Snorkeling in Cozumel
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Before I'd even taken my first cruise -- nevermind sailed in the Western Caribbean -- I had a pre-conception of Cozumel as being a shopper's paradise that just so happened to be in Mexico. Folks I knew who'd been there came back with nothing but pictures of them shopping -- and of course, the things they bought.
Indeed, Cozumel offers darn good deals on jewelry, Mexican handicrafts, T-shirts and other souvenirs, mostly in the main -- actually, make that only -- town of San Miguel. But what was pleasing to discover is that there's much more to Cozumel than duty-free shopping. This small island (measuring just 28 miles long and 10 miles wide) lies just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and offers incredibly diverse options for watersports' lovers, due partly to its proximity to spectacular coral reefs. And along with snorkeling, beach bumming and boating are popular activities, scuba diving is one of the biggest draws here.
Cozumel also has a rich enough background to satiate any history buff's appetite. In fact, the island derives its name from the Mayan civilization that settled there approximately 2,000 years ago. According to Mayan legend, Cozumel was the home of Ixchel, the goddess of love and fertility. It's said that when religious temples were dedicated to her, she sent her favorite bird -- the swallow -- as a sign of her gratitude. For this reason, the people coined the island "Cuzamil" -- Mayan for "Land of the Swallows." There are several important Mayan sites on the island (such as San Gervasio and El Cedral) and even better preserved ones on the (fairly) easily accessible mainland -- Chichen Itza and Tulum are hot numbers as far as day trips and shore excursions are concerned.
Although Cozumel is Mexico's largest Caribbean island (and its most populated), it wasn't until the 1960's that this once-sleepy fishing village became a tourist attraction in its own right, following a documentary in which Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the most beautiful scuba diving areas in the world. These days, Cozumel is a major cruise port welcoming more than one million cruise passengers each year, and as many as eight ships per day. But even with all this progress, Cozumel has held onto its non-touristy side; only one-third of the island has been developed, leaving large stretches of pristine jungle and sandy beach basically untouched.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Tampa
No drink can beat the luscious margaritas served at Pancho's Backyard in San Miguel. Although, the margaritas at Nachi-Cocom Cozumel Beach Club are right there. Another tasty libation imbibed in many bars is the "michilada" (beer mixed with lime juice).
Mexican arts and crafts, like hammocks and leather goods, make great souvenirs. Tequila is also a popular take-home item; though the prices might not be the lowest on the island, selection of premium tequilas at Los Cinco Soles is impressive.
Editor's note: Remember this about the sale of black coral, which is an endangered species: Though there are dealers wielding government-issued permits to sell the stuff, coral jewelry is listed on the U.S. Department of State's list of "wildlife and wildlife products" to avoid -- at the risk of confiscation and possible fine.
Spanish is the official language, but nearly all shops and eateries have English-speaking personnel.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the peso. However, most stores prefer dollars, so it's not necessary to change money. ATM's are located in several areas throughout the main plaza in Cozumel, near the cruise docks.
Where You're Docked
Cozumel has three piers, all of which are found on the built-up, western side of the island. Punta Langosta is ideally situated right in downtown San Miguel. The International Pier, the oldest cruise ship pier on the island, is located about 1.5 miles from San Miguel (walkable). Carnival Corp.'s Puerta Maya, located about five miles from San Miguel, was built to be somewhat of a stand-alone destination, with restaurants, jewelry stores, local craft carts and a beach.
Pierside: Adjacent to the Punta Langosta pier is one of Cozumel's best jewelry stores: Rachat & Romero at Avenida Melgar 101. An especially good store for Mexican handicrafts is Viva Mexico at the intersection of Avenida Melegar and Adolfo Rosado.
On Foot: Depending on your pace, downtown San Miguel is about a 30- to 45-minute walk from the International Pier (there are sidewalks). Since it can get very hot en route, most passengers opt to take a taxi into town. Once there, downtown San Miguel is very walkable, with most shops, bars and restaurants clustered around the waterfront.
Taxis: Taxis line up at the entrances to the piers and cost about $5 per ride. Rates to the beaches can cost $10 to $15; to avoid being ripped off be sure to settle on a fare before departing. Word to the wise: Some drivers aim to overcharge for longer trips, so bargain carefully and don't be taken for a ride. Also, if you decide to give the walk a go and then decide midway that you've made a mistake, it is easy to grab a cab -- just wave when the driver toots his horn. And again, be sure to settle on a fare before he takes his foot off the brake.
Renting a Car: Some passengers who don't take one of the shore excursions and want to travel on their own may want to rent a Jeep or four-wheel-drive vehicle. Rates begin at about $45 per day and can go as high as $80, plus additional charges for insurance and gas. Hertz (three Locations: 800-654-3131) and Avis (six Locations: 011-52-987-872-1923) are among those open for business.
Moped: This is a popular and inexpensive way ($35 per day) for one or two people to get around Cozumel, although many cruise ships warn against doing so because of the dangers of an accident due to reckless drivers, hidden stop signs and stretches of severely potholed roads. I once rented a moped that broke down halfway around the island. It took me most of the afternoon to get in touch with someone to come and repair it. As a result, that was the first and last time I rented a moped on Cozumel.
Fun Car or Scoot Car: These automatic-transmission buggies resembling souped-up golf carts are another possible option. Able to reach speeds of 45 miles per hour, they cost $35 for the first hour and another $10 for each additional hour, or $85 for the whole day. Look for the rental booth on the ground floor of the Punta Langosta shopping arcade.
Watch Out For
Be aware of mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles. They're prevalent, and drivers won't always yield to pedestrians. As you should in any city, leave unnecessary valuables in your cabin safe. Finally, be sure to negotiate and settle on a fare before getting into any taxi.
San Miguel: Cozumel's one and only "big" city (some refer to it as a large town) literally owes its economic well-being to the growth of the cruise industry, which has transformed this once-sleepy fishing village into a tourist outpost, crammed with stores selling every imaginable souvenir as well as handicrafts and jewelry. While many restaurants offer Mexican fare, there are others geared toward American tastes, with several U.S. fast-food chains represented, along with such notable names as the Hard Rock Cafe. Most shops stay open until at 5:30 or 6 p.m. (or when the last cruise ship departs).
San Miguel revolves around its two landmarks: the "zocalo" (town square), known as Plaza del Sol, and the downtown pier. Easily the most distinctive and fabulous store on Cozumel is Los Cinco Soles (we've easily lost a whole day here!), which sells gorgeous Mexican crafts (plenty of the unusual along with more common items), silver jewelry and fashions. There's a tequila bar, and the shop wraps around the wonderful Pancho's Backyard restaurant. Also of interest to shoppers: Adjacent to the Plaza del Sol is the modern Villa Mar Complex, an air-conditioned mall with several good silver shops (be sure to look for the 925 stamp indicating quality silver); among the best buys in the mall are hand-woven hammocks, shell and black coral jewelry, and local handicrafts. There are also many duty-free items for sale such as perfumes and watches.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are the top priority for many visitors. Along with Grand Cayman, Roatan and Belize, Cozumel offers the best diving and snorkeling sites in the Caribbean. In some areas, visibility reaches 250 feet, and prime sites for "divehards" include Palancar Reef (the second longest reef system in the world), Chankanaab Caves and La Ceiba Reef. At La Ceiba, the underwater universe contains a sunken airplane that came to rest here after being blown up for a Mexican disaster movie.
A word to the wise: Be sure to keep an eye out for dive operators that post C.A.D.O. stickers in their windows; these are considered the island's most reputable dive establishments.
Glass-bottom boat tours provide a glimpse of the reefs for aqua-phobics and others who prefer to stay dry; some of these tours also stop occasionally for snorkeling breaks.
Although Cozumel is not a haven for culture vultures, there are some interesting exhibits on underwater life and the ecosystem of the surrounding reefs, as well as displays on Mayan and colonial life at the Museum of the Island of Cozumel, located three blocks from the San Miguel ferry dock.
While the best-preserved Mayan ruins are located on the mainland, there are several smaller Mayan sites scattered around Cozumel. The best of the local sites is at San Gervasio, located approximately seven miles from San Miguel. During its heyday, San Gervasio served as a ceremonial center dedicated to the fertility goddess Ixchel. The oldest site is El Cedral, about three miles from San Miguel, though little remains here except for a Mayan arch and a few small ruins.
Been There, Done That
Playa del Carmen: Accessible via fast ferry, this mainland resort town is a fantastically bustling place that's chock-a-block with shops (some of the tacky touristy variety; others, particularly in a newish conclave just off the ferry dock, much more upscale) and cafes. It actually is better known to Europeans, so there's an indefinably foreign air -- and you'll feel a million miles away from Cozumel. The "Mexico Water Jet" ferries passengers back and forth between Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan peninsula and Cozumel. The ferry operates continuously, and the crossing takes approximately 40 minutes; depending on sea conditions, the ride can range from super-smooth to extremely bumpy. The ride costs about $9 (you can also pay in pesos but be prepared to pay in cash) each way. Info: CozumelMyCozumel.com.
Playa del Carmen is also the jumping-off point for the region's best-known Mayan sites. Try a day trip to the ruins of Chichen Itza, the Yucatan's most renowned, which contains a mix of temples, pyramids and carvings dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries. Other Mayan ruins are located at Tulum, situated on the coast 35 miles south of Playa del Carmen. The site features several Mayan temples -- including a stunning temple right on the coastline -- government buildings and a beach below the ruins. Day trips to both Mayan sites can be booked through local tour operators. Three of the most reputable tour operators that offer day trips to Chichen Itza and Tulum are Caribe Tours (from the U.S. phone 011-52-987-872-3100), Intermar Caribe (011-52-987-872-1535) and Turismo Aviomar (011-52-987-872-5445).
Editor's note: Independent travelers should know that an excursion to Chichen Itza spells a long day -- about a three-hour bus ride in each direction; don't forget to factor in the ferry ride from Cozumel. This is one of the times we actually recommend taking this trip as part of your ship's shore excursion program because the logistics are so complicated.
Just a short ride from Tulum is Xel-Ha, a lagoon that was considered sacred by the Maya. It has been converted into an underwater park featuring an aquarium and areas for swimming, snorkeling, sunning and dining.
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve lies on a limestone flat just south of Tulum. The 1.3-million-acre reserve is home to endangered manatees, crocodiles, jaguars and turtles and features more than 1,000 varieties of plants, 350 species of birds and 70 different mammals. More than 1,000 Maya live within the reserve.
Another fascinating day trip is to one of the island's nature preserves such as Chankanaab National Park. There's a beachfront area with bar and grill, botanical garden and archaeological park on-site. The park's Dolphin Discovery program features captive dolphins that visitors are permitted to swim with for a fee.
Punta Sur is another eco-tourist park for visitors interested in learning about Cozumel's native flora and fauna. The park encompasses mangrove jungles, white sand beaches and reef formations. There is also an information center where visitors can watch a 20-minute video and learn about the different ecosystems, reefs and native birds, along with other wildlife inhabiting the area such as turtles and alligators.
Highly Recommended: Nachi Cocom Beach Club & Water Sport Center
The best beaches for swimming, snorkeling or lounging under the sun are on the western side of the island, where the winds are light and waters usually calm. Don't forget plenty of sunscreen unless you want to be fried a bright shade of lobster red. The surf on the eastern side of the island tends to be much rougher.
Best Beaches for Water Sports: Chankanaab Park and Reef, is terrific for snorkeling, scuba diving, beach bumming and eating. Paradise Beach offers an excellent and wide variety of water sports rentals along with a restaurant and two bars. Playa San Francisco is another good choice.
Best Secluded Beach: Playa Escondida may have few amenities, but that keeps the crowds away. Another peaceful option is Playa Chen Rio, on the eastern side of the island.
Pancho's Backyard (Av. Rafael Melgar 27 between calles 8 and 10, Monday - Friday from 11 a.m., closed on Sunday) is a great place for margaritas and wonderful Mexican specialties. Here, you can sit inside on the terrace and cool off beneath whirring ceiling fans while listening to the soothing sounds of trickling fountains. Pancho's is attached to one of the best shopping venues on the island.
Guido's (Av. Rafael Melgar No. 23 between calles 6 and 8, Monday - Saturday from 11 a.m., closed Sunday) is considered the island's best Italian restaurant. Choice tables are located on the patio out back.
For atmosphere and tradition, don't miss Casa Denis (open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), which has been here since 1945 and has some amazing historic photos on the walls, including a young Fidel Castro.
Some of Cozumel's best home-cooked cuisine (particularly for breakfast) is served up daily at La Choza (Rosada Salas 198 at Av. 10 Sur from 7 a.m.), a family-run restaurant where specialties include pozole (corn soup), pollo en relleno negro (chicken in blackened sauce) and their signature avocado pie.
Carlos 'n Charlie's (Av. Rafael Melgar #11 on the waterfront, open daily from 10 a.m.) is the island's cornball, always-crowded tourism hot spot which specializes in ridiculously huge tropical drinks and bar food. Many tourists apparently like the raucous frat-party atmosphere, and after more than one libation you'll be lucky to stagger back to your ship.
La Mission, located just off of Av. Rafael E. Melgar (the main street that runs in front of the pier), is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and serves phenomenal, authentic Mexican food at very reasonable prices. We highly recommend the tortilla soup.
For a truly cultural experience that was recommended to us by a local, check out Las Palmas. It's open until just after dinnertime, and it's located between 3rd Street and Morelos. It specializes in authentic Mexican food, but be warned: the staff doesn't speak English, so bone up on your Spanish before visiting, and be prepared to point at what you'd like from the menu.
Best Choice for Divers: Experienced divers can take advantage of the opportunity to dive with one of Mexico's best dive operators; a two-tank dive includes one dive at famed Palencar Reef. Duration: four hours; price $89. There is also a beginner's scuba-diving program lasting 2.5 hours for $79.
Best Choice for Non-Divers Who Want to "Go Deep": A journey to a maximum depth of 100 feet below the surface in an Atlantis submarine for a narrated tour of Cozumel's spectacular underwater environment. This well-designed vehicle is air conditioned and equipped with large viewing ports. Duration: 75 minutes; price $105.
Best Choice for Soft Adventurers and Snorkelers: The Ocoee & Snorkel Tour combines traveling around Cozumel in a Jeep convoy with a visit to Punta Sur Nature Preserve and some quality time snorkeling in the Caribbean. Along the way you may also see saltwater crocodiles; all snorkeling equipment is provided. Duration: five hours; price $69.
Best for Snorkelers: An excursion via a 65-foot catamaran to some choice snorkeling sites. The catamaran has a spacious sundeck, there are snorkeling instructors accompanying each excursion and equipment is provided -- all you need to bring is sunscreen, a towel, a bathing suit and a camera. After snorkeling there is a beach party with free beer, margaritas and soda. Duration: 3.5 hours; price $65.
Best Choice for Snorkelers and Dolphin Lovers: This unique excursion takes you to Chankanaab Park where you can enjoy some of Cozumel's best snorkeling and also spend approximately 30 minutes in the water with dolphins and dolphin trainers who guide you through the experience. (Minimum age for this excursion is six.) Duration: three hours; price $155.
Best For History Buffs: Tours to the ruins at either Chichen Itza or Tulum, the two prime Mayan sites on the Yucatan. Duration: seven to 10 hours; price $75.
Highly Recommended: Salsa and Salsa
Editor's Note: Prices are approximations.
Staying in Touch
Located between 10th Ave. North and Benito Juarez, you'll find Mexatel, which offers a handful of computers and Internet access. However, the employees we encountered didn't speak any English, so be prepared to whip out your pocket dictionary if you don't speak Spanish.
For More Information
On the Web: www.cozumelinsider.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Cozumel
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
--Updated by Melissa Paloti, Cruise Critic contributor, and Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor