On the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, on opposite sides of the Cozumel Channel, are two of the country’s premier tourist destinations, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. When deciding between Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen for your next vacation, there are a couple of important factors you should take into consideration.
Although the city of Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel are located just 11 miles apart, across the Cozumel Channel, and travelling to both in one trip is more than possible, you will likely want to choose one or the other to stay at for the bulk of your vacation. The right choice for you will depend on what you are interested in doing on your trip. Important factors to consider when deciding between Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen include the following.
The major attractions on Cozumel are the snorkeling and scuba diving sites. Cozumel is widely considered one of the best destinations in the world for diving, and was reportedly a favorite of Jaques Cousteau, who first dove on the island in 1961. Since then, it has become an extremely popular destination for both novice and experienced divers, with many diving companies located on the island that are happy to provide instructions, lessons, certification courses, and equipment.
The major dive sites in Cozumel are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is the second largest reef system in the world, and stretches a total of over 700 miles. The reefs are teeming with a variety of marine wildlife, including sea turtles, sharks, tropical fish, sponges, and even manatee.
If you are primarily interested in scuba diving or snorkeling on your vacation, staying on Cozumel is a no-brainers. The reefs and other popular dive sites are much better and more accessible than anything directly off the coast of Playa del Carmen. It is, of course, possible to make day trips from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel for snorkeling and scuba diving trips, but if you will be going snorkeling and scuba diving frequently, it is a much better idea to stay on Cozumel.
Aside from snorkeling and scuba diving, Cozumel has a wealth of other attractions, including the nightlife, restaurants, museums, all-inclusive resorts, and shopping centers.
Playa del Carmen has a wide variety of attractions that range from watersports, to the beaches, the shopping centers, golf courses, and sightseeing tours. Located 50 miles south of Cancun, along the Maya Riviera, Playa del Carmen is often compared to a more laid back, less commercialized version of Cancun. Playa del Carmen has a similar history to Cancun, in that the area that is now Playa del Carmen was largely empty until a series of investments in developing tourism infrastructure initiated by the Mexican federal government in the 1970s.
Today, the city is a thriving metropolis with a population of over 300,000, that usually feels much less crowded and in many ways more authentic than more touristy areas like Cancun. Despite that, Playa del Carmen still has everything that Cancun and the bigger resort cities in Mexico have to offer, from great beaches to vibrant nightlife and delicious food.
Popular activities on Playa del Carmen include beach and deep sea fishing, chartering yachts, swimming, parasailing, and exploring the underwater caves, rock formations, nearby Mayan ruins, or the Mexican countryside via ATV.
Playa del Carmen has plenty of luxury hotels and resorts that have five star dining, beautiful pools and spas, state-of-the-art gyms, and tour groups and activities. The hotels are all within walking distance of numerous restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, so everything you need is right in the same area. There are also plenty of villas, apartments, and air bnbs that are open to rent.
One thing to consider about Playa del Carmen is that the nicest hotels typically are not located right off the beach. The hotels and resorts that have beachfront access are luxurious in their own right, but most of the hotels with the nicest suites and best overall accommodations are located a block or two in from the beach.
In Cozumel, the hotels and resorts are just as luxurious as in Playa del Carmen, with beachfront access, all inclusive plans, tropical gardens, private balconies, extensive swimming pools, excellent dining, and helpful staff. Many of the hotel’s all inclusive plans feature diving and snorkeling excursions and tour groups included.
Because Cozumel and Playa del Carmen are located just across the Cozumel strait from each other, neither is significantly more or less accessible. The main thing to keep in mind is that Cozumel is an island, and is only accessible by a 45 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen or a 15 minute plane ride from Cancun.
Although neither of these is a significant amount of time, if you are planning to frequently leave the island to go on day trips to Mayan ruins or other excursions, you need to take that into account. Conversely, if you are thinking of staying at Playa del Carmen, but plan to go to Cozumel frequently for diving or snorkeling trips, keep in mind that just getting on and off the island will take 1.5 hours total.
The Bottom Line
When considering Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen for your next vacation, the bottom line comes down to what you want to do. If you are planning on doing a lot of snorkeling and scuba diving, then Cozumel is the easy choice. If you prefer to be able to travel around the area, see the local Mayan ruins, go on day trips to other locations, etc. then you should choose Playa del Carmen.