Your crash course on the best islands to visit now in the Mexican Caribbean, paradisiacal to bohemian to uninhabited.
Last updated: August 2023 / Feature image: Isla Mujeres by Under the Palm
What is it about a tropical island that screams dream vacation? Maybe it’s the requisite powdery soft white sand, rows of languid palms and endless sparkling sea. Or perhaps the accompanying vision of toes-in-the-sand, drink-in-hand repose. Or simply, the feeling of being worlds away from home on a secluded patch of pure paradise.
In the Mexican Caribbean, island life delivers on all of the above – and then some. Think: world-famed beaches on Isla Mujeres to spectacular sunsets (& snorkeling) on Cozumel; bohemian luxury on Holbox to untouched bliss on protected Isla Contoy.
Ahead, we have your crash course on all four of the region’s palm-fringed oases, so you can soak in island vibes at their finest – whether day-tripping from the mainland or going all in island style.
But first: travel insurance to the rescue.
Wherever, and whenever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. I personally use and recommend Faye Travel Insurance for their thorough, easy to understand and fair-priced coverage options. Think: emergency medical and sickness benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, compensation for lost luggage and personal effects, and trip protection covering things like unforeseen cancellation, interruption or missed connections.
You can even add optional coverage for your traveling pets, that sweet ride you’ll be renting, extreme sports and accidental vacation rental damage (oops). Plus! A game-changing travel benefit you can add on to your policy: the ability to cancel for any reason. Did I mention a seamless in-app claims process and rapid, on-the-go reimbursements to your digital Faye Wallet? Check pricing here.
Pro Tip: it’s best to buy your travel insurance policy within 14 days of making your initial trip deposit (like when you buy your flights or book your hotel).
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Best Islands in the Mexican Caribbean: Isla Mujeres
A literal slice of paradise tucked into the sparkling waters of the Mexican Caribbean. This tiny island gem stretches just 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) long and barely 1/2 mile (650 meters) wide, filled with swaying palm trees, platinum sand beaches, stunning coastal views and laid back island vibes. Located a mere 20-minute ferry ride from Cancún, Isla Mujeres is a popular day trip and for good reason. Best traversed via golf cart, you can zip around the entire island in under just two hours.
Visiting for the day and prefer a guided adventure? This full day catamaran tour from Cancun –> Isla Mujeres includes snorkeling, toes-in-the-sand time at Playa Mujeres (the island’s most beautiful beach) and open bar. Or, make it VIP with this private catamaran tour for just you and your crew.
While we won’t fault you for day-tripping to Isla Mujeres, you would be remiss not to consider spending the night, a weekend or longer on the island. For those looking to explore further, we have all of your intel on this tropical oasis – best hotels to restaurants to beach bars – in our comprehensive Isla Mujeres travel guide here.
Best Islands in the Mexican Caribbean: Cozumel
Located about 12 miles (19 kilometers) off the coast of Playa Del Carmen, the island of Cozumel beckons with glistening turquoise water, fascinating Maya ruins set in the jungle, hotels and beach clubs in abundance, and the world’s second largest barrier reef system waiting to be explored by snorkelers and divers alike. At 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and 9.9 miles (16 kilometers) wide Cozumel is larger than Isla Mujeres, but can still be explored in just a single day or even better, an overnight (or longer).
Want to take advantage of Cozumel’s worldwide-famed snorkeling? Once on the island, you can embark on this guided sailing excursion combining a snorkel stop at Palancar Reef with swimming with starfish in the stunning, crystal clear waters of El Cielo – plus open bar and fresh ceviche. Or, you can hop on this glass bottom boat tour including 3 snorkel stops. Looking to stay land-bound? Choose your own adventure with this customizable, private Jeep tour around the island or ride ATVs through the jungle to a hidden cenote.
For those looking to delve into Cozumel further, we have everything you need to know – best things to do to the island’s fascinating history to a slew of practical intel – in our Cozumel travel guide here.
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Best Islands in the Mexican Caribbean: Holbox
Situated unassumingly off the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lies Isla Holbox (Maya for “black hole” and pronounced “hol-bosh”): a laid back island paradise awaiting in-the-know travelers looking for a truly authentic, barefoot and beautiful beach escape. Just a 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland of Chiquilá takes you to the car-free island, part of the region’s sprawling Yum Balam Nature Reserve.
After traveling just about everywhere throughout this region I have to say, Holbox is really special. Endless stretches of white sand surrounded by calm, shimmering ocean, sandy roads accessible on foot, bike or golf cart only, jaw dropping sunsets, limited wifi capabilities (for better or worse) and a seriously chilled out vibe make this place still feel like a secret – even though the secret’s out.
Holbox is a bit of a trek from the Riviera Maya coastline and while technically doable on a day trip, I highly recommend spending at least 1 or 2 nights in this island paradise. We have everything you need to know for an unforgettable trip to Holbox here.
Pressed for time? Consider this full day excursion from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen your Holbox crash course. A guided tour of the island, stops in famed Punta Mosquito and stunning Isla Pasión are all included, plus lunch and beverages.
Best Islands in the Mexican Caribbean: Isla Contoy
If visions of virgin beaches, rustling palm trees and nary a person in sight come to mind when picturing paradise, than you won’t want to miss Isla Contoy. Located about 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) north of Isla Mujeres, this uninhabited oasis is filled with nothing but natural beauty and biodiversity – plus a small lighthouse. In 1998, the island was officially declared a protected paradise when the Mexican Conservation Authority designated the site a National Marine Park.
How to visit? With licensed tour operators only, who will take you on an unforgettable full-day adventure complete with sailing, a guided tour of the island, free time to enjoy, plus snorkeling at Ixlaché Reef: the gateway to the Great Mesoamerican Reef (a.k.a. the 2nd largest coral reef system in the world).
This full day island adventure from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen includes all of the above, plus a stop in downtown Isla Mujeres. Make it private with this exclusive excursion for you and your crew only.