Choosing where to stay in the Cancun area, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Cozumel?

The Cancun area of Mexico is loaded with great options for every visitor, but there are actually at least 7 different areas to choose from and some are far better for some visitors than others. Most who are planning their first trip typically focus on the Cancun Hotel Zone, and that is a great choice for certain people, but it’s a terrible option for many others.

In the article below we will go over each of the 7 areas and discuss the strengths and weaknesses so you can make the best choice for your first trip. You can probably also save money because there are many excellent options that are much cheaper than the Cancun Hotel Zone itself.

The 7 main options in the Cancun area

1 – Cancun Hotel Zone

This is the 7-shaped peninsula just east of Downtown Cancun. It’s lined with tall hotels and timeshare resorts that look just like hotels.

2 – Downtown Cancun

There are plenty of cheaper and nice hotels around the edges of the interesting Downtown area, along with plenty of restaurants, bars, and shopping.

3 – All-inclusive resort by itself along the Mayan Riviera

There are scores of large all-inclusive resorts stretching from just south of Cancun to south of Tulum. They tend to be quite remote and have everything you need for your whole stay. The area is now known as the Mayan Riviera, which includes the towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

4 – Isla Mujeres

This is the small island just northeast of the Cancun Hotel Zone. There are dozens of hotels and it’s quiet, although remote. It has a lovely and famous beach (Playa Norte) on its northwest edge.

5 – Playa del Carmen

This is a fairly large tourist town on the beach with scores of restaurants, bars, shops, and activities.

6 – Cozumel

This is a large and spread-out island just across the straight from Playa del Carmen. There are hundreds of hotels and resorts of all sizes here including many all-inclusives.

7 – Tulum

This up and coming tourist town is like Playa del Carmen was 20 years ago. There are cheap hotels in the town area and much more expensive hotels along the beach strip.

Cancun Hotel Zone

Pictured above: JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa

  • Pros: Big hotels on great beaches, big and glamorous nightlife, many luxury options
  • Cons: Expensive, most hotels aren’t walking distance to anything useful

The 7-shaped Cancun Hotel Zone is a peninsula sticking out into the Caribbean and it’s lined with a mix of large resort hotels and timeshare resorts. This area has mostly wide and sandy beaches that each resort maintains well. The water is turquoise in the right light and that is not true of the beaches in most of the rest of the areas we will discuss below.

The Hotel Zone is bigger than you might think until you get there. The road is almost 10 miles to the corner of the “7” and then 5 miles more to where it joins up with the mainland again. The big nightclubs are all located at the corner of the 7, which is called the Punta (point).

The older and cheaper hotels are mostly located in this general area as well, with the newer and larger hotels mostly being towards the south (and closer to the airport). Unless you are staying near the Punta, the only things within walking distance to you will be the hotels on either side. It’s sort of like the Las Vegas Strip in that the hotels are all so large that they look closer than they really are.

There is a small outdoor mall with restaurants and bars on the lagoon side about 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of the Punta, but most people will have to take an expensive taxi ride to reach it or the Punta district.

There are some all-inclusive hotels in this area and even the other ones will have their own restaurants, bars, and gift shops, so you can spend your entire trip on your resort property if you like. If that sounds good to you, the Cancun Hotel Zone is a great choice. But if you like walking around a new area for shopping or trying small restaurants and bars, this isn’t that and you should probably consider Playa del Carmen or Tulum, which are mentioned below.

Getting there from Cancun Airport

The southern tip of the Hotel Zone is fairly close to the Cancun Airport, but it’s a long way to the northern shore. Many hotels will provide free shuttle pickup and drop off if you are booked with them. Otherwise you can book a shuttle leaving from the airport for much less than the somewhat-crooked local taxi drivers. The closest resorts are about 15 minutes away and the farthest ones about 45 minutes away, depending on traffic.

>>>Editor’s picks of the best all-inclusive resorts in Cancun for couples, families, golfers, and more

>>>Check Cancun hotel specials and promotions on Expedia

Downtown Cancun

Pictured above: Four Points Sheraton Cancun Centro

  • Pros: Cheapest hotels, cheap food, shopping, same weather, and decent nightlife
  • Cons: Not on or near the beach and getting to one isn’t super easy

Downtown Cancun, which is locally known as El Centro, is where most of the almost 900,000 residents of greater Cancun live, including the staff at most of the hotels in the Hotel Zone. Almost all of the hotels in the Downtown area are along the main roads just a mile or two from the beach, but they are not ON the beach or within walking distance. This part of the Downtown area also has tourist-oriented shops, restaurants, and bars, which are all noticeably cheaper than similar places on the beaches.

Honestly, the main reason anyone would choose to stay in El Centro is that it’s much cheaper than the beaches and still has the same amazing tropical weather. Many hotels have their own beautiful pools along with a restaurant and bar, so if you can only afford US$100 a night or less, this can be a much better option than staying home. There are some sandy beaches not far from the Downtown hotels, but obviously it’s not the same experience as staying in a resort.

Getting there from Cancun Airport

Most of the Downtown Cancun hotels are about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the airport. You should be able to book a shuttle through your hotel and it might be included in your stay. The cheapest way to get there is to take the public bus from the airport to the Cancun Bus Station and then take a normal taxi from there to your hotel. Unlike the taxis in the Hotel Zone, it will be weirdly cheap instead of insanely expensive.

All-inclusive resort by itself along the Mayan Riviera

Pictured above: Viceroy Riviera Maya All-Inclusive

  • Pros: Expansive properties on private beaches, best security, can stay on property for entire trip
  • Cons: No real sense of Mexico, not close to anything else

There are two main types of all-inclusive resort hotels in this area. In the Hotel Zone there are all-inclusive resorts with one main tower and maybe a couple of pools near the beach that sit on a modestly sized property. The other type are sprawling resorts that can be the size of a small town. They usually have multiple hotel buildings that are 3 or fewer stories tall, and they have many different pools, restaurants, and bars. These mega resorts are usually operated by European chains and they are located all along the Caribbean coast from north of Cancun to south of Tulum.

If you are staying at one of these mega resorts you can book activities such as fishing excursions, Chichen Itza or Tulum ruins, or trips to nearby cenotes (natural pool caves that are a huge draw in this area) for an extra price, but otherwise the idea is that you arrive on the shuttle from the airport and then stay at the resort for the duration of your trip. The grounds are often huge so it doesn’t feel claustrophobic at all, but guests typically get only the most minimal taste of actually being in Mexico.

These big resorts all have sandy beaches that are well maintained, and usually a variety of pools as well. They can range in price from strangely affordable to insanely expensive and you usually get what you pay for. Especially in the off season (May through November) you can get excellent deals at these places.

Getting there from Cancun Airport

These all-inclusive mega resorts are spread over a huge area so it’s all a matter of location. Either your room will come with a free shuttle ride to and from the airport, or you’ll be able to pay a bit extra for those shuttle rides. Some are within 15 minutes of the airport while those close to Tulum can be two hours away depending on traffic.

Isla Mujeres

Pictured above: Mia Reef Isla Mujeres All-Inclusive

  • Pros: Quiet small island, many great resort options, west-facing hotels have sunset water views, a calm and turquoise beach.
  • Cons: Not super easy to reach, recreation and shopping options limited

This small island across the bay from the Cancun Hotel Zone seems to be where people start booking once they get tired of the big party scene in Cancun itself. The ferry ride from the Hotel Zone takes about 20 minutes and it drops you in the busy north part of Isla Mujeres where there are lots of smaller hotels close to the famous Playa Norte beach. The water is turquoise, calm, and shallow, so it’s one of the best lounging and swimming experiences in the area.

The island has a mix of luxurious beach resorts and smaller, family-run hotels just a block or two off the beach. You’ll also find independent beach clubs dotted around the island, so even those staying in cheaper hotels can pamper themselves a bit by renting chairs, an umbrella, and buying a few drinks.

Getting there from Cancun Airport:

You’ll want to pre-book your ferry to Isla Mujeres so you can lock in transportation to get to the departure point. There are several ferry companies and a few different departure points, including a more expensive one leaving from the Cancun Hotel Zone.

The best thing to do is pre-book your ferry ride and a bus or shuttle to get to the ferry from Cancun Airport. The ferries depart every 30 minutes during the day and take 15 to 20 minutes to reach the island.

Playa del Carmen

Pictured above: PlayaCar Palace Resort All-Inclusive

  • Pros: Actual fun tourist town with hundreds of restaurants, bars, and shops
  • Cons: Less private and secure than stand-alone resorts, beaches can be hit or miss

If staying in the Cancun Hotel Zone is like staying on the Las Vegas Strip, then staying in Playa del Carmen is like staying in a former fishing village that has transformed into a fun Mexican beach town. There are restaurants, bars, and shops lining the main downtown blocks, with 5th Avenue being the busy walking street in its center. With so much competition, you can always look out for happy hour specials and such, so things can be fairly cheap here compared to Cancun itself.

There are small, family-run hotels mixed in the downtown area a few blocks off the beach, as well as some large resorts on the beach itself and on large properties on the edge of town. If you’d rather not bother trying different restaurants and bars, you should go to Cancun. But if you like the idea of exploring the area and trying different things as you go, Playa del Carmen could be ideal.

The beaches near the city center are not wide and don’t have the seaweed picked up quickly like they do at the beach resorts. If having access to a nearby beautiful beach is important to you, then you may not want to stay in the town center area.

Getting there from Cancun Airport:

Playa del Carmen is about an hour south of Cancun Airport by bus or shuttle. It’s best to pre-book your transportation through your hotel (it might be included) or through their recommendation. Cancun Airport famously has an army of taxi and shuttle scammers that look for visitors who haven’t booked anything in advance or at the airport. If you encounter them you’ll probably be on your way to a timeshare presentation somehow, which may include a free ride to your hotel eventually. It’s better to book something in advance.

Cozumel

Pictured above: Iberostar Cozumel Resort All-Inclusive

  • Pros: Large island with loads of great resort options, has its own airport, most resorts face west so they have gorgeous sunset water views
  • Cons: If you fly into Cancun Airport it takes at least two hours to reach

Much larger and more spread out than Isla Mujeres, Cozumel has over 100 hotels including many really nice all-inclusive properties. There are a few dozen hotels in and around the main town area of Cozumel, which is where the ferries from Playa del Carmen arrive, and dozens more hotels along the beach road leading south out of the town area. Most of the hotels are on west-facing beaches, so guests get a sunset show over the water, unlike in Cancun itself.

Cozumel is very popular with Scuba divers and there are dozens of dive shops and operators competing for your business. You can get your PADI certification for a reasonable price here, and then book one of the many dive trips. If SCUBA is one of your interests or even your passion, then Cozumel is probably your best choice in the area.

Cozumel is also a popular stop for cruise ships and if you are staying in the town area this could mean many hundreds more visitors suddenly arriving. If this matters to you then you should be able to check the cruise schedule in advance.

Getting there from Cancun Airport:

Cozumel has its own international airport with flights from many big US and Canadian cities as well as Mexico City. Flights into this airport are usually more expensive than flying into Cancun, but good deals are possible so it’s worth checking. You can also book a flight on a small plane from Cancun Airport for about US$75 per person, each way. It’s a spectacular flight so it could be worth it if you can afford it.

The more common option is to fly into Cancun Airport and then climb on a pre-booked shuttle or bus that takes you to the Playa del Carmen ferry terminal in about an hour, and then take your pre-booked ferry to Cozumel in about 30 to 40 minutes. Altogether it’s a pretty long trip, but it’s not boring or very expensive.

Tulum

Pictured above: Dreams Tulum All-Inclusive

  • Pros: Smaller and less developed tourist town, upcoming, artsy, cheap
  • Cons: At least 90 minutes from airport, lousy wi-fi, poor plumbing and electricity in cheaper places

Playa del Carmen has been booming with new hotels and shops for at least a decade or two, and the smaller town of Tulum is a bit like Playa del Carmen used to be. There is a town of Tulum that is a bit off the beach and also a strip of beach hotels, with a one-way road connecting them together. Needless to say, the beach hotels are quite a bit more expensive but there are quite a few of them so trying different places in the area is not difficult. If you opt for a cheaper hotel in the town, you’ll have more eating and drinking options, but you’ll have to rent a bike or get a taxi to get to the beach.

Tulum is popular with the bohemian crowd so you’ll see plenty of artsy coffee shops and boutiques and that sort of thing around town. On the other hand, many people say the Wi-Fi and even the local mobile phone service is subpar and not all of the utilities run all night. It’s an interesting place that is perfect for some people and a terrible choice for others.

Getting there from Cancun Airport:

Getting from Cancun Airport to Tulum is straightforward and very similar to Playa del Carmen. In fact, many of the buses and shuttles that go to Tulum will also have a stop in Playa del Carman along the way. It takes about an hour to get from the airport to Playa del Carmen and then another half hour or so to reach Tulum. It’s best to pre-book your transportation before your arrive so you don’t have to haggle or try to figure out which are the legitimate companies.

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