Cozumel with an Open Mind

Surprise, surprise! We were convinced that 15,000 cruise ship passengers a day descending on tiny Cozumel would make it a very un-Mexican, tourist trap. We were coming here for the fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, but didn’t expect much more. Yes, San Miguel de Cozumel (the only town on the island) does have its fair share of tacky souvenir shops, loud over-priced bars and restaurants playing American golden oldies, and street hustlers touting rental cars, scooters, jewelry, t-shirts, tequila tastings, and dirt bike tours. But walk five blocks from the town square and cruise ship docks, wait until 5 pm when the big boats start to depart, or spend a Sunday here when there are no cruise ships in port—you are in a different world. Mexican, local, real.

And despite our prejudices, mass tourism has its upsides. The cruise ship dollars make this island wealthier than most Mexican places we’ve visited—more opportunity for decent paying jobs, better infrastructure, less crime and poverty. And we benefitted as tourists too. We found a wide range of excellent, excellent restaurants—from the local, hole-in-the-wall taqueria to fancy seaside establishments with stunning views. Accommodations ranged from $18 a night rooms, backpacker hostels to all-inclusive resorts and beautiful villas on perfect beaches. There were three giant, modern supermarkets, but there were also mom and pop bodegas on every block and a large central market with stalls of fresh fish, live poultry and dozens small food stands.

But we did come for the drop dead gorgeous beaches and beautiful coral reefs that Cozumel is known for, and we weren’t disappointed.

You do need to know that the island has two very distinct sides. The eastern shore facing the Caribbean is wild, virtually uninhabited with only a couple of small hotels and restaurants. The surf is high, the winds strong, and the shore is rocky. Great for kitesurfing, or sunbathing if the wind isn’t too bad, terrible for swimming or snorkeling. The western side, facing the Yucatan, is usually calm with crystal clear waters, barrier reefs and many idyllic sand beaches. The shore is dotted with beach clubs, restaurants, hotels, a mega resort or two, but also public beaches and small coves. This is one of the few places we’ve been where swimming is good almost in the town center! Cozumel is heaven for swimming, snorkeling and diving.

In our search for underwater adventure we stuck to the western shore and were given this bit of advice: sandy beaches typically mean terrible snorkeling and diving—little to see and often poor visibility; rocky beaches mean clear water, lots of fish, and often great coral formations. There are many places to snorkel from the beach—some very close to the San Miguel itself—but the best snorkeling is definitely from a boat. The reefs are well off shore and it would be very dangerous to swim out to them. We booked a four hour tour for $65 per person with a guide that took us to three reefs—Columbia, Palancar, Cielo. It was money well spent. And a bonus: it was Sunday when there wasn’t a cruise ship in town—no other snorkelers in sight and only two others on our boat—a dad and his 15 year old son. We saw rays, barracuda, jacks, and spectacular schools of colorful tropical fish. The water was crystal clear, warm, and ranged from brilliant aqua to deep blue—travel brochure quality.

Our meals in Cozumel, particularly dinner, ranged from simple tacos at a locals’ hangout to fine dining in luxurious patio gardens or beautiful seaside palapas. The price for dinner with drinks for three was never more $20 each, and usually much less. And we had to be careful of snap judgements—a seaside restaurant around the corner from us that during the week seemed like a classic tourist trap filled with bus loads of gringos caused us to walk on by. On Sunday, when many places were closed for lunch, we stopped in desperation and discovered the place packed almost exclusively with locals and their children enjoying a meal after church. We now know why—the food was excellent and prices very good.

So Cozumel maybe Mexico’s number one cruise ship destination, but please don’t let that keep you away.