It’s all about the water here—the shimmering, clear-as-glass aquamarine sea that makes you want to kick off your shoes, slip on your fins, and dive right in. Once you come up for air, though, you’ll find that Mexico’s largest Caribbean island is pretty fun to explore on land, too.
Despite a severe lashing by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, by 2009 nearly everything was back to normal. Remodeled and upgraded hotels and businesses are better than ever.
Cozumel is 53 km (33 mi) long and 15 km (9 mi) wide, and its main paved roads are excellent. The dirt roads, however, are another story; they’re too deeply rutted for most rental cars. Streets in congested neighborhoods and remote areas flood quickly in heavy rains and are tough to navigate in heavy traffic no matter the weather. The island’s windward side and rapidly developing interior lack the infrastructure to handle severe storms.
Cozumel’s main road is Avenida Rafael E. Melgar, which runs along the island’s western shore. South of San Miguel, the road is known as Carretera Chankanaab or Carretera Sur; it runs past hotels, shops, and the international cruise-ship terminals. South of town, the road splits into two parallel lanes, the right lane reserved for slower motor-scooter and bicycle traffic. After Parque Chankanaab, the road passes several excellent beaches and a cluster of resorts. At Cozumel’s southernmost point the road turns northeast; beyond that point, it’s known simply as “the coastal road.” North of San Miguel, Avenida Rafael E. Melgar becomes Carretera Norte along the North Hotel Zone and ends near the Cozumel Country Club.
Alongside Avenida Rafael E. Melgar in San Miguel is the 14-km (9-mi) walkway called the malecón. The sidewalk by the water is relatively uncrowded; the other side, packed with shops and restaurants, gets clogged with crowds when cruise ships are in port. Avenida Juárez, Cozumel’s other major road, stretches east from the pier for 16 km (10 mi), dividing town and island into north and south.
San Miguel is laid out in a grid. Avenidas are roads that run north or south; they’re numbered in increments of five. A road that starts out as an “avenida norte” turns into an “avenida sur” when it crosses Avenida Juárez. Calles are streets that run east-west; those north of Avenida Juárez have even numbers (Calle 2 Norte, Calle 4 Norte), whereas those to the south have odd numbers (Calle 1 Sur, Calle 3 Sur).
Plaza Central, or la plaza, the heart of San Miguel, is directly across from the docks. Residents congregate here in the evening, especially on weekends, when free concerts begin at 8. Shops and restaurants abound in the square. Heading inland (east) takes you away from the tourist zone and toward the residential sections. The heaviest commercial district is concentrated between Calle 10 Norte and Calle 11 Sur to beyond Avenida Pedro Joaquin Coldwell.
Head south from San Miguel to Parque Chankanaab. Continue past the park to reach the beach clubs. A red arch on the left marks the turnoff to reach the village of El Cedral.
Back on the coast road, continue south until you reach the turnoff for Playa del Palancar, where the famous reef lies offshore. Continue to the island’s southernmost tip to reach Faro Celarain Eco Park. The park encompasses Laguna Colombia and Laguna Chunchacaab as well as an ancient Mayan lighthouse, El Caracol, and the modern lighthouse, Faro de Celarain. Leave your car at the gate and use the park’s shuttles to explore the park.
At Punta Sur the road swings north, passing several beaches and small restaurants. At Punta Este, the coast road intersects with Avenida Juárez, which crosses the island to the opposite coast. Follow this road back to San Miguel. Or, take Avenida Juárez from Punta Este to the well-marked turnoff for the ruins of San Gervasio. Turn right and follow this well-maintained road for 7 km (4½ mi) to reach the ruins. To return to San Miguel, go back to Avenida Juárez and keep driving west.
Outside its developed areas, Cozumel consists of sandy or rocky beaches, quiet coves, palm groves, lagoons, swamps, scrubby jungle, and a few low hills (the highest elevation is 45 feet). Brilliantly feathered tropical birds, lizards, armadillos, coatimundi (raccoonlike mammals), deer, and small foxes populate the undergrowth and mangroves. Several minor Mayan ruins dot the island’s eastern coast, including El Caracol, an ancient lighthouse.
Cozumel Restaurant Reviews
Dining options on Cozumel reflect the island’s nature: breezy and relaxed with few pretensions (casual dress and no reservations are the rule here). Most restaurants emphasize fresh ingredients, simple presentation, and amiable service. Nearly every menu includes seafood; for a regional touch, go for pescado tixin-xic (fish spiced with achiote and baked in banana leaves). Only a few tourist-area restaurants serve regional Yucatecan cuisine, though nearly all carry standard Mexican fare like tacos, enchiladas, and huevos rancheros. Budget meals are harder and harder to find, especially near the waterfront. The best dining experiences are usually in small, family-owned restaurants that seem to have been here forever.
Many restaurants accept credit cards; café-type places generally don’t. Don’t follow cab drivers’ dining suggestions; they’re often paid to recommend restaurants.
Cozumel Hotel Reviews
Small, one-of-a-kind hotels have long been the norm in Cozumel. Glamour and glitz are nearly nonexistent—though designer toiletries and fine linens are starting to appear in a few resorts. The emphasis remains on relaxed comfort and reasonable rates (though prices are rising). Most of Cozumel’s hotels are on the leeward (west) and south sides of the island; there is one peaceful hideaway on the windward (east) side. The larger resorts are north and south of San Miguel; the less-expensive places are in town. Divers and snorkelers tend to congregate at the southern properties close to the best reefs. Swimmers and families prefer the hotels to the north, where the water is usually calm and shallow. Note that the beaches at some places may be rocky. Bring along swim shoes for easier water entries.
Discos and trendy clubs are not Cozumel’s scene. In fact, some visitors complain that the town seems to shut down completely by midnight. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on sun and scuba diving that sends everyone to bed early. (It’s hard to be a night owl when your dive boat leaves first thing in the morning.) Cruise-ship passengers mobbing the bars seem to party more than those staying on the island, so the rowdiest action sometimes takes place in the afternoon, when revelers pull out the stops before reboarding. Dance and music clubs come and go; check for new clubs around the pedestrian streets in San Miguel.
Cozumel’s main souvenir-shopping area is downtown along Avenida Rafael E. Melgar and on some side streets around the plaza. There are also clusters of shops at Plaza del Sol (East side of main plaza) and Vista del Mar. Malls at the cruise-ship piers aim to please passengers seeking jewelry, perfume, sportswear, and low-end souvenirs at high-end prices.
Most downtown shops accept U.S. dollars; many goods are priced in dollars. To get better prices, pay with cash or traveler’s checks—some shops tack a hefty surcharge on credit-card purchases. Shops, restaurants, and streets are always crowded between 10 AM and 2 PM, but get calmer in the evening. Traditionally, stores are open from 9 to 1 (except Sunday) and 5 to 9, but those nearest the pier tend to stay open all day, particularly during high season. Most shops are closed Sunday morning.
When you shop in Cozumel, be sure you don’t buy anything made with black coral. Not only is it overpriced, it’s also an endangered species, and you may be barred from bringing it to the United States and other countries.