Things to Do in Cozumel
||There is only a four or five degree variance between winter and summer temperatures in Cozumel, with winter highs in the mid 80's °F and summer highs around 90°F. August through October is the rainy season.
Teardrop-shaped Cozumel has seen some hard times - Spanish invasion, death by smallpox and a flailing economy - but these days it is a calm, charming island with a prime diving reputation. Known as Ah-Cuzamil-Peten (Island of Swallows) by its earliest inhabitants, it is Mexico's largest and most populated island.
Thanks to a Jacques Cousteau documentary on its world-class reefs it has been a favorite international diving destination since 1961. It is literally swimming with diving sites - about 100 have been identified around Cozumel, and at least a dozen of them are shallow enough for snorkelling.
Isla Cozumel, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, measures 53km (33mi) by 14km (9mi) and sits 71km (44mi) south of Cancún. It's 19km (12mi) off of the Yucatán Peninsula's east coast. The island's only town, San Miguel de Cozumel, is easily traversed by foot. Its waterfront boulevard is Avenida Rafael Melgar; along Melgar south of the main ferry dock (the 'Muelle Fiscal') is a narrow sand beach. The main plaza, Plaza del Sol, is just opposite the dock.
Ancient Mayan ruins worth visiting lie in the north and south parts of the island. The nicest beaches, Playas San Francisco and Palancar, start 14km (9mi) south of San Miguel, while the world-famous coral reefs are off the island's southern shores. Much of the east and northeast region of the island is 4WD territory - and provides great opportunity for peaceful escape.
The airport is a mere 2km (1mi) north of town; there is a minibus that will take you into town. Unfortunately, no minibus service runs the other way, so from town you'll have to take a taxi to return to the airport.
The busy winter tourism season, when prices reach their peak, overtakes the island from mid-December to April. This time of year is attractive not just because it's winter in North America and Europe (and you can make friends back home jealous with your souvenir tan), but also because it's not raining and the heat isn't unbearably muggy. May, the end of the dry season, and June, the start of the rains, sees Cozumel at its hottest and muggiest - don't come at this time, if you can help it.
Summer tourists start pouring in during July and August, which are hot, with temps in the high-80°s to low-90°sF (30-33°C), and not overwhelmingly rainy. September and October are less rainy and a lot less crowded. The ideal time to arrive, however, is probably November through to early December, when it is even drier and quieter.
Like much of the world, Cozumel celebrates Carnaval come late February or early March. Costumed revelers, fantastic floats on parade, and music and dancing galore make up the festivities. Things also get busy in the land of the Maya during Semana Santa (Holy Week); it culminates with Easter Sunday, an official holiday. Cinco de Mayo (5 May) commemorates the 1862 end of Mexico's occupation by French forces and is also an official holiday.
The country comes alive with patriotism again on 16 September for Día de la Independencia, which sees Cozumel hopping with parties, food and fireworks. On 2 November, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a time to pay tribute to the departed - every cemetery comes alive with festive visitors. Around 12 December is the Día de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, or Day of Our Lady of Gauadalupe, which honours Mexico's national patron. It is celebrated in Cozumel with a race around the island followed by a party into the wee hours.
The reefs are where it's at for prime scuba diving off this island. One of the best is the kilometres-long Arrecife Palancar (Palancar Reef), where stunning coral formations and a 'horseshoe' of coral heads offer some of the world's finest down-under - all at an amazing 70m (230ft) visibility. Underwater photographers should come ready to shoot like mad. The water around the reef is about 24m (80ft) deep, providing pros opportunities for fantastic deep-water diving. The north end of the reef, called Palancar Gardens, is shallower but just as gorgeous. There are caverns and plenty of brightly coloured sea creatures.
The Palancar Reef areas are popular, so their much-lauded coral is always vulnerable to attack. Be careful to leave the area no less pristine than it was before your arrival. To get to this reef, which is over a kilometre (not quite a mile) off shore, you can sign up for a day cruise or charter a boat from a tour agency.
This Mayan ruin, which functioned as a jail in the 19th century, is the oldest on the island, dating way, way back to AD800. It's not a very obviously alluring attraction, but is the most accessible of Cozumel's ruins; it's 3.5km (2mi) down a paved road that heads off to the left a kilometre or two south of Playa San Francisco's access road. The ancient structure is only the size of a small house, so keep your eyes peeled for it. El Cedral is thought to have been an important ceremonial site, and today there is a small stucco church sitting next to the ruin.
This park on the bay of the same name swarms with snorkellers, even though there's really not a whole lot to see in the water aside from a few brightly coloured fish and some deliberately sunken artificial objects. However, its beach is a stunner; walk 50m (164ft) inland to reach a limestone lagoon that is home to a host of iguanas and turtles. You can't swim or snorkel here with the lovely little creatures, but it's a pretty place to view nonetheless.
Also on the park grounds are a small archaeological park containing Olmec heads and Mayan artefacts; a small museum holding objects imported from Chichén Itzá opportunities to swim with dolphins or watch sea lions strut their stuff (for a price); and a botanical garden sprouting 400 species of tropical plants. Travellers with kids will appreciate the children's playground.
Playa San Francisco
A 14km (9mi) jaunt from San Miguel on Cozumel's west coast, Playa San Francisco is one nice sandy spread. And with white sands running for more than 3km (2mi) it's a popular spot, where locals and daytrippers from the cruise ships go to snorkel, relax and play beach games like volleyball. It's a great spot to picnic, or alternatively, pricey food is available at one of several restaurants within reach. If dive shops get your heart pumping, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied here.
A little more isolated in nature, Playa Palancar, a few kilometres south, has calm jet-ski-less waters to its credit. It is a beautiful place for a swim.
San Miguel de Cozumel
Isla Cozumel's only town is San Miguel de Cozumel, and it is where you'll find many restaurants, bars, hotels, tour agencies, banks and other amenities. It is well-equipped to deal with the global influx - you can chow down on food ranging from vegetarian to Mediterranean to local mesquite-grilled chicken.
The waterfront Avenida Rafael Melgar is generally bustling with cruise-ship tourists; wander off the track a little for a dose of the vibrant local scene. But before leaving Avenida Rafael Melgar, check out the fine Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, which presents a clear and detailed picture of the island's flora, fauna, geography, geology and ancient Mayan history. Well-scripted signs in both English and Spanish accompany the exhibits. Get your lesson on Coral 101 here before heading out to the reefs.
Plaza Del Sol, the town's main square, is a popular spot for strolling, hanging out and people-watching, especially on Sunday evenings when all of the locals seem to be out, soaking up the atmosphere.