How do you choose which is the best place to holiday along Mexico’s Riviera Maya? Which is best for you when comparing between Cancun vs Playa Del Carmen vs Tulum vs Cozumel? There is so much on offer that it can feel overwhelming to make a decision on your first or next holiday to Mexico.
I was fortunate enough to work on cruise ships in the Caribbean for two seasons. I worked on Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line. At one stage I was based around the Mexican area for 6 months. Therefore, I got to see a lot of the east coast of Mexico. Namely Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.
Every week I explored different areas and tourist hot spots. Now I can share with you my honest and thorough notes on each destination to help you decide which one will suit you best. Because each of the ‘big four’ destinations are different and unique in what they offer you.
CANCUN – crazy busy
Back in the nineties, Cancun became THE hotspot for tourists. Especially with American tourists. After all, it was a planned tourist destination by the Mexican government. But what's it like now?
Well, Cancun is still crazy busy with a high-rise hotel zone. Therefore has a modern city feel. No shortage of places to party as it’s known for its glamorous nightlife, with huge nightclubs such as Coco Bongo, Palazzo and The City. But there are also smaller bars if you prefer. My favourite is the popular Carlos & Charlies.
If you don’t feel like eating the free food at your Cancun all-inclusive resort, there are many restaurants to choose from instead. I must admit, I was a little disappointed to find mainly western foods. I always look forward to eating local food when I travel. And who doesn’t love Mexican food! Search and you will find.
You can shop ‘til your feet drop at the massive high-end malls. You can choose from boutique malls such as Luxury Avenue or La Isla’s Fashion Harbour. Or your more traditional indoor shopping mall such as Forum by the Sea, the new Marina Puerto Cancun or outdoor shopping at La Isla Shopping Village. Alternatively, choose downtowns Market 28 for Mexican handicrafts and souvenirs. There’s shopping to cater for all budgets.
Basically, Cancun is a beach-shop-eat-party-sleep kind of destination.
Where to stay:
There are two sections:
Hotel Zone – situated along the Caribbean coast, is an attached island shaped like the number 7. Beaches on top portion are calmer as its protected by Isla Mujeres and away from high winds. However, beaches on the strip that runs north-south are exposed to ocean and wind, therefore have bigger waves. Most hotels/resorts are all-inclusive. This means the price includes all meals and entertainment.
Downtown – where most locals live and offers vacation rentals. Great for budget travellers.
However, you can find hotels and vacation rentals in both areas anyway.
Personally, I find it too overcrowded for my liking. But others love the busyness and interaction.
A haven that includes lagoon style infinity pool, pergola topped Bali beds, an artificial reef and Maya themed spa. The main shopping and nightlife area are 10min away by taxi.
Best things to do:
- Take the 20-minute ferry to Isla Mujeres and swim at Playa Norte (North Beach), considered one of the best beaches in the world.
- With Playa del Carmen only 40minutes away, it is easy to do a day trip to this quaint coastal village. You could also add a ride on the ferry to do some snorkelling in Cozumel. Departs hourly.
- If you’re not planning on splitting your holiday to include a stay at Playa del Carmen, then its worth booking on a tour to the ancient Mayan pyramid and ruins of Chichen Itza. It’s a 30 minute longer drive from Cancun compared to Playa del Carmen. About 3 hours each way on a tour bus. But totally worth it.
- Or head further south to visit the ruins and turquoise beach of Tulum.
How to get there:
The most convenient way is by air to Cancun International Airport.
There are many ways to get from the airport to your hotel.
- ADO bus service takes you directly to their bus station in downtown. Then you’ll need to take a taxi to your hotel.
- The most popular option is the official Shared Shuttles. They drop off to all major hotels in Cancun, starting from USD10. It is recommended to pre-book as they fill up fast.
- Regular taxis are not permitted to drive into Cancun airport. However, you can use the private taxi service by booking inside the terminal first.
- Some hotels provide their own airport shuttle service. So do check the details at the time of booking your hotel.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN – quieter coastal town
A 40-minute drive south of Cancun brings you to the quaint coastal town of Playa del Carmen. This is the place for something a little quieter than Cancun but still has a vibrant town.
When I first visited Playa in the nineties, it was a quiet fishing village. It also happens to be the boarding point to get to Cozumel. But the tourists from Cancun fell in love with its village charm and so more hotels and restaurants began to open. But not in the same design as Cancun.
Playa has great mixture of a bustling downtown area with beautiful surrounding landscapes. The best of both worlds – the Caribbean vibe and civilisation.
Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) is a lively pedestrian outdoor mall that consists of shops, restaurants, bars and dance clubs. More bars than clubs, which is opposite to Cancun's set up. Great for bar hopping or listening to live music. One block away and you can escape by hanging out at the beach. Not much snorkelling as in Cozumel. Personally I didnt think the town beach was nicer than Cozumel but the water was still inviting.
Additionally, its also the base to explore natural wonders and archaeological finds of Mexico.
Where to stay:
Located right on the beach and just steps away from 5th Avenue. Perfect if you still want to be close to action and not have to catch taxi’s every day from the more secluded resorts further down the coast.
Best things to do:
- A foodie's paradise. Choose a different restaurant/café each day to sample all the flavours. So many options to choose from, that look 5 star but at cheaper prices than Cancun.
- Take the ferry across to Cozumel to roam on your own or take a snorkelling tour. The first class snorkelling experiences in pristine waters is much better than in Playa.
- Visit nearby nature water theme parks such as Xel-Ha or Xcaret. You can snorkel or float down rivers and through caverns. Or partake in adventure activities such zip lining, cliff jumping or snorkelling. Please don’t wear sunscreen, as it adds to the poor visibility in the water.
- Tulum ruins and beach is only an hour away. Scroll down for more info on Tulum.
- The highlight for me was visiting the ancient Mayan ruin of Chichen Itza. It’s a 2-3 hour drive away.
- Visit some amazing cenotes (sinkholes filled with water) such as;
Cenote Azul – open air swimming.
Gran Cenote – closer to Tulum, contains caves, caverns as well as open air swimming.
Cenote Suytun – the most spectacular with light beaming down through the roof to a circular platform below. Some tours to Chichen Itza will include a visit to this cenote.
Coba cenotes – combine it with a tour to the Coba ruins.
How to get there:
- ADO bus service – the cheapest way to get from Cancun airport or central Cancun (near Puerto Cancun) to Playa Del Carmen. Buses run every hour.
- Shared shuttle bus services, such as Happy Shuttle, offer to share the cost with people arriving at the same time as you. A more economical way for a door-to-door service.
- Take a taxi or arrange a private transfer.
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COZUMEL – pure bliss island getaway
From the beaches of Playa Del Carmen, you’ll see the island of Cozumel floating on the horizon. A perfect island getaway for those who like quieter, more relaxing pace for their vacation.
Cozumel’s main attractions are its untouched secluded beaches, pristine diving/snorkelling and beautiful island scenery. I have to say that the beaches are far more breath-taking than Playa Del Carmen beaches. Crystal clear water coloured in different shades of blue.
It's also a docking port for many cruise line companies. Pre-Covid times, about 600 ships a year docked here. The port town receives most of the cruise ship passengers while others go on tours. But before the evening falls, they have all boarded their ships and have sailed away.
The island is mostly underdeveloped, as the coastline has avoided the transformation of Cancun’s mega hotels that line the coast. But that’s why I love it so much.
Rent a scooter/jeep and explore the other side of the island for the most beautiful, pristine beaches you’ll find in the Caribbean. Or simply relax in your all-inclusive hotel all day. These hotels have a much more laid-back vibe than Playa Del Carmen hotels. And because they are more spaced out along the west coast, it really does feel like you’re on a secluded island holiday.
However, if you want a little action, you can either grab a taxi or stay in the main port town area where there is a selection of chilled out café’s, restaurants, bars plus jewellery and souvenir shops. No clubbing here. Weekends are livelier but during the week things tend to quiet down by 11pm.
Where to stay:
As Cozumel is more laid back, it lacks the huge glamorous resorts of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. But there are still a couple of 5 star quality hotels intermingled with 3 star hotels and apartments.
A beachfront, adults only resort. I like this the best due to its low-key architecture and swinging hammocks everywhere. I avoid the high rise, monster hotels. It is 12km from the town centre, so total seclusion.
Best things to do:
- Playa Mia is a beach park, complete with pools, water slides, kayaks, pedal boats, sail boats and reef snorkelling straight from the beach.
- For something lower key when you have limited time, my favourite was Playa Azul Beach Club. Little rock coves with crystal clear, light blue water. Perfect for swimming or reef snorkelling. Has a restaurant and bar. About a 15min drive north of town centro.
- Snorkelling tours to :
Palancar – features caves, ledges and the widest variety of marine life. Perfect for divers.
Colombia – better spot for manta rays .
El Cielo – usual reef life plus starfish & stingrays. Great area for beginners.
- Rent a jeep or scooter and explore the entire island. Takes approx. 2 hours to do a complete circuit. Longer if you decided to swim at every secluded beach you see! Stop at places such as Punta Sur Eco Park (explore the lighthouse and nature), El Mirador (viewing platform) and San Gervasio. It’s the largest of the Mayan ruins on the island. Learn about Mayan history at the temple of moon goddess Ixchel.
- Beach hopping on the east side of the island. It is the windy side of the island, so expect lots of waves. The main tourist beaches are along the southern end of the east coast. These include Playa San Martin, Chen Rio (the calmest of all the eastern beaches) and Playa Box. They have small souvenir and snack shops, toilets and beach umbrellas. But if you want to get away from crowded beaches, travel further north, past the island halfway mark. Punta Morena or my favourite, Playa Bonita are magical. Alternatively, while you’re visiting the Celarain lighthouse, walk for about 10 minutes away from the beach cafes for your own private beach. You’ll find super soft white sand and perfect crystal-clear waters.
- Explore the jungle areas on an adventurous ATV tour (same as a quad bike).
- If you’re not staying in Playa del Carmen, you can still do a tour to the important Mayan Tulum ruins from Cozumel. It's usually a 5-hour tour, incorporating ferry and bus transfers.
How to get there:
Two ferry companies depart daily from Playa Del Carmen for Cozumel:
You can either prebook or just show up on the day!
Alternatively, you can fly directly into Cozumel airport.
TULUM – rustic and cultural
Tulum is a one-hour drive south of Playa Del Carmen. It has a more rustic vibe, due to being a former fisherman’s village.
It doesn't have much of a nightlight, as its more focused on sites of cultural significance. The most notable and impressive being the ancient walled Mayan city of Tulum. It sits on a hilltop, overlooking an amazing coastline. Take some time to relax in the white sandy coves and cool down in the crystal clear light blue waters.
Along Tulum’s shoreline you’ll find some upmarket beach bars, clubs & restaurants. Plus, water activities such as snorkelling and jet skiing. However, not as abundant as in Playa Del Carmen.
Where to stay:
There are two distinct areas to choose from. Choose Tulum town (pueblo):
- If you’re on a budget and want cheaper accommodation, ranging from budget to moderate.
- Experience authentic local vibe.
- Use as a base to explore surrounding areas such as Mayan ruins and cenotes.
I can't decide between the following two choices:
Located away from the busy main street and in the quietness of the jungle area. But still within walking distance to town centre. Separate villas in a jungle setting truly feels like you’re in a different world.
Alternatively, choose Tulum beach:
- If you want to spend most days relaxing on the beach
- Stay in a boutique hotel or resort (if money is not an issue!) that line the long stretch of beach.
- Stylish party scene, fine dining restaurants and boutique shopping.
The Tulum beaches can be broken down into 2 main areas:
- North Beach Zone (near the ruins) – quieter, therefore suits romantics. It includes Ruins Beach, Paraiso Beach and Las Palmas Beach.
- South Beach Zone – long stretch of wide sandy beaches lined with resorts. Therefore it attracts families and yoga enthusiasts. It will be difficult to find a public beach but some resorts offer access to their beach clubs...for a fee!
Located on probably the nicest beach in the area. Laze around on the beach beanbags or hang in the hammock on your private terrace. Some rooms have a hot tub. This one is my favourite.
It is too far to walk between the town and beach, however its roughly an US$8 taxi ride. Alternatively, split your hotel booking between both places.
Things to do:
- Of course, you must visit the ancient ruins of Tulum at Playa Ruinas (Ruins Beach). Rent a bike from town or grab a short taxi ride.
- Visit Sistema Dos Ojos, a flooded cave system with 28 cenotes (natural sinkholes with pools of water).
- Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to thousands of species of flora and fauna. Partake in a nature encounter tour, snorkel along the coral reef or float along the Mayan Canal. Check out Secret Beach.
How to get there:
- Private Airport Shuttle buses from Cancun airport can be pricey. I would only use this option if you can share the cost with a group of travellers. Takes about 1.5 hours.
- Only private taxis are allowed into Cancun airport, which means they cost more than the ‘regular’ taxis you will find in the streets. Buy your tickets from the booths inside terminal 2 or 3 before heading to the cab.
- ADO bus service offers several direct trips from Cancun airport to Tulum. Takes about 2 hours.
- If the times for the direct service don’t suit your flight arrival time, ADO provides connecting services at Playa Del Carmen.
- For a cheaper and more authentic experience, you can take the local Mayab bus from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. They will drop you off anywhere you want along the way.
- Alternatively, from Playa del Carmen, you can take a colectivo, which are mini buses and depart once full. You can find them on Calle 2, between 15th and 20th Ave.
- Tulum Centro is serviced by taxi’s to then take you to your hotel. But be sure to negotiate your price first as they are not metered.
- Some hotels offer their own hotel shuttle buses from either Cancun airport or Playa Del Carmen. So check the details at time of booking.
Best time to visit the Yucatan Peninsula
The winter season, from December to April is best as there is minimal rainfall and perfect temperatures. March to June is the perfect weather for snorkelling in Cozumel.
You can still travel during the rainy season, from May to October. You’ll experience higher temperatures due to humidity. However, the plus side is less tourists and lower prices.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum and Cozumel – what's your choice
Truthfully, I don’t think you could have a bad vacation in any of these destinations. But it will make for a super holiday to choose the place that best fits your personality and style.
However, the clear winner for me is Playa del Carmen. It’s a central spot where you get the best of everything. It’s the jumping point to explore nature parks in the north. Explore the world-famous archaeological sites to the west. Ferry across west to Cozumel for some world class snorkelling. And head south to the wonders of Tulum (nature and archaeological sites). Then every other day, totally escape by laying on any of its long sandy white beaches.
Plus, it’s a short ferry ride to experience the world-famous snorkelling sites of Cozumel. Ideally, if you have a longer vacation time, I would suggest dividing your time between Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel so you can experience the island life too.
I share more tips on the Mexico travel tips page, which you might find useful.
So, which of Mexico’s Riviera ‘big four’ destinations would you choose – Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum or Cozumel?