Cozumel, Mexico, should not be compared to Cancun, the splashy resort just 40 mi/65 km to the north and one of its nearest neighbors. In the past, Cozumel had a laid-back, sedate atmosphere, and its superior fishing, snorkeling and diving gave it a definite edge.
Today, Cozumel retains its unique vibe and remains a better choice for those who don't like planned resorts, but the island is no longer an escapist's paradise. The snorkeling, diving and fishing are still great, but no one would mistake present-day Cozumel for the sleepy backwater it once was.
One reason is cruise ships. Cozumel is the most popular cruise stop in Mexico and has hosted as many as 33 ships in one week. When more than one ship looms on the horizon, Cozumel's restaurants, bars and shops fill with day-trippers.
Still, Cozumel can be fun, especially for travelers interested in exploring its coral reefs on scuba and snorkeling outings. After all, it's home of the largest reef in the Americas. The island's only town, San Miguel, has retained much of its pleasant, small-town atmosphere. Those with enough time for a day trip will find the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza, on the Yucatan mainland, within striking distance.
Cozumel is Mexico's largest island—33 mi/53 km long and 8 mi/13 km wide. The island is very flat. From the mainland, the tall hotel buildings appear to float on the horizon. Shops, restaurants and nightlife are concentrated in San Miguel, the only town, which is on the west coast of the island.
Cozumel has two highways. One makes a half-circle around the southern end of the island. Heading south out of San Miguel, it's a four-lane road for about 5 mi/8 km before narrowing to two lanes. The other highway is the Carretera Transversal (the cross-island highway), which is a well-maintained road that cuts straight through the jungle-covered center of the island and connects the east and west coasts.
It's hard to get lost in downtown San Miguel if you know the layout: Avenidas (avenues) run north-south, and calles (streets) run east-west. Except for the large thoroughfares, such as Avenida Melgar (also known as the Malecon or waterfront), Calle 11 and the island highways, most roads are one way.
The oldest Maya ruin on Cozumel dates from AD 300. The Maya believed that Cozumel was the spiritual home of Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and love. Maya women and men were said to make a pilgrimage to the island at least once in their lifetimes to ensure the healthy birth of their children.
The name Cozumel comes from the Mayan word Cuzamil-Peten, which means "Land of the Swallows." (Ixchel was often depicted with swallows at her feet.)
Cozumel was a quiet place until the early 1960s, when it was first visited by Jacques Cousteau, the well-known underwater explorer and documentary filmmaker. He put the island on the map as one of the great diving destinations in the world. The second-largest reef system in the world, the Mesoamerican, starts here, snaking its way south to as far away as Honduras.
In recent decades, Cozumel has experienced the tourism boom that has transformed the northern Yucatan, and it has become an increasingly popular destination for cruise ships.
San Miguel, the only town on the island, is a lively place. Although the typical traveler-oriented attractions are centered on the Plaza del Sol and Avenida Rafael Melgar (the 9-mi/14-km waterfront road also known as the malecon
), be sure to take a stroll through some of the streets farther inland. You'll see the houses of the town's residents and nontourist businesses with colorful, hand-painted signs. Shop windows overflow with shoes and everyday necessities.
Another slice of Cozumel life takes place in the plaza, just off the malecon, on Sunday evenings, when the town residents (and a fair number of visitors) turn out for a stroll. Many of the locals are decked out in their finery—this is where those brightly colored shoes get put through their paces. There's dancing, flirting and general merriment. It's also a great opportunity to sample homemade foods, such as tamales, that are sold by local women to raise money for their churches.
As far as formal attractions go, the most popular is Parque Nacional Chankanaab, south of San Miguel, which includes botanical gardens, a fish-filled lagoon, a beach, good snorkeling waters and activities such as swimming with dolphins. At the far southern end of the island is Faro Celarain Eco Park, formerly Punta Sur Ecological Park, a nature preserve where visitors board open-air trucks to see the sights.
There are some Maya ruins on the island. They're small in comparison with those at Tulum or Chichen Itza, but they're worth a visit nonetheless, especially if archaeology is an interest, or if you're up for a jungle adventure. The best-preserved ruins are at San Gervasio, in the middle of the island, and El Cedral on the southern part of the island. There are also others, less visited, at Faro Celarain Eco Park.
San Miguel's nightlife is sparse and low-key compared to Playa del Carmen or Cancun and is centered downtown—it has more than 100 different restaurants, nightspots and bars—but the resort hotels also frequently offer musical entertainment at dinner. There's one on-again, off-again disco, but some restaurants have music, dancing, zany antics by the waitstaff and lots of noise that more than makes up for its absence. When holidays and vacation periods roll around, most nightspots stay open a few hours longer if there's a crowd. For salsa dancing, several small bars and restaurants have live music, especially on weekends. Events are listed at http://salsacozumel.com.
Depending on the time of year, some of the resort-hotels have folkloric programs with dancing and mariachis (check locally). And don't forget about Sunday night in Plaza del Sol, where local families turn out for the free concerts with impromptu dancing in the square.
Most restaurants in Cozumel are informal—"comfortably casual"—and jackets are almost never required. There is a wide range of prices. Seafood and authentic Yucatecan cuisine are specialties of the region and are hard to find in places such as Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Be careful of the habanero-pepper sauce, which is served on the side—it's made from one of the hottest peppers in the world.
Prices in Cozumel's restaurants tend to be higher than those in Playa del Carmen on the mainland.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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