Cozumel was a quiet fishing village until 1961, when legendary undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the most beautiful scuba diving destinations in the world. Mexico’s largest island is about 12 miles off the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. The world’s second-largest coral reef lies just offshore. The marine system is part of a stunning underwater national park recognized the world over.
The Mexican island has one main city, San Miguel, which has one main road, Avenue Rafael E. Melgar. It runs along the waterfront and marks the town’s thriving retail district. Take a 10-minute taxi ride to the center of town where the Forum Shops are located—the ideal place to start a shopping spree. Visitors can procure outstanding deals on luxury jewelry and watches, particularly those with exotic diamonds and gemstones, as well as handcrafted Mexican silver merchandise. The streets are lined with shops, so be sure to bring your Port Shopping Map ashore to find the stores backed by the cruise line’s port shopping guarantee—so you can shop with confidence.
San Miguel is laid out in an easy grid around a central plaza, Plaza del Sol, which is a bit of an oasis in the midst of the bustling shopping district. It is a great spot to settle in with a refreshing margarita for some people watching. Dining in town is a gustatory treat, a fusion of traditional Mexican cuisine and Caribbean flair. Mouthwatering Mexican classics like tamales and enchiladas frequently appear on menus, but there are more than 90 restaurants, cantinas, and cafés offering a range of international cuisine. Because Cozumel is still dominated by the fishing industry, seafood is a main ingredient in many dishes.
Cozumel boasts more shore excursions than almost any other port of call, with over 70 options on the cruise line’s list. The majority of those options have something to do with the water just offshore, where the temperatures hover in the 80s year-round and visibility typically reaches up to 200 feet.
Cozumel is known for being a diver’s paradise. The Mesoamerican Reef—the Great Barrier Reef of the Western Hemisphere—flourishes in the water along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Cozumel has more than 30 chartered reefs, 85 percent of which are within the Cozumel National Marine Park, a government-protected underwater territory.
Experienced divers will enjoy the Santa Rosa Wall—one of the island’s signature dive sites. A constant north-to-south current can carry underwater explorers at a speed up to 1.5 knots (about two miles per hour), which makes the drift-diving technique popular here. Tunnels and caves offer plenty of enclaves for divers to explore, and overhangs provide escapes from the steady current. The site attracts barracuda, large black grouper, colorful parrotfish, French and queen angelfish, and other exotic species.
With some reefs in just 10 feet of water, snorkeling is sometimes a better option than diving. Palancar Reef is a top snorkeling spot, thanks to its mild currents and shallow waters. Tall coral formations attract all sorts of marine species, including the occasional sea turtle. Keep an eye on the sandy ocean floor, where stingrays like to hide out. Columbia Reef also attracts a fair share of snorkelers to float in the calm waters above a colorful underwater garden. Coral mounds called bolones are home to a variety of tropical fish and sponges.
Cozumel is peppered with several government-protected nature preserves, the most popular of which is the 450,000-square-foot Chankanaab National Park, located just south of downtown San Miguel. In 1980, the park was designated as a refuge area for protecting local marine flora and fauna. The word chankanaab is Mayan for “little sea”—quite the fitting moniker since the park encompasses the world’s only inland coral-reef formation and a seaquarium with more than 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans, and coral very close to shore.
In the heart of Cozumel’s shopping district, pick up some knowledge at the Cozumel Museum, housed in a former luxury hotel on the main avenue. Exhibitions showcase the island’s natural environment and detail its long history, which dates to as early as 300 AD. Relics of ancient Mayan settlements are scattered throughout the island.
The Maya believed this was the home of Ixchel, the goddess of love and fertility, and Mayan women from the mainland pilgrimaged to the island to pay tribute to her at the temples. Legend has it that the goddess sent swallows as a sign of her gratitude, leading to Cozumel’s original name: Ah-Cuzamil-Peten, Mayan for “Land of the Swallows.” Outside of San Miguel, much of the island remains in an undeveloped natural state that the ancient Maya would recognize if they visited today.
The most spectacular Mayan ruins are found on the Mexican mainland at Tulum, an ancient city surrounded by a 16-foot-tall, 25-foot-thick wall. Visiting Tulum is a full-day trip complete with a 45-minute ferry ride to and from Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland. Its largest building, El Castillo, sits on the edge of a 40-foot-tall cliff overlooking the water. There’s a small beach next to one of the temples, so you can gaze up at the ancient ruins while floating in the Caribbean, a perfect blend of activities for an unforgettable day.
About a 15-minute drive from the cruise terminal, San Gervasio is the largest Mayan archaeological site on Cozumel. It contains more than 60 remarkably well-preserved temples and shrines where secrets remain forever hidden in the mysterious hieroglyphics still visible on the walls.
Every year, locals gather to celebrate their Mayan heritage with a ceremonial canoe ride from the Mexican mainland to Cozumel.
Adults may wish to sign up for the Tequila Tasting Seminar at Discover Mexico, a new park designed to showcase the best of Mexican culture to travelers who are visiting Cozumel. The grounds feature scale models of the country’s top attractions. Or add some aquatic adventure to a family vacation with a carefree, fun-filled day at Playa Mia Grand Beach & Water Park, the largest beach attraction in Cozumel.
It’s all just another part of the amazing experience that awaits guests in Cozumel, the port where ancient ruins meet stunning tropical beaches.