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There are 3 main islands located in the Riviera Maya: Cozumel (the island of the Mayan goddess Ixchel), Isla Mujeres, and Isla Holbox (self-proclaimed Island of the Whale Sharks). Have limited time and need to figure out which islands to visit? Here’s your guide!
Cozumel is the largest island and is easily accessible via an international airport (CZM), cruise ship, or ferry from Playa del Carmen. Cozumel has great restaurants at reasonable prices and, thanks to Jacques Cousteau, is known as a paradise for scuba diving and snorkeling with its azure waters, outstanding reefs, virtually unparalleled visibility, and warm sea temperatures. If you aren’t into crowds, you can easily escape the tourist zone by walking a few blocks east of the maritime terminals. The northern and eastern beaches are often almost completely unpopulated. On Cozumel you can step off the beach, stick your face into the water, and instantly see tons of fish. The lack of buses makes getting around a bit tougher, but it’s a good excuse to rent a scooter.
Just outside Cancun is Isla Mujeres, a former favored site for pirates. It is a short (about 15 minutes) ferry ride from the mainland. This island is very walkable, and most of the lodging, businesses, and restaurants are located close to each other within the commercial district. The north beach is considered to be the best, and like most of the beaches on the peninsula, the water is clear, a beautiful blue, and the sands are white. There is a relatively new seaside walking path which is great for an evening stroll, and also a good place to find yummy street food. Whale shark tours are often conducted from here. If snorkeling and scuba are your thing, though, this island may be a let-down, except for the infamous Cave of the Sleeping Sharks and the underwater museum. Due to its location so close to Cancun, it is has a greater number of tourists than the other islands.
Further up the peninsula is the island of Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh). This small fishing village is still in its infancy as a tourist attraction, which has left the island fairly unspoiled and cozy. Holbox is where you go to feel time slow down, to kite board, see flamingoes, swim with the whale sharks, and walk everywhere barefoot. Food and lodging are a bit more expensive here. Lodging choices include everything from camping to luxury accommodations. You will rarely see a car on the packed sand roads. If you enjoy walking, it’s a safe and easy place to explore on foot; however, you can also rent a golf cart to get around like the locals.
• If you like to slow down, take eco tours, want to swim with whale sharks, are searching for a romantic getaway, enjoy more rustic locales, and/or prefer a pedestrian-friendly location, choose Holbox.
• Isla Mujeres is your choice for a quick island getaway while staying in Cancun. With frequent ferries to and from the mainland, it’s an easy escape from Cancun’s busier pace. Prices are moderate, tourists are more concentrated, and there isn’t as much local flare.
• Cozumel is your preferred island destination for great, uncrowded beaches and world-class scuba and snorkeling. Its location just outside Playa del Carmen, combined with its own international airport, make it a great starting place for visiting the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan Peninsula. It has greater diversity of restaurants and accommodations than the other islands as well.