Which Vacation: Cancun, Cozumel, or Playa?

by  Teresa Bitler | Updated on Mar 5, 2020
Cancun aerial view
Cancun aerial view / Iren_Key/iStock

If winter’s arctic temperatures have you planning a winter escape, we get it. Lounging on a warm beach and sipping margaritas sounds so much nicer than shoveling snow.

From Cancun International Airport, though, you have the option to vacation at three of Mexico’s most popular destinations, each with very different personalities: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel. Which one is right for you? We break it down...


Cancun’s Hotel Zone / Jonathan Ross/istock

Once a small fishing village, Cancun now has more in common with Miami or Las Vegas and is a favorite among college students and the young at heart. Most vacationers spend the day soaking up the sun at the beach (Cancun boasts some of Mexico’s best beaches with its miles of powdery white sand), and at night, they head to the city’s famous clubs. If you plan to join them, don’t miss Coco Bongo, known for its acrobatics shows, neon lasers, and the confetti that rains from above.

What you won’t find in Cancun is a ton of authentic culture. Many of the restaurants will not only remind you of restaurants you’ve eaten at back home but are popular U.S. chains, such as Hooters and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. If you want to explore Mayan ruins or discover the interior’s beauty, you’ll have to take a day trip.

Playa del Carmen

Beach in Playa del Carmen / Mustang_79/iStock

Despite the growing number of resorts and tourist attractions, Playa del Carmen has retained some of the relaxed, laid-back feel of the fishing village it originally was. As a result, it tends to be more popular with people who want a more authentic Mexican experience. We recommend starting on Fifth Avenue. Lined with restaurants, bars, and shops, it’s a popular place to people watch and be seen.

The city is also a great base for exploring, since it’s an hour closer to many of the area’s most popular attractions, including the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza; it's also the port for the ferry to Cozumel. It's here that you can see Mayan ruins and cenotes (sinkholes that reveal crystal waters beneath the limestone).

While the beaches are still good, they have more seaweed than their northern counterparts. If the beach scene is a priority, you may prefer Cancun.


Beach in Cozumel / mikolajn/iStock

Ever since 1961 (when Jacques Cousteau named Cozumel the most spectacular diving site in the world) divers and snorkelers have come in droves to see the abundant marine life surrounding the island just off the Yucatan Peninsula. If you are planning a snorkeling or diving vacation, choose Cozumel over Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Note: You can make a day trip from either, but you will spend a chunk of your day getting to and from Cozumel.

As one of Mexico’s most popular cruise ports, Cozumel has several attractions to entertain visitors, starting with Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park. In addition to enjoying its beach, you can tour the botanical garden, snorkel or scuba past underwater statues, and watch a sea lion show. For an additional charge, you can zip-line or get a massage. Discover Mexico Cozumel Park has scale models of the country’s most popular attractions and, for a fee, offers a tequila seminar and a chocolate workshop.

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