Trying to decide between Cozumel or Cancun for your vacation? Let’s compare the overall vibe and the pros and cons of each
Cozumel and Cancun are two famous vacation places in the Yucatan region of Mexico, on the Caribbean sea. Cancun is a decent-sized Mexican city with close to 1M inhabitants, but most of the holiday resorts it’s become famous for are located along the “hotel zone”, a 15-mile narrow stretch of land with great beaches, all-inclusive resorts, shopping malls, and tourist attractions.
Cozumel, on the other hand, is a small island (about 100.000 inhabitants) off the mainland and South of Cancun. Cancun and Cozumel have very different vibes and appeal to different types of visitors.
In Maya, Cozumel means “land of the swallows” while Cancun means “pit of snakes”. Don’t let these names influence you though! The goal of this article is to help you decide whether to stay in Cozumel or Cancun for your next trip.
Cozumel or Cancun: quick answer
- Cancun is located on the mainland of the Caribbean while Cozumel is an island right off the coast. Cancun is famous for its extended beaches lined with resorts, outside the actual city. Cozumel is smaller, quieter, and less crowded.
- Cancun has ample, postcard-type beaches along the hotel zone, a long stretch of white sand and clear seawater. Cozumel has smaller and rockier beaches but provides access to the great coral barrier for world-class snorkeling and diving.
- Cancun is highly touristic and not as charming as Cozumel. While some travelers are drawn to the affordable all-inclusive resorts of Cancun, others may prefer the laid-back vibes of Cozumel. However, Cozumel, however, might feel too quiet for the active but non-diving crowd.
- Cancun has easy access to the Riviera Maya resort area and the Yucatan tourist attractions (ruins, parks, rainforest). Cozumel is even closer to that area but requires a short ferry crossing to the mainland.
Why you may choose Cancun over Cozumel
In Cancun, visitors love the beautiful long big beach with soft white sand. They love swimming in the warm, transparent green water and playing in the surf. They also enjoy long walks on the beach and people watching – since there are so many tourists around.
What mostly draws tourists to Cancun, though, are the attractive and affordable resorts with all-inclusive offers that allow visitors to eat, drink, and have fun with no extra money. There are huge hotels with 5-acre pools offering live music all night. Visitors find all the commodities they need from shopping to nightlife available to them right out the front door so they can just relax and have a good time.
For these reasons, many people prefer Cancun’s compact hotel zone to Cozumel and even to the more extensive Riviera Maya resort stretch South of Cancun such as Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal and others.
What you may not like in Cancun
Outside or the all-inclusive resorts, a lot of Cancun has turned into a huge tourist trap with prices as high as American big cities, and lots of American retail stores. Even finding a Mexican restaurant is hard. Cancun has long lost all its local charm is in mainly a place for North Americans to party and get drunk. For these reasons, many travelers have stopped going to Cancun even though it’s an easy and affordable destination from the US East Coast.
Cancun is much more urban than Cozumel or the other resorts, due to the densely built hotel stretch most people stay in. It’s crowded with thousands of (mainly US) tourists with little nature left. Air-conditioned malls have long replaced small local shops in the resort area. Though the beaches are beautiful they are often overcrowded.
Cancun is a popular and renowned destination for younger people who go there to party, including for Spring Break college vacation. During these periods, resorts are often invaded with loud drunk people.
Although long and beautiful, the beaches in Cancun are on a quite narrow stretch of land and have fast-dropping slopes. There are also riptides and strong surf, which also contribute to making the beaches unsafe e.g. for kids and older people.
Some travelers are also concerned with safety due to regular news about violent crimes in the Cancun area. While the hotel stretch is generally considered safe, some tourists prefer to avoid downtown Cancun at night.
Cozumel vs Cancun
Cozumel is more remote than Cancun, being an island off of Playa del Carmen (a 20 or 45-minute crossing depending on the boat). There aren’t as many shopping and nightlife options in Cozumel as in Cancun, so most people spent more time inside their resort.
The guests in Cozumel are generally older than those in Cancun, with more families – Cancun has many more adult-only options than Cozumel.
Why you may choose Cozumel over Cancun
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef you have access to in Cozumel offers phenomenal, world-class snorkeling with shallow waters, underwater cliffs, and sandbars full of colorful fish, sharks, and starfish. Some say Cozumel is second only to the Great Barrier Reef for diving.
The beaches at the Southern end of the island where the all-inclusive resorts boast sandy beaches with gentle surf and a mild slope, unlike Cancun. Note that the beaches of Playa del Carmen across from Cozumel are even better.
On the East side of Cozumel, the beaches are pristine with no hotels in sight. However, be aware the surf and riptides there are rougher.
Cozumel is still a small and quaint place. While the hotels in Cancun are generally more sophisticated than in Cozumel, Cozumel still has a bit of a local Carribean feel. The people are nice and friendly, and visitors appreciate Cozumel’s relaxed island vibe.
Travelers feel completely safe in Cozumel and are comfortable walking back late at night in unlit streets.
What you may not like in Cozumel
If you stay in Cozumel vs Cancun, you’ll need to take the ferry if you want to go sightseeing on the mainland. You’re likely to be able to see more things if you stay in Cancun.
If you don’t dive or snorkel, and you’re the active type, you may feel there’s not much to do in Cozumel aside from hanging out around the pool or on the beach. Cancun has a lot more animations and activities, though at the expense of tourist crowds and a non-local kind of vibe.
Cozumel or Cancun day trips
As mentioned, staying in Cozumel means having to take the ferry to go to sights on the mainland. On the other hand, if you stay in Cancun you may want to visit Cozumel and go diving there!
From Cancun, you can take a relaxing boat trip to Isla Mujeres which has more good resorts and beautiful beaches. From either Cancun or Cozumel you can easily visit the Riviera Maya area, namely Puerto Morelos, Akumal, and Tulum which also has fantastic beaches – though accommodations in that area are often more rustic and pricier.
Around and South of Cancun (and Cozumel) are Mayan ruins you can visit for a glimpse of that ancient culture. You can also easily access the numerous adventure parks along the coast, or take a trip into the rainforest.
North of Cancun, you can take a day trip to Isla Holbox, a wild island on the Gulf of Mexico side, to visit its stunning preserved beaches from which you can go see the famous whale sharks.
A short ferry-crossing from Cozumel is Playa del Carmen which has a lot of all-inclusive resorts and shopping areas if that’s something you’re interested in.
From Cozumel, you can of course head up to Cancun for some sightseeing, shopping, and dining for the day. You can visit the famous hotel zone and go shopping at Pier 8. You can also have a drink at the Hard Rock Cafe and relax on one of the beaches there for the afternoon.
In summary, whether you choose to stay in Cancun or Cozumel largely depends on your tastes. Choose Cancun for American resort animation, food, shopping or partying, on a long, beautiful, white sand beach backdrop. Choose Cozumel for more of a quiet and relaxing island vibe and some stunning scuba diving around the great reef.
Choosing one, however, certainly doesn’t bar you from enjoying the other on a day trip. From both Cozumel and Cancun you can easily visit the whole Maya Riviera coastal area and a few islands – some touristy, others preserved.
(1) Featured: “Beach Cozumel – Riviera Maya Ocean View” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Grand Velas Riviera Maya
(2) “Cancun” (CC BY 2.0) by Alexandr Trubetskoy
(3) “Cancun Vacation” (CC BY 2.0) by ankarino
(4) “Cancun” (CC BY 2.0) by Ninja Shot
(5) “Cozumel – Beach Resort” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by roger4336
(6) “file fish” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Skinned Mink
(7) “Cozumel from the boat” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Herkie
(8) “Cancun 101” (CC BY 2.0) by wronski