Last updated on January 4, 2023 by Wandering our World
Sunny Mexico welcomes tourists year-round with swanky resorts, delectable cuisines, and pristine beaches. And the gorgeous getaways of Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen are two of the best vacation spots around.
These two have a lot in common – mainly timeless Mexican charm and exquisite beaches – but the fact remains that they also have some significant differences which makes them unique vacation destinations in their own right.
For example more lively Playa Del Carmen has excellent nightlife, busy beaches, and a budget-friendly dining and shopping scene that’s well-suited for party people.
Cozumel, on the other hand, has a warmer, more laid-back ambiance. With its unspoiled beaches and pristine shores, it is a treat for nature lovers, snorkelers, and couples who wish for privacy and a more intimate setting.
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to how these two Mexican beach destinations are different, and similar.
That’s where we can help! Below we look at which has the better beaches, food, which is safer, what unique activities are on offer in each and lots more. All so you can make the right vacation decision!
- A Quick Overview Of Playa Del Carmen
- A Quick Overview Of Cozumel
- Which Has Better Beaches?
- Which Has Better Activities?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Which Has A Better Food Scene?
- Which Is Safer?
- Which is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview Of Playa Del Carmen
Let’s talk a bit about Playa Del Carmen (aka Playa and PDC) first. This coastal resort town is tucked along the Riviera Maya strip on Mexico’s Caribbean shoreline in the state of Quintana Roo.
Playa is known for its ritzy boutiques, dynamic ambiance, energizing nightlife, and heavenly beaches.
It has a traditional Mexican vibe with plenty of options for everyone. Whether you like to laze around on the beach all day or enjoy all the fun and action of this busy beach city, Playa Del Carmen has it all.
The city is blessed with lush inland jungles (with lots of wildlife as we’ve written about before) as well as some historic spots like the ancient ruins of Coba Tower. With a variety of lively bars in the area, you can also expect an endless supply of margaritas to pair with the fun vibes of the city.
All of that – and we haven’t even talked about the beaches yet!
And those beaches are pretty special too – with stunning sandy shores and many fun water activities, PDC is a great destination for all the sunseekers out there.
A Quick Overview Of Cozumel
The island city of Cozumel is a calm, easy-going holiday destination that will nourish any introverted parts of your soul.
Also part of the Quintana Roo state, it is located opposite Playa Del Carmen off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
It is mostly undeveloped compared to Playa Del Carmen, although it does sometimes get busy due to the cruise ships that drop in. But still, you will find many pristine beaches and super clear waters here.
For this reason, Cozumel is a heaven for divers! The island also sits right on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef which is the 2nd largest coral reef system in the world.
So if you’re a scuba diver or snorkeler, there’s no doubt that Cozumel will be the better choice for you.
You will find the best diving spots around the island at the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. Besides the enthralling coral reef system, you will also find the submerged sculptures of Museo Subacuatico de Arte there!
The wonderful visibility also allows for a friendly bonding time with the playful manatees, sea turtles, and dolphins as you explore their underwater world.
So as you may have noticed, Playa Del Carmen tends to offer more fun on land while Cozumel has most of its charm hidden under the blanket of the Caribbean Sea. But both have equally gorgeous beaches.
Now let’s dive a little deeper and explore what it’s really like to vacation in these two destinations, so we can find out once and for all which one is perfect for you.
Which Has Better Beaches?
While both Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel have their fair share of majestic white-sand beaches, there’s a couple of striking differences between the two.
For one, as Playa is a resort city, its shorelines are studded with resorts, bars and restaurants, so it tends to feel a bit more developed and built up compared to Cozumel. Although that does mean that facilities are never too far away, which is always a bonus.
On top of that, the more undeveloped Cozumel also tends to have much clearer waters, making it a wonderful place for a swim and getting those all important Instagram pics.
Visit this island and prepare to be mesmerized by a thousand breathtaking shades of blue. And with plenty of marine life visible even without a deep-sea dive on the island, it really is a fantastic place to visit and snorkel.
Cozumel also tends to have more relaxed and tranquil beaches than Playa Del Carmen, with plenty of opportunities for long walks on the sand.
Our tip: the west side of the island has some of the best beaches, with very little seaweed to hinder your feet when burying your toes in the sand.
However if you are looking for a more bustling beach vibe, and don’t mind the crowds, Playa Del Carmen offers a more party-friendly beach atmosphere.
There are numerous beach clubs and vendors in PDC, and plenty of opportunities to socialise on the beach or in the nearby beach bars.
|Playa Del Carmen||Cozumel|
|Offers a more lively beach vacation||Tranquil and calmer beach vacation|
|Less clear waters but many facilities near by||Less developed and excellent water clarity|
|Party vibe with beach clubs and bars||Fantastic spot for diving and snorkeling with the |
2nd largest coral reef system in the world
|Harder to spot marine life in the waters||Marine life is visible even without diving|
Which Has Better Activities?
With many diving sites and boat tours, Cozumel is obviously the better choice when it comes to underwater activities. But Playa Del Carmen, on the other hand, offers a fantastic mix of both water and land activities, as well as plenty of fun to be had in the evening.
You can expect a lot of similar activities in both destinations like kayaking, snorkeling, paddleboarding, and diving too.
However Playa Del Carmen has more activities to keep children busy (like the fun-filled Xcaret and Xplor parks – more on those below), so is likely the better option for a family trip.
Below we’ll highlight some of the most unique activities offered by both. Then you can see which destination will suit you best in terms of activities!
Cozumel: The Activities
Below are five of the best activities that are unique to Cozumel.
1. Punta Sur Ecological Park
Located along the southern point of the island, the Punta Sur Eco Park covers 247 acres of unspoiled coastline holding beautiful coral reefs, natural lagoons, and wonderful low forest ecosystems.
The Eco Park has a very soothing vibe to it, letting you really get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
A lovely lighthouse adds to its romantic charm and poses as the perfect spot to get down on one knee under a moonlit sky. It also has a nice little museum, and you can explore some Mayan ruins that sit by the beach.
2. Reefs & Diving Spots
It goes without saying that the diving spots of Cozumel are unparalleled.
Some noteworthy mentions include the Palancar Reef with coral mounts, the Santa Rosa Wall where you can see huge eagle rays, the Columbia Reef with turtles and sharks, the Chankanaab Reef with a beautifully haunting shipwreck, and last but not least – the El Cielo.
A popular snorkeling spot, the shallow sandbar of El Cielo is also home to huge starfish!
3. Cozumel Submarine Expedition
This is the only submarine in Mexico solely dedicated to tourists! It takes you 100 feet beneath the sea for 2 hours in a one-of-a-kind expedition.
You will see the Felipe Xicotencatl sunken ship, cross the vertical drop of “La Pared” which spirals down to 2,000 ft. deep, and will spot a remarkable array of marine life along the way – you never know, the little mermaid might be tapping on your window at some point! Definitely a memorable trip for kids.
4. Isla Pasion
Located north of Cozumel, Isla Pasion is a kilometer-long island that gives you the ultimate private island experience.
Even though it’s only 15 minutes away from downtown, this unspoiled island has a pristine, easy-going vibe where you get to immerse yourself in its azure waters and sparkling shores.
Enjoy an undisturbed tropical vacation with hammocks, palm trees, lounge beds, picnic spots, and exciting beach games with loved ones.
5. Cozumel Pearl Farm
The quaint family-owned and operated pearl farm is located on the north shore of Cozumel within a picturesque white sand beach.
It is actually the only active pearl farm in the Caribbean, and there’s a lot to learn and explore there. This protected area is only accessible by boat and is surrounded by the mangrove lagoon ecosystem – so even getting there is a memorable adventure!
It is a great family-friendly spot too as you will learn about responsible traveling and the importance of preserving natural landscapes.
The farm only welcomes small groups so you can enjoy quality family time there without huge crowds, as your kids experience sustainable ecotourism and learn something truly valuable along the way.
Playa Del Carmen: The Activities
Below are six of the best activities that are unique to Playa Del Carmen.
1. Rio Secreto
Just as its name suggests, Rio Secreto is possibly one of the best kept secrets in Playa. It literally translates to ‘Secret River’ and is indeed an underground river with a magical collection of caves.
This otherworldly tourist attraction has deeply colored rock formations that contrast to its vibrant azure waters. You can even take a dip in the river!
Many tourists regard this as the highlight of their stay in Playa del Carmen. And if you take a guided tour, you will learn lots about the natural history of the land as well as about the wise and sage Mayans.
2. 5th Avenue
5th Avenue definitely deserves a top spot in any PDC attractions list. It’s a very popular tourist spot flooded with bars, cafés, restaurants, high-end retailers, street entertainment, and a lot of local charm. This three-mile stretch of pedestrian walkway seems to have a new surprise with each step you take.
It is also known as Quinta Avenida, and when visiting keep your eyes peeled for painted mimes, fire breathers, break dancers, and musicians that will get your feet tapping!
You’ll also get a chance to mingle with the locals and shop at some flea market-style stalls with locally made items perfect to take home as souvenirs.
Welcome to the Disneyworld of Mexico! Xcaret is a huge outdoor eco-park with a lovely beach and a variety of outdoor adventures to enjoy.
It has an aviary, a turtle sanctuary and a dolphin aquarium, and you can enjoy a variety of experiences at the park like shark swims, stingray interactions, dolphin encounters, speedboat rides, scuba tours, and live performances and events delving into the Mayan’s history.
There are a multitude of dining options too, impressive exhibits, and water activities at the beach to enjoy with the whole family. It’s a fantastic place to keep kids busy.
Xplor is another adventurous outdoor playground in Playa similar to Xcaret. This fun-filled park has a wide range of outdoor activities to get your adrenaline pumping, including ziplining, rafting, and spelunking.
You can also explore the caves and caverns and enjoy underground river swimming, or go on a unique hammock ride ending in a cenote! Kids love the park and most activities are safe for children 5 and older.
5. Coralina Daylight Club
Offering a unique daylight club experience, Coralina takes inspiration from Ibiza beaches and Las Vegas pool parties.
This is the perfect spot for extroverts who like to party through the day while dancing to their favorite beats. Day drinks are readily available and you have direct access to the beach and pools, as well as private cabana areas and restaurants.
6. Tulum Ruins
Just an hour south of Playa lies the Tulum Ruins. With a gorgeous beachfront location, these Mayan ruins are an insightful spot where you can learn lots about the region’s ancient history.
It also offers some of the best ocean views around, and you can enjoy the beach afterwards!
And if you fancy more culture, you can do a day trip to one of Mexico’s most famous Mayan sites – Chichen Itza – which is a drive away from the city.
|Playa Del Carmen||Cozumel|
|Lots of activities that’ll suit extroverts||Lots of activities that’ll appeal to introverts|
|Busy beaches with party vibes||Secluded spots and more laid-back vibes|
|Outdoor activities and fun parks suited for the |
|Offers wholesome and romantic experiences|
|Shopping, eating out, and mingling with locals||Private moments, boat tours, and romantic walks|
Which Has Better Nightlife?
By now it’s probably pretty clear that Playa Del Carmen is a better fit for extroverts and party people, and that’s true for the nightlife scene too.
The nightlife of PDC is far livelier than that of cozy Cozumel. The latter mainly has all-inclusive resorts that people usually don’t leave after dark, whereas Playa Del Carmen has plenty of bars and clubs to hop around into the early hours.
Even so, you will still find some lounge bars and rustic Caribbean clubs in Cozumel with a hot and happening crowd salsa-ing the night away.
So if you enjoy nightlife and want to mingle with like-minded individuals and locals, Playa Del Carmen will be the perfect destination for you and definitely has an upper hand on Cozumel.
Most of the nightclubs in the city are located right on its hot and happening 5th Avenue, but you will find them pretty much everywhere.
Besides the energetic clubs, there are also plenty of wine bars, rooftop bars, breweries, and beach clubs in Playa.
And for those who like to interact with new people and locals, they can head to the beach bars and enjoy the best of both worlds where you’ll find a soothing beach vibe as well as a hip and outgoing club ambiance.
As for where we recommend, The Coco Bongo Show in PDC is a popular all-you-can-drink event which comes to life at night and offers entertainment and drinks to keep you entertained.
|Playa Del Carmen||Cozumel|
|Vibrant nightlife scene||Subdued and more slow-paced|
|Huge variety of nightclubs and bars||A handful of classy lounge bars|
|Beach clubs and live entertainment||Salsa dancing and fewer options|
|Lively and exciting all-you-can-drink Coco Bongo Show||All-inclusive resorts with limited night activities|
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Shoestring: If you’re a backpacker then Hostel Auikyani is not only cheap but great fun! This place has music nights, a friendly vibe and is only one block from the ocean. See photos and rates!
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!
Playa Del Carmen
Shoestring: Hotel Bosque Caribe features tropical gardens with hammocks and an outdoor pool. This budget-friendly choice is conveniently located close to the northern end of Playacar Beach and offers excellent value for money. See photos and rates!
Budget: Also at the northern end of Playacar Beach is the excellent Fiesta Inn. The amenities are fantastic for the price range, with a large rooftop pool and spacious rooms. The location is also convenient for restaurants and shopping. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Valentin Imperial Riviera Maya is one of the top accommodation options in Playa del Carmen, offering luxurious rooms and facilities. Featuring a number of dining and amenity options, this adults-only all-inclusive resort is a must try! See photos and rates!
Which Has A Better Food Scene?
Food plays a big part in making any travel experience worthwhile. After all, traditional dishes are a gateway into exploring any given destination’s culture, heritage, and traditions – and one of the most important experiences you can have during your trip.
While delicious and indulgent Mexican dishes are authentically prepared in both areas, food tends to be a bit pricier in Cozumel – not a huge surprise considering it’s an island.
The many all-inclusive resorts in Cozumel can sometimes take away from the experience of enjoying local cuisines in popular local spots too, although if you want to spend most of your time on vacation in a resort, that’s not going to be an issue.
On the other hand, Playa Del Carmen has a much more affordable food scene with a wider variety of local restaurants to try it out.
No matter what you are craving, you will likely find it at one of the restaurants on lively 5th Avenue. This charming pedestrian strip is also studded with local cafés, plenty of charm and delectable dishes. You can even expect Michelin-star level restaurants there with comparatively affordable prices.
Which Is Safer?
As both Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel are popular tourist destinations, you will find good security in both the places. Yet as Playa is much busier, it is generally considered slightly less safe than Cozumel.
The crime level is also lower in Cozumel, and as the gorgeous all-inclusive resorts and cruise ship excursions are a big attraction for families, it’s a very family friendly location too.
In contrast, with Playa Del Carmen being more of a party destination with activities that last well through the night, safety concerns can be an issue especially for families with small kids.
Traveling to a new and exotic destination always comes with some risks so it’s best to take proper precautions, especially if you like to hang around busy places in the evening.
But if you are looking for a very safe destination to enjoy a stress-free time with your family, Cozumel may be a better option.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
The nearest international airport from Playa Del Carmen is Cancun International Airport (CUN), which is around 45 minutes to an hour away. Luckily it’s cheap and easy to get to PDC from the airport – either via a bus, take or rental car – and you’ll get some nice views on the way!
On the other hand, reaching Cozumel can be more time consuming and a little more costly. You’ll first have to get to Playa Del Carmen from the airport, and then a ferry leaves from there on scheduled timings.
You can either take the Mexico Waterjets or Ultramar – both boats are near enough the same and have a kiosk near the ferry pier.
That said, Cozumel does have its own international airport which carries flights by carriers like American Airlines, Delta, Air Canada and more. There’s even domestic flights from Cancun!
Which Is Cheaper?
In general, Playa Del Carmen is a more affordable destination than Cozumel.
There’s a huge selection of shops, cafés, restaurants, and other activities for tourists in Playa, so naturally that has kept prices lower due to competition. Also, there’s many beachfront resorts in Playa del Carmen so you can have your pick according to your requirements and budget.
Cozumel offers a more secluded and intimate experience. Therefore, the options are more limited and all-inclusive resorts are quite popular.
These resorts are definitely more expensive in comparison, and due to the limited number of resort choices, alongside less local food options, shopping, and tours/activities, Cozumel is a pricier destination than Playa Del Carmen.
Playa Del Carmen vs Cozmel: Which Is The Better Choice?
The answer to that is simple: it really depends on what kind of experience you are looking for.
Playa Del Carmen has arguably better nightlife, a more budget-friendly dining and shopping scene, and a busy city beach vibe that’s well-suited for party lovers and extroverts.
It is a great destination for beach lovers who are looking to indulge in outdoor activities and make new friends – be that locals or fellow tourists.
Cozumel, on the other hand, has a more intimate (romantic almost), laid-back ambiance. With its unspoiled beaches, pristine shores, and fantastic snorkeling it is probably the better choice for nature lovers and couples who want for privacy.
As it tends to feel safer and is less busy, families may also prefer Cozumel to Playa Del Carmen, albeit PDC does have more exciting activity options to keep kids occupied.