Courtesy of Benny Campos
Cozumel bike path
Though known for its spectacular diving and snorkeling, Cozumel is a destination for land-loving active visitors as well, with large walking and biking areas along the main drag. A relatively new 50 kilometer biking and running path has brought in international Ironman and bicycle competitions
Back in the 1990s, I lived in the thriving tourist city of Cancun, Mexico, where pool parties, glitzy nightlife and pretty much anything a 20-something would want were easily found. During that time, I traveled several times to the nearby island of Cozumel. While I enjoyed the sites and spectacular diving and snorkeling, I didn’t fully appreciate this remarkable place until I traveled back there two years ago and fell deep, mad, head-over-heels in love.
Cozumel is a small island gem found off the sprawling and flashy Playa del Carmen. It’s separated from the mainland Yucatan Peninsula by only a few miles of impossibly hued turquoise water of the Caribbean.
Nature painted Cozumel with dreamy azure tones in its water, and lush green in its yet untouched acres of lush palm frond jungle nestled between the sugary white beaches and rocky seascapes. Sunsets are exotic splashes of pinks and oranges which melt into the black velvet sky sparkling with stars. Even the air smells beautiful—a tropical concoction of salt, aromatic flowers, warm sand and fresh foliage.
In Cozumel you won’t find the bustling mega-resorts of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. It remains a tranquil place, still steeped in centuries-old traditions.
Days in Cozumel can be spent scuba diving, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, and touring the island’s fascinating sites by moped, Jeep, bike or foot. And of course, you could spend hours lazing poolside or enjoying an open air massage at a local seaside park.
Cozumel nights are spent sipping a tall glass of limonada or a margarita, nibbling on freshly made guacamole, watching the twinkling lights of cruise ships, walking the streets, and sampling local cuisine.
Swimming and snorkeling at Chankanaab National Park
And it’s an easy destination. In some cases, you can leave on a flight in the morning and land in Cozumel in time for lunch.
Anne Heggelund, from the town of Easton, just returned from her fourth visit to Cozumel and already has another trip there on the docket for next year. “My first visit was on my honeymoon and we stayed in Playa del Carmen and took the ferry over,” she says. She and her husband got seasick on the ferry and never went back to the mainland, she says laughing of the memory from 23 years ago.
On her third visit, she went diving on the famed Palancar Reef, off the southwestern tip of the island. With over 300 dives under her belt, Heggelund has traveled to Palau, the Cayman Islands, Bonaire and Roatan, to name a few of her worldwide dive destinations. “But Cozumel is quite unique with drift diving and it was wonderful.”
For that trip, Heggelund and her group stayed on the north side of the island at the Puesto Del Sol condos, which they booked for around $200 a night through the Vacation Rentals by Owner website (VRBO.com).
“We took taxis everywhere,” she said. They would eat two meals in their condo with food purchased at the Mega Grocery store a few miles down the road, and then explore the island’s local fare for other meals.
Cozumel is known for its delicious traditional Mexican dishes and Yucatecan cuisine such as poc chuc (a marinated pork dish) and melt-in-your-mouth cochinita pibil (pork marinated in sour orange juice, slow cooked in banana leaves). Seafood is plentiful, as is international fare. “We went to a lot of local places, off the beaten path,” Heggelund says. “The food in Cozumel is just fantastic.”
The group rented a taxi driver for six hours at $60 a person, which included a lunch. “Our driver showed us where he lived and where his kids went to school and the churches on the island. It was exactly the insider’s view we wanted.”
Local and international cuisine is found all over the island. Located on the main strip, Guido’s Italian Restaurant is a favorite, and its homemade pasta and brick-oven pizza is a must while staying in Cozumel.
Even though Cozumel is known as a dive destination, you don’t have to go underwater or even on a boat to soak in the island paradise. “My friend who went along didn’t dive and she wasn’t much of a snorkeler either,” says Heggelund. “But I could snorkel right in front of the condo while she sat by the pool.”
During my stay to Cozumel in November, I found Trip Advisor to be a great resource for finding restaurants. One of the highest rated establishments, Crazy King Burrito, proved worthy of its score. The small burrito shop, tucked away a few blocks from the main road, is run by a bubbly husband-wife team. It’s not glitzy (though very clean and quaint), but the burritos are the best I’ve ever eaten. For three monster sized burritos and four sodas, the bill came to $20.
Another island favorite is Guido’s restaurant, located on the main strip. Guidos’ homemade pasta and brick-oven pizza is a must while staying in Cozumel. I had freshly made sweet potato ravioli with caramelized onions paired with a fresh carpaccio and limonada with carbonated water. It was exquisite.
History and attractions
The name Cozumel comes from the Mayan word cuzamil, which means “island of swallows.” If you walk along the main avenue near downtown San Miguel, the island’s main city, you will see the island’s namesake swallows stamped into the cement—just one example in which the city found a modern way to honor its historic past.
Courtesy of John Buettgen
Cozumel is fiercely proud to have maintained its cultural flavor. Still today, the heady sounds of romantic trios and troubadour musicians can be heard in many local restaurants
Cozumel is located in the Caribbean about an hour south of Cancun and directly in front of Playa del Carmen. It’s Mexico’s largest island, at roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.
Spanish Conquistador Juan de Grijalva was the first known European to discover Cozumel in 1518, according to the website Cozumel Insider. Soon after, Hernán Cortés found Cozumel, destroying many of its temples and spreading smallpox. From here, Cortes began his devastating conquest of Mexico.
Starting in the early 17th century, pirates used Cozumel as a safe harbor. Legendary pirate Henry Morgan frequently used it as a stopover during his infamous raids around the Caribbean between 1658 to 1688. In the early 1800s, Caribbean pirate Jean Lafitte hid near Cozumel as well.
By the 1600s, most of the native Mayan residents of Cozumel were either wiped out or relocated to the mainland. A small village was established by exiles from the Caste War of Yucatan in 1847. In 1957, the first tourists from New York arrived to Cozumel, which had a population of only around 2,300 at the time and today is home to over 80,000 residents.
In the early days as a vacation destination, Cozumel looked much different than it does now, says Cozumel professor and historian Velio Vivas. “There wasn’t transportation around the island, and the streets were sand,” he says.
While the city has grown, it still has a hometown, accessible feel to it. “Some of the families have been here more than 150 years… We still have age old local traditions and the islanders are known for their hospitality and their friendliness,” Vivas says. “Here we know everybody. You know who lives in front of you and behind you. We help one another.”
Cozumel is fiercely proud to have maintained its cultural flavor. Still today, the heady sounds of romantic trios and troubadour musicians can be heard in many local restaurants, serenading diners.
San Miguel is located on the western edge of the island, facing the mainland. This is where most of the Cozumelenos live and work. A well maintained highway runs along the coast to make exploring safe and easy. There is a long list of things to do for everybody and every taste, including:
• The stunning eco park of Punta Sur
• The San Gervasio Mayan Ruins
• Chankanaab National Park
• El Cielo—This shallow water, white sand are is a snorkeler’s paradise, also known as Heaven on Earth
• The Casa de la Cultura Ixchel (Cultural Center), which offers theater, language lessons, music and dance.
• Several churches, including the historic San Miguel Catholic church a near the main square, which shouldn’t be missed.
• For conservationists, Cozumel sees two species of nesting sea turtles for five months each year. Tourists are allowed to liberate the baby turtles when in season.
• On the north end of the island tourists will find the Cozumel Country Club with its golf course and exquisite bird watching tours at the certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
Many tour companies offer deep sea fishing, day trips around the island and other Cozumel activities.
Klein Scuba in Wausau has made many trips to Cozumel over the years, due to its great diving and easy accessibility, says owner Phil Klein.
John J. Buettgen
Cozumel is paradise for scuba divers, with its glorious waters and gorgeous fish.
“It’s mostly drift diving, which is effortless diving, so if you are neutrally buoyant, it works quite well. There are a few caveats, for example, it depends how strong the currents are, so it can be riskier than other Caribbean places, it can take you deeper than you intended.”
His favorite spot to dive in Cozumel is the Palancar Reef, with its deep diving as well as its shallower caves and tunnels. “Schools of fish congregate in the tunnels and in the deep part, they will hang alongside the reef,” he says. He’s partial to the top of the reef where the visibility is better and you can see both adult and juvenile fish as well as stingrays, sharks and eagle rays.
Cozumel is a “big bang for the dollar” destination, Klein says. “It’s one-third the cost of these big buck dive trips.” It’s also a great place in case diving is called off due to rough waters. “In Cozumel there are so many other things to do.
Famed diver Jacques Cousteau was a fan of diving in Cozumel, especially with the Palancar Reef. “Everybody comes here to see big fish,” says Miguel Joaquin, who has lived in Cozumel his whole life. “But focus on the small ones and the colors you see, you won’t believe… I just can’t describe it.”
Cozumel has worked hard to be a destination for land-loving active visitors as well.
Joaquin’s son, who served as mayor of Cozumel, helped get an outdated 50 kilometer road system designated as a biking and running path around the island. “This helps to bring in events which are recognized globally, like the Ironman and the Ironman 70.3 as well as the Gran Fondo New York bike event,” says Joaquin. “People from all over the world come here and use it.”
The island is always looking at ways to attract more athletic events, he says, with open water swim competitions and securing the elite World Triathlon finale which runs in September.
Like most Cozumelenos, he is quite proud of his slice of paradise and is excited to share it with others. “It’s still very tranquil and very beautiful.”
Traveling to Cozumel from the Midwest is relatively simple. You can either fly right into Cozumel’s international airport (most direct flights leave from Minneapolis) or take a slightly more economical flight to Cancun, get transportation an hour south to Playa del Carmen, and then take one of the many high speed ferries across to Cozumel, says Tracy Nelson, an agent with Travel Leaders in Wausau. To skip the drive and ferry altogether, you can take a quick puddle-jumper flight from the Cancun airport to Cozumel.
Cozumel offers accommodations for every taste and budget, from luxury resorts like the Cozumel Palace and the Fiesta Americana Cozumel to midscale all-inclusives like the Melia. There are also budget hotels, boutique hotels, condo rentals, bed and breakfast lodging and hostels.
I recently stayed at the Casa Mexicana, a delightful, economical hotel which offers a home-cooked buffet breakfast every morning. The chilequiles, made-to-order omelets, waffles, pancakes, fresh veggie smoothies and traditional Mexican motulenos eggs were worth the hotel cost alone. The Casa Mexicana is located right in front of one of the cruise ship piers and is a convenient, short walk from the ferry dock.
While Nelson books many more trips to iconic Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Nelson says people looking for a relaxing getaway should consider Cozumel.
“It’s a little quieter compared to the Riviera Maya, but the snorkeling is one of the best I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “It’s awesome. The fish look illuminated.”
And Cozumel’s ambiance is more “old Mexico,” she says. “It hasn’t lost it’s flair.”
Festivals and special events
Cozumel is known for its traditions and festivals. Always colorful and full of charisma and flavor, here are a few that are worth scheduling a vacation around:
Carnaval Held annually in February, the dates coincide with the religious calendar and Mardi Gras. Food, fun, parties, parades and costumes, this perennial favorite runs Feb. 22-28 in 2017, but with many events in the weeks prior.
Feast of Saint Michael, the Archangel Festival Running Sept. 21-29 in 2017, this religious festival celebrates Saint Michael, the patron saint of Cozumel. Parades, craft fairs and food.
Mexico’s Independence Day On and around Sept. 15, all of Mexico celebrates their independence with patriotic events culminating with “El Grito de Dolores” at midnight on Sept. 15.
Travesia Sagrada Maya Held May 26-27 in 2017, this sacred ritual depicts the ancient Mayan crossing to the island in in dug-out, wooden canoes. A fleet of canoes leave from Xcaret and cross the open water to Cozumel and return to mainland the next day.
For a comprehensive list of things to do and dates of events on the island, check out these websites: