Mexico’s vibrant culture is one that has spread to all corners of the earth. Colorful cuisine, ancient temples, powdery beaches, and fantastic festivals, it’s no surprise that it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world, but where you go makes all the difference…
From the northern party strips of Cancún to the Mayan cities in the south, the Riviera Maya and its stretch of Caribbean coastline is up there with Mexico’s top vacation spots. Dominating the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula, the region is peppered with resort towns and archaeological sights waiting to be explored. Still, these Mexican escapes are more different than you might think.
Although just 60 kilometers apart, the undeveloped island of Cozumel and the rustic port city of Tulum are separated by more than warm Caribbean waters. Exploring everything from beaches and costs to their adventure factors, our guide will help you choose between the two. Which destination gets our vote? Keep reading to find out.
Cozumel or Tulum: General Vibe
Both rich in history and spectacularly beautiful, Cozumel and Tulum offer something different from the crazy nightlife of nearby Cancún. The Riviera Maya has a holiday for everyone, but Cozumel is where you want to head for laid-back island vibes, family beach excursions, and fascinating underwater worlds. At the same time, Tulum’s beachfront resorts are centered around the sea and holiday fun. But the historical area is also all about adventure and cultural discovery.
You’ll find no shortage of high-quality restaurants, nature parks, and sunbed-laden beaches in the quiet and uncrowded Cozumel. Cozumel is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, being 48 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide. It isn’t an undisturbed desert island by any means, with its city of San Miguel being a major cruise ship port. But Cozumel and its rustic shores are paradisical and it remains a better choice if all-inclusive resorts and manicured beaches aren’t your things.
Tulum is home to its fair share of family-oriented resorts and swanky adult getaways, but the region is known for its action-packed activities and rich cultural heritage. Once a fisherman’s village, Tulum can now get very touristy in the high season. But it retains a rustic vibe and is most famous for its Mayan ruins. In its heyday, Tulum was a fortified religious region and you can still explore the towering pyramids and castles in the ancient Mayan Port city.
The culture in Riviera Maya is a unique blend of European and Mesoamerican. While Cozumel and Tulum, as well as Cancún, all have some type of fascinating ancient ruins to explore, Tulum’s are by far the most superior.
Still, Cozumel isn’t all slow-paced. The island is one of the country’s top scuba diving destinations, located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world. Cozumel is the choice if true relaxation is what you’re after. While thrill-seekers and culture-junkies should head to Tulum.
Cozumel or Tulum: Beaches
Cozumel’s beaches are all about exploring Mexico’s underwater worlds. With little-to-no infrastructure along the coast, rocky shores, and shallow depths, Cozumel’s waters are teeming with life. Much clearer than Tulum’s beaches, you can swim with turtles, discover colorful reefs and enjoy the undisturbed coral vistas here. The east and west sides of the island are also home to pristine white sands and the calm seas are perfect for swimming.
The Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park is a protected beach area housing Cozumel’s only inland reef in a saltwater lagoon. While Playa Mia, home to a beach club of the same name, is a golden sandy beach with activities for all ages and sun loungers lining the palm-fringed shores. At the southernmost tip of the island, you’ll also find something for nature lovers at the Panta Sur Eco Beach Park. This wild sandy beach is just minutes from Faro Celerain lighthouse, and along with picturesque ocean views, you’ll find an ecological reserve where iguanas, turtles, crocodiles, and birds live harmoniously.
The town of Tulum itself is located three miles inland but the region’s own little stretch of Caribbean coastline is every bit a part of holidaying to the region as the ancient ruins. There are only two real beaches in Tulum, although you can find some separate coves within the North Playa. With Las Palmas at one end, Playa Paraiso in the middle, and Playa Ruinas close to the Mayan fortresses, Tulum’s North Beach has a bit of everything. Stunning clear waters and white sands overlooked by Mayan ruins and shielded from overdevelopment, North Playa is among the best public beaches in the world.
Tulum’s South Beach is more about luxury and resorts and can’t be accessed without going through a hotel or beach club. While the beach is well-manicured and less authentic, it’s worth a visit and great for swimming and partying.
There are other beaches around Tulum like the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and the azure waters of Akumal Beach, but Cozumel offers much more diversity. North Playa might be as exciting for some as all Cozumel’s beaches put together, but the island has endless variety and it’s hard for Tulum to compare.
Cozumel or Tulum: Food and Nightlife
The small island community of Cozumel isn’t known for its raging parties. You’ll need to head to Cancún or Playa del Carmen for that. But it does have some buzzing spots for evening entertainment in the high season and great eateries for local food and laid-back vibes.
Stylish beach clubs and lounge bars are located near the resort areas, but you’ll also find rustic Caribbean clubs playing salsa to young crowds on the southern coast. Most resorts have their own family-friendly restaurant, but head to San Miguel for a mix of fine dining restaurants and colorful Mexican cantinas.
Tulum town is much smaller than Cozumel, but there’s a higher concentration of nightlife spots and trendy restaurants catered toward a young crowd. Cozumel is quiet in comparison and although Tulum is inferior to Cancún’s Spring-Breakers vibe, you can find real nightclubs and vibrant parties all over town.
Whether it’s a cocktail with the perfect sunset view at a South Beach day club or a jungle festival where you can dance until the early hours, Tulum has more diversity when it comes to evening entertainment than Cozumel. The restaurant scene is also more authentic if that’s what you’re after, with more outdoor grills, Yucatan restaurants, and street food stalls in Old Tulum. But Tulum even has a Michelin Star restaurant too, Ocumare, the first of its kind in the region. Inspired by cuisines from all over the world, the Indian, Moroccan, and Spanish fusion menu is a must-try.
Cozumel or Tulum: Costs
Mexico is mostly inexpensive compared to the United States and Europe. But the Riviera Maya is not one of the country’s budget destinations and holiday expenses can really add up. With their close proximity, you might expect Cozumel and Tulum to be fairly equal when it comes to cost. But you could be surprised at just how much the surrounding regions can make a difference to prices.
From expensive boutique hotels to day trips and travel, Tulum is considerably more expensive than Cozumel. Cozumel might be an island, but it’s big enough to have every amenity and close enough to the mainland for importation costs to not be through the roof. From the market to the cruise ship piers and even the downtown malls, everything in Cozumel is more affordable than in Tulum and along the Riviera Maya stretch.
Estimated daily costs for a holiday to Cozumel are around 25 percent cheaper than Tulum, averaging at $61 compared to $80. But you could spend even less on the island where it is much easier to budget. The average accommodation costs for two people in Tulum are $78 a night, compared to $60 in Cozumel. While you can eat for just $16 a day in Cozumel but closer to $25 in Tulum, and this can be a lot more if you miss out on the great local food options and only head to touristy haunts of which there are many in Tulum.
You can find adventure in both areas but Cozumel’s tilt towards relaxation means you’ll likely save money on attractions. You can book a glass-bottom boat trip, explore the Cozumel ruins, or even zip-line across the island, but many popular activities like snorkeling, sunbathing, and swimming are cost-free. It might be Tulum’s fascinating cultural significance and exciting landscape that sets it apart from other Mexican destinations, but this is also what ramps up the prices with adventure-packed day trips being an unmissable part of any Tulum visit.
You have to check out the otherworldly Cenotes, the Mayan Ruins, and the ancient pyramids of Coba, but you’ll need a guided tour or vehicle rental to do it all, both of which can cost upwards of $60 a day for a day.
Tulum might also seem like a winning choice if you’re strapped for time, with Cozumel being an island and Tulum being close to other touristy Mexican towns. But Tulum isn’t more accessible than its island counterpart, mainly because you’ll need to travel the more than two-hour distance from Cancún airport to your hotel when you arrive. Transfers can cost as much as $100 each way, while the furthest southernmost point of Cozumel is just 45 minutes from the international airport and ferry ports, and a transfer won’t cost more than $60.
You’ll also pay the price for Tulum’s more notable nightlife scene, with alcohol prices having some of the largest discrepancies among all Mexican holiday costs. The average traveler can drink for one day for less than $20 in Cozumel, but you should expect to fork out closer to $50 per person for the same amount of alcohol in any of Tulum’s dynamic day clubs or Old Town bars.
Cozumel or Tulum: Weather
Riviera Maya benefits from a warm tropical climate, and the same can be said for both Cozumel and Tulum. While the weather is largely similar, what you plan to do can have an impact on the best time to visit either destination.
Cozumel is a tropical Caribbean island with hot and humid summers and slightly cooler winters, even more so than Tulum, due to the westward Atlantic winds. Shouldering summer and the rainy months, September is a great time to go to Cozumel for less humidity, as well as April and May for fewer crowds.
The hurricane season runs from June through to the end of November, with June and July being the wettest months. If diving or snorkeling is what you’re after, avoid the stormy seas of March to June and head to Cozumel in late fall when underwater visibility is at its best.
The average temperatures throughout the year in Tulum are much the same as Cozumel, with balmy summers in the early 80s and warm winters hovering around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Tulum is also prone to hurricanes and the stormy season lasts from July through to October. Temperatures can reach the 90s but rainy days can put a dampener on your trip.
Still, if you want to save some money, avoid the crowds, and a beach getaway isn’t top of your agenda, brave the wet weather and head inland to the regions around Tulum for great deals in late summer. November and December are also popular times to visit for cooler temperatures, but watch out for the Christmas crowds.
Cozumel or Tulum: The Verdict
Great beaches, amazing food, and true Mexican hospitality, you’re guaranteed it all no matter where you go, Cozumel or Tulum. Both regions are more rustic and charming than the tourist-saturated areas of Cancún and Puerto del Carmen, but you’ll still find vibrant nightlife, water sports, and culture at every turn. Cozumel is one of the best places in Mexico, and the Caribbean, for scuba diving and snorkeling with incredible marine diversity and protected ecological areas. But Tulum will always make our list with its rich Mayan culture and ancient UNESCO sights. Cozumel’s our choice for family-friendly holidays and cheap island living. Yet, for history and adventure, with some of the world’s best tropical beaches on your doorstep, Tulum gets our vote. So which is your pick?