Mexico’s paradise islands: 3 Caribbean destinations easily accessible from Cancun and Playa del Carmen

Ever dreamed of bathing in the crystal clear waters of a tropical island but always thought it would take far too much time and money to get there?

Then we hope this article will help you find a better alternative to the costly cruises to live your dream sooner. Mexico’s Riviera Maya has a lot to offer in terms of scenic views, good prices for everything you need, amazing natural places and beautiful people. Below you can find our personal island top and information that will help you organize a visit on your own.

What you should always check before planning your trip is the sea grass situation in each city/island: in our case although Tulum and Playa del Carmen were in a terrible condition, Cancun, Holbox and Isla Mujeres were clear. You can check the situation in real time here, on the Sargassum Monitor.

Holbox Island

This was our first encounter to the Caribbean beaches’ beauty, and it was magical. You can truly feel the small island vibe here, and the fact that you will not see any cars help to preserve this feeling. Due to the fact that the island is beautiful and the transportation cost is quite high (see below), try to spend at least 1-2 nights there to make the best out of your stay.

From where to start: Cancun (closest), Playa del Carmen or Valladolid.

How to get there by public transportation: bus from Cancun to Chiquila for aprox. 2.5 hours (we chose ADO, 298 MXN/person one way without early booking discount) and then ferry from Chiquila to Holbox for aprox 30 minutes (220 MXN/person roundtrip, either one of the 2 available companies as they have the same prices).

Make sure you pay the ferry ticket with cash. Payments by card have a 5% extra charge.

Total transportation cost Cancun-Holbox roundtrip for 2 persons (without ADO discount): 1632 MXN (aprox 70 EUR)

Tip for lowering the transportation price: book your ADO ticket at least 1 day in advance in order for your to get the 50ish % discount on the fare. You can do it either online on https://www.ado.com.mx/ or on their mobile app (for IOS or  for Android). I know I’vw said this bedire, but this was the best discovery in terms of costs optimization since we landed in Mexico.

Another cheaper option would be to try the collectivos from Cancun-Chiquila (aprox 250 MXN/pers/one way), but it is not very comfortable, has many stops on the road and the price difference is too little, so we cannot recommend this arrangement.

Chiquila Marina
Ferry prices at Chiquila Marina

Where to eat: The food prices on the island are quite high compared to Cancun, so if searching for a traditional and budget friendly place to eat try La Conquista, serving tasty empanadas.

Transportation on the island: There is no public transportation here, but there are golf carts available to rent if you want to explore the surroundings beyond where you can walk on foot. But to get to the beach there’s no need to rent, since the way to the beach from the ferry was around 15 min walking.

Rainy season island life

What to do:

1. Take a murals tour: wander around thequiet streets and discover the multiple murals the island has to offer and choose your favorites from over 90 open air pieces of art.

2. Dip into the amazing waters of the island: out of the 2 main beaches here we spent the day on Playa Holbox and we loved it. This was actually simply amazing, the Caribbean vibe was much more than we anticipated.

Playa Holbox

3. Water sports activities: when we arrived here (June) the main activities you could book were snorkeling with wale sharks and kayak tours to witness the bioluminescence (at night).

Murals on Playa Holbox

Isla Mujeres

Although a much more touristy and commercial island getaway destination compared to Holbox, we recommend you to take at least a day trip to Isla Mujeres also.

From where to start: Cancun.

How to get there by public transport: by Ultramar Ferry from Cancun. We bought a combo ticket for both Cancun-Isla Mujeres and Playa del Carmen-Cozumel islands, both open tickets for return, for 850 MXN/person/roundtrip from the ferry ticket counter (available also online on their website).

In case you decide to visit both islands it is for sure a good deal, since the price of the separate tickets is 380 MXN to Isla Mujeres and 600 MXN to Cozumel.

Transportation on the island: the offer is quite varied here, ranging from bikes, golf carts (I would say that it is not a budget option), taxi (not budget friendly either) to local busses (20 MXN/person/ride).

We decided to walk mostly and use the bus service, in order to have a more authentic experience. Just be aware that you might have to wait some time for the bus to come.

Random walls of a church, on our way to Tortugranja

Accommodation: our choice was Posada Paso Del Sol and could highly recommend it. The rooms are basic, but very clean, and the location is perfect, just minutes away from Playa Norte and right between souvenirs shops.

Basically the location of our accommodation

What to do: while the island offers plenty of scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, there are also several other spots to choose from:

  • Playa Norte: although this beach is a little bit too commercial, spend at least one of your evenings here for sunset or head here early in the morning for a power swim, it is the best way to start your day.
  • Tortugranja: this small non profit sanctuary takes care of endangered sea turtles and contributes towards the development of the specie. The entrance fee is 30 MXN/persons (1.2. EUR), and you can meet here different types of turtles and see how their nests look like (general nesting time is May-October, while hatching time is August-October).
You will find there not only turtles
  • Murals on the island’s streets: sometimes just walking the streets gives you a better insight into the local life rather than visiting touristy landmarks, so just get out of the main square and you will find a different scenery.
Parroquia Inmaculada Concepcion

Cozumel Island

From where to start: Playa del Carmen.

How to get there by public transport: by Ultramar Ferry from Playa del Carmen (see above more details). The trip lasts for aprox. 40 minutes.

Transportation on the island: since the island it’s very big, the offer is quite varied here, ranging from bikes, rental cars, taxi (not a budget friendly option though) to local busses (the starting and ending point of the routes are in Chedraui, more info here).

What to do:

Cozumel through our eyes was not so amazing, or maybe just too big and crowded for our taste, but for sure if your time is limited in Mexico we would advice you to go for Holbox or Isla Mujeres. Here are some of the activities that you could try during your stay here:

  • Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park: I would say this is rather a pricy option, but it gives you the chance to interact and swim with dolphins, sea lions and manatees in a controlled environment.
  • Snorkeling & scubadiving: home to the 2nd largest coral reef in the world, this is a good opportunity to book a local snorkeling tour. We joined this AirBnb experience – 53 EUR/person –  and had the chance to be part of a small international group (Covid-time travel advantages).
The experience ended with some local tequila tasting
  • Explore San Miguel de Cozumel: whether you want to enjoy a walk on the Malecon (the promenade) at sunset, observe the vibe of the island in Park Benito Juarez or wander through the city center itself, you will for sure have a good time. If you would like to understand the local culture beyond the touristy spots, our suggestion would be to head towards the heart of the city (try eating some tacos with locals at Mercado Municipal, visit the Municipal Graveyard, etc.).
  • Spend some time on Isla de Pasion: this is something that we wish we had time to do in Cozumel. Less visited by day tourists (quite far from the ferry if you do not have a rented car) this small strip has a beautiful palm-trees beach for a relaxing day.

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