 more hotel choices.

Cozumel or Cancun for history?

history in Cancun
Photo by Michelle_Raponi/Pixabay

Cozumel sports a handful of pretty enthralling pre-Columbian history sites that offer a glimpse into the richness of the Maya civilization. Chief among them is the San Gervasio Mayan Archaeological Site, a 1,300-year-old complex of shrines and ruined honorary buildings that is thought to have been built to facilitate the worship of Ix Chel, goddess of fertility. There’s another site at the southeastern tip of the island at the Zona Arqueológica El Caracol, where you can spy out the ruins of a Maya lighthouse above the rock pools. And there’s the Zona Arqueológica del Cedral, an inland site that has a temple that was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years back.

Cancun itself is a planned city that only really came to life in the 20th century. The Hotel Zone especially is a modern creation, and it shows – it’s all infinity pools, concrete condos, and palm-lined streets. The only place to trace the past is at the San Miguelito Archeological Site, where Maya palaces carved with dragon murals rise between the resorts. A day trip is a better choice, though. That can bring you to either Chichen Itza, the greatest of all Maya relics and a UNESCO site, or Tulum, where temples rise against the teal-tinged Caribbean waters.

Winner: Draw. Cozumel has easier-to-access history but Cancun is close enough to Chichen Itza.

Cozumel or Cancun for food?

Seaside eating in Cozumel
Photo by Alisa Matthews/Unsplash

Cancun is very much a modern resort. As such, finding authentic Mexican fare can be a little tricky. However, head over to the Parque de las Palapas in the Centro area come evening and you’ll be lost amid stalls selling spicy seafood tacos, chilaquiles tortilla plates, and pulled-pork wraps with jalapenos. Those who stick to the Hotel Zone’s overload of eateries can look forward to pretty much any cuisine they can think of, from haute French cooking to Italian pizzas. The area does have prices to match the upscale vibes, though.

There’s no doubt that Cozumel wins out here. Being WAY less tourist-orientated than Cancun works wonders on the gastronomy front. In the main city of San Miguel de Cozumel, you’ll find charming cantinas that serve platters of refried beans and crispy empanadas. Scout the coast and you can hit chilled reggae bars where fish is doused in jerk spice and sizzled on open BBQ coals. You still do get some international options, particularly in the main hotel strip on the western coast.

Winner: Cozumel.

Cozumel or Cancun for beaches?

Beaches in Cancun
Photo by Michelle_Raponi/Pixabay

Cancun’s beaches have been fodder for travel brochures for some years now. They zigzag down the side of the Hotel Zone with talcum-white sands from top to bottom, including Playa Langosta and Playa Delfines. The northern part of the area tends to have calmer waters, while the south is quieter and les developed. What’s great about Cancun is that you can also hop to the Isla Mujeres to find see-through swimming coves and reefs, or venture to the greater Riviera Maya, where there are endless cotton-colored beaches from Puerto Morelos to Tulum. The one downside? The seaweed season, which brings lots of sargassum to Cancun’s sands in the summer months.

Cozumel’s most popular shore is its western end, which is actually hardly beach-heavy at all. It’s rugged, rocky, and more about little lagoons and coral reefs for snorkelers. There are beaches on offer, notably idyllic Playa El Cielo, where the water is impossibly turquoise. All of the places on that side of the isle are also immune to the summer seaweed blooms. The eastern shore isn’t, though it does have longer runs of sand – Chen Rio, Punta Morena – where you can sometimes find you’re the only one about.

Winner: Cancun.

Cozumel or Cancun for general vibe?

Cruise ship in Cozumel
Photo by Damon On Road/Unsplash

We think a lot of the choice between these two destinations should come down to what sort of trip you want. Cancun is a proudly brash, bold, boisterous resort town. It runs hot in the winter months when snowbirds flee the north and gets even wilder in the spring when the college breakers arrive. Hotels big and small cram into every corner of the main strip and there’s almost never a totally deserted beach to call your own. On the flip side, all this does mean you get no-holes-barred parties in Senor Frog’s, swim-up pool bars, and nightly entertainment.

Cozumel just isn’t that sort of place. Cozumel is more relaxed, more swing-in-the-hammock sort of stuff. There is nightlife, but it’s about trading massive mega clubs for rickety Caribbean shacks and their homemade margaritas. What’s more, there are always places to escape other travelers here. Venture south on the ring road that loops the isle from the cruise port and there’s a good chance you’ll get a snorkeling cove or little run of white sand all to yourself, particularly out on the hardly-developed eastern shoreline.

Winner: Draw – it just depends what you want from your vacation!                                            

Cozumel or Cancun – our conclusion

The choice between Cozumel or Cancun is a choice between the big, happening resort city at the north end of the Riviera Maya and the coral-ringed island that fragments off its side. We think partiers and younger folk and those wanting lux hotels should plump for Cancun. However, divers and adventurers and those looking to escape the crowds would do better in Cozumel. The best option, though? That has to be to do both – the trip between them is only 2.5 hours including the ferry!

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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.