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There are two basic types of tourists in Cozumel: scuba divers and cruise ship passengers. And there’s lots to interest both throughout this island, just 30 miles long, 10 miles wide and 12 miles off the Yucatán Peninsula mainland.
Mexico’s largest island, fringed on its western side by close-in coral reefs, is an internationally known dive destination, and it sports many hotels and resorts catering to that niche market. But Isla Cozumel is also a welcoming place for the more than 1 million cruise passengers who alight annually in search of blindingly white sand and warm “I-can’t-believe-it’s-so-clear!” water.
Despite dense, Miami-like development along its west shore, Cozumel has clung to nature with long stretches of open shoreline on its wild, surf-pounded north and east littorals. Dozens of small but intriguing Maya ruins sit inland and hint at the island’s indigenous past.
Certified divers will find many operators waiting to serve them with everything from shallow reef explorations to challenging wall, drift and tunnel dives. Never-ever divers can take an intro course and get an exhilarating feel for the sport. There’s lots of competition in the island dive market, so be sure your instructor is certified by PADI or another organization you trust.
Cozumel’s stunningly clear waters would be a sensuous pleasure to swim in even if there were nothing but sand under the surface. Snorkeling out from shore, don't expect much: sand, rocks and a few schools of colorful tropical fish are basically what you’ll see. That’s because the island’s shallow reefs were destroyed by Hurricanes Emily and Wilma, which slammed into Cozumel in 2005, causing intense damage above and below the surface. If you want to see coral and bountiful marine life, spring for a boat tour that visits off-shore reefs. Glass-bottom boat and sailboat excursions are especially fun.
Passengers debark into an open-air shopping district that stretches for blocks along the waterfront. It’s very colorful and inviting, but there’s not much here you won’t see everywhere else.
A glass-bottom boat tour or a day spent at Chaankanab or any of the west-shore beach clubs should satisfy all ages.
You owe it to yourself to get beneath the surface of that gorgeous water. A “discover scuba” excursion starts with a classroom session, progresses to practice in shallow water and proceeds to open water. Too scary, expensive or time consuming? Consider snuba, a kind of advanced snorkeling in which you make shallow dives while connected by air hose to a raft on the surface.
Cruise ships visit Cozumel year-round on their Western Caribbean itineraries. Summer cruises are the most popular, but you’ll get a better deal in winter. The island will be less crowded then, too. August to November is hot, muggy hurricane season. You take your chances if you cruise then, but you also get the lowest prices of the year.
Cruise ships dock at either the International Pier, south of town near the La Ceiba Hotel, or the new Puerto Maya, which is bit farther south, five miles south of San Miguel, the island's largest city. It's a $10 cab ride.
Rent a car, a jeep or a moped and see what you can see. The island is small, and you can drive around the perimeter in just over two hours. Exercise extreme caution if you opt for two wheels. Road rash is perhaps the biggest hazard on Cozumel, and slips on gravel and sand surfaces send lots of tourists to the hospital.
Another option is to take a taxi to San Miguel and head inland, away from the commotion at the port. Find the municipal market and join the locals for an inexpensive meal at a loncheria, or casual market restaurant. Enjoy homemade tortillas and fresh Mexican cuisine, then stroll the streets and browse the shops where few cruise passengers go.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: Spanish, but English is widely understood and spoken.
Currency: The Mexican peso, but many prices are also listed in dollars, which are readily accepted.
Tipping: Even if prices are posted, they can be negotiated. Bargaining is widely accepted.
Safety: Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico are generally safe. Nevertheless, crime and violence can be serious problems in Mexico, so it is recommended that you stay in the tourist areas and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t bring valuables to the beach as there are many pan handlers. See Cruiseable's safety tips for cruise passengers.
ShoreFox contributed to this guide.
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“Only on Cozumel, wander through the revamped gardens and fountains at Parque Benito Juarez, which offers free wi-fi, and breathe deeply at the world's first underwater oxygen bar, Clear Lounge Cozumel. After dark, stargaze from the astrological observatory at the new Cha'an Ka'an Cozumel Planetarium.”
“No one's got an exact figure, but the little island of Cozumel off the tip of eastern Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula likely has the highest JPV ratio — jeeps per visitor — in the country.”
“Cozumel is one of those places that no matter how many times you have been there, the order of the day is to get off the ship. If you cruise much, odds are you will be seeing Cozumel from time to time and that is a very good thing.”
“But what this 30-mile-long island paradise is really known for is its drift diving; currents that zig zag at a moment’s notice – as unpredictable and exciting as a diver might ask for.”
“Josefina Gonzalez Luigi is the Mexican aunt I never knew I had. Only she's everyone's aunt. Her cooking classes in El Centro welcome all visitors into her San Miguel home, right in the heart of Cozumel's largest town. ”