If you’re thinking of some sun and sea in the Mexican Caribbean then your first thought might be Cancun, a perennially popular resort town with expansive beaches and decent nightlife. However, Cancun does have a few drawbacks.
Overcrowding can be a problem, as can safety concerns (drug trafficking in the area has led to a spike in violent crime over recent years). Cancun also suffers from a lack of authentic flavor and limited choices beyond beach activities.
So, what if you want to keep those stunning Mexican beaches but try something a little different? Is there a way that you can still have the best of Cancun but also take in a little history and escape the crowds? Well, we think the answer is Cozumel, a small island roughly 50 miles to the south.
The island’s main town, San Miguel de Cozumel, is a regular cruise-ship destination, but probe a little beyond this and you’ll find a relatively undeveloped and rugged landscape with loads to see and do.
I spent two weeks there a few years ago and discovered a little speck of land that punches well above its weight as an ideal holiday destination. Here are 6 top things to do in Cozumel.
Scuba Diving & Snorkeling
The world-famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was the first person to really establish Cozumel in the global consciousness, declaring it the best dive site in the world in 1961. Which means that both scuba-diving and snorkeling in Cozumel is must-do.
In a world where many coral reefs are under increasing threat from pollution, overfishing and invasive species, the reefs around Cozumel are in great health. This is thanks largely to the protection of the Cozumel National Marine Park, an organization that has ensured Cozumel’s many dive sites are home to the greatest biodiversity anywhere in the Caribbean.
Hawksbill turtles, rays, sailfish, barracuda and many kinds of shark—including bull sharks—all thrive here. So too does the fantastically named “Splendid Toadfish”, an endemic species that can only be seen at Cozumel.
From June to September divers can book tours to a spot along the Yucatan coast where Whale Sharks, the world’s biggest fish, pass by on their annual migration (although if this is the main reason for your visit then we’d probably recommend Isla Holbox as an alternative destination).
With more than 30 dive sites around Cozumel, there are great spots for all levels of experience. First-time divers should head to the Palancar Gardens. These safe, tranquil waters are ideal for learning the skills and offer a high probability of spotting turtles and nurse sharks among the abundant reef life.
Intermediate divers can head for the Santa Rosa or San Francisco reefs, and the spectacular underground caverns known as the “Cathedral” and the “Devil’s Throat” make Punta Sur reef a rewarding challenge for advanced divers.
Faro Celerain Eco Park
Sometimes also known as “Punta Sur Eco Park”, this conservation area on the island’s far South is a sheltered refuge for a great diversity of bird life, as well as crocodiles and turtles.
At the heart of the park is the “Faro Celerain” lighthouse, a study in understated architectural elegance offering the best panoramic views available on the island. Electric bikes are available to help you explore the area, and don’t forget to get in touch with Cozumel’s past at the ”El Caracol” Mayan ruins.
If you want to explore further, take a kayak or snorkel on the Laguna de Colombia, an inland lake connected to the sea by an underground tunnel, and another welcome haven for marine life.
The ruins at San Gervasio may not be the grandest of all the Mayan ruins in Cozumel, and even all of Mexico! These Cozumel ruins hold special significance in Maya culture.
Once the spiritual home of the fertility goddess, Ix Chel, Maya women would make pilgrimages from all over the region to present offerings. Writing in 1549, the Bishop of Yucatan described the site this way: “[the Maya] held Cozumel in the same veneration as we have for…Jerusalem and Rome”, and at its heart was San Gervasio.
This is a place where you can wander through the remains of an ancient civilization in peace and solitude—sadly no longer an experience you can still enjoy in many similar sites around the world.
Visit A Pearl Farm
Take a boat from downtown San Miguel, head to the North side of the island—passing a half-sunken ship on your way—and eventually you will touch shore on the satin-white beach that is home to the Cozumel Pearl Farm, a small family-run business that may well have the most paradisiacal headquarters of any company in the world.
The same Hurricane Wilma that destroyed the boat you passed en-route also had a devastating effect on the farm; learn how the farm recovered and how they operate today, before snorkeling out to see the hatchery.
Afterward, there’s plenty of time to relax on your own private beach, enjoy the family’s excellent hospitality and laze in a hammock.
You can book your trip here.
Explore The Deserted East Side Of The Island
Ultimately the main charm of Cozumel is Cozumel itself. The island is easily small enough to drive around in a day, and once you get away from the towns on the west side of the island you’ll discover deserted beaches, spectacular rock formations and a slow Caribbean pace of life that feels a million miles away from Cancun.
Small towns along the coast road offer a chance to gain an insight into Mexican island life away from the tourist crowds. Stop, have a drink and sample local seafood as you make your way slowly down the coast.
A personal highlight of this area was the blowholes formed in the limestone rocks, openings where the sea shoots upwards like a geyser with each incoming wave.
I literally had to be dragged away.
Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat because you definitely can do this one from the mainland. Still, it has to be on any visitor’s bucket list when visiting anywhere in this region, so I couldn’t leave it off.
Chichen Itza is well-known and is every bit as awe-inspiring as you’d imagine. I’m not good enough a writer to do this place justice (it’s simply indescribable) so I’ll just mention a few practical things to help with your visit.
- To get there you’ll need to take a ferry to Playa del Carmen on the mainland. This takes about an hour. From there, its roughly a 90-minute overland drive so be prepared for a long day of traveling. Pack some lunch or eat off-site as food nearer the site is overpriced. There are a number of tour operators working in Cozumel and neighboring Playa del Carmen, so shop around for the best deal.
- The Castillo is almost synonymous with Chichen Itza but is actually part of a much wider site, all of which is well worth your time to explore. Make sure to leave yourself enough time if traveling independently.
- On the Spring and Autumn Equinox, the precise position of the sun casts shadows down the staircase of the Castillo that resemble the serpent god Kukulkan wriggling down the side of the structure. The precise engineering and understanding of astronomy that makes this possible still boggles my mind even now, so try to time your trip around this if you can.
To see more of Chichen Itza, check this out below (hint: skip to 6:33)!
So that’s our guide to Cozumel: all the fun and sun of Cancun but with some authentic local history, biodiversity, and some of the world’s best diving thrown in.
An island paradise where the buzzing nightlife of San Miguel is only a stone’s throw from beaches you can have all to yourself. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, a recent study reveals it to be the most affordable holiday destination in the Caribbean, so you really have no excuse to miss out.
Suggested next reading: Dominican Republic: How To Experience The Best Of The Caribbean For Dirt Cheap