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COZUMEL VACATION — WHAT TO SEE AND DO

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Cozumel, the largest inhabited island in Mexico, measures 53 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide. That makes it big enough to offer visitors plenty of things to see and do, but small enough that all tours can be easy day trips.

Cozumel's offshore reefs attract divers from around the world. The Palancar Reef, made famous by a 1961 Jacques Cousteau documentary, offers over 200 species of fish and visibility to 60 meters.

Because Cozumel has undersea currents, a local scuba instructor must accompany all divers. Dive shops offer guided tours.

Diving trips

Non-divers can take glass-bottomed boat tours, or do as we did and visit Chankanaab Lagoon, a natural aquarium, botanical gardens and public beach that's famed for its snorkeling. Nearby, at La Ceiba, divers and snorkelers can find a plane that was sunk for the film, Survive.

Boy builds sandcastles on Cozumel beach. Mexico.
Boy builds sandcastles on Cozumel beach. Mexico.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On the first day of our Cozumel vacation, we strolled along an eight-kilometer-long beach, near our Cozumel hotel on the protected western shore, then kayaked and windsurfed on the aquamarine sea. Another day, we rented a car to explore the island.

Cozumel has only one main road, so it's impossible to get lost. You can drive around Cozumel in just 1.5 hours, but we stopped several times, stretching our drive to a full day.

Mayan ruins

Scrubby jungle encroaches both sides of the paved road. Near the southern tip of the island is El Cedral, one of 35 archeological sites in Cozumel. San Gervasio is the best-preserved Mayan ruin.

The others are difficult to reach, unless you're driving a four-wheel drive vehicle. None of these low-to-the-ground buildings rival the extensive ruins of Chichen Itza or the spectacular location of Tulum on the mainland, however.

Cozumel history

Cozumel used to be a pilgrimage centre for Mayan women, who paid homage to Ixchel, the lunar goddess of fertility. Cortez landed here in 1519, on his way to conquer the mainland.

Couple relax on lounge chairs.
Couple relax on lounge chairs.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Unfortunately, the Spaniards also brought smallpox, which decimated most of the islanders. By the 17th century, marauding pirates like Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte, used Cozumel's coves to hide their ships.

Few people lived on Cozumel until the popularity of chewing gum increased exports of chicle, after the turn of the century. When synthetic gum replaced chicle, the island fell into an economic slump until the U.S. air force built a base here during WWII.

Today, tourism is the primary industry, a not-so-surprising fact, when you consider that Cozumel has been hosting travelers, albeit intermittently, for 700 years.

Giant sea turtles

As we turned north, on the windswept east coast road, the blue-green surf pounded the sandy beach. Every year, from May to September, giant sea turtles arrive on Cozumel shores to lay their eggs.

Although the beach looked tempting, our Cozumel guidebook advised against swimming here because of the strong undertow. We saw few people, just sea grapes, stunted palms and the occasional iguana on the flat-as-a-tortilla inland side, and a wildly-beautiful coast on the other.

San Miguel Cozumel

The road turned inland to San Miguel, the capital city of Cozumel, where virtually the entire population of 90,000 lives. San Miguel has no parking meters, so we left our car on the waterfront boulevard, Avenida Rafael Melgar, and strolled to the Plaza del Sol.

Colorful buildings line Avenida Rafael Malgar in San Miguel.
Colorful buildings line Avenida Rafael Malgar in San Miguel.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It was Sunday evening, and the locals, dressed in their best clothing, promenaded around the four-block plaza and listened to music at San Miguel's band shell.

San Miguel restaurants

San Miguel streets spread out in a grid pattern, so it was easy to get around on foot. We asked Maria, a friendly local, to point out her favorite San Miguel restaurants. "Las Palmeras, one of the oldest in town, is very popular," she said. "For authentic Mexican food, I like La Chosa. The best place for fine dining on flambéed shrimp and steaks is Pepe's Grill. A few blocks from here, La Mission serves great seafood."

Carlos 'n Charlie's posts a tongue-in-cheek sign reading: "For members and nonmembers only. No smiling, grinning or laughing allowed. No looking around. No diving from the balcony. No whatever you had in mind..."

Cozumel entertainment

Planet Hollywood is also popular with visitors on Cozumel vacations. We asked Juan, another local resident, to tell us about other hot spots for nightlife. "After the restaurants close, people go to Neptuno Disco," he said.

"San Miguel has a couple movie theatres, where you can see movies for a great price. Cozumel even has its own zona rosa. People call it 3.5 since it's 3.5 kilometers out of town."

We opted to return to our Cozumel hotel for its nightly entertainment, but not before stopping at La Flor de Michoacan which sells luscious tropical fruit-flavored ice creams and aguas frescas. "Don't worry about the water," said the owner, as we sipped our refreshing coconut waters. "Restaurants use only purified water and ice, and the Health Board routinely inspects us."

Day trips

On our final day, we took a day trip to Tulum from our Cozumel hotel. After taking a 45-minute ferry to Playa del Carmen, we took a bus to Tulum, a Mayan walled city.

We were too late to enjoy one of its fabled sunrises, but we returned to Cozumel in time to watch the setting sun paint the sky with brushstrokes of raspberry and tangerine. It was a fitting end to our Cozumel vacation.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Mexico Tourist Board: www.visitmexico.com

More things to see & do in the Riviera Maya:

Central America on a Shoestring by Lonely Planet

All About the Mayans

Mexico Day of the Dead Festival

Esencia Mayan Riviera Resort Mexico