Like many islands around the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, Cozumel doesn’t take up much room the atlas. Though it’s about one-sixth the size of Rhode Island, size doesn’t really matter here. This island is rich with remarkable reef ecosystems, incredible beaches, ancient ruins, and delectable dining options.

Photo credit: Boris Bialek, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Boris Bialek, Creative Commons

Dive In

It’s not surprising that Cozumel is a prime spot for divers and snorkelers. There are miles of offshore coral reefs with abundant marine life. The reefs stretch the entire length of the west side of the island, and are part of a national marine park.

“I love Cozumel diving,” said Beverly Evans, from Charlotte, NC. “The reefs are virtually untouched and there’s a lot of diving variety; blue holes, walls, drift, and cavern diving. The visibility, which is usually about 200 feet, is amazing.”

Located at the southwest end of the island, Palancar Reef is quite popular. This deep wall dive stretches three miles and boasts canyons, caves, gardens and overhangs. You might spy sea turtles, angelfish, barracuda, toadfish and nurse sharks. Also, an impressive bronze figure of Christ is visible 56 feet down.

Paradise Reef, the only reef accessible from the beach, is perfect for novice divers. It’s a series of three separate reefs located just 200 yards offshore. Here you’ll find lobster and crab, and bountiful ocean dwellers. Bring food, and the yellowtails, angels and tangs will flock to you (great for photos!). If you’re into night diving – it’s prime at Paradise Reef.

Novice and intermediate divers will dig Santa Rosa Shallows, which teems with sponges and hard corals. There are also angelfish, boxfish and triggerfish, among others. The white sandy bottom of Santa Rosa Shallows is a great light reflector, too, resulting in remarkable dive pictures.

Of course, the above dive spots are just the tip of the reef, so to speak. Other spots to check out include Punta Sur, Tormentos, San Francisco, Yucab and Chun Chakab.

It stands to reason that where there’s great diving, the snorkeling should be pretty decent, right? That’s definitely the case in Cozumel. Chankanaab National Park is a favorite for vacationers, and with good reason. The park offers some of the best snorkeling and diving on the island, thanks to the national marine refuge title it received in 1980.

The water's perfect at Chankanaab Park!

The water’s perfect at Chankanaab Park!

Guests can also experiment with that Snuba thing. It’s a fun way to experience underwater exploration without the extra training diving requires. A guide submerges and swims along with “divers” who are connected to a 20-foot long oxygen tube. Kids can even get in on the action, which makes it an ideal family experience. The Dolphin Discovery program here is a big hit, as are the Sea Lion Discovery and Manatee Encounter.

Chankanaab also has a pool, a replica of a small Maya village, an impressive botanical garden, and a beach side lunch spot for refueling from the day’s activities.

Back to the Beach

Of course, you don’t need to be at a resort or designated park area to enjoy Cozumel’s beaches. All beach areas are open to the public, and quite nice. However, the government rents concessions to private businesses, which set up “beach clubs” with different amenities. Some places charge a cover, but mostly they’ll just want you to buy drinks and eat their food. It’s a good trade off, as you get a chair, shade, bathrooms and showers. Visiting a less crowded, “off the beaten path” beach is a nice change. The only downside is that they may lack the above said amenities we tourists often appreciate.

Paradise Beach sits at the southwest part of Cozumel. They offer well-kept facilities, and entrance is free (though you must spend $10 per person in food and drinks). Kayaks, waterslides, paddleboats, and other activities are available for an extra fee.

Just south of Chankanaab, you’ll find Playa Corona, which is pretty low key. Facilities are limited, but there is a small restaurant and bar here. Off shore snorkeling here is said to be some of the best on the island. This is a great spot for an authentic feel of Cozumel.

White sand beaches and drift or reef snorkeling is prime at Punta Sur, part of the Punta Sur Ecological Reserve. The $10 entrance fee includes access to a historic lighthouse, small museum and bus transport to the beach. You can also take a boat trip to the lagoon to see crocodiles and other wildlife. There’s a quaint café and good facilities here, too.

Maya Ruins

San Gervasio. Photo credit: Cozumel Promotion Board

San Gervasio. Photo credit: Cozumel Promotion Board

You might think you need to head to the mainland for a glimpse of Maya Ruins, but you’d be wrong. The San Gervasio ruins are located just 11 miles from the San Miguel pier, and was still a functioning religious site for the Mayans when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. The site was dedicated to the goddess Ixchel, and many statues to her were discovered here. Although little restoration has been done, there are lots of interesting structures worth checking out. Inside the Temple of the Hands, for example, the walls are marked with remnants of ancient red hand prints.

Punta Sur Park is ecological reserve and park is a treasure for nature lovers.  Coral reefs just off shore, a number of beach areas, and a lagoon await visitors. Don’t miss the Celerain Lighthouse. The lighthouse is believed to have been a both lighthouse and hurricane warning system for the Mayans. Openings in the structure create a whistle when the wind blows. The stronger the wind, the higher the pitch, so the Mayans were able to distinguish what kind of weather was on the way. Entrance fee is $12 per person, and kids seven and under get in free

“Don’t Miss” Dining Options

Known for their exceptional Mexican cuisine since 1982, La Mission stands by their slogan “Si no te gusta, no pagas” (If you don’t like it, you don’t pay). Tropical gardens, Mayan replicas, and mariachi music create a lively and traditional island atmosphere.

La Choza is a good option for families with kids or larger groups. You can eat here without breaking the bank – and the portions are ample. The Pollo Mole Pablano and the Chiles Rellenos are highly recommended.

Pancho's Backyard. Photo credit: Cozumel Promotion Board

Pancho’s Backyard. Photo credit: Cozumel Promotion Board

Pancho’s Backyard has a fun vibe, as well as killer margaritas. Its seafront patio/garden dining option is refreshing. The authentic Mexican cuisine includes fresh guacamole, Tacos de Pescado, Enchiladas con Mole and other items. They play live Marimba music during lunch.

The fact that Pepe’s Grill Seafood and Steakhouse has been in business for over forty years is a testament to the consistency of good food and service. They feature fresh lobster and other seafood, pastas, rack of lamb and choice beef. Many entrees are prepared at your table, and the wine list is impressive. Prepare for a great view of Cozumel’s promenade.

Whether your visit to Cozumel is a quick weekend getaway or a week-long retreat, you’ll find varied diversions and plenty of delicious local fare to sample while you’re here. Check out the Cozumel Promotion Board for hotel information, local events and helpful travel guides.

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