REUSE YOUR KEURIG K-CUPS!!!
Cozumel, one of the all-time most popular ports in all of cruising, could easily be considered the St. Thomas of the Western Caribbean. That's because the small island -- 28 miles long and 11 miles wide -- offers an amazing breadth of activities, from world-class scuba and snorkeling to, well, pretty darn good deals on duty-free goods. But Cozumel has more going for it than shopping or scuba diving. First settled by the Mayans, who lived here for 12 centuries, this small island lies just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Cozumel's main claim to fame revolves around its reputation as one of the top diving and snorkeling destinations in the world. That's largely due to its proximity to a host of spectacular coral reefs inhabited by large populations of brilliantly colored tropical fish. Besides attracting lovers of water sports and seekers of ruins, Cozumel is also a favorite of shopaholics who throng the duty free shops in search of jewelry, black coral, handicrafts, t-shirts and other souvenirs sold in the shops and boutiques located on the pier and in the island's only town of San Miguel. As such, more than one million passengers visit Cozumel in a typical year, and as many as 16 cruise ships can dock here on a single day! The steady rise in the number of cruise ships stopping here over the past decade has spurred Cozumel's growth into a major tourist destination with a plentiful array of hotels, restaurants, shops and other tourist related amenities. Fortunately the increase in visitors has not impacted the laid-back lifestyle of the natives, and Cozumel has also retained its non-touristy side, as just one-third of the island has been developed while large tracts of pristine jungle and stretches of uncluttered silky sand beaches have been preserved. The island's unusual name comes from the Mayan word "Cuzamil," meaning "Land of Swallows." Several ancient Mayan sites, including Chichen Itza and Tulum, are located on the nearby Yucatan peninsula.
No drink can top the luscious margaritas served at Pancho's Backyard in San Miguel. Another tasty libation imbibed in many bars is the "michilada" (beer mixed with lime juice).
Where You are Docked
Due to the increasing number of cruise ships calling here over the past decade, docking areas have been expanded and there are now three large piers serving Cozumel. Punta Lagosta is the newest and closest pier to San Miguel, as it is located just a short walk into town. The two other major docking sites in Cozumel, the International Pier and Puerto Maya Pier, are respectively located about two to three miles from San Miguel. Depending on your pace, downtown San Miguel is about a 30-45 minute walk from these piers. Since it can get very hot en route, most passengers opt to take a taxi into town.
On Foot: Beyond the aforementioned dock-to-town travel, downtown San Miguel is very walkable, with most shops, bars and restaurants clustered around the waterfront.
Taxis: Most people get to San Miguel via taxis, which line up at the entrances to the piers and cost $5 per ride. Rates to the beaches can cost $10 to $15; to avoid being ripped off be sure to settle on a fare before departing. Word to the wise: Some drivers aim to overcharge for longer trips, so bargain wisely and don't be taken for a ride.
Ferry: The "Mexico Water Jet" ferries passengers back and forth between Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan peninsula and Cozumel. The ferry operates continuously, and the crossing takes approximately 30 minutes; depending on sea conditions, the ride can range from super smooth to extremely bumpy. Info: www.cozumelmycozumel.com.
Renting a Car: Some passengers who don't take one of the shore excursions and want to travel on their own may want to rent a Jeep or 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Rates begin at $45 to $50 per day and can go as high as $80, plus additional charges for insurance and gas. Agencies include: Rentadora Aguilla (011-52-987-20729), Hertz (1-800-654-3131) and National Car Rental (011-52-987-23263).
By Moped: This is a popular and inexpensive way ($35 per day) for one or two people to get around Cozumel, although many cruise ships warn against doing so because of the dangers of an accident due to reckless drivers, hidden stop signs, and stretches of severely potholed roads. I once rented a moped which broke down halfway around the island. It took me most of the afternoon to get in touch with someone to come and repair it. As a result, that was the first and last time I rented a moped on Cozumel.
By Fun Car or Scoot Car: These automatic transmission buggies resembling souped-up golf carts are another possible option. Able to reach speeds of 45 miles per hour, they cost $35 for the first hour and another $10 for each additional hour, or $85 for the whole day. Look for the rental booth on the ground floor of the Punta Langosta shopping arcade.
Pierside: Adjacent to the Punta Langosta pier are two of Cozumel's best jewelry stores: Heritage at Avenida Melegar 341 and Rachat & Romero at Avenida Melegar 101. An especially good store for Mexican handicrafts is Viva Mexico at the intersection of Avenida Melegar and Adolfo Rosado, while a block from the ferry pier at Avenida 5A is Agencia Publicaciones Gracias which has the best collection of English language books, guidebooks, magazines and newspapers.
San Miguel: Cozumel's one and only "city" (some refer to it as a large town) literally owes its economic well-being to the growth of the cruise industry, which has transformed this once sleepy fishing village into a tourist outpost, crammed with stores selling every imaginable souvenir as well as handicrafts and more expensive items such as jewelry and black coral. While many restaurants offer Mexican fare, there are others geared toward American tastes, with several U.S. fast-food chains represented, along with such notable names as the Hard Rock Cafe. Most shops stay open until at 5:30 or 6 p.m. (or when the last cruise ship departs).
Playa del Carmen: The nearest resort to Cozumel on the Mexican mainland is also a ferry port. Many ships drop off passengers here who are participating on excursions to the Mayan sites of Chichen Itza and Tulum. These passengers later return to their ship by taking the ferry from Playa del Carmen back to Cozumel. Some ships go directly to Cozumel and then ferry passengers back to Playa del Carmen from where they head off on their excursions to the Mayan sites. Independent visitors will need to take the ferry (see above) roundtrip from Cozumel.
San Miguel, Cozumel's "big city," revolves around its two landmarks: the zocalo (town square) known as Plaza del Sol and the downtown pier. San Miguel is a duty-free zone filled with stores and boutiques selling a wide variety of souvenirs along with an assortment of jewelry, including sterling silver, gold, precious and semiprecious stones, and brand-name watches. Stores in the hotels offer a selection of fashions, casual attire, perfumes, Mexican crafts and souvenirs. Easily the most distinctive and fabulous store on Cozumel is Los Cinco Soles (we've easily lost a whole day here!) which sells gorgeous Mexican crafts (plenty of the unusual along with more common items), silver jewelry and fashions. There's a tequila bar, and the shop wraps around the wonderful Pancho's Backyard restaurant. Several specialty shops sell indigenous black coral in the form of jewelry and sculptures. (Note: Cozumel adheres strictly to regulations governing the preservation of black coral.) Also of interest to shoppers: Adjacent to the Plaza del Sol is the modern Villa Mar Complex, an air-conditioned mall with several good silver shops (be sure to look for the 925 stamp indicating quality silver); among the best buys in the mall are hand woven hammocks, shell and black coral jewelry and local handicrafts. There are also many duty free items for sale such as perfumes and watches. Most stores have English-speaking personnel and all stores prefer dollars to pesos so it's not necessary to change money.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are the top priority for many visitors. Along with Grand Cayman and Belize, Cozumel offers the best diving and snorkeling sites in the Caribbean. In some areas visibility reaches 250 feet, and prime sites for "divehards" include Palancar Reef (the second longest reef system in the world), Chankanaab Caves, and La Ceiba Reef. At La Ceiba, the underwater universe contains a sunken airplane that came to rest here after being blown up for a Mexican disaster movie. Word to the wise: Be sure to keep an eye out for dive operators that post "C.A.D.O." stickers in their windows; these are considered the island's most reputable dive establishments.
Glass bottom boat tours provide a glimpse of the reefs for "aquaphobics" and others who prefer to stay dry; some of these tours also stop occasionally for snorkeling breaks.
Although Cozumel is not a haven for culture vultures, there are some interesting exhibits on underwater life and the ecosystem of the surrounding reefs as well as displays on Mayan and colonial life at the Museum of the Island of Cozumel located three blocks form the San Miguel ferry dock.
While the best preserved Mayan ruins are located on the mainland, there are several smaller Mayan sites scattered around Cozumel. The best of the local sites is at San Gervasio, located approximately seven miles from San Miguel. During its heyday, San Gervasio served as a ceremonial center dedicated to the fertility goddess Ixchel. The oldest site is El Cedral, about three miles from San Miguel, though little remains here except for a Mayan arch and a few small ruins.
Day trips to the ruins of Chichen Itza, the Yucatan's most renowned Mayan site which contains a mix of temples, pyramids and carvings dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries. Other Mayan ruins are located at Tulum, situated on the coast 35 miles south of Playa del Carmen. The site features several Mayan temples and government buildings. Day trips to both Mayan sites can be booked through local tour operators. Three of the most reputable tour operators that offer day trips to Chichen Itza and Tulum are Caribe Tours (from the U.S. phone 011-52-987-872-3100), Intermar Caribe (011-52-987-872-1535), and Turismo Aviomar (011-62-987-872-5445).
Just a short ride from Tulum is Xel-Ha, a lagoon that was considered sacred by the Maya, has been converted into an underwater park featuring an aquarium and areas for swimming, snorkeling, sunning and dining.
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve lies on a limestone flat just south of Tulum. The 1.3-million-acre reserve is home to endangered manatees, crocodiles, jaguars and turtles, and features more than 1,000 varieties of plants, 350 species of birds and 70 different mammals. More than 1,000 Maya live within the reserve.
Another fascinating day trip is to one of the island's nature preserves such as Chankanaab Nature Park, Xcaret Ecological Park or Punta Sur. The botanical gardens at Chankanaab Park are spectacular with 350 types of tropical plants from more than 20 countries. There are also captive dolphins here that visitors are permitted to swim with for a charge of $120. You can also swim with dolphins at Xcaret (pronounced Ish-car-et), which has several attractions including a botanical garden, aquarium and an underwater river ride where visitors don life jackets and are propelled by river currents through a series of caves.
Punta Sur is a new eco-tourist park for visitors interested in learning about the island's native flora and fauna. The park encompasses mangrove jungles, white sand beaches and reef formations. There is also an information center where visitors can watch a 20-minute video and learn about the different ecosystems, the reefs and the native birds along with other wildlife inhabiting the area such as turtles and alligators. Visitors can rent electric bikes to explore Punta Sur on their own.
Generally speaking, the best beaches for swimming, snorkeling or lounging under the sun are on the western side of the island, where the winds are light and waters usually calm. Don't forget plenty of sunscreen unless you want to be fried a bright shade of lobster red. The surf on the eastern side of the island tends to be much rougher.
Best Beaches for Watersports:
Chankanaab Bay, including the Chankanaab Lagoon, is terrific for snorkeling, scuba diving, beach bumming and eating. Also excellent is Playa San Francisco, which has the island's widest variety of watersports rentals along with restaurants.
Best Secluded Beach:
Playa Escondida may have few amenities...but that keeps the crowds away. Another peaceful option is Playa Chen Rio.
Pancho's Backyard (Av. Rafael Melgar 27 between calles 8 & 10, Monday - Friday from 11 a.m., closed on Sunday) is a great place for margaritas and wonderful Mexican specialties. Here, you can sit inside on the terrace and cool off beneath whirring ceiling fans while listening to the soothing sounds of trickling fountains. Pancho's is attached to one of the best shopping venues on the island.
Guido's (Av. Rafael Melgar No. 23 between calles 6 & 8, from 11 a.m. Monday - Saturday, closed Sunday) is considered the island's best Italian restaurant and choice tables are located on the patio out back.
For atmosphere and tradition don't miss Casa Denis (open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.) which has been here since 1945 and has some amazing historic photos on the walls including a young Fidel Castro.
Some of Cozumel's best home-cooked cuisine is served up daily at La Choza (Rosada Salas 198 at Av. 10 Sur from 7 a.m.), a family-run restaurant where specialties include pozole (corn soup), pollo en relleno negro (chicken in blackened sauce) and their signature avocado pie.
Carlos & Charlie's (Av. Rafael Melgar #11 on the waterfront, open daily from 10 a.m.) is the island's cornball, always-crowded tourism hot spot which specializes in ridiculously huge tropical drinks and bar food. Many tourists apparently like the raucous frat-party atmosphere, and after more than one libation you'll be lucky to stagger back to your ship.
Staying in Touch
The Calling Station (Plaza Orbi - Local 1, Av. Rafael E. Melgar 27) is open Monday through Saturday and offers Internet connections and e-mail, faxing services, cell phone rentals, money exchange and more.
Best Choices for Shore Excursions:
For Divers: Experienced divers can take advantage of opportunity to dive with one of Mexico's best dive operators; a two tank dive includes one dive at famed Palencar Reef. Duration 4 hours; price $79; there is also a beginner's scuba diving program lasting two hours for $89.
For Non-Divers Who Want to "Go Deep": A journey to a maximum depth of 100 feet below the surface in an Atlantis submarine for a narrated tour of Cozumel's spectacular underwater environment. This well designed vehicle is air conditioned and equipped with large viewing ports. Duration 90 minutes; Price $90.
For Soft Adventurers and Snorkelers: The Ocoee & Snorkel Tour combines traveling around Cozumel in a Jeep convoy with a visit to Punta Sur Nature Preserve and some quality time snorkeling in the Caribbean. Along the way you may also see saltwater crocodiles; all snorkeling equipment is provided. Duration: 5 hours; price $79.
For Snorkelers: An excursion via a 65-foot catamaran to some choice snorkeling sites. The catamaran has a spacious sundeck; there are snorkeling instructors accompanying each excursion and equipment is provided -- all you need to bring is sunscreen, towel, bathing suit and camera. After snorkeling there is a beach party with free beer, margaritas and soda. Duration: 3 and a half hours; price $55.
For Snorkelers and Dolphin Lovers: This unique excursion takes you to Chankanaab Park where you can enjoy some of Cozumel's best snorkeling and also spend approximately 30 minutes in the water with dolphins and dolphin trainers who guide you through the experience. (Minimum age for this excursion is six years.) Duration 3 hours; price $155.
For History Buffs: Tours to the ruins at either Chichen Itza or Tulum, the two prime Mayan sites on the Yucatan. Duration 7-8 hours; price $75.
For More Information
On the Web: www.cozumelinsider.com and www.cozumelonline.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Cozumel
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange