Riviera Maya Beach Alternatives

Discover the Riviera Maya: Playa del Carmen vs Tulum vs Cozumel

The Riviera Maya is well-known for its white-sand beaches, crystal-blue waters, and rich cultural heritage. It is home to three of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations: Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and the island of Cozumel.

In this article, we rate each destination on a scale of 1-5 based on 4 key destination criteria:
• Atmosphere + culture
• Beaches + water activities
• Food + nightlife
• Luxury + location

While Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum each offer beautiful beaches and an array of activities, Playa del Carmen emerges as the clear winner, offering the perfect jumping off point to discover the Riviera Maya.



Playa del Carmen

Overall Score: 5/5

Atmosphere + Culture
Score: 5/5

Out of the 3 destinations, Playa del Carmen is the place that offers both the bustling of a vibrant town and the peaceful serenity of nature. 

Sun- and fun-loving couples, families, and friends flock to downtown Playa del Carmen for its international shopping and restaurant scene, long, lively beaches, plethora of activities, and energetic nightlife.

But you can step right out of this scene and into utmost serenity and relaxation when you head to Mayakoba, the gated resort area enveloped in the lush nature of Riviera Maya.
When comparing Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, the latter is best for travelers who like to relax on a luxurious resort one day and then hit the town the next.

Playa del Carmen also boasts many nearby sites of cultural significance. For example, the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is just a 2- to 3-hour drive away.

This is but one example, as there are many other cenotes and Mayan ruins within easy driving distance of the vibrant coastal city and cultural hub that is Playa del Carmen.

Read more here about the sites in Riviera Maya of cultural significance that are within reach when you stay in Playa del Carmen.

Beaches + Water Activities
Score: 5/5

Playa del Carmen’s long pristine shore is lined with hotels and resorts and the famous 5th Avenue shopping street (or Quinta Avenida in Spanish) parallels the beach.

They offer an abundance of water-based activities, from windsurfing to jet-skiing, swimming with dolphins and diving.

Particularly within Playa del Carmen’s gated resort area of Mayakoba, the beaches are cleaner and better maintained than Cozumel and Tulum’s allowing you to enjoy the perfect beach day, including shopping, snorkeling, private dinners on the beach and everything in between.

Find out more about all that Mayakoba’s beach has to offer for your next getaway.

Food + Nightlife
Score: 5/5

When comparing the food in Tulum, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, the latter is famed for being home to top restaurants in the area.

Playa del Carmen has attracted renowned restaurateurs not only from within Mexico, but from all over the world, resulting in a vibrant and international culinary scene.

Within just the Mayakoba gated resort community alone, there are more top restaurants, such as the award-winning restaurant Saffron, than in the whole of Tulum combined. Moreover, you can enjoy both the exquisite cuisine and lush nature of Riviera Maya through traditional boat dining experiences, tapas cruises down Mayakoba’s waterways and Mayan feasts in the heart of the jungle.

Playa del Carmen is also a prime destination for eco-conscious travelers, who visit the destination for its abundance of environmental, wellness, and health-friendly food and activity options.

The nightlife of Playa del Carmen is also the most bustling, with night spots, bars, and clubs all conveniently accessible within one main district. This means that you can enjoy a fun night out amongst fellow partygoers, but you can also easily escape the exuberance when you’re ready to relax.

Luxury + Location
Score: 5/5

Playa del Carmen is great for anyone who wants to enjoy a luxurious destination within easy access of bustling beaches and nightlife, diving and snorkeling adventures, international shopping and a plethora of romantic restaurants and vistas while still being just a short distance from Tulum and Cozumel.

Between Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cozumel, the former is the closest to the airport with eco- and adventure parks and cenotes nearby. It is also just minutes from world-famous Cirque du Soleil productions and is the least isolated of the three destinations as it is centered in the heart of the Riviera Maya corridor.

Of the three destinations, Playa del Carmen gives you the freedom to explore all that the Riviera Maya has to offer in a convenient location of luxury, amenity and beauty.

Find private pool villas, pristine beach, and convenient access to Riviera Maya’s attractions when you reside at Banyan Tree Mayakoba.



Overall Score: 4/5

Atmosphere + Culture
Score: 4/5

Cozumel is well-known for its snorkeling and diving sites. It is also a popular docking destination for cruise ships and has a downtown area for shopping and dining. Cozumel can be described as laid-back and adventurous, although it lacks the luxurious resorts and facilities of Playa del Carmen.

Cozumel is a relatively small island that is home to a former site of Mayan pilgrimage, which houses the temple of the moon goddess Ixchel. This archeological site is now named San Gervasio and is worth a day trip to learn about local Mayan history.

Beaches + Water Activities
Score: 5/5

Cozumel’s beaches are largely untouched with little-to-no buildings or infrastructure on the shoreline. Some of its beaches have rough, rocky shores, while others are shallow and suitable for swimming.

When comparing Tulum and Cozumel, Cozumel’s waters are clearer and teeming with life below the surface, housing coral reefs and rich marine life, such as turtles. This makes Cozumel’s beaches attractive for travelers looking to dive or snorkel.

While Cozumel may be the prime destination for scuba divers, because of its limited infrastructure and access to other attractions outside of the island, it is recommended to stay in Playa del Carmen and make day diving trips to Cozumel’s waters.

Food + Nightlife
Score: 3.5/5

As Cozumel is a small island community located off the coast of Mexico, it has a comparatively smaller food and nightlife scene than Playa del Carmen’s, which is the most lively and impressive of the three, but a larger one than Tulum’s, which is more focused on sites of cultural significance.

Cozumel still has some bustling offerings for night spots and local food, though, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. However, during the week, things generally quiet down around 10pm or 11pm.

Luxury + Location
Score: 4/5

When looking at Cozumel, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, Playa del Carmen offers the most in terms of luxury and location, because it has the most 5-star hotels and is in the heart of the Riviera Maya, while Cozumel and Tulum are more isolated.

Comparing just Cozumel and Tulum, Cozumel has closer proximity to world-class dives sites although you need to prepare to be in a remote island location.



Overall Score: 3.75/5

Atmosphere + Culture
Score: 5/5

As a former fisherman’s village, Tulum has maintained more of a rustic vibe.

Tulum houses the most ruins of the three destinations, including a walled Mayan city dating back to the 13th century, elevated on a hilltop with views of Tulum beach. The city is also located near some of Mexico’s most popular cenotes and underwater caves. For example, just north of Tulum is the Sistema Dos Ojos, a vast flooded cave system with 28 cenotes.

However, Tulum does lack the amenities and luxury of Playa del Carmen. You can consider staying in Playa del Carmen and making a day trip to experience Tulum’s sites of cultural significance.

Beaches + Water Activities
Score: 3.5/5

Tulum’s shoreline also offers beach bars, restaurants and water activities, like snorkeling and jet-skiing, although not as abundant as Playa del Carmen’s or as clean. For this reason, it’s recommended to make a day trip to Tulum from your hotel in Playa del Carmen.

At Banyan Tree Mayakoba, we can help you book your day trip adventures to Tulum from Playa del Carmen.

Food + Nightlife
Score: 3/5

Tulum has fewer options for foodies and partygoers than and Playa del Carmen. While Tulum is increasingly becoming known among health-conscious travelers for its seeking wellness-based activities and eateries, it is still has fewer eco-conscious offerings than Playa del Carmen. Essentially, Tulum is best better known for its sites of cultural significance than its food and nightlife scene.

Luxury + Location
Score: 3/5

Tulum is called bohemian and rustic for a reason: it has the fewest options for luxury accommodations. However, it is home to the most sites of cultural significance, so it’s certainly worth a day trip to visit such sites such as Cenote Dos Ojos, which is just a 40-minute drive from Playa del Carmen.


Join us at Banyan Tree Mayakoba—a place of serenity and calm allowing you to wind down, relax, and enjoy all the amenities of a 5-star luxury resort while still being just steps away from the vibrant downtown Playa del Carmen and within easy distance to the adventures that await in Tulum and Cozumel.

Our concierge is happy to help you arrange travel to and tours of attractions, cenotes, ruins and cultural sites around the Riviera Maya.

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