Did you know that there are only three habitable islands in the Mexican part of the Caribbean? So, with Isla Mujeres already checked off your list (unless you haven’t heard of it, in which case check out this article), you’re 33% of the way to a decision about your island getaway. Woohoo!
Here’s some more good news: There are many differences when comparing Cozumel vs. Holbox.
So, it can make the decision easier for you…or perhaps not, if you’re the type of traveler that likes to experience a range of different places.
I spent a weekend in Holbox and visited Cozumel three times. So, I’ll help you sort through the differences between these two destinations.
By the time you get to the end of this article, you should be ready to book your trip and start packing your bags.
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The Low-down on Cozumel vs. Holbox
If you prefer to skim read, the chart below will give you a quick overview of the key differences between Holbox vs. Cozumel.
|Snorkel & diving from the shore||Yes||No|
|Visiting in a day possible?||Yes||No|
Comparing Island Life
Before I go any further, I want to make this clear—Cozumel and Holbox are both wonderful islands. But since they have different vibes, you might be drawn to one more than the other.
So, let’s take a closer look at their differences.
1. Availability of an International Airport
There’s nothing like the feeling of flying into a destination and only needing to take a short taxi ride to get to your hotel. Since Cozumel has an international airport, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
In fact, you can enjoy a direct flight from your hometown to the island of sun and margaritas if you live in any of the following U.S. cities:
Needless to say, Holbox doesn’t have an international airport.
However, it does have a small domestic airport for private flights.
If you’re seeing dollar signs at the thought of booking a private flight, you’re not so far off. However, if you max out the flight with five or seven travelers (depending on the plane), the price takes a nosedive into a range that many people can afford.
To determine whether taking a flight to Holbox is a good fit for you, let’s first go over the more economical way to get there.
You’ll start by flying into Cancun. From there, you can take a private or group transfer to the Chiquila port. The drive takes about two hours.
You’ll then need to wait for the next ferry departure to Holbox. The ferries run continuously throughout the day, about every 30 – 60 minutes.
Alternatively, you can book your ticket in advance. That way, if you arrive in Chiquila right as the ferry is about to depart, you can hop on without watching it pull away as you stand in the ticket line.
The ferry ride itself is about 20 minutes—and a very leisurely 20 minutes at that.
So, in total, you’re looking at around a 2.5 – 3.5 hour journey to travel from Cancun to Holbox by land and ferry, depending on the timing of the ferries.
In contrast, you can fly from Cancun to Holbox in just 30 minutes.
Again, since it’s a private flight, this is a good option for groups of people with money to spare.
2. The Crowd Debate
If you’ve already visited Cozumel and arrived here out of curiosity about Holbox, you might be thinking to yourself, what crowds are there in Cozumel?
That’s an accurate impression if a taxi whisked you from the airport to your hotel where you proceeded to spend the duration of your stay outside of San Miguel.
But if your hotel is around the downtown center of San Miguel, your Cozumel experience will look a lot different in terms of crowds. That’s because day-trippers come in droves via a 30-minute ferry from Playa del Carmen.
The good news is that the majority of the crowds don’t start arriving until around 10:00 am. So, you can have the morning to yourself and head off to Cozumel’s quieter shores away from San Miguel before the day-trippers dock.
In contrast, Holbox is quiet 24/7, 365 days of the year.
Much of this has to do with how much more difficult it is to arrive in Holbox than Cozumel.
But a part of this also has to do with Holbox being a less developed island.
As a result, it weeds out travelers who enjoy having access to countless restaurants and shopping options during their vacation…not to mention paved roads, which we’ll talk about next.
Needless to say, if you visit Holbox, you can expect to encounter more birds pecking at clams in the sand than tourists sprawled out on beach towels as they block the view with umbrellas.
3. All Roads Don’t Lead to Holbox
If you’ve peeked at a map, you know that there are no bridges connecting Holbox or Cozumel to the mainland Yucatan.
However, when comparing Cozumel vs. Holbox, the road situation is vastly different once you’re on the islands.
Cozumel is about 29 miles long and 9 miles wide, making it the largest island in Mexico. So, it may come as no surprise that roads criss-cross the island—and paved roads, at that.
Quintana Roo C-1 is the main road that runs around the perimeter of half of Cozumel, covering some of the most popular tourist areas. As a result, this road can get quite packed with cars at peak hours.
If you travel to Cozumel, there’ll be no shortage of cars and scooters available for you to rent.
In contrast, Holbox has dirt roads, and cars aren’t permitted on the island except for construction and police vehicles.
Therefore, the only way to get around Holbox is by foot or golf cart.
If you’re staying outside of downtown Holbox, which is where most of the nicer resorts are located, you’ll likely want to rent a golf cart. Holbox is still quite a large island, at around 26 miles long.
Nevertheless, if driving a golf cart down dirt roads doesn’t sound like your version of an island getaway, you can hail a golf cart taxi when you want to move around.
4. Meandering Around Downtown
Cozumel and Holbox share the trait of a small downtown. However, they’re vastly different in their development.
Holbox’s downtown involves a few blocks framed by dirt roads. When it rains—which is often in the tropics—the dirt roads turn muddy with standing water so high in some areas that boots might not even help you out.
You can read more about my Holbox impressions and theory about why it gets so muddy in my guide on what to do in Holbox.
That said, Holbox’s downtown has small-island charm. You’ll encounter street vendors, tiny tourist shops, and cafes serving up everything from burgers to exquisite vegan salads.
When it comes to Cozumel, its downtown San Miguel has “touristy” written all over it. Brand new bright orange buildings circle a gigantic (and mostly shade-free) main square.
The area is packed with high-priced souvenirs, bars, and restaurants serving food at three to five times the price of meals in nearby Playa del Carmen.
It feels a bit like a mini Cancun, minus the highrises and malls. Unlike Holbox, you won’t have to worry about tackling mud if it rains, as the entire area has neatly lined bricks and pavement.
The ferry port for Playa del Carmen is a stone’s throw away from San Miguel, so downtown Cozumel becomes a bustling and energetic place during the afternoons and evenings.
5. Swimming with the Stars
If taking a bioluminescence tour is on your bucket list, choosing between Holbox vs. Cozumel is a no-brainer: Head to Holbox.
Bioluminescence is the result of phytoplankton lighting up in silver, blue, and green colors when the water they’re in becomes agitated. Needless to say, it feels like you’re swimming with the stars if you take a swim in the ocean at night.
While you can try to encounter this bioluminescence phenomenon from your beachfront Holbox hotel, the best option is to join a tour. That way, your guide will take you to a remote part of the island where more phytoplankton lives.
When choosing your travel dates, it’s best to visit Holbox around a new moon; the colors will show up even brighter in the water.
Furthermore, the concentration of phytoplankton tends to be the strongest from July – January.
Although Cozumel doesn’t have bioluminescent phytoplankton, they do have a unique creature—flying fish.
So, if you decide to take a day trip from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen, keep your eyes peeled during the ferry ride for these fish. I saw one fly in the air beside our ferry for about 10 seconds!
6. Exploring the Underwater World from the Shore
Cozumel sits along the 625-mile Mesoamerican Reef, which is the biggest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
So, it may come as no surprise that Cozumel is an excellent place to snorkel and dive from the shore. Alternatively, if you want to explore in deeper and less people-populated waters, you can sign up for a snorkeling or diving boat tour.
Feel free to bring your own snorkel and diving gear or save your suitcase space and rent it on the island—there are plenty of shops where you can do so.
Like Cozumel, Holbox has clear and calm water in many parts of the island, weather permitting. And if it’s a time when the Yucatan’s annual seaweed invasion isn’t happening, you can expect crystal clear water in Holbox and an ocean with such a gradual incline that you can wade far out with the water only coming up to your waist.
The downside to this is that there isn’t a lot of fish-friendly habitats.
So, while you can try to snorkel or dive from Holbox’s shore, you’ll likely only encounter an occasional school of silverfish—the same ones you can see by simply walking in the water and looking down.
7. Assessing Your Wallet or Purse
You don’t need me to tell you that the cost of living is often higher on islands than on mainlands because of the extra transportation involved to get things there.
However, when you’re comparing Cozumel vs. Holbox, Cozumel is undoubtedly the more expensive island.
It’s hard to find a budget hotel on Cozumel. And when you do, the price tag will likely shock you for what you get.
In contrast, Holbox offers many hostels. Although its hostels are more expensive than many places in mainland Mexico, they’re far more reasonable than in Cozumel.
And don’t even get me started on the food.
When I visited Cozumel, I ended up buying some snacks at a convenience store because I couldn’t “stomach” paying such inflated prices for food that looked standard at best.
But in Holbox, I ate at adorable hole-in-the-wall vegan restaurants for around $8 per meal. Yes, that’s expensive for Mexico standards, but it’s all relative when we’re comparing it to Cozumel.
8. Day Trip Potential
If you’re considering a trip to Cozumel or Holbox but you’re not sure that you want to spend one or more nights there, you might be wondering—is a day trip possible?
When it comes to Cozumel, it absolutely is.
Playa del Carmen is the closest place in mainland Mexico to Cozumel, just a 30-minute ferry ride away.
The ferries run frequently throughout the day, starting early in the morning until late into the evening. By taking a day trip from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel, you can hop off the ferry in Cozumel, rent a scooter, and drive around the whole island while still having time to take a dip in the water and enjoy an ocean view lunch.
In fact, you could even take a day trip to Cozumel from places like Cancun and Tulum, although these destinations involve more driving time to arrive at Playa del Carmen’s port.
Travel Tip: Read my article on the best time to visit Cozumel to learn how weather can impact the ferry running for your day trip.
In contrast, it’s challenging to take a day trip to Holbox unless you’re spending the night in the area immediately around Chiquila (which you probably don’t want to do, given that there’s hardly anything in that area).
If you’re a real travel go-getter, you can technically take a day trip to Holbox from Cancun, though. Just don’t expect to have tons of time in Holbox, especially if you travel there by land and ferry instead of flying.
Bonus: How Much Time to Spend on the Islands
Now that we’ve pieced together some key differences between Cozumel and Holbox, here’s a final area where these destinations diverge—how long you should stay.
Cozumel offers far more activities than Holbox. Furthermore, it has more amenities to make for a more comfortable longer-term stay, especially if you enjoy luxury travel.
In fact, many people choose to spend their entire vacation in Cozumel.
On the other hand, most people only spend one or two nights in Holbox. The island doesn’t offer as many tours and places to visit as Cozumel, so you can easily see it well during that time.
That said, I know people who wish they had booked more than a couple of nights in Holbox. But more often than not, most people agree that Cozumel is the better island for a longer stay.
Which Island Will You Choose?
One of the best parts about Mexico’s islands is how unique they are. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of whether you prefer a visit to Cozumel or Holbox.
Alternatively, if thinking about a ferry ride makes you nauseous, keeping your Caribbean vacation on the mainland in places like Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen might be your best bet.
If you have any questions about Cozumel vs. Holbox or would like to share your experience, leave a comment. I look forward to chatting with you!