Snorkeling in Cozumel
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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 areas in the world for scuba diving. These days, Cozumel is a major cruise port that welcomes 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 beaches basically untouched.
Yes, it's true: There's much more to Cozumel than duty-free shopping. (That being said, Cozumel offers darn good deals on jewelry, Mexican handicrafts, T-shirts and other souvenirs, mostly in the main town of San Miguel.) This small island, measuring just 28 miles long and 10 miles wide, lies off the coast of the country's Yucatan peninsula and offers incredibly diverse options for water sports-lovers, partly because of its proximity to spectacular coral reefs. Along with snorkeling, beach bumming and boating, scuba diving is one of the biggest draws to this sunny destination.
Cozumel owns a rich history. 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 called the island "Cuzamil" -- Mayan for "Land of the Swallows." Several important Mayan sites, such as San Gervasio and El Cedral, populate the island. Even better preserved ones are on the accessible mainland; Chichen Itza and Tulum are hot spots for daytrips and shore excursions.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Houston • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
No drink can beat the luscious giant margaritas served at Pancho's Backyard in San Miguel, although the margaritas at Nachi-Cocom Cozumel Beach Club offer a steady challenge. Another tasty libation imbibed in many bars is the "michelada" (beer mixed with lime juice).
Mexican arts and crafts like hammocks, jade jewelry, ponchos, carvings 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, the selection of premium tequilas at the Los Cinco Soles store in San Miguel is impressive.
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. Buyers risk confiscation and fines.
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 U.S. dollars, so it's not necessary to change money. ATMs 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 in downtown San Miguel. The International Pier, the oldest cruise ship pier on the island, is located about 2.5 miles from San Miguel (a long but scenic and safe walk). Carnival Corp.'s Puerta Maya, located about five miles from San Miguel, acts as a standalone destination, with restaurants, jewelry stores, local craft carts and a beach.
The growing Royal Village Shopping Center sits right across the street from the International Pier. The complex features a cozy Wi-Fi cafe, Cafe Punta del Cielo, which sells coffees, sodas and delicious pastries. The mall also is home to popular stores like Harley-Davidson, Claire's, Swarovski and Lacoste. Adjacent to the Punta Langosta pier is one of Cozumel's best jewelry stores: Rachat & Romero at Avenida Melgar 101. An especially fun store to browse 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 at least a 45-minute walk from the International Pier. It can get very hot, so most passengers opt to take a taxi into town or hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage. Once there, downtown San Miguel is very walkable, with most shops, bars and restaurants clustered around the waterfront.
By Taxi: 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. Also, if you give the walk a try and decide midway that you've made a mistake, it is easy to grab a cab. Just wave when the driver toots his horn. 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 might want to rent a Jeep or four-wheel-drive vehicle. Beware of additional charges for insurance and gas. Hertz (three locations: 800-654-3131) and Avis (six locations: 011-52-987-872-1923) are among those with offices at the piers.
By Moped: This is a popular and inexpensive way for one or two people to get around Cozumel, although many cruise ships warn against doing so because of the dangers of an accident while navigating among reckless drivers. Hidden stop signs and stretches of severely potholed roads also present hazards.
By Fun Car or Scoot Car: These automatic-transmission buggies, resembling souped-up golf carts, are another possible option. They're able to reach speeds of 45 mph, and you can find 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 when visiting 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), 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. While many restaurants offer Mexican fare, others favor 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 5:30 or 6 p.m. -- or whenever 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 there), 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 notable 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. You'll also find many duty-free items, 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 (part of the nearly 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest reef system in the world, behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef), Chankanaab Caves and La Ceiba Reef. At La Ceiba, the underwater universe contains a sunken airplane that came to rest after being blown up for a Mexican disaster movie. A word to the wise: Keep an eye out for dive operators who post C.A.D.O. stickers in their windows; these are considered the island's most reputable dive establishments. Operators are located up and down the main road along the waterfront, between the International Pier and San Miguel.
Snorkelers can find outfitters in this area, too, or simply drop into any of the multiple beachside bars and restaurants for a beer, tortilla chips and a day of exploring the reef right off shore. We enjoyed refreshing stops for a snorkel (and beers) at restaurants Tikila and Tio Jose during our walk back and forth between the International Pier and San Miguel. Both are located on the coastal road, and the beach is the "ironshore" kind, typically best for snorkeling, but water shoes are recommended for tender feet.
Glass-bottom boat tours provide a glimpse of the reefs for those who might prefer to stay dry in the comfort of a boat; some of these tours also stop occasionally for snorkeling breaks.
The Museum of the Island of Cozumel, located three blocks from the San Miguel ferry dock, is one of few options for culture vultures. It features interesting exhibits on underwater life and the reef ecosystem, as well as displays on Mayan and colonial life.
San Gervasio, the best of several small Mayan ruins sites on Cozumel, is 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 there except 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 full of shops (some of the tacky touristy variety, others, particularly in a conclave just off the ferry dock, much more upscale) and cafes. Better known to Europeans, the town owns an indefinably foreign air, so 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 45 minutes; depending on sea conditions, the ride can range from super-smooth to extremely bumpy. Be prepared with cash for the each-way fare.
Playa del Carmen is also the jumping-off point for the region's best-known Mayan sites. Try a daytrip to the ruins of Chichen Itza, the Yucatan's most renowned, which contains a mix of temples, pyramids and carvings dating 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. Daytrips to both Mayan sites can be booked through local tour operators. Three of the most reputable tour operators are Caribe Tours (011-52-987-872-3100), Intermar Caribe (011-52-987-872-1535) and Turismo Aviomar (011-52-987-872-5445).
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.
Xel-Ha, a lagoon that was considered sacred by the Mayans, is just a short ride from Tulum. It has been converted into an ecotourism 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 Mayan people live within the reserve.
Chankanaab National Park makes for a fascinating daytrip. The nature preserve is home to a beachfront area with a bar and grill, botanical garden and archaeological park. The park's Dolphin Discovery program features captive dolphins that visitors are permitted to swim with for a fee.
Punta Sur is another ecotourist park for visitors interested in learning about Cozumel's native flora and fauna. The park encompasses mangrove jungles, white-sand beaches and reef formations. Visitors can watch a 20-minute video at the information center to learn about the different ecosystems, reefs and native birds, along with other wildlife inhabiting the area, such as turtles and alligators.
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 red. The surf on the eastern side of the island tends to be much rougher.
Best 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 for Privacy: Playa Escondida on the western shore offers few amenities, but that keeps the crowds away from this sanctuary. Another peaceful option is Playa Chen Rio, on the eastern side of the island.
Best for a Beach Break: Nachi Cocom Beach Club, about 20 minutes south of the San Miguel area, offers waters sports, a swimming pool, hot tubs, a bar and a restaurant. You can even get a massage. Visitors can buy all-inclusive passes for $55 each.
Food is Cozumel is rich with cultural traditions and fresh ingredients. You'll find plenty of pork, chicken and seafood offerings and dishes that draw heavily on Mayan culture in the Yucatan region. (That means plenty of corn tortillas, beans and rich sauces.)
Pancho's Backyard is a great place for margaritas and wonderful Mexican specialties. 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. (Av. Rafael Melgar 27 between calles 8 and 10; open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m., closed Sunday)
La Choza offers some of Cozumel's best home-cooked cuisine (particularly for breakfast). This family-run restaurant in San Miguel prepares specialties like pozole (corn soup), pollo en relleno negro (chicken in blackened sauce) and their signature avocado pie. This is a favorite for cruise ship crewmembers, so it gets busy during the afternoon. The fish tacos and mango margaritas are highly recommended. (Rosada Salas 198 at Av. 10 Sur; open from 7 a.m. daily)
Guido's is considered the island's best Italian restaurant. Choice tables are located on the patio out back. (Av. Rafael Melgar No. 23 between calles 6 and 8; open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m., closed Sunday)
Casa Denis is a solid option for atmosphere and tradition. It has been on Cozumel since 1945 and features some amazing historic photos on the walls, including one of a young Fidel Castro. (Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
Carlos 'n Charlie's is the island's cornball, always-crowded tourism hot spot, specializing in ridiculously huge tropical drinks and bar food. Many tourists like the raucous frat-party atmosphere, and, after more than one libation, you'll be lucky to stagger back to your ship. (Av. Rafael Melgar #11 on the waterfront; open from 10 a.m. daily)
La Mission serves phenomenal, authentic Mexican food at exceptionally reasonable prices. The open-air surrounds provide respite from the heat, and menus are available in Spanish and English. We highly recommend the tortilla soup. (Just off of Av. Rafael E. Melgar, the main street that runs in front of the pier; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
Las Palmas will provide you with a truly cultural experience that was recommended to us by a local. The outdoor patio "cocina" eatery 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. (Av. 25, between calles 3 and Jose Maria Morelos; open until just after dinner)
Best Choice for Divers: Experienced divers can take advantage of the opportunity to dive with some of Mexico's best dive operators; a two-tank, four-hour dive can include time at the famed Palancar Reef. Novices can get their feet wet in the sport with a beginner's scuba diving program that lasts about 2.5 hours.
Best for Non-Divers: This tour provides a journey to a maximum depth of 100 feet below the surface in an Atlantis submarine for a narrated 75-minute tour of Cozumel's spectacular underwater environment. This well-designed vehicle is air conditioned and equipped with large viewing ports.
Best for an Overview: A six-hour Jeep Island Tour includes snorkeling, tequila tasting, many top sightseeing spots on the island -- such as the Punta Sur ecological preserve -- and some beach time with a lunch.
Best for Snorkelers: Enjoy the day on a 65-foot catamaran that will take you to some choice snorkeling sites. The vessels feature spacious sun decks, snorkeling instructors accompany each excursion, and equipment is provided. All you need to bring is sunscreen, a towel, a bathing suit and a camera. The four- to six-hour tours often include drinks, lunch and beach time.
Best for Dolphin-Lovers: This three-hour Dolphin Discovery excursion takes you to Chankanaab Park, where you can enjoy some of Cozumel's best snorkeling and spend approximately 30 minutes in the water with dolphins and dolphin trainers who guide you through the experience. (Minimum age for this excursion is 6.)
Best for History Buffs: Tours the ruins at either Chichen Itza or Tulum, the two prime Mayan sites on the Yucatan. Tours typically last seven to 10 hours.
Staying in Touch
Restaurants all along the coastal road between the International Pier and San Miguel offer reliable Wi-Fi. They will provide a password when you order a meal or drink. A nice Internet cafe, Cafe Punta de Cielo, is almost the first thing you'll see as you cross the street to go to Royal Village Shopping Center after getting off your ship at the International Pier. Also, located between 10th Ave. North and Benito Juarez, you'll find Mexatel, which offers a handful of computers and Internet access.
For More Information
On the Web: Guide to Cozumel
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Cozumel
IndependentTraveler.com: Mexico Travel Guide
--By Ashley Kosciolek, Copy and Ports Editor; updated by John Roberts, Cruise Critic contributor