Cozumel, Mexico, lies twelve miles off of the coast in the country’s southernmost area, the Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo. A glittering jewel of the western Caribbean Sea, Cozumel offers visitors a quieter pace than its mainland neighbors.
Cozumel is rich in both native and Spanish history. More than 2000 years ago the indigenous Maya migrated from the mainland to the island. There, they set up a profitable trading district, as well as a temple dedicated solely to the jaguar goddess, Ixchel (pronounced ee-shel).
In the 16th century, waves of Spanish invaders slowly reduced little Cozumel’s small Mayan population through war and disease. By 1600, the few remaining Mayans drifted away to their surrounding territories, and the island was left uninhabited.
Later, pirates found opportunity in the island’s newfound privacy. The much-feared Welch captain Henry Morgan spent some time in seclusion on Cozumel, planning attacks on Spanish ships. The island’s most beloved resident buccaneer, without a doubt, was the oddly patriotic Jean LaFitte.
Born in Haiti of French, Jewish, and Spanish descent (no one is quite sure), LaFitte pillaged the Caribbean for more than twenty years, but would never once attack an American ship. Legend holds that despite his criminal career, he held the American dream close to his heart. He even used his naval skills to help General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British at the end of the War of 1812.
When the age of the Spanish global power subsided, Cozumel became a sleepy fishing village, populated by Mexican people of mixed Mayan descent. In the 1960s, Cozumel began to garner a reputation as a tourist interest, due to its tropical climate and accessibility to coral reefs and remote beaches. Today, annual visitors number in the millions, and tourism is Cozumel’s main industry.
© Evan Sanders - View of Cozumel
Flying directly into Cozumel is by far the easiest way onto the island. Cozumel International Airport is small, accessible, and easy to navigate. Several US air carriers, such as United and Delta, offer direct service into Cozumel.
You will need to show a current passport if flying in directly from the US. You do have the option of traveling to Cancun or Playa Del Carmen on the mainland and then taking one of the ferry boats across to the Island. This can be a fun adventure for those who enjoy such things, but it will add travel time and expense.
© David Stalney - Ferry Terminal, Cozumel
Public transportation on Cozumel is limited. There are public buses, but they are mostly designed for the locals’ needs, and don’t service all of the tourist areas.
Taxis and rentals are the best bet for getting to your hotel and destinations. Taxi fares are fairly standard, ranging from a few dollars for a quick ride to about $60 or so for a tour around the perimeter road. If you have the time, renting a jeep or moped is the absolute best way to wander freely and see Cozumel’s beauty at your leisure.
Cozumel is very small and aside from one busy town center, is populated only by a scattering of little shops, beachside cafes, and wild beauty. Before arriving, take a good look at a map of the island and familiarize yourself with the main and side roads and the location of your sites of interest. You can easily cover the perimeter of Cozumel in one day, with plenty of stops for taking pictures and making memories.
© Kate Hooper - Cozumel Shopping Area
The Plaza Central is the main center for shopping, entertainment, and food. Here you will find local “tiendas”, or shops, selling unique Mexican and Mayan-inspired wares. Restaurants are plentiful, some local, some tourist-themed. Street performers occasionally appear. The Plaza is also where you will find banks, pharmacies, groceries, and any other necessities.
© J. Stephen Conn - Cozumel Plaza Central
Scuba diving is one of the island’s biggest attractions. Cozumel is home to Palancar, the world’s second largest barrier reef. If you are not already a PADI certified diver, you can easily learn. There are several dive shops that offer basic instruction for a fee, and will have you drifting through the corals in no time.
© Kenny Mitchell - Barrier Reef Palancar
In addition to Palancar, there are numerous small reefs surrounding Cozumel that are accessible from the shoreline. Most facilities rent out paddleboards, snorkeling gear, and kayaks for exploring the water.
The Mayan ruins of San Gervasio give visitors a glimpse into the Yucatan’s distant past. Tours are available in English throughout the day. The ruins are located more centrally on the island, and are easily accessed by bike, moped, or taxi.
© carfull - Mayan Temple Ruins, San Gervasio
Chankanaab National Park is touted as one of Cozumel’s best attractions. Part of Mexico’s modern dedication to eco-friendly parks, Chankanaab offers a natural space where tourists can wander gardens and nature trails. When you’re done relaxing, there are zip-line tours and dolphin encounters to enjoy! Admission price are very reasonable.
© Dolphin Discovery - Chankanaab National Park
On the academic side, the Museo de la Isla de Cozumel (Island Museum) showcases Cozumel’s vivid history. The Yucatan has experienced a fascinating Caribbean history, with influences from Spain, Africa, America, and of course, its original inhabitants, the Maya. Learning a little of its roots will help you enjoy Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula more fully.
© David Stanley - Cozumel Island Museum
Nightlife in Cozumel is mostly centered in and around the Plaza and main road. There are a few modern dance clubs, but mostly slower paced, “Margaritaville” type bars. Although Cozumel has a reputation for being safer than its mainland counterparts, always remember to follow general safety guidelines for nighttime excursions. Travel in groups, and stay along the main, well-lit areas of town.
© wiredtourist.com - View of Cozumel at Night
Cozumel boasts glorious beaches, and usually without the crowds that choke the mainland beach areas. The most popular of the developed beaches are found southwest of the main city center. Heading down on Quintana Roo C-1, look for signs to Palancar Beach. There you will find a soft, sandy beach with several restaurants and outdoor bach bars to enjoy. These are the more manicured beach areas, with restrooms and beach chaises.
© f. ermert - Palancar Beach, Cozumel
The Eastern, opposite side of the island, facing the Atlantic, is mostly uninhabited and is great for solitary picnics and reclusive beach retreats. Be aware that the water currents on the Atlantic side are stronger than the calmer waters between Cozumel and the mainland, so swim cautiously.
The shoreline areas from the city center northward are rockier - here you will find many of your scuba and snorkeling activities.
© Sebastian Celis - Snorkeling Area, Cozumel
Cozumel hotels range from one to four-star ratings, with the majority falling in the three-star range. There are about seven four-star beach resorts as well for anyone looking for a luxury or all-inclusive experience.
The higher end hotels are mostly located north and south of the main downtown area, while the smaller and locally-owned motels are found on the main strip and deeper inland. Priceline, Expedia, and Tripadvisor all have extensive reviews and feature lists to help you choose your perfect vacation.
© Kevin T - Courtyard View of Hotel Cozumel
Although Cozumel’s city center is lovely, the island's greatest treasures can be found wandering through its wild spaces. Visit the Tripadvisor website under “Cozumel Tripadvisor” to see what people recommend for unusual side trips and lesser-known places. A leisurely coast around Quintana Roo C-1, which loops the island, is a must.
© Kevin T - Cozumel Road
Cozumel is dotted with little restaurants and natural areas. Wildlife can be viewed around the center areas, and includes exotic birds and lots of iguanas. In fact, iguanas can create a road hazard, so keep your eye out if you on a bike or moped.
If you’re able, consider renting a bicycle to tour the island. Exploring on foot or by bicycle allows travelers to see a place with an intimacy not possible from the back of a cab or within tourist areas. Cozumel is notorious for friendly, open locals who are worth sharing a few words with as you go. You will always find that the best part of any adventure is the people you meet who brighten and enrich your experience.
The 45-minute ferry ride back to the Yucatan mainland can lead to a great adventure. There, archaeological wonders such as the Tulum and Chichen Itza temples beckon history-seekers.
The ecological theme park Xcaret hosts a small zoo, Mayan dancing and ball game demonstrations, traditional Mexican horse shows, and the chance to swim in the geologically awesome “cenotes”, or underground rivers (you won’t drown, despite what it sounds like). These fascinating rivers are a great way to cool off, but also have a darker history behind them! The Maya used to use them originally for sacrificial purposes.
© Joaquin Moreno - Xcaret Park
Nightlife is much more vivid on the mainland side. Cancun never disappoints in upholding its reputation as a party town, with row after row of bars, dance clubs, restaurants, tourist shops, and organized beach parties.