Cozumel is to the Western Caribbean what St. Thomas and St. Maarten are to its eastern counterpart -- heavily trafficked cruise ports and, for many, decidedly ho hum. Seriously, how many times can you suck down a yard of something fruity at Senor Frogs, or bum on the beach? And forget about the crowds: Hurricane Wilma may have ripped through town in 2005 (parts of the Mexican island are still recovering -- only two of three piers are able to accommodate ships), but Cozumel is still experiencing gridlock levels of ships and passengers!
Of course, we're not saying that Cozumel doesn't have a roster of top attractions, because it does -- and there's no doubt that first-timers should take advantage of them. The port is known for its water sports (though, admittedly, the coral reef system is still on the mend post-Wilma), duty-free shopping and its proximity to archeological must-sees like the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. But even if you've "been there, done that" or simply want to break away from the masses, don't pooh-pooh an itinerary that calls at Cozumel. There's plenty to do that's off the beaten path, from a serene afternoon in a glass-bottomed boat to a delicious local meal ... that you cook yourself. Read on for our picks.
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The granddaddy of treatments, though, is the Temazcal, a steam bath based on traditional physical, emotional and spiritual healing methods used by the Mayans. The term Temazcal actually refers to the domed hut in which the ritual takes place, built to hold in the herbal steam and the heat of hot stones. The Temazcal experience packs a punch when it comes to health benefits -- it purifies the skin, calms the nervous system (who couldn't use less stress?), activates the immune system, and relieves muscle tension and stiff joints.
Fore! Golfing at Cozumel Country Club. Cozumel might be known primarily for its underwater recreation, but since the island got its first golf course in 2001 at the Cozumel Country Club, it's also on the duffers' map. This isn't your typical course: the 6,734-yard, par-72 was sculpted by Jack Nicklaus' design group out of the Mayan jungle and so incorporates the natural habitats of the island -- it twists around trees, mangroves and wetlands. There's a restaurant and snack bar, and a pro shop; golf instruction is available from PGA professionals.
Long story short? You'll likely lose a few balls in marshy areas and water hazards, and limestone and coral rock -- but all in good fun. And you may have to share the green with a gecko or two (no, not the chatty one from those insurance commercials).
Break on through to the other side ... of the island. Visit the wilder side of Cozumel: the east coast. To get there, you can drive around the southern tip on the coastal highway or cut across the interior -- grab a cab or rent a Jeep at the pier. Most of the beaches heavily trafficked by cruise passengers are on the island's west coast, which is also the side where ships dock, naturally. Much of the eastern side is undeveloped -- yet there are numerous beaches for a relaxing retreat, some commercial and some not (just you and the seagulls). On a recent visit, I enjoyed some sun and surf at Playa Chen Rio, one of the more commercial outposts (there's a bar and seafood restaurant here), yet still a breath of fresh air from the sunbather-littered shores on the west.
Editor's note: Water on the east coast is rougher at certain points than on the west. Swim and snorkel only in designated areas and exercise caution -- even at Playa Chen Rio, which is one of the safest spots (this windward beach is protected by a large rock formation, which means seas are generally calm and clear). Another spot that's usually calm enough for swimming is Punta Chiqueros. Flags are flown to indicate conditions -- black (don't swim, too dangerous), red (use caution, dangerous), yellow (use caution) and green (safe to swim).
Small-scale ruins at El Cedral. Compared to the massive scale of Chichen Itza, there's not much to El Cedral (Costera Sur Highway), an archeological site near the center of the island, but that's the beauty of it. The ruins at El Cedral mark the location first discovered by the Spanish on May 3, 1518, and the island's first city, founded in 1847. Today, it is a small farming village with just one small structure with an arch -- peek inside for traces of paint and stucco. Next door is an old cinder block church in green and white where the first mass in Mexico was reportedly celebrated.
Editor's note: We recommend going with a group or a guide who can share the history of the town and its people. Rancho Buenavista offers horseback tours that include a stop here. Better yet, plan your cruise so that you'll be in town between April 29 and May 3 for Cozumel's yearly festival at El Cedral (it's been taking place for the past century and a half); during that week visitors will find food stands, games, dancing and, of course, additional shopping opportunities.
Discriminating Shopping. It's no longer as deliciously hidden a secret as it used to be when I first started visiting Cozumel, but Los Cinco Soles offers the most unique -- and atmospheric -- shopping on the island. Located in a historic building wrapped around an open courtyard, the vast store features small boutique-like shops that specialize in, say, silver jewelry, cotton casual apparel, hot sauces and home furnishings. In the courtyard is Pancho's Backyard, a lovely Mexican restaurant that's the second best reason to visit. Typically, at lunchtime, a trio plays Marimba music while you dine (and the margaritas are fresh and delicious). It's located on the main drag -- but a bit far from the madding crowds; head to 8th Street and the waterfront.
Glass-bottom boat tour. Get to know Cozumel's rapidly recovering coral reef system without getting wet ... in a glass-bottom boat! Mr. Sancho's (entrance to this beach resort is free) offers a wide selection of motorized and non-motorized water sports via on-site operators, including glass-bottom boat tours. Another company that offers glass-bottom boat tours is Olympus Tours; they accept advance reservations and offer a three-hour trip.
There's nothing like viewing one-of-a-kind coral formations and vibrant tropical fish without messing up your hairdo -- but if you change your mind and want to swim with the fishes, don't worry, snorkel gear is generally included with glass-bottom boat tours.
Lunch off the strip at La Mission. Okay, so La Mission in downtown San Miguel isn't that far off the beaten path -- it's just off the main drag, Rafael Melgar, a block from the square (believe it or not, few cruise tourists who venture into town leave the strip at all). But it sure feels it the moment you step through the storefront into the open-air dining area set amongst an exotic garden.
Whatever you're in the mood for from fresh fish to fajitas, expect huge portions. I'm partial to the Mexican combination plate (chile relleno, enchilada, quesadilla, etc. -- big enough to share), though ceviche is a mighty good starter. And though the servers speak fine broken English, it's always better to be able to answer "Una mas cerveza?" with "Si!" On Juarez, between Av. 5 and Av. 10.
Or, make your own meal: Mexican cuisine cooking class. If you want to book onboard, our vote for most offbeat ship-sponsored excursion goes to the Mexican cuisine cooking workshop and tasting offered by cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Disney, Princess and Carnival.
The tour includes a bus transfer to Playa Mia Grand Beach Park; participants are set up at individual workstations (four per) under a big tent with all of the ingredients and materials needed to execute authentic Mexican recipes -- under the guidance of the chef. One entree in the lesson plans, for instance, is a fried grouper with mango sauce. Best part? You get to cook your food and eat it, too, with complimentary Mexican wine or an icy margarita.
Skip Cozumel almost entirely ... day trip to Playa del Carmen. The best bet for second-timers is often to get out of town. So why not get off the island? Head over to nearby Playa del Carmen by ferry (the "Mexico Water Jet"). Playa del Carmen is a jumping-off point for Chichen Itza and Tulum, the region's best-known Mayan sites, but there's more to see, including fantastic restaurants and boutiques right in town. For animal lovers, there's the Xaman Ha Aviary, located in the swanky resort section of town known as Playacar; and Crococun, combination crocodile farm and regional zoo.
But truly, the atmosphere alone might just be worth the 40-minute, $9 ferry ride. Despite its sudden popularity, Playa del Carmen is still decidedly laid-back and pastoral; many structures are still made of stucco, and a mere five minutes away from the main tourist area is a quiet neighborhood of bright pastel houses.
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--Image of beach appears courtesy of pierce324. Top image appears courtesy of Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa.