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Cozumel vs Playa del Carmen: The Differences Travelers Need To Know

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Cozumel and Playa del Carmen are two of the Mexican Caribbean’s most popular destinations. But how do they differ, and how can you choose between them? Here, we’ll run through the main differences between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen that travelers need to know. 

cozumel beach sunset

1. Cozumel’s an island, Playa del Carmen’s on the mainland

It’s an obvious place to start, but one of the biggest differences between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen is that Cozumel’s an island, located around 10 miles off the coast of Quintana Roo. Playa del Carmen is a mainland destination and is where you catch the Ultramar ferry to Cozumel. 

The location of these destinations brings both positives and negatives:

  • Cozumel is Mexico’s busiest cruise destination
cruise ships in cozumel

This is great if you want to see Cozumel on your cruise, as many Caribbean routes include it in their itineraries. However, being a major cruise stop can also mean Cozumel feels crowded during the day when thousands of passengers are exploring the island. 

  • Playa del Carmen is convenient for on-road transport 
playa del carmen statue

Being located on the mainland, Playa del Carmen is ideal for people who want to explore more of the area. Most public ADO buses traveling north or south will pass through Playa del Carmen, and there are direct ADO services to many of the region’s most popular destinations, including Cancun and Tulum.

2. Cozumel offers some of the Mexican Riviera’s best diving

Cozumel is famous for its outstanding diving because the world’s second-largest reef – the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – passes immediately offshore the island. In fact, with 27 dive sites, offering a varied underwater landscape of walls, pinnacles, swim-throughs, tunnels, and even a sunken Mexican naval ship, Cozumel can keep divers entertained for weeks. 

diving in cozumel

While diving and snorkeling trips are available in Playa del Carmen, they can’t compare with Cozumel, where the abundance of marine life and clarity of the water is unbeatable. 

3. Playa del Carmen is vibrant, young, and growing rapidly

Playa del Carmen is the fastest growing city in Latin America, attracting large numbers of younger residents looking for a Mexican city with a forward-looking mindset. 

busy street in playa del carmen

The city is crammed full of entertainment options. It’s home to some of the region’s best nightclubs and bars, a strong restaurant scene, and a varied shopping portfolio, from Mexican stores selling souvenirs to international designer clothing stores. 

Cozumel, while bustling, offers a more low-key nightlife scene and while shopping is available due to the large numbers of cruise passengers passing through, stores are oriented toward high-ticket items, with a distinct lack of ‘regular’ shopping options on the island. 

4. Cozumel has the better beaches

Both Cozumel and Playa del Carmen are known for their white-sand beaches and clear, turquoise ocean. But while Playa del Carmen has more recently seen the degradation of its coastline, Cozumel remains relatively unaffected, with some stunning, undeveloped beaches still available to explore on its eastern side. 

cozumel island beaach

Both destinations offer first-class beach clubs, and you can find out more about them in these Playa del Carmen and Cozumel articles. 

5. It’s cheaper to eat (and drink) in Playa del Carmen

playa del carmen restraurant

One of the downsides of Cozumel’s island living is that all goods have to be brought in by water, meaning prices are generally higher than on the mainland. So, not only does Playa del Carmen offer a huge number of restaurants of all kinds, the prices are – for the most part – cheaper than on Cozumel. 

That’s not to say Cozumel doesn’t also have its own food scene going on, just that you’ll pay more for the privilege of eating on-island.

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