So, you’ve narrowed down your next getaway to Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Congratulations! That’s an exciting step in and of itself, but now you’re facing your next hurdle—is it better to visit Cozumel or Cancun?
I’ve spent time in both destinations and will break down the pros and cons of Cozumel vs. Cancun to help you decide which is the right fit for you.
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An Overview of Cozumel vs. Cancun
Before I get into the nitty-gritty details of visiting Cancun and Cozumel, below is a chart to help you grasp some primary similarities and differences between these two destinations.
|Lots of restaurant and shopping options||No||Yes|
|Many day trip options||No||No|
|Rental cars available||Yes||Yes|
|Many sandy beaches||No||Yes|
8 Pros and Cons of Cancun vs. Cozumel
As you can probably imagine, many points on the table above require a deeper answer than a mere “yes” or “no,” and there’s overlap in some cases. Furthermore, what’s a pro to one person may be another person’s con.
So without further ado, below are eight pros and cons of Cozumel vs. Cancun that’ll help you determine which you should visit. But instead of me labeling them as a pro or con, I’ll let you be the judge.
#1: Cozumel is Easy to Explore
If you’re the type of person who wants to explore every square inch of a destination, Cancun will likely feel overwhelming to you.
In contrast, although Cozumel is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, it’s still small enough where you can rent a scooter and circle around the island a time or three in a day. Heck, you can even bike around the island, if you’ve got the stamina for it.
Unlike Cancun’s seemingly endless array of restaurants, shops, and activities, if you’re short on time, spending your vacation in Cozumel will give you a better sense of really seeing the area.
Some of Cozumel’s most popular attractions include:
- Punta Sur Ecological Park
- Scuba diving
- San Miguel town
- Laguna Chankanaab
- San Gervasio & Castillo Real ruins
If the thought of riding around Cozumel without air conditioning already has you sweating, don’t worry—there are plenty of taxis on the island that can get you where you want to go.
#2: Cancun Offers More Day Trips
If you love to be on the go, Cozumel will likely feel too constricting for you since you’ll need to take a ferry or plane to get off the island.
On the other hand, Cancun is one of the best destinations to base yourself from for taking day trips around the Yucatan Peninsula.
You have three options for taking day trips in Cancun: Book a tour through a tour company, hop on a ferry, or take an ADO bus. The ADO bus station is located in downtown Cancun, a 10 – 20 minute drive from the Hotel Zone, depending on your location and traffic.
Day trips you can take from Cancun include:
- Chichen Itza
- Isla Mujeres
- Playa del Carmen
Chichen Itza (about 2.5 hours from Cancun) and Isla Mujeres (about a 20-minute ferry ride) are among the most popular Cancun day trips. You can check out my article on Isla Mujeres vs Cozumel for details on a trip to Isla Mujeres.
And, well, the list continues depending on just how off-the-beaten-path you want your travels to be.
You can even visit Cozumel as a day trip from Cancun. I’ll explain more about traveling between these two destinations at the end of this post.
Before you write off Cozumel as an island that’s impossible to take a day trip from, consider this—there are frequent 30-minute ferry departures to Playa del Carmen, which is an excellent place to spend a day.
Furthermore, you could even visit Xcaret Park or Tulum as a day trip from Cozumel, although you’ll need to be mindful of ferry times and prepared to stay on the mainland longer than expected if a storm pops up, delaying the ferry back to Cozumel.
#3: Cozumel is a Quieter Getaway
I dare you to find someone who says that Cancun is quieter than Cozumel; Cozumel and relaxation go hand-in-hand just like Cancun and partying do.
That’s not to say that Cozumel is a dead zone, but the statistics don’t lie: In 2019, Cancun had 6.15 million visitors while Cozumel had far fewer, with many visitors arriving on a cruise ship instead of staying on the island.
Part of the reason Cozumel is quieter than Cancun is because of its more remote location. It’s also more expensive than Cancun, making it difficult for budget travelers to settle in. So, it doesn’t attract loads of college spring break students like Cancun does.
Furthermore, Cozumel is primarily a resort island, with all-inclusive hotels taking up (or adapting) many of the nicest beaches for private use.
All of that tallies up to a quieter beach experience for people who want to get in touch with nature and read a good book (may I suggest the Messages series? As a disclaimer, I’m the author of this tropical Panamanian romance series 😉).
#4: Cancun is Better for Nightlife
Cancun is the hub of all hubs for nightlife. It contains world-class clubs such as:
- Coco Bongo
- The City
- Coyote Loco
And these are just the big ones. However, if you’re not into rubbing shoulders with the wealthy, and tourists pretending to be rich, there are countless bars you can visit for a local nightlife vibe.
That said, if you visit Cozumel and want to spend a night on the town, all hope isn’t lost—downtown San Miguel offers many bars and a few clubs.
Just don’t expect the party vibe to be as crazy as it is in Cancun, which for some, might be the perfect nightlife balance.
#5: Cozumel is Ideal for Divers
If you’re a scuba diver, make a beeline to Cozumel; it’s home to the Mesoamerican Reef, which at 700 miles long, is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
Between the reef and being away from large crowds, divers and snorkelers can enjoy observing countless tropical fish, rays, turtles, and sharks, among other marine life.
There’s no shortage of tours that’ll take you out diving or snorkeling. Alternatively, you can rent gear and dive or snorkel on your own near the shore.
If you love the thought of diving but don’t have the time to get PADI certified, you can take an underwater walking tour instead. With this tour, you’ll put on outer space-looking headgear and literally walk on the bottom of the ocean. You can even leave your prescription glasses on since the helmet offers ample space.
That said, if you end up staying in Cancun and would like to dive, I highly recommend doing so at MUSA, which is an underwater art museum with over 500 sculptures.
#6: Cancun is Sandier Than Cozumel
Let’s face it—most people visiting Cancun or Cozumel plan on spending time on the beach. And so, when comparing Cozumel vs. Cancun, it’s crucial to note that Cancun offers larger, sandier beaches than Cozumel.
Of course, Cancun’s beaches often get way more crowded than Cozumel. But few people will argue that Cancun’s beaches encompass every adjective ever written for a postcard-perfect Caribbean getaway.
On the other hand, Cozumel has a lot of undeveloped beach areas loaded with rocks, thorns, and other natural debris that make it less than comfortable for lounging there. I’ve also been cautioned against hanging out at these untouched beaches since, while Cozumel is overall safe, malientes may take advantage if you put yourself in a remote area where it’s easy for them to rob you without being seen.
The bottom line here is that you’re more limited on where you can go to enjoy sandy beaches in Cozumel, and they’re almost all either on hotel properties or at beach clubs where you pay an entrance fee to get in. Once you’re there, though, you’ll get to enjoy beautiful sandy beaches that are less crowded than in Cancun.
#7: Cozumel Has One Center
If you like the feeling of a single gathering place within a town, you’ll appreciate Cozumel’s downtown San Miguel district.
San Miguel is the core of where everything happens in Cozumel, and it’s where you’ll find a plethora of restaurants, shops, and people selling you tours. Cozumel’s center is walkable with a large plaza where locals sometimes perform, and an oceanfront boardwalk is nearby.
In contrast, Cancun has two centers—the tourist center and the “real” downtown center.
The tourist center runs along the Hotel Zone, which is a narrow strip of land with the Caribbean Sea on one side and a lagoon on the other.
It can be hard to distinguish an actual “center” within the Hotel Zone since the whole place can feel like a multi-mile center. However, the northernmost part of the Hotel Zone where the lighthouse is located is generally considered the center of the Hotel Zone center.
Meanwhile, Cancun’s real center is located inland, about a 10 – 15 minute drive from the Hotel Zone. It’s a stark contrast from the Hotel Zone, as it has a relatively run-down appearance. However, it’s an area with rich local culture, markets, and free performances at Parque de las Palapas.
#8: Cancun Has More Flight Options
Sometimes a trip comes down to economics and convenience. So, when looking at Cozumel vs. Cancun in regards to international flights, Cancun will often win this competition.
Cozumel and Cancun both have international airports, including multiple flights per day from the U.S. However, Cancun’s airport is far larger with many more options. And it’s no wonder, given that Cancun has the fourth largest airport in Latin America (the largest airport, by the way, is in Mexico City).
That said, you can find budget airlines like Southwest that fly to both Cancun and Cozumel.
Visiting Cancun and Cozumel on the Same Trip
Here’s some good news: You don’t have to choose between Cozumel or Cancun.
If you’re short on time, you can hop on a small plane. The ride will take about 20 minutes.
Alternatively, if puddle jumpers aren’t your thing and/or you don’t want to pour money into what can sometimes be an expensive flight, you have the option to travel by land and ferry.
When traveling from Cancun, you’ll need to drive south to Playa del Carmen. The drive is supposed to take an hour, but from the more than 20 times I’ve traveled that route, it can take 1.5 hours or more between traffic and construction.
Once you’re in Playa, enjoy a walk down the pedestrian 5th Avenue until you come to the Cozumel ferry port. Playa del Carmen is a nice place to grab a bite to eat and meander around, so I recommend allowing for a bit of time there.
Once you’re ready, hop on a 30-minute ferry to Cozumel and let your vacation continue!
Psst! Don’t miss my guide on Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun if you’re considering a stay in Playa, too.
To avoid backtracking, you could even fly into Cancun or Cozumel and then fly out of the other city.
And before you harp on me about how much that’ll cost you in two one-way international flights, consider this—a study by the Airlines Reporting Corp. shows that many one-way airline tickets are now on par with the cost of round trip tickets.
What’ll It Be?
Hopefully, by now you have a better idea of what to expect from a trip to Cozumel and Cancun.
Both destinations are beautiful. While I personally prefer Cozumel over Cancun, I’ve met plenty of people who feel the opposite and even some people who equally liked the unique features of both destinations.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on which destination you’re leaning toward and help you with any questions you may have. Leave a comment below, and let’s get chatting!
P.S.—If you’re considering other destinations in the Yucatan, check out my guide on Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen.
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.