Last updated on December 13, 2022 by Wandering our World
The verdant Yucatán Peninsula is home to some of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, including the busy and bustling Cancún and Playa del Carmen. But if you are looking for a more tranquil sojourn in Mexico, you should check out their less-noisy neighbors, the island of Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) and the coastal town of Tulum.
With excellent beaches, diverse flora and fauna, and cobalt blue oceans, you can be sure to enjoy a great vacation in either location, but which one would be perfect for you?
Holbox is an island sitting at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, facing the Gulf of Mexico. The island is approximately 42 kilometres (26 miles) long and 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) wide, and it is separated from the mainland by 10 kilometers of shallow lagoon that is home to flamingos and pelicans.
It’s less busy and less developed than Tulum and is regarded as Mexico’s up and coming destination. So a trip to Holbox and its stunning beaches is a chance to visit this island before the rest of the world hears about it…
Tulum also used to be a quiet fishing village, but has been ‘discovered’ by tourist agencies around the world over the last twenty years.
The town lies to the south of Playa del Carmen and is backed by dense jungle and fronted by the Caribbean Sea.
With historical Mayan ruins, stunning beaches, rainforest trekking and intriguing cenotes to explore, Tulum’s ever-increasing popularity is easy to understand. And it may be the better destination for you if you want to do more than just swim and sunbathe.
Of course that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to how different – and similar – Tulum and Holbox can be.
Luckily we’re going to delve a little deeper into what makes these two Mexican destinations such excellent vacation destinations.
We’ll show you which is better for beaches, watersports, families, digital nomads and far more. As well as show you the highlights of each destination. All to help you decide which one will be perfect for your next tropical getaway.
Let’s get started!
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Best For Watersports?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Is Easier To Get To?
With Mexico’s second busiest airport located in between these two destinations, you should have no issues sourcing a flight to either.
Cancún International Airport (CUN) is around a ninety-minute drive away from Tulum, and about a two-hour drive from the coastal town of Chiquila, where you catch the ferry across to Isla Holbox.
Cancun’s airport is well-served by flights from most major US airports, as well as a few in Canada and also some in South America. European travelers will be pleased to know there are also plenty of direct flights from many European capital cities to Cancun.
Upon arrival in Cancun, you will have to transfer on to your final destination. For Tulum, this is a simple drive down the Yucatan coastline, with buses and private transfers readily available. To reach Isla Holbox, the road option will also involve a short ferry ride out to the island.
Alternatively, you can actually fly from Cancun to Holbox Aerodrome, which is a small, private airport operated by Aerosaab. Holbox Aerodrome has a runway 660 meters long and 12 meters wide, a platform with capacity for up to five light twin-engine aircraft, and a waiting room.
The flight is made by Cessna aircraft, takes around 35 minutes, and affords stunning views over the peninsula and the Caribbean Sea.
Which Is Best For Watersports?
Ocean lovers can rest assured that they will be able to find fantastic water-based activities in both locations.
Tulum and Holbox are both excellent destinations for keen snorkelers, kiteboarders, and paddleboarders, but scuba divers will likely have more to see in Tulum.
Kiteboarding is one activity that is popular in both destinations. You can find schools offering lessons in each location, and the conditions are suitable for all levels. The best time of year for kitesurfing in the area is from December through May.
If you have never tried kitesurfing before, Holbox has great conditions to learn in, with long beaches that are free from rocks and obstructions. The lagoon between the island and the mainland is a great place to learn, and you can also admire the resident flamingos when you need a rest.
For those who enjoy gazing below the waves, there are some excellent snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities between these two destinations.
While divers may prefer the variety of dive sites available in Tulum, Holbox offers the chance to snorkel with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark.
From mid-May to mid-September is the best time of year to snorkel with the giant spotty fish at Holbox, but due to their conservation status, scuba diving with them is off limits.
Scuba diving in Tulum gives you the chance to explore the cenotes too. These special sinkholes offer a different underwater perspective, and the topography inside is stunning.
There are also plenty of places to enjoy ocean diving, with day trips out to Cozumel being particularly popular. The dive sites of Cozumel give you the chance to see reef sharks and turtles, and if you’re in luck, you could also have a whale shark cruise on by.
Recommended: Shark Attacks In Mexico
Which Is Better For Beaches?
Thankfully both Holbox and Tulum are blessed with beautiful beaches.
As Tulum is a larger destination, you will find more choices there. Plus the beaches in Tulum tend to have more amenities, but can subsequently be busier than the ones on Holbox too.
You will also be able to find some beautiful stretches of sand on Isla Holbox, many that resemble the tropical beach island paradises we all dream about.
The best way to find out which is the best beach destination for you, is to take a look at a few of the best beach options in both locations:
Holbox: The Beaches
Playa Sinai is a long, unadulterated stretch of sand that dominates the northern shore of Holbox Island. The beach is perfect for topping up the tan in tranquility or for burying your nose in this year’s best-selling books.
The family-friendly waters here are also perfect for swimming and stay shallow for a fair distance off-shore.
Holbox Public Beach is also known as Playa Holbox and is located right next to the town, near the western end of the island.
It is the busiest beach on the island due to its convenient location, and its soft, white sand and clear waters make it a great spot to chill. With the town just behind you, it’s easy to escape the midday heat or find some food and drinks.
Playa Punta Cocos is one of the most incredible beaches in Holbox. Located on the western point of the island, this beach is more secluded, less crowded, and quieter than Playa Holbox.
Its location also makes it a great place for a sunset, and you are then also right next to the bioluminescent lagoon as darkness sets in. We’ll give you more info on the bioluminescence later, but simply put, the ocean lights up at night at the lagoon due to microorganisms giving off light – it’s truly spectacular!
Tulum: The Beaches
Playa Ruínas sits below the Tulum Ruins and affords visitors the chance to sunbathe in the shadows of Tulum’s largest pyramid, El Castillo. The small, soft-sanded beach is backed by dramatic cliffs, and access is via a staircase next to the temples. Culture and sunbathing in one!
Playa Paraíso is one of the area’s best beaches. It has soft sand, calm waters, and is backed by swaying palm trees—a quintessential Caribbean beach.
The beach features an eponymously named beach club and is great for a game of volleyball in the late afternoon before getting your evening started with a sunset beer.
Ahau Tulum Beach is perfect for those who prefer to get involved in beach activities rather than lying supine in the sand. With its dramatic entrance through the open chest of a ten-meter-tall wooden sculpture, you can’t miss this beach.
Ahau Tulum is the home of paddleboarding, kiteboarding, and surfing in Tulum, and you can also find beach clubs and restaurants nearby.
It sums up Tulum’s beach scene well – a stunning stretch of sand but with plenty of amenities and things to do.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
While both locations offer a range of accommodations, Tulum, being the larger destination, has a wider range of choices. However as the more popular destination the hotel prices tend to be higher in Tulum than in the more ‘undiscovered’ Holbox.
However thankfully in both locations you can find excellent hotels close to the beaches to suit a range of budgetary requirements.
Booking in advance is always a good idea, especially if you plan to visit Holbox or Tulum during one of the busier periods.
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 what’s available:
Holbox: The Hotels
Best Budget Option: 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!
Best Mid-Range Option: 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!
Best Luxury Option: 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!
Tulum: The Hotels
Best Budget Option: Decked out in old Tulum style, Caribeña may be a cheap accommodation choice but it doesn’t look it.
You’ll be just a few minutes walk from downtown Tulum, and close to the beach and archeological sites. And when returning back after a day of exploring there’s a lovely outdoor pool to enjoy. See photos and rates here!
Best Mid-Range Option: The beach isn’t the only reason you should visit Tulum, the jungle is just as tropical and picturesque. Nahouse Jungle Lodges give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in Tulum’s breathtaking natural landscape, but in stylish decorated villas with access to a big pool to cool down on warm evenings. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: Everything about Hotel Ma’xanab Tulum is photogenic. From the gorgeously decorated rooms, to the jungle garden. As well as the private beach and huge outdoor pool.
There’s a reason this five-star hotel is so popular – you can even get rooms with their own private infinity pool! See photos and rates here.
Which Is Better For Digital Nomads?
Mexico has become a haven for digital nomads over the last few years, thanks to its tropical climate, affordable cost of living, and to the fact that you can get a 180-day visa upon entry.
While many digital nomads head to the cities of Mexico to take advantage of the more stable Wi-Fi, those who prefer to stay near the ocean have flocked to the Riviera Maya.
Tulum was known as a “hidden gem” amongst Mexican destinations a few years back but is now well and truly on the beaten path. Its growth is not only due to digital nomads, but they have played a part.
The town has good, fast Wi-Fi, and, although costs have risen in recent times, it’s still more affordable than the US. There are a few options for co-working spaces and co-living, and there is a thriving digital nomad community here.
Holbox still has that hidden gem feel that Tulum has recently lost. However, Holbox can’t provide the stable internet connections that Tulum and the bigger cities can.
While it’s still possible to spend a while working remotely from Holbox, if your work requires a strong Wi-Fi connection, Tulum may be the better option.
To get a decent internet connection in Holbox, many opt to purchase a Telcel SIM card and to use data to connect.
Which Is Cheaper?
As Tulum has grown over the last ten years, unfortunately, so have its price tags. The influx of tourists, digital nomads, and Instagrammers have all helped push prices up, and while you can enjoy a budget-friendly vacation here, you will have a much easier time sticking to your budget in Holbox.
You’ll definitely get more bang for your buck in Holbox compared to Tulum. Accommodations, restaurants, and bars will all be that little bit cheaper, while excursions will hurt your wallet less in Holbox too.
Which Is Best For Families?
While vacation time is a great way to spend some quality family time together, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep the kids entertained.
But it will depend on how old your kids are, and what they enjoy doing, if you are to decide which destination is best for you.
So, let’s have a look at some of the family-friendly activities available in each location to help you decide:
Holbox: Family Activities
In addition to the chance to snorkel with whale sharks, Holbox has a few other activities which center around nature.
One such activity is to check out the amazing bioluminescent show in the ocean after dark. In fact the bioluminescence of Holbox is one of the most famous in the world.
You can join a tour to see the bioluminescence which will take you to the best places to see it, and will allow you to learn from the tour guides. Or you can head to the western end of the beach and watch from shore.
The best times to see this are when there is very little light, so you should keep an eye on the phases of the moon and try to plan it for a black moon.
For a daytime activity, simply stroll around the town’s sandy streets admiring the street art. The islanders paint the walls of buildings, doors, alleyways, and fences, and the town is a living art gallery.
It’s a great way to explore the town, and you can also stop for some great snacks and drinks along the way.
If you’re in Holbox for the summer season, from June to September, you can also join a tour to check out the island’s flamingos!
They are migratory birds that arrive in great numbers at that time of year, and a tour to observe them in their natural environment is a must-do. You will also be able to spot pelicans and white egrets among the myriad other bird species in the area.
Tulum: Family Activities
Tulum, as a larger destination, may just edge it in terms of activities available.
The Tulum ruins are the third-most-visited archeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza, and a must-see while you are in town.
Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, and the ruins at Tulum are one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites. After admiring the ruins, you can also relax on the beach below.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s largest parks, covers more than 1 million acres of coastal jungle, and it’s within easy reach of Tulum. The visitor center is a thirty-minute drive south of Tulum, and the park, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, is home to a staggering array of flora and fauna.
But, on vacation, sometimes the kids want a bit of fun rather than an educational experience, and Tulum has a great waterpark where the kids can let loose.
A twenty-minute drive north, towards Playa del Carmen, will bring you to Xel-Ha Park. The park is open between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. each day, and there are plenty of activities to enjoy. Ziplining, snorkeling, water slides, and jungle trails await.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
With both locations being on the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s not a huge difference in the weather patterns that each destination experiences.
The winter is a perfect time of year to head to the Yucatan Peninsula to enjoy its delightful climate though. The average high at this time of the year is between 81.5°F (27.5°C) and 78.5°F (25.8°C).
While both destinations can be busy at this time of year and prices will be at their highest, a trip to this part of the world at this time of year is ideal for those who live in colder climes.
September through November are the quieter months on the peninsula, and at this time of year you will be able to find some great deals on hotel rooms. However, you should also pay attention to hurricane season, which runs from June to November, with a higher likelihood of big storms between August and October.
The spring months, from March through May, are the second-busiest period for tourism in the region. Tulum and Holbox will be a little quieter than during the preceding three months, and you can benefit from slightly lower prices too.
If you are planning on snorkeling with the whale sharks at Holbox, mid-May through mid-September are the best months to be there.
Tulum vs Holbox: Which Is Better?
While both Tulum and Isla Holbox are superb Mexican destinations, which one will be best suited to your vacation plans will depend on you and your tastes.
Both enjoy a superb climate, boast excellent beaches, and have some exceptional tours on offer. Nature lovers will marvel at the marine and bird life on display, and both destinations are great for watersports enthusiasts.
Tulum has grown into a more mainstream destination and will soon be able to rival its Riviera Maya siblings—Playa del Carmen and Cozumel—but still retains some charm. The beaches are stunning, the ruins are impressive, and there’s plenty to see and do.
So if you’re going to Mexico in search of the “hidden gem” that Tulum once was, you may just find it by heading to Holbox instead.
For that off-the-beaten-path vibe, you may want to head to the peaceful island of Holbox, with its lack of cars, sandy streets, and tranquil beaches. Flamingos, pelicans, and whale sharks are all regular visitors to Holbox Island, but you may have to time your visit if you want to see them.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a special part of the world, and we are confident that whichever of these two diving destinations you choose, you will have a fantastic and memorable vacation.