Last updated on January 2, 2023 by Wandering our World
The Yucatan Peninsula has long been a popular destination in Mexico, and no wonder. Known for its expansive white sand beaches, rich history, culture, and diverse ecosystem, it’s a vacation spot that attracts millions of tourists year after year.
Yet while the popular coastal destination of Cancun may be the most well known, the Yucatan is also home to several under-the-rader island destinations – two of which, Cozumel and Holbox, offer equally incredible but different experiences.
If you’ve decided a Mexican island destination is your next bucket-list item to check off, the big question then becomes: how do you pick between the two? Well, that’s where we come in!
Cozumel, which has been developed significantly in recent years to cater to a tourism influx to the area, will offer a more modern, developed feel alongside gorgeous – but at times busy – beaches. On the other hand, Holbox offers a less crowded, off-the-beaten-path ambience and so will be the better choice for those wanting a quieter, less touristy Mexican experience.
If both of these destinations sound good to you and you still can’t decide, let’s break it down further and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes each place unique.
Below we look at which has the best beaches, nightlife, activities and far more. All so you can make the right decision!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Has Better Beaches?
- Which Has Better Activities?
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Safer?
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Experiencing The Yucatan’s Culture?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview Of Cozumel vs Holbox
Cozumel: A Quick Overview
Cozumel is an island located off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea. It has crystalline waters and vibrant coral reefs and is a popular spot for snorkeling and diving.
The island has a rich Mayan history too, with several ancient ruins and cultural sites to visit.
For nightlife and dining, Cozumel has a range of options, including beach clubs, bars, and restaurants serving traditional Mexican cuisine.
Holbox: A Quick Overview
Holbox, like Cozumel, is also located on the Yucatan Peninsula, and is known for its laid-back atmosphere and natural beauty thanks to its stunning sandy beaches and turquoise waters.
The island is also home to a variety of wildlife, including flamingos, pelicans, and sea turtles, making it a great destination for nature lovers.
In terms of nightlife, Holbox is more low-key than Cozumel, with a handful of bars and restaurants offering live music and other entertainment.
The cuisine across most of the island is simple, authentic, and delicious.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
The first thing to consider when you are planning a trip is how you will get there!
Cozumel, unlike Holbox, has its own international airport, and it is easy to fly from numerous US hubs such as Houston, DFW, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami, making it ideal for travelers who want a low-stress, low-complication travel experience.
If you are making Cozumel part of a longer trip through the Yucatan, you can easily take a beautiful, 45 minute ferry from Cancun and enjoy the views from the water. The ferry leaves every hour from the beach of Playa del Carmen and is relatively inexpensive for those just wanting a day trip.
Access to Holbox is not necessarily more difficult nor stressful than travel to Cozumel, but there are no direct flights to the island, and so travel can require a bit more planning, and a few additional legs of travel. However that little extra effort also means it’s less busy – which is an added bonus.
The most convenient option is to fly into Cancun and travel from there to the Holbox ferry, located in Chiquila. Chiquila is about 3 hours away by whatever method of ground travel you choose.
If renting a car is your style, you can rent directly from any of the companies in the Cancun airport. If you prefer to save money and not stress about driving, taking a bus from the ADO terminal in downtown Cancun will be your best option.
The ferry to Holbox leaves approximately every hour, starting at 5:00am and ending at 8:30am.
Ultimately, while Holbox is not hard to get to, it is more involved, and thus may not be ideal for those traveling with large groups.
Which Has Better Beaches?
Cozumel’s beaches are primarily known for being wide and sandy, with tropical vegetation shading the edges – perfect for getting away from the strong midday sun.
Many of the beach spots can be quite busy though as Cozumel sees a fair amount of day trippers from Cancun. Secluded beaches can be sought out with a little extra effort, but beware, at peak season, others might have the same idea!
Luckily nearly all the beaches have facilities like showers, bathrooms, and restaurants, and the most popular beaches are hubs for things like water sports, snorkeling, and swimming. The water is almost always as calm as can be, so if surfing is your thing, Cozumel might not be the right place for you!
Holbox, similarly to Cozumel, has no shortage of beautiful, wide, white sand beaches.
In contrast, though, you are more likely to find less people from the mainland on the beaches at Holbox, so subsequently there are a greater number of secluded beaches that will make for a more intimate experience.
Additionally, Holbox, as part of the Yum Balum Nature reserve, offers a chance to get up close and personal with the flamingos that flock there seasonally, along with crocodiles, pelicans, and other local wildlife.
Cozumel: The Beaches
The main beaches in Cozumel are Playa San Francisco, Playa Palancar, and Playa Mia. For those looking to experience a vibrant nightlife, meet new people, and enjoy beachside restaurants, these beaches have it all.
Playa San Francisco, located on the eastern side of Cozumel, was one of the first established beaches in Cozumel, and so it’s the most developed, offering numerous restaurants and bars, a beachside pool, and one of the most spectacular sunsets the island has to offer!
The beach is also shallow until it drops off, but it has a rocky bottom, and is not the best if you want to snorkel.
For snorkeling, Playa Palancar will be more up your alley, as it is on the western side of the island and has access to two beautiful reefs full of vibrant aquatic species.
Playa Palancar will be quieter than Playa San Francisco, and can be a pleasant break from the tourist crowds elsewhere on the island.
Finally, Playa Mia offers multiple days of family fun, as it has an entire Beach Park, with a giant water slide, kayaks for rent, float pools, and a spa for tired parents!
Holbox: The Beaches
The first thing you might notice if you look at a map of Holbox is that the island is long and thin, with the eastern beach running nearly the entire uninterrupted length of the island!
Because of this, Holbox is one of the only places in the Yucatan where you can actually see the sun set over the ocean, making for a stunning (and romantic if you’re so inclined!) view.
The main beaches in Holbox are Punta Mosquito, where you can walk out to a large sandbar and view flamingos; Playa Punta Coco, a quiet, secluded beach with incredible bioluminescence at night and no hotels or restaurants; and Playa Holbox, which has hotels and restaurants along the beach, along with many other amenities.
While the three beaches above may be the most well known beaches, it is worth noting that Holbox, unlike Cozumel, has endless other private, secluded beaches where you can escape the crowds.
Walk as far as you can along Punta Sinai, the eastern beach, or take a boat out to Isla Holbox beach, a tiny fishing village on the eastern point where you can have fresh-caught ceviche with the locals.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent a 4 wheeler and explore every corner of the island, as the majority of it is accessible by small trails and dirt roads.
Which Has Better Activities?
Both Cozumel and Holbox have no shortage of activities to keep you busy if you get tired of sunning yourself on the beach.
Cozumel: The Activities
Cozumel, due partly to its development as a tourist hub, offers numerous activities in which you can both explore the unique characteristics of the island, and learn more about its culture.
That being said, many of these activities are guided, and as such can be more expensive and for an independent traveler, perhaps less appealing.
For the culinary minded, Cozumel has options to take cooking classes in either traditional Mayan and Mexican cuisine too! Or, if you have a sweet tooth, you can learn to make chocolate through a chocolate workshop, where you get to take home your finished project!
For those intrigued by the rich history of the island, there are two different archaeological sites, (one of which is still active!) that offer tours and a history lesson.
Along these lines, pearl farming, which is a burgeoning industry in the Caribbean, has taken root in Cozumel, and you can visit a working pearl farm to learn about how this fascinating industry works.
And finally, if you feel like getting away from the island and doing some ocean sightseeing, a veritable plethora of boat tours are available to take you out to the lagoons, islands, and reefs that surround Cozumel.
Holbox: The Activities
Holbox differs primarily from Cozumel in that it doesn’t offer many non-nature activities. So while you could still find a cooking class in Holbox if you desired it, most activities are oriented around showing tourists the wonders of Holbox’s diverse ecosystem.
Numerous small guiding companies have sprouted up, and you can easily take a reasonably priced private boat tour of the island and its surroundings.
These boat tours include a local guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of local flora and fauna, the option to learn to fish and then eat your catch, tours of Isla Pajaro for avid bird watchers, and an opportunity to swim in a “cenote” (Spanish for fresh-water spring).
The natural wonders don’t stop there.
Holbox is known for having bioluminescent beaches, where the water sparkles and glows with each gentle wave due to the tiny bioluminescent creatures in the sea.
You do not need a guide to experience Holbox’s iridescent waters, but you can hire one if you wish to go out and snorkel at night along the lit-up reef. This is something you can only experience in Holbox!
Holbox is also home to a few other unique animals–whale sharks and giant manta rays. If you’re intrigued and fascinated by these gentle giants of the sea, you can even take a boat out and a local guide will take you to their hangouts to swim with them.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
While Holbox should not be ruled out immediately, it may already be clear that Cozumel is more family friendly.
For those with young kids, you’re more likely to find child care in Cozumel if you need it, kid-friendly activities like water parks, and accommodations large enough for the whole family.
Additionally, travel to Cozumel is easier, which makes sense for those trying to plan travel with kids in tow. You are also more likely to find other families there, allowing kids to play together, and parents to be able to socialize with other adults.
That’s not to say Holbox isn’t a great vacation for families, it can be too. Although it may suit families with older kids who will appreciate more relaxed nature activities.
Which Is Safer?
While traveling internationally is never without some degree of risk, the high influx of tourism to the Yucatan has meant that overall both Cozumel and Holbox are quite safe.
There are a few things worth considering for both, however.
Cozumel, as a tourist hub, has more public service employees like police, security, and emergency services.
That being said, petty crime is known to follow tourist destinations, and especially in areas with a high number of bars and vivid nightlife, pickpockets and petty theft are known to happen.
Overall, though, Cozumel has bumped up security in recent years, and the island is known for being quite safe even after dark.
Holbox, too, is quite safe. However, there are few police and emergency services, as the island is so small.
The crime rate is still very low, and what little crime does occur is between locals and does not involve tourists.
Plus as the island depends very much on tourism for its livelihood, it is quite unlikely that anything adverse would happen.
Still, because of the overall lack of police presence, most guides to Holbox recommend not traveling outside of the town center after dark – not necessarily because of crime, but simply because should an incident happen, it would be hard to get help to respond.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
For those wanting a vibrant nightlife, Cozumel may have Holbox beaten.
The town center in Cozumel, or “zocalo”, is Parque Benito Juarez. In this downtown area, there is a scene for everyone.
Those who want to dance will find that there is a rotating salsa night, with the local bars alternating who hosts. Club experiences can be found at the trendy Hemingway, which has rotating DJ’s each night.
Wet Wendy’s has live music and a margarita list a mile long, and if you want a mix between the two, Beachclub Buccano’s might be up your alley with its fresh menu and rotating music.
In comparison, Holbox might seem incredibly quiet. That being said, Holbox is not without its own style of nightlife.
Instead of clubs with DJ’s, you’ll find restaurants that offer live music from local bands, and even after you’ve finished eating you can hang out and enjoy the music for as long as it goes on.
Bar Tribu and The Hot Corner are both well known for their delicious food and ambience too.
Overall, Holbox is better known when it comes to nightlife for long walks on the beach to look at the bioluminescence, and chill nights spent listening to the sounds of the waves, rather than clubs and parties.
Which Is Better For Experiencing The Yucatan’s Culture?
Whether you’re a solo traveler, a couple, or a family, if experiencing the culture of this area is important to you, Holbox will be your best bet.
The locals of Holbox are known for being strong and brave, and they have fiercely protected their island to preserve its natural beauty and culture.
That is not to say they are not welcoming–they are known for being exceptionally so–but Holbox remains steadfastly true to its native culture and so is the perfect place for those wanting a quiet, more culturally rich experience.
Where To Stay According To your Budget
Thankfully in both locations you can find excellent hotels close to the beaches to suit a range of budgetary requirements.
So you know what to expect, we’re going to highlight a few of the best options from each location by budget to give you an idea of the best available for each price point:
Cozumel: The Hotels
Budget: The funky Villas El Encanto Cozumel is close to Cozumel downtown, has a lovely garden, sun terrace with swimming pool and a palapa roof lounge. It’s a great spot, and highly affordable too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Tennis courts. Check. Swimming pools. Check. Private Beach. Check. Gorgeous Caribbean waters. Check. Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa is one of those places we all want to check into at some point in our life. See photos and rates!
Holbox: The Hotels
Shoestring: Located in the middle of Holbox Island’s town and with Playa Holbox a mere 100 meters away, Hotelito Villas Holbox is a great budget-friendly option.
The hotel has a tour desk to help you book excursions, and they can make the arrangements for an airport transfer. See photos and rates here!
Budget: Brisa Del Mar, located 300 meters from Playa Holbox and 2.5 kilometers from Punta Coco, offers comfortable rooms with all modern conveniences.
The location is excellent, and the restaurant next door does two-for-one margaritas and superb pork and octopus tacos. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: Tierra del Mar is an adults-only property that features a gorgeous outdoor pool and sits right beside the beach.
It’s also close to the town center (a three-minute walk), the rooms feature a clean and modern design, and the service is exceptional. See photos and rates here!
Which Is Cheaper?
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably deduced that a stay in Holbox, even in peak season, will be cheaper than a stay in Cozumel.
Ultimately, Holbox offers much more of an independent, laid-back atmosphere, and so you’re less likely to have to pay for guided tours and luxury accommodations.
Cozumel, as it has become more of a popular destination, has prices that befit its very modern and more western amenities.
While it’s not impossible to find cheap accommodations in Cozumel, those on a budget will have more options in Holbox.
Holbox vs Cozumel: Which Is The Better Choice?
Ultimately, while Cozumel and Holbox are both wonderful, unique destinations, several important factors distinguish them from each other.
If you are new to traveling internationally, Cozumel might be the best choice for you. But if you’re an experienced traveler looking to guide yourself independently through the Yucatan, Holbox will have fewer crowds and offer a less resort-heavy experience.
For families, Holbox will have fewer amenities and less activities, making Cozumel the obvious winner for those with children to entertain.
Nature lovers will find Holbox a veritable paradise at every turn, and birdwatchers especially will have a field day at Isla Pajaro.
Ultimately to make the decision you have to ask yourself: are you wanting a stress-free island experience that offers all the bells and whistles and a vibrant nightlife? Or, does exploring a little known corner of the Yucatan, with quiet beaches and endless wildlife sound more up your alley?