Cozumel, Quintana Roo
It's not another Cancún yet, but Cozumel's days as a rustic divers' hangout are history. Whether arriving by plane or at the island's gleaming ferry terminal, visitors soon realize there's nothing deserted about this island. That has its advantages. It's rare to find such stunning natural beauty, glass-clear aquamarine seas, and vast marine life combined with top-flight visitor services and accommodations, and as a result Cozumel's devotees are legion. Divers sharing stories of lionfish and sharks sit table-to-table with families tanned from a day at the beach club, while Mexican couples spin and step to salsa music in the central plaza. But the elephant in Cozumel's big and bountiful room are the throngs of cruise-ship passengers who take over the countless crafts and jewelry stores along the seaward boulevard downtown any day there are ships in port—which is to say, just about every day. But take just a few steps off the beaten path and this little island offers big rewards. Deserted, windswept beaches, wild and vibrant natural parks, and 600 miles of coral reef are still yours for the discovering. Just 19 km (12 miles) off the coast, Cozumel is 53 km (33 miles) long and 15 km (9 miles) wide, making it the country's third-largest island. Plaza Central, or just "la plaza," is the heart of San Miguel, directly across from the docks. Residents congregate here in the evening, especially on weekends, when free concerts begin at 8 pm. Heading inland (east) takes you away from the tourist zone and toward residential areas of town. Most of the island's restaurants, hotels, stores, and dive shops are concentrated downtown and along the two hotel zones that fan out along the leeward coast to the north and south of San Miguel. The most concentrated commercial district is between Calle 10 Norte and Calle 11 Sur to beyond Avenida Pedro Joaquin Coldwell. Cozumel's solitude-seeking windward side also has a few restaurants and one hotel. Unless you want to stick around your hotel or downtown San Miguel for your whole stay, you'll do well to rent a car or a scooter. Most worthwhile sites, such as the island's Mayan ruins and pristine windward beaches, are only readily accessible with wheels. Taxi fares are astronomical, and after just a few trips a rental car is clearly a better deal.
At first glance, the food scene here is tourist-typical: fresh seafood, American beach-shack standards, and a rainbow of sweet and fruity cocktails. A handful of creative chefs, however, have started serving up more sophisticated dishes.
If you're looking for a party, look elsewhere. Cozumel's already low-key nightlife shuts down by midnight, perhaps thanks to the many dive excursions leaving at the crack of dawn. The cruise-ship passengers mobbing the bars seem to drink enough for the whole island, and the rowdiest action sometimes takes place in the afternoon, when mojito-slinging revelers pull out the stops before reboarding. But if you're willing to shift the night action a few hours earlier, the excellent salsa bands playing a few bars and beach clubs will oblige. Join locals and resident expats for a few rounds on the dance floor and you'll be ready for bed at a relatively reasonable hour.
Several trendy sportswear shops line Avenida Rafael E. Melgar between Calles 2 and 6.
The National Park of Chankanaab, translated as "small sea," consists of a saltwater lagoon, an archaeological park, and a botanical garden, with reproductions of a Mayan village and Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, and Mayan stone carvings scattered throughout. You can swim, scuba dive, or snorkel at the beach; the park also offers dolphin encounters, which are a highlight for kids. There's plenty to see beneath the surface: underwater caverns, a sunken ship, crusty old cannons and anchors, and a sculpture of la Virgen del Mar (Virgin of the Sea), all populated by parrotfish and sergeant majors galore. To preserve the ecosystem, park rules forbid touching the reef or feeding the fish. You'll also find dive shops, restaurants, gift shops, a snack stand, and dressing rooms with lockers and showers right on the sand.
Surrounded by a forest, these temples make up Cozumel's largest remaining Mayan and Toltec site. San Gervasio was the island's capital and ceremonial center, dedicated to the fertility goddess Ixchel. The classic- and postclassic-style buildings and temples were continuously occupied from AD 300 to 1500. Typical architectural features include limestone plazas and arches atop stepped platforms, as well as stelae and bas-reliefs. Be sure to see the temple "Las Manitas," with red handprints all over its altar. Plaques in Mayan, Spanish, and English clearly describe each structure.
Spanish explorers discovered this site, once the hub of Mayan life on Cozumel, in 1518. Later it became the island's first official city, founded in 1847. Today it's a farming community with small, well-tended houses and gardens. Conquistadores tore down much of the Mayan temple, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed the rest to make way for the island's first airport during World War II. So there's little in the way of actual ruins apart from one small stone arch, but if you're in the market for souvenirs, vendors around the main plaza display embroidered blouses and hammocks.
Playa San Francisco
Playa San Francisco was one of the first beach clubs on the coast. The inviting 5-km (3-mile) stretch of sandy beach, which extends along Carretera Sur south of Parque Chankanaab at about Km 14, is among the longest and finest on Cozumel. Encompassing the beaches Playa Maya and Santa Rosa, it's typically packed with cruise-ship passengers in high season. On Sunday locals flock here to eat fresh fish. Amenities include two outdoor restaurants, a bar, dressing rooms, gift shops, beach chairs, restrooms, massage treatments, and water-sports equipment rentals. Divers use the beach as a jumping-off point for the San Francisco reef. In lieu of a fee, there's a $10 minimum purchase of food or drinks for adults. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (free); showers; toilets. Best For: walking; swimming.
Museo de la Isla de Cozumel
Filling two floors of a former hotel, Cozumel's island museum has displays on natural history—the island's origins, endangered species, topography, and coral-reef ecology—as well as human history during the pre-Columbian and colonial periods. The photos of the island's transformation over the 20th and 21st centuries are especially fascinating, as is the exhibit of a typical Mayan home.
South of the resorts, down a rutted and potholed road and way off the beaten path lies the serene Playa Palancar. The on-site dive shop can outfit you for trips to the famous Palancar Reef just offshore. There's also a water-sports center, a bar-café, and a long beach with hammocks hanging under coconut palms. Amenities: food and drink; showers; restrooms; parking (free); water sports. Best For: snorkeling; swimming.
Punta Chiqueros, a half moon-shaped cove sheltered by an offshore reef, is the first popular swimming area as you drive north on the coastal road. (It's about 12 km [8 miles] north of Faro Celarain Park.) Part of a longer beach that some locals call Playa Bonita, it has fine sand, clear water, and moderate waves. This is a great place to swim, watch the sunset, and eat fresh fish at the restaurant, also called Playa Bonita. Amenities: food and drink; toilets; parking (free). Best For: walking; sunseta; swimming.
Punta Sur National Park
This 247-acre national preserve at Cozumel's southernmost tip is a protected habitat for numerous birds and animals, including crocodiles, flamingos, egrets, and herons. At the park's (and the island's) southernmost point stands the Faro de Celarain, a lighthouse that's now a museum of navigation. Climb the 134 steps to the top for the best view on the island. Spot crocodiles and birds from observation towers near Laguna Colombia or Laguna Chunchacaab, or visit the ancient Mayan lighthouse El Caracol, designed to whistle when the wind blows in a certain direction. Beaches here are wide and deserted, and there's great snorkeling offshore. Snorkeling equipment is available for rent, as are kayaks, and there are restrooms at the museum and by the beach. Leave your car at the Faro and take park shuttles or rental bikes to the beach. Without a rental car, expect to pay about $40 for a round-trip taxi ride from San Miguel.
Cozumel Pearl Farm
Currently the only pearl farm operating in the Caribbean, the Cozumel Pearl Farm is located on a beautiful private beach of white sand surrounded by turquoise waters and grows Caribbean pearl oysters over a period of eight years. Conceived as a project of research and development, this spectacular place opened its doors to visitors in early 2012. Small groups of up to 12 people a day can visit to discover how to grow a pearl, as well as snorkel and relax on the beach. Accessible only by boat, the farm will make you feel like a castaway on a desert island during the six-hour experience, which runs from 10 am to 4 pm. Transportation (from San Miguel Pier or other meeting point), gear, lunch, beer, and soft drinks are included in the price.