When your main ingredients for a much-needed vacation are warmth and water, it can be hard to decide between two destinations that offer both -- especially when it comes to the beloved vacation spots of Jamaica and Mexico. Both countries offer white-sand beaches, epic food scenes, and specific cultural and geographical activities -- that are wildly different. We looked at nightlife, food, safety, beaches, and culture in both Jamaica and Mexico to help you decide which is the better vacation spot for you.
Beaches and Scenery in Jamaica vs. Mexico
Beaches in Mexico: There are two general types of beaches in Mexico: the Caribbean side, which tends to be warmer and calmer, and the Pacific side, where the water is a little cooler but the waves are more consistent for surfing and other water activities. Classic Caribbean destinations include Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. The Pacific side is home to relaxed beach towns like Sayulita and all of Baja California’s famed destinations like Los Cabos.
Beaches in Jamaica: Jamaica has all Caribbean beaches all of the time, which means warm, no-filter-necessary azure blue water. You’ve probably heard of the famous Seven-Mile Beach, which is an unbroken stretch of white-sand beaches (though people argue about the actual distance). The area is lined with resorts, so you’ll never be far from entertainment or amenities. For a less-manicured feel, travel to the island’s south side to Treasure Beach, where the water is still gorgeous but sees far fewer visitors. On the northeast coast, one of Jamaica’s most photogenic beaches is Frenchman’s Cove, which has been featured in movies like “Treasure Island.” It’s a small fee of $12 to access for visitors not staying at the resort, but it’s also one of the quieter beaches in Jamaica thanks to rules blocking music. Really want some peace and quiet? Kayak over to Pellew Island, where you can snorkel above reefs while enjoying relative solitude.
Mexico Scenery: Mexico manages to one-up Jamaica just on sheer volume. Mexico is about 179 times larger than Jamaica, at about 76,000 square miles to Jamaica’s 4,200. That size also means there’s more diversity of scenery in Mexico. There are the beaches, yes, but also metropolitan areas like Mexico City, three mountain ranges (including several peaks higher than 14,000 feet), volcanoes, deep canyons, deserts, river valleys, one of the largest barrier reefs, Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, in the world and collapsed underground river pockets called cenotes.
Jamaica Scenery: More isn’t always better — Jamaica’s size means it’s entirely possible to see many of the best sites in a single vacation. The 180-foot deep Blue Lagoon is a mix of salt and freshwater made famous by the Brooke Shields movie of the same name that changes color throughout the day. There’s also Jamaica’s own mountain range, the Blue Mountains, which reach a height of 7,400 feet — not too shabby for an island! Plus, there are several waterfalls, 120 rivers, including the large Rio Grande, and crocodile safaris to get you up close with wildlife.
Cuisine and Drinks in Jamaica vs. Mexico
Mexico: Chances are, you’re already pretty familiar with quintessentially Mexican dishes: enchiladas, tamales, guacamole, tacos (which date back to Aztecs and Mayan times), not to mention salsas that range from mild to super spicy. You’ll also see a lot of pozole (a traditional stew), meats covered in savory sauces called mole, and Mexican pastries called pan dolce for dessert.
Beyond the popular resort areas we’ve mentioned so far, other top destinations for foodies include Oaxaca, which is known for its ancient, traditional dishes like chapulines (grasshopper) and huitlacoche (corn fungus). Merida is where you can find some of the best citrus-marinated pork, called cochinita pibil. Puebla is famous for combining indigenous, Spanish and Arabic foods for truly special delicacies. What we’re saying is: there’s a reason UNESCO has listed Mexico’s cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. While you won’t struggle to find most types of alcohol, tequila and mezcal are the “when in Rome” liquors to try, though you should also seek out wine from Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s booming wine region. Keep an eye out for the lesser-known pulque, a fermented drink local to Mexico City. And yes, drink all the Mexican beer — served with lime or Michelada style with tomato juice and spices — that you can stomach…responsibly.
Jamaica: Jamaican foods are perhaps less well-known but no less delicious. Traditional foods include ackee and saltfish. Ackee is a fruit, the national dish of Jamaica and poisonous when it’s not ripe, and fried plantains. Curry goat, fried doughs like festival, bammy, and johnnycakes, and callaloo greens are also popular. And then yes, of course, jerk chicken, a spice-rubbed chicken that might make your eyes water but will make your tastebuds very, very happy.
When in Jamaica, rum tastings are the way to experience the island’s best booze, though you’ll find plenty of local Red Stripe and Dragon Stout beers to try, too. For a non-alcoholic bevy, enjoy the expensive (and hard to source elsewhere) Blue Mountain Coffee.
Safety in Jamaica vs. Mexico
Both Mexico and Jamaica have a Level 2 travel advisory, which is the same as countries like Italy, the UK, and Germany. Popular tourist destinations where resorts and other amenities are located are generally safe for travel in both these countries, though always double check the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories before departing.
Safety in Jamaica: Travelers are advised not to travel to specific parts of Jamaica due to violence and shootings, including Cassava Piece, Grants Pen, Standpipe and Downtown in Kingston; Canterbury, Clavers Street, Flankers, Hart Street, Norwood, and Rose Heights in Montego Bay; and Spanish Town. LGBTQ safety is also a concern, as Jamaica is considered one of the least queer-friendly destinations in the Caribbean, though attitudes are improving. For additional security, look for destinations and tours that specifically advertise friendliness toward LGBTQ people.
Safety in Mexico: In Mexico, travelers are advised to completely avoid Colima state, Guerrero state, Michoacán state, and Sinaloa state due to crime, and Tamaulipas state due to crime and kidnapping. Other border areas are advised against travel, as well, so be sure to research your destination ahead of time using the U.S. State Department’s website.
Weather in Jamaica vs. Mexico
Mexico: Here’s a breakdown for some of the most popular Mexico destinations:
Cancun/Playa del Carmen/Tulum: Temperature hovers between a high of 80 to 90 and a low of 65 to 75. The most popular travel times are December through April, when the temperatures and humidity are lower. Hurricanes are possible between June and November, and regular rain is common July through September.
Cabo San Lucas/Puerto Vallarta: Temperature hovers between a high of 80 to 90 and a low of 60 to 80. The most popular travel times are December through April, when the temperatures and humidity are lower. Hurricanes are possible between June and November, and regular rain is common July through September.
Mexico City: Temperatures are relatively mild at 70 to 80 degrees year round, with lows between 40 and 55. Rain is common between June and September, and the driest and most popular months to visit are between December and March.
Jamaica: There are some slight weather and temperature differences between destination spots like Montego Bay or Negril. On the whole, you can expect Jamaica’s temperatures in coastal areas to hover between 80 and 90 degrees, with lows between 70 and 80 degrees.
The rainy season is September to December, and Negril gets the most rainfall with a whopping 62 inches each year, compared to Montego Bay’s 37 inches and Kingston’s 28 inches. But Negril is also beloved for some of the best beaches, so its heavy rain season is totally forgivable. Inland, the Blue Mountains can sometimes see temperatures in the low 60s.
Top activities in Jamaica vs. Mexico
It’s completely within reason to tackle every one of these activities in Jamaica in a single trip (if you’re diligent about planning). Some of Mexico’s top attractions can be more than a thousand miles apart, meaning you’ll have to make hard choices about what to put on your list and which to leave off. That said, both locations have incredible hiking trails, water activities like snorkeling and surfing, and rich cultural history. Here are just a few spots to consider.
Mexico Snorkeling and Diving: While there are too many opportunities for gorgeous underwater opportunities in Mexico to name, a few of our favorites include snorkeling with whale sharks at Isla Mujeres near Cancun, diving to a series of installations by the sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor at Manchones Reef, or visiting the 300 square miles of reef atoll at Banco Chinchorro.
Jamaica Snorkeling and Diving: Near Montego Bay, stingrays are abundant at aptly-named Stingray City, an easy dive for certified divers. Near Kingston, the Middle Shoal Reef’s shallow depth of just 30 feet makes it a great spot for dive beginners. Not sure about scuba? Snorkeling is great here, too: Montego Bay Marine Park is an especially calm area to swim and look for angelfish, lion fish, and turtles.
Mexico Surfing: To catch a wave, set your sights on the Baja peninsula or further south on the Pacific coast in surf towns like Sayulita. The Pacific waters lend themselves to more consistent waves than the Caribbean side.
Jamaica Surfing: The Portland parish sees the most consistent wave opportunities. The prime spot is the popular Boston Bay, but Winifred Beach, and Long Bay can be good options, too. Unfortunately, Negril rarely gets waves worth surfing — but that also means the calmer waters are ideal for swimming.
Mexico History and Culture: It’s hard to beat the incredible Mayan and Aztec ruins like Chichen Itza near Cancun or Palenque toward the very south of the country. Other top attractions for history and culture include the Museo Frida Kahlo and Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City.
Jamaica History and Culture: Interested in Jamaica’s culture? Consider a guided neighborhood tour or historical lesson at Fort Charles, which was built in 1655 by the English and managed to survive the 1692 earthquake that destroyed the other forts in town. Or visit Museums of History and Ethnography at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston to learn about Port Royal, where the same earthquake sunk most of the town under 40 feet of water. The Bob Marley experience is another popular spot to learn about reggae and music.
Mexico Nightlife: There’s a reason people associate Mexico with spring break partying — the nightlife can be rowdy, boisterous, and go late into the night, especially in party-central spots like Cancun. Not into the raucous scene? Look for salsa clubs, craft beer spots, or anywhere that doesn’t advertise, say, foam parties or margaritas distributed via water guns. Mexico City has a plethora of lounges, clubs, and bars that range from laidback to late night.
Jamaica Nightlife: While you can certainly party if you want to in Jamaica, the vibes are generally a lot mellower. Caribbean dancing and laid back rum drinking is more popular, though you can find reggae or dancehall music late into the evening at the tourist-centric Rick’s Cafe.
Where to Stay in Mexico vs Jamaica
The winner of TripAdvisor’s 2019 Traveler’s Choice award, Gran Hotel Ciudad is both a stunning architectural marvel (the lobby ceilings are made of stained glass) and a convenient basecamp. Located right next to Zocalo square, there tons of historic sites and drool-worthy restaurants within walking distance.
Located between the Caribbean seafront and the mangrove-covered and ecologically abundant Riviera Maya lagoon, Andaz Mayakoba provides five-star luxury and solitude. Suites are spread throughout the property, with bicycles and staffed golf carts available for transport to restaurants, the spa, and the waterfront.
Jewel Runaway Beach Bay Resort on Jamaica’s north shore is especially excellent for SCUBA enthusiasts, since the resort has several dive sites available for a small day rate. Newcomers and certified divers can enjoy sights like reefs, canyons, shipwrecks and underwater plane crashes. Or keep the kids busy at the resort’s waterpark.
Azul Beach Resort is located in Negril on Seven Mile Beach. This all-inclusive resort focuses on a gourmet experience, including six restaurants and six bars and in-room dining. Take a kayak or HobieCat boat out on the water, go rum tasting or try Carribean dancing, or join a daily yoga class as part of the inclusive experience.