Mexico is a country as rich in culture and diversity as it is in natural beauty, making it a clear favorite travel destination for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. It offers the perfect blend between incredible scenery and beaches, a friendly atmosphere, unrivaled cuisine, and exciting culture and history.
Cozumel and Playa del Carmen are two highly desirable vacation destinations, with fewer tourists than the more popular Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. The main difference between these places is that Playa del Carmen is a town on the mainland of Mexico, just south of bustling Cancun, and Cozumel is an island just off the coast of Playa del Carmen in the Caribbean.
Because of its island setting, Cozumel is the best option for adventurous divers and snorkelers and a relaxing beach getaway. The quiet town is an excellent spot for couples and families, with more beaches than you can dream of visiting.
While Playa del Carmen isn’t exactly a big city, it is a much more bustling hub compared with Cozumel. Here, you’ll find the best of the best dining, nightlife, and shopping scene in the area.
If you need to choose between visiting Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, this post will pin the two destinations up against each other in a bid for the better Mexican beach town.
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Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen
Depending on what type of vacation you’re hoping to have, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen each have their own offerings to accommodate different types of travelers. Read on to find out which destination is better for your particular vacation needs.
- This small island sits in the Caribbean Sea on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The entire island is around 184 square miles big.
- World famous for its top scuba diving sites and Mesoamerican reef system. People visit mainly for the gorgeous beaches and water activities.
- Only accessible by ferry, plane, or during a cruise. Ferries from Playa del Carmen take around 40 minutes to one hour and operate twice daily. The island also has a local airport called Cozumel Airport (CZM), but flights here are expensive.
- The island is small and safe to walk around on foot, by bicycle, or by scooter. Taxis are available for longer distances, and minivans act as busses and shuttle people around the island.
- You will find boutique hotels, beach resorts, and self-catering villas to stay in on the island.
Playa del Carmen Summary
- Playa del Carmen is on the mainland of the Yucatan Peninsula and is home to around 150 thousand inhabitants. The town is small and easy to walk around.
- A resort town known for its palm-tree lines, beaches, and year-round party atmosphere. Famous for diving and snorkeling.
- The best way to get to Playa del Carmen is to fly into Cancun International Airport (CUN), just a 45-minute drive from the town. Tourists usually rent a car or use a taxi to travel this distance.
- The best way to get around Playa del Carmen is on foot. There is no bus service in the town, but there are some taxis that operate from the main resort. There is no Uber here.
- Playa del Carmen is known for its luxurious beach resorts. Visitors can also rent out self-catering villas or stay in affordable homestays.
Is Cozumel or Playa del Carmen Better
Even though they’re just a few short miles from one another, either Cozumel or Playa del Carmen offers a unique atmosphere for different types of travelers. Depending on what you prioritize or your trip, take a look at these important factors you might want to consider before booking your holiday.
For Things to Do
The first thing you should know about both Cozumel and Playa del Carmen is that they are primarily beach destinations. If you’re looking for incredible museums, high-end dining scenes, and theme parks for children, you might not find what you’re looking for here.
Although the bigger town of the two, Playa del Carmen is a small beach resort town with plenty of beachside places to eat, bars, and trendy nightclubs. It’s dotted with pristine beaches lined with loungers and umbrellas, making it the perfect place for a relaxing summer vacation.
Cozumel is much smaller and less busy, with more gorgeous beaches and a handful of cool hostels – but fewer restaurants or opportunities for nightlife. While it’s the better option for quiet beaches and peaceful snorkeling, Playa del Carmen trumps the island when it comes to dining and nightlife.
Foodies will fare best in Playa del Carmen, which has a bigger local population and an incredible street food scene to match. This town is also scattered with restaurants serving international cuisine to please visiting tourists.
Both destinations offer great snorkeling and diving opportunities since they are located on the famous Mesoamerican reef. However, Cozumel is the better option if you’re visiting for the incredible dive sites, with less boat activity disturbing the coral and sea life.
Culture and history fans might prefer Playa del Carmen, which sits just a short drive from incredible cultural hotspots like Tulum and Coba. Coba’s Mayan ruins include a stunning 136-foot high step pyramid still primarily uncovered. This beach resort town is also just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the iconic Chichen Itza and Ek Balam Mayan ruins.
Winner: Playa del Carmen
For Budget Travelers
If we compare prices in Playa del Carmen vs Cozumel, Playa del Carmen tends to be a cheaper destination. This is mainly because Cozumel is primarily a vacation and cruise ship destination, attracting affluent tourists from around the world.
- Accommodation in Playa del Carmen and Cozumel ranges from rural to suburban. The average hotel price for a couple is around $56 per night in Playa del Carmen and $100 in Cozumel. One person could pay approximately $28 in Playa del Carmen for a private room or $50 in Cozumel for a private room.
- Mini-bus taxis are the main mode of transport in both destinations (other than cycling or walking). Travelers spend an average of $15 on transportation each day (some days, you won’t spend a cent on transportation).
- Meal prices vary from restaurant to restaurant. A meal at an average restaurant in Playa del Carmen might cost $7 or $10 in Cozumel. Hotel restaurants are significantly more expensive, while local eateries and street food will be cheaper.
- A local Mexican beer costs around $2 to $3 in either Playa del Carmen or Cozumel, while an imported brew could increase to between $4 and $5.
Winner: Playa del Carmen
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Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen: Hotel 12 BEES by Kavia
For an affordable yet luxurious stay, spend a night at the Hotel 12 BEES by Kavia. Located in central Playa del Carmen, this spot is a short stroll from the beach and has a great bar to hang out and socialize with other travelers.
Both Playa del Carmen and Cozumel have tons to offer couples. As two of the most desirable beach destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula, they both boast incredible tropical beaches lining the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Couples after a bit of peace and quiet might prefer Cozumel. The island attracts fewer crowds than Playa del Carmen and is known for its mellow atmosphere and romantic setting.
This also makes Cozumel the better option for a pampering experience. With many high-end hotels, you won’t struggle to find a gorgeous spa to spend the day being taken care of here.
If you prefer a busier beach vacation (it’s all relative), Playa del Carmen offers a buzzing beach scene with a vibrant nightlife to match. Lined with beach clubs, restaurants, and bars, this is a great place to get your social on with your significant other.
Where to Stay in Cozumel: The Westin Cozumel
Romance is expected at a place like Cozumel, but you can’t do much better than The Westin Cozumel. The five-star hotel is set right on the beachfront and offers beach-facing rooms with balconies and trendy interiors.
For Getting Around
If we had to compare traveling around Playa del Carmen vs Cozumel, both are super easy destinations to get around. This is primarily because the towns are so small, making it possible to walk or cycle from place to place without worrying about transport.
There is no public transport around the town of Playa del Carmen, but you will be able to hail the odd taxi if you don’t feel like walking! Hotel receptions are usually very helpful with ordering cabs.
The best way to get around is to walk since most restaurants, beaches, and attractions are close to one another.
The same goes for Cozumel. In fact, this island is even easier to walk around, and the downtown center only spans five blocks. Scooters and bikes are also popular here and are great if you need to travel to far-flung beaches.
For a Weekend Trip
Cozumel is the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing beach vacation if you only have a weekend to spare in the area. Whether you’re traveling solo, with friends, family, or with your partner in Mexico two days is the perfect amount of time to fully explore the island.
Spend your days lapping up the Caribbean sunshine and marveling at the great barrier reef system just below the surface of the water. A trip to Cozumel won’t be complete without at least a snorkeling tour, and a scuba-diving tour if you’re up for a bit more adventure.
While your trip will by no means be ‘busy’ or ‘rushed,’ there are plenty of water activities to try out, beaches to explore, and new restaurants to browse through menus. Spend some time walking the slow-paced streets of downtown San Miguel, which is a gorgeous rainbow of color and local flair. Here, you could browse some local handmade treasures to carry home with you (but take note that since this is a tourist destination, prices might be higher than elsewhere).
While either Playa del Carmen or Cozumel is small enough to experience within a weekend, you might prefer a relaxing weekend on the isle of Cozumel more.
For a Week-Long Trip
Since Playa del Carmen is a larger town, it has many more things to do and see compared to Cozumel. If you want to settle in a destination with a bunch of opportunities for adventure, education, and relaxation, this is the place to be.
Not only does it offer a lot in terms of dining, nightlife, beaches, and nearby cultural attractions, but it’s also a relatively small town that is super easy to get around by foot or bicycle. While a week here won’t be as busy as spending a week in a high-rise city, you could easily spend a week getting to know the ins and outs of Playa del Carmen while also enjoying a bit of relaxation at the same time.
While you should certainly spend a day exploring downtown Playa del Carmen and a few more days relaxing on the gorgeous beaches, don’t miss the opportunity to take a few road trips to some of Mexico’s most important cultural attractions. Just a short drive from the resort town, you’ll be able to walk the stairs of Chichen Itza and marvel at the ruins at Tulum.
For a more adventurous day trip, you could go cenote hopping along the Yucatan Peninsula and zip lining or ATVing at the Ruta de los Cenotes.
Winner: Playa del Carmen
Visiting Cozumel and Playa del Carmen
Since the island of Cozumel is just 12 miles away from Playa del Carmen across the Caribbean Sea, visiting both Playa del Carmel and Cozumel in one trip is entirely possible, affordable, and highly recommended.
In fact, if you have a week to spend in the area, splitting your time between these two locations will offer you the best of both worlds – a vibey beach vacation with a buzzing nightlife and social scene and a relaxing destination home to some of the world’s best dive sites.
The best way to travel between these beautiful beach towns in Mexico is by ferry. Two ferry companies operate the route between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen: Winjet (the orange ferry) and Ultramar (the yellow ferry). They operate every day of the year, weather permitting, and cost around $11 per adult and $9 per child in each direction. If you choose to take a rental car on the ferry, this will cost about $30.
The crossing is calm and quick, taking just about 40 minutes. You can add ten minutes on each side to embark and disembark the vessel. The ferries leave from the Ferry Pier in downtown Playa del Carmen and arrive at the ferry terminal in central San Miguel de Cozumel (the main town on the island).
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FAQs About Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen
When heading to Mexico, if you’re wondering whether to visit Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, your decision should be based on what you want from your vacation. Cozumel is a quiet island with a relaxing atmosphere, ideal for families with young kids, romantic vacations, and older travelers looking for a slice of Mexican heaven. It’s also one of the world’s premier destinations for diving and snorkeling, set on the incredible Mesoamerican reef.
Just a 40-minute ferry ride across the Caribbean to the mainland of the Yucatan Peninsula, Playa del Carmen is another small beach destination with heaps of charm. This town is bigger than Cozumel, boasting a vibrant town center packed with restaurants, bars, beach clubs, and incredible places to stay.
With a buzzing nightlife, Playa del Carmen is the better vacation destination for young travelers, solo travelers, and those looking for the perfect balance between a relaxing beach and a vibrant party scene.
Your best bet? Take the quick and affordable ferry and check both destinations out. You won’t regret it.
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