Cancun vs Costa Rica: A Guide to Choosing the Best Vacation Destination

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Cancun and Costa Rica are two of the most popular vacation destinations in Latin America. Both Cancun and Costa Rica are known for their great beaches, perfect weather, and incredible food. But the similarities largely end there. Besides being major Latin American vacation spots, Cancun and Costa Rica have many significant differences that you should consider when choosing one or the other for your next vacation. Here are the factors you should take into account when making your decision.

Background

Costa Rica

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica is Renowned for its Natural Beauty
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica is Renowned for its Natural Beauty

When considering Cancun vs Costa Rica for your next vacation, the first thing to think about is what attractions and activities you are most interested in. Costa Rica is a country with diverse topography, ranging from beautiful tropical beaches to lush jungles to thriving cities. There are an incredible amount of options as far as locations and settings for vacationers to choose from. That being said, much of Costa Rica’s tourism focuses on its beaches and natural attractions.

To understand Costa Rica’s main attractions, it is best to look at the country region by region. The northeasternmost province of Costa Rica is Guanacaste, in which the cities of Liberia and Canas are located. Guanacaste is a tourism hub, attracting visitors from around the world who flock to the region for its beautiful, dry tropical forests and excellent surfing beaches. Directly to the east of Guanacaste are the provinces of North Costa Rica, an area similar to Guanacaste and also famous for its active volcano, Arenal.

To the south are the Central Valley and Central Pacific regions, which are the most populated areas in Costa Rica and the home of some of the country’s best-known beaches and national parks. The easternmost province, ​​Limón, is the country’s least-visited province, but is known for beautiful beaches, great whitewater rafting, and large Jamaican population.

The southern Pacific area of Costa Rica is another one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, with lush rainforest, national parks, and great surfing beaches. 

In summation, Costa Rica’s main vacation destinations are its west coast beaches, centrally located urban centers, and southwestern rainforests. The majority of tourism is concentrated along the Pacific coast, and although Costa Rica has miles of Caribbean beaches, the Caribbean side of the country has much less developed tourist infrastructure, and is less suitable for vacationers.

Cancun

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Cancun's Beaches are World Famous
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Cancun’s Beaches are World Famous

Cancun is undoubtedly the most famous resort city in Mexico. However, this has not always been the case. Up until the 1970s, Mexico was in a similar situation to Costa Rica, with the majority of its tourist centers concentrated on the west coast in cities like Acapulco and Mazatlan. The Caribbean coast of Mexico was underdeveloped, with no large cities whatsoever. In fact, the area where Cancun is now situated was a tiny fishing village of fewer than 100 people up until the 1970s, when the Mexican federal government invested significant funds into developing the area into a resort city. 

The government bankrolled the first nine hotels in Cancun, and then private investors seized the opportunity, and within a decade Cancun had developed into a thriving resort city. By the 1990s, Cancun was the most popular vacation spot in Mexico, attracting spring breakers, honeymooners, and families who flock to the city to enjoy its beautiful tropical beaches, sunny weather, great food, and famous nightlife.

Attractions and Activities

An important factor when considering Cancun vs Costa Rica for your next vacation is the attractions and activities you are interested in taking part in. Cancun and Costa Rica have some similarities in regards to their main attractions, but they have some major differences, some of which may surprise you. For example, Cancun may be more appealing to the history buff due to its close proximity to spectacular Mayan ruins, while some beachgoers may prefer Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to Cancun’s Caribbean beaches. Here are some of the major attractions in Cancun vs Costa Rica, to help you decide for yourself.

Costa Rica

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a hub for both ecotourism and beach vacations. The country is home to an extensive series of national parks, covering over 23% of the total landmass. The biomes in the parks range from rainforest to dry temperate forests, to volcanic planes, mountains, marshes, and beaches. It is easy to spend an entire Costa Rica vacation backpacking, hiking, biking, and rafting through its natural parks, taking in the beauty of the surrounding scenery and the local flora and fauna. Some of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica include:

Tenorio Volcano National Park – An 80 square mile park in northeastern Costa Rica surrounding the Tenorio Volcano. Known for its lush jungle, hot springs, waterfalls, and the beautiful Rio Celeste, a turquoise colored river running through the heart of the park.

Camino de Costa Rica – A 170 mile long hiking trail running from the Caribbean coast, through the mountains, valleys, and jungles of central Costa Rica, and ending at the Pacific coast. 

Guanacaste National Park – A scenic 84,000 acre national park with jungle and inactive volcanoes. Home to over 300 species of birds, 150 species of mammal, and 100 species of amphibians and reptiles, Guanacaste National Park is an ecotourism hotspot.

Chirripó National Park – a 200 square mile national park that is home to Mount Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica.

Tortuguero National Park – A remote national park located in Limón Province. Only accessible by boat or plane, the park’s remoteness has not stopped it from becoming one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica. Thousands of visitors flock to Tortuguero National Park to explore its rainforest, mangroves, swamps, and beaches.

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica's Pacific Coast Beaches are one of its Biggest Attractions
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast Beaches are one of its Biggest Attractions

Aside from the national parks, one of Costa Rica’s biggest attractions is its beaches. As mentioned above, the majority of beachgoers opt for beaches on the country’s Pacific coast, which is much more developed and more tourist friendly than the Caribbean coast, although the Caribbean coast is gaining popularity. Costa Rica’s beaches are famous for the beauty and varied climates and water conditions. The country is home to some of the world’s best surfing beaches, attracting surfers from all over the world who flock to specific beaches on the Pacific coast to ride the massive waves. 

But there are also plenty of tranquil, sheltered beaches with calm, warm waters and peaceful atmospheres, great for swimming, boating, fishing, or relaxing with a drink in your hand. Oftentimes surfing beaches and calm, sheltered beaches are located in close proximity, making Costa Rica an ideal destination for people who want to surf but also want a peaceful beach to relax on. Costa Rican beaches are also great for families, solo travelers, novice surfers, and more. Here are some of Costa Rica’s most popular beaches, and the main attractions on each one.

Nacascolo Beach – A calm beach located on the Papagayo Peninsula in northwest Costa Rica. Nacascolo Beach’s crystal-clear waters and golden sands make it an appealing destination for any beachgoer. Popular activities on Nacascolo Beach include kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, and paddleboarding.

Santa Teresa & Malpais Beach – famous as one of Costa Rica’s best surf destinations, Santa Teresa & Malpais’s huge waves, great weather, and excellent bars and restaurants make it a premier destination for surfers from around the world.

Flamingo Beach – A serene sandy beach backed by mangrove forest, located in the Guanacaste region. The name comes from the pink sands that cover the beach. Flamingo Beach is a perfect place to swim, go for a walk, or relax with a drink in your hand.

Ostional Beach – A beautiful beach located on the Nicoya Peninsula, Ostional Beach is the perfect beach for ecotourists. The beach is located within Ostional Wildlife Refuge, and is a hotspot for sea turtles, which make their way to the beach each year between July and October for nesting.

Dominical Beach – one of Costa Rica’s most famous surfing beaches, Dominical Beach’s waves, stunning scenery, and laid back atmosphere attract visitors from around the world.

Cancun

Cancun vs Costa Rica: An Aerial View of Cancun's Famous Strip
Cancun vs Costa Rica: An Aerial View of Cancun’s Famous Strip

Cancun is a popular destination for everyone from spring breakers to retirees, and with its beautiful beaches, incredible excursions and tours, great weather, and world-famous nightlife, it’s easy to see why. Although popular culture may depict Cancun as mainly just a party city, in reality, Cancun offers a diverse array of experiences and attractions, including access to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving spots in the world, great ecotours through the lush jungle surrounding the city, incredible historical sites such as Mayan ruins, and thrilling extreme sports and adrenaline excursions. Here are some of the best tours and excursions Cancun has to offer:

Visiting nearby Mayan ruins – Cancun is situated in close proximity to some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in the country. Both Chichen Itza and Tulum are within driving distance of Cancun, and both sites are absolutely incredible to visit, with Mayan pyramids, temples, ball courts, sculptures, and more.

Swimming with whale sharks – swimming with whale sharks is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience available between May and September in Cancun. Leaving from Cancun’s marina, you will go on a 45-minute boat ride out to the area where whale sharks congregate, and be allowed to jump in the water with fins and a snorkel to swim with the enormous creatures.

Cenote tours – one of the most unique experiences Cancun has to offer is swimming in cenotes, which are underground sinkholes that are found throughout the Yucatan peninsula. These sinkholes are full of warm water and make incredible swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking destinations.

Scuba diving and snorkeling – the Caribbean Sea along the Yucatan is known for having some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling sites in the world. The reefs and shipwrecks just off the coast are teeming with marine life, and make great destinations for beginners and experienced divers. Cancun is also close to the island of Cozumel, which is world famous for its reef diving sites, and was a favorite diving location of Jacques Cousteau.

Catamaran Tours to Isla Mujeres – Located eight miles off the coast of Cancun is the beautiful island Isla Mujeres. Known for its beautiful beaches, great biking trails, and calm waters for swimming and snorkeling, the island is a popular destination for catamaran tours, which take about half a day, taking you to and from the island while stopping at reefs to swim and snorkel.

Cancun vs Costa Rica: A View from one of Cancun's Beaches
Cancun vs Costa Rica: A View from one of Cancun’s Beaches

Aside from the great tours and excursions, Cancun is world famous for its beaches. The beaches in Cancun are less diverse than those in Costa Rica, but no less beautiful. Unlike Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches, which can have rough waters and strong currents in some areas, Cancun’s Caribbean beaches are renowned for their calm, warm waters and lack of waves. Popular activities on Cancun’s beaches include swimming, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking, boating, paddleboarding, jet skiing, and even surfing–the waves are perfect for novice surfers. Here are some of Cancun’s best beaches.

Playa Delfines – a long, sandy beach with crystal-clear, shallow waters that are excellent for swimming, snorkeling, and paddleboarding. You can rent equipment for water spots, or umbrellas and chairs from vendors right on the beach.

Playa Langosta – An excellent beach with warm waters and long white sands with a nearby playground, public restrooms, and plenty of restaurants and bars. Playa Langosta is a family-friendly beach that is easy to spend the whole day on.

Playa Chac Mool – A warm, spacious beach with warm waters that are perfect for swimming and long white sands that are great for strolling, jogging, or relaxing on. The beach is surrounded by restaurants and bars where you can grab a drink or a meal to enjoy on the beach.

Playa Norte – Located on Isla Mujeres, Playa Norte is a scenic beach with white sands and calm waters that is much less crowded than some of Cancun’s more popular beaches. The beach is great for swimming, fishing, boating, or relaxing with a drink in your hand.

Accommodations

A factor to consider when comparing Cancun vs Costa Rica is the accommodations. Both destinations have plenty of luxury all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels, budget hotels and hostels, and rental homes and condos. Here are some of the best accommodations in each location.

Cancun:

All-Inclusive

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Cancun's Hotel Zone is Famous for its Luxury Resorts
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Cancun’s Hotel Zone is Famous for its Luxury Resorts

Resorts Royal Sands – Resort & SPA – An all-inclusive beachfront luxury resort located in the middle of Cancun’s hotel zone in close proximity to some of the best beaches, shopping centers, nightclubs, and restaurants in Cancun. With stunning private suites, terraces, multiple pools, restaurants, a spa, and a fitness center, Royal Sands is an ideal resort to get the full Cancun experience 

Hotel Riu Cancun – A luxury beachfront resort with four pools, 10 onsite bars and restaurants, beachfront access, a spa, a fitness center, live entertainment, water sports equipment rentals and lessons, and more. 

Grand Oasis Cancun  – All-inclusive beachfront hotel with an onsite casino, luxury suites, 21 restaurants and bars, a fitness center, pools, a spa, and a golf course, Grand Oasis Cancun is one of the best resorts in Cancun. 

Budget Options 

Parador Hotel – Located in central Cancun, the Parador Hotel has a fitness center, an outdoor pool, and is in close proximity to some of Cancun’s best restaurants and shopping centers. 

Avalon Baccara Cancun – A small but comfortable hotel located in close proximity to the beach. Features an outdoor swimming pool and easy access to some of Cancun’s best restaurants and bars.

Costa Rica:

Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica has Plenty of Secluded Beachfront Resorts to Choose From
Cancun vs Costa Rica: Costa Rica has Plenty of Secluded Beachfront Resorts to Choose From

All-Inclusive

Margaritaville Beach Resort Playa Flamingo – An all-inclusive resort and spa located on Flamingo Beach, Margaritaville Beach Resort is known for its beachfront access, excellent pools, luxury suites, and easy access to great restaurants, shopping areas, and golf courses.

Dreams Las Mareas, Guanacaste – An extensive beachfront resort in Guanacaste, Dreams Las Mareas is surrounded by the natural beauty of the jungle and features luxurious accommodations, with suites with private terraces, hot tubs, and ocean views.

Westin Golf Resort & Spa, Playa Conchal – an excellent resort for golfers and beachgoers alike, Westin Golf Resort & Spa is a beachfront luxury resort with an 18-hole golf course, multiple pools, and 11 restaurants on site.

Budget Options

Costa Rica has thousands of small hotels and hostels, some of which cost as little as $7 a night. Many of the smaller hotels are owned by monolingual Spanish speakers, who do not maintain websites for their properties. These hotels can be found by asking around and finding out the best places to stay from the locals, tour guides, and other tourists. For travellers not interested in backpacking or ecotourism trips and finding accommodations as they go, here are a couple great budget hotel options located on Costa Rica’s beaches.

Samara Palm Lodge – Located in the small village of Playa Sámara, 5 minutes away from the beach, Samara Palm Lodge has nice suites, a pool, and a garden. The hotel also organizes activities such as scuba diving, horseback riding, and fishing.

Hotel Villa Amarilla – A nice beachfront hotel with a pool, beautiful tropical garden, and close proximity to great restaurants and shopping centers.

Accessibility

One important factor to keep in mind when considering Cancun vs Costa Rica is accessibility. Cancun is easily accessible via direct flight from most major cities in the US and Canada. Airlines fly nonstop to Cancun, and once you land at the airport, your hotel is usually very close to the airport and easily accessible via shuttle or taxi. A flight to Cancun is also shorter than a flight to Costa Rica from most US and Canadian cities. In short, the convenience of getting to Cancun is hard to beat.

Costa Rica, on the other hand, typically has less frequent flights and slightly longer flights than Cancun. Depending on where you are staying in Costa Rica, you may have a significant drive ahead of you once you land at the airport, so be sure to confirm the distance before making any plans.

Accessibility is one area where Cancun likely has Costa Rica beat.

Cost

Cost is perhaps the most important factor to consider when comparing Cancun vs Costa Rica. No other factor informs vacation plans as much as the budget. This is an area where the comparison can get a little tricky, as a trip to either location can vary widely in cost depending on where you stay and what you do. Speaking in general terms, however, staying in Cancun for one week costs around $1,205 USD per person. For a similar vacation in Costa Rica, staying on a beach on the Pacific coast, you will be looking at a cost of around $1450 USD per person. 

The Bottom Line

When considering Cancun vs Costa Rica for your next vacation, the first thing you want to do is figure out what you are interested in doing. If you want to experience natural wonders–rainforest, volcanos, stunning tropical landscapes, great hiking and cycling trails, and more, Costa Rica is hard to beat. The country has some of the best natural parks and ecotourism destinations in the world. Costa Rica also has excellent restaurants, golf courses, excursions, and of course, beaches.

Cancun, on the other hand, does not have as much natural beauty or opportunity for ecotours, but what it lacks in that area it certainly makes up for in historical tours to Mayan ruins, adrenaline tours and extreme sports, and watersports like jet skiing, snorkeling, and fishing. Cancun also has beaches that are easily on par with Costa Rica’s.

If your decision comes down to budget or accessibility, Cancun is probably the better choice, as the city is served by frequent flights from most major US and Canadian cities, and the hotel zone is just a short drive from the airport. When it comes to cost, it is of course possible to spend less in Costa Rica than in Cancun, but comparing apple to apples, Cancun is usually slightly more budget friendly.

See Also:

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