A tropical island off mainland Mexico, Cozumel lies in the Caribbean Sea. A popular cruise ship port destination, Cozumel beaches and outdoor activities – such as some of the best scuba diving in the Western hemisphere – attract tourists from all over the world to its shimmering turquoise shores.
Cozumel at a Glance
Just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s Mexico’s third-largest island, 43 miles south of Cancún and 12 miles southeast of Playa del Carmen.
Unlike other nearby tourist destinations, Cozumel has a more laid-back vibe. Family is important to locals and you’ll often witness gatherings and fun-loving events. They’re friendly and welcoming to visitors.
- Area: 184.5 mi² Population: 100,000
- Capital: San Miguel de Cozumel
- Currency: Peso
- Language: Spanish
- Climate: Tropical humid, 80° Fahrenheit year-round
- Terrain: Flat
How to Get Around Cozumel
Rent a car/jeep and drive around to introduce yourself to the island and Mexican traffic idiosyncrasies. There aren’t a lot of regulations in Mexico, but for safety reasons, I highly recommend that you continue to follow the laws of the USA. It’s possible to drive around the entire southern loop of the island in less than two hours, but there are lots of interesting places to see along the way, so it will likely take a whole day to scout out places you want to return to.
You can also rent a scooter to get around, but I wouldn’t recommend it; scooters are at fault for a high percentage of tourist accidents around the world. If you do, be sure to also rent a helmet, not only for safety but to prevent getting fined if caught without.
Cozumel is also close to the popular tourist destination, Tulum, which has a ton of fun things to do. Here’s how to get from Cozumel to Tulum.
Here are my top ten Cozumel beaches and adventures!
#1 Swim in the Gorgeous Beaches
Warm, crystal-clear water, ranging in shades from shimmering emerald to deep turquoise, lap onto all the shores of Cozumel.
Palancar Beach is arguably the prettiest beach on the island. Iridescent water as calm as an aquarium makes it a great place for snorkeling and there are lots of amenities for those just looking to chill while staring out at the shimmering aqua-green water.
Playa San Juan
I had a great time at Club Cozumel Caribe on Playa San Juan. The beach is rocky so make sure you have water shoes. Besides swimming, there are facilities on this beach to do other water activities such as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, jet skiing, and parasailing.
Other beaches include Playa Las Casitas (closest to town), Paradise Beach, Playa El Cielo.
#2 Snorkel/Dive in the Reefs
Jacques Cousteau once proclaimed that Cozumel’s Mesoamerican Reef (the second-largest coral reef in the world) was among the most beautiful in the world so it’s no wonder that diving and snorkeling are the main attractions.
Like diving in the Riviera Maya, there are a ton of world-class places to scuba in and around Cozumel, including more than 20 reefs such as Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park (46 square miles), Dzul-Ha Reef, Punta Sur caves, Xicotencatl wreck, and Columbia Reef. Waters are teeming with some 250 species of vibrantly-colored tropical fish, sea turtles, whale sharks (seasonal), and other marine life. Take note that there are strong currents and dangerous rip tides on the east side of the island.
As far as snorkeling, the best beaches for snorkeling are the rocky ones, so if you’re planning to walk right into the water, be sure to wear proper water shoes or flippers. For diving, you’ll likely go offshore or to a private island such as Isla Pasion via a catamaran.
The whole coast of Qunitana Roo is a scuba mecca. Here’s a guide for diving Playa del Carmen vs. Cozumel.
Most places will rent snorkel equipment which I recommend unless, like me, you need an optical correction mask. I love mine; sometimes it comes in different colors (mine is pink, of course!).
#3 Stroll Around San Miguel
Rebuilt after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, San Miguel is the largest and liveliest town on Cozumel, possessing both a laid back atmosphere and the charming remnants of colonial Mexico. The most popular spots are the Parque Benito Juarez (Plaza Zocalo) situated in the center with open-air concerts and indigenous dancers, Avenida Rafael Melgar with shops selling jewelry, colorful ceramics, leather sandals, handicrafts, and tropical clothing, and restaurants, and the malecón seaside boardwalk with beautiful sculptures.
It’s here where the cruise ships dock (as many as four at a time), so the center square, Plaza del Sol, can get pretty crowded. But if you venture into some of the side streets you’ll find fewer people, better deals, and a more authentic village experience.
On Sunday nights, the plaza is filled with locals dressed in their finest to take advantage of free live concerts and dancing. Visitors can also sample tamales and other homemade foods sold by local women.
#4 Extreme Adventure
For the more adventurous types, especially families and groups, head straight to Xtreme Adventure Park. A day here will provide enough to do to satisfy even the biggest adrenaline junkies.
Activities include a thrilling zipline course through the treetops, a rappel tower with a birds-eye view of the Caribbean, suspension bridges, a rock wall for climbing, and a tubbing slide.
Full transparency, even though I’m one of those adrenaline junkies at heart, the act of letting myself drop off the top of the rappel tower was a little scary!
#5 Visit an Eco Park
Located inside Cozumel´s National Reef Marine Park, Chankanaab National Park offers a beautiful beach where you can swim or snorkel/scuba dive in the stunning offshore reefs. Amenities include an eco-archaeological tour, sea lion show, manatee and crocodile exhibition, snuba, sea trek tours, spa, tequila tour, and temazcal (indigenous extreme heat sauna ceremony) experience.
#6 Explore Mayan Ruins
Located in the northern part of Cozumel, the San Gervasio ruins are Cozumel’s largest and best-preserved Mayan site. You can get a glimpse into Mayan history, life, and religion by exploring various structures dating from 600 to 1600 A.D.
Las Manitas “Little Hands” was the house of the Mayan ruler and has walls decorated with small red handprints; there’s also the “Small House,” the “Tall House,” the Arch and other columned buildings.
The site was also a ceremonial center dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of love, childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving. Pre-Columbian Mayan women were required to visit the sanctuary once in their lifetime to make offerings.
#7 Climb a Lighthouse
There are several lighthouses you can climb to get a panoramic view. The smallest one is in the central plaza. Punta Molas is the most remote and not easy to reach (need a boat) but has spectacular views.
#8 Indulge in Chocolate
Since I simply must have some chocolate every day, I was delighted to find the Mayan Cacao Company. The chocolate tour is interactive, so you’ll be able to make and taste some of the items.
On the tour, you’ll learn about the origins of Mayan chocolate, when and how it was discovered, a demonstration of the Mayan’s traditional method of making it as well as the significance of chocolate in the Mayan culture.
But naturally, the best part is getting to taste the rich, delicious chocolate including combinations, such as milk chocolate with cranberries and almonds, chocolate with chili, and beverages like chocolate mojitos, daiquiris, and/or margaritas.
#9 Discover History
For history buffs, there’s a scaled-down tour of the whole country at Discover Mexico Park, just south of San Miguel. Visitors walk through 1/25 scaled replicas of Mexico’s most iconic attractions and learn about the evolution of Mexico’s great civilizations, the Spanish conquest, arts, and culture. There’s also an “educational” tequila tasting and a taco lunch.
Don’t miss the impressive rain dance (Danza de Los Voladores, or Dance of the Flyers) demonstration. Discover Mexico this is one of the most family-friendly attractions on the island.
#10 Drive a Mini-Sub
B.O.S.S. (Breathing Observation Submersible Scooter), also called a mini-sub, is a very unique and fun way to explore the marine life, coral reefs, and ocean floor of the Caribbean. Tours go out in small groups of five or six people with a guide.
I found it a bit daunting getting into the BOSS. You have to go underwater, with your eyes closed, and feel your way around until you feel the edge of the bubble, then get your head under and into it. Once your head is inside the bubble, there’s no water in there, much the same as when you take a glass and put it upside-down into a tub of water – the water does not go into the glass. You then follow in a line, driving your scooter according to your instructions, all the while viewing the stunning underwater world.
Where to Stay
There are really only two main options – staying in the main town of San Miguel, or at one of the hotels or resorts on the beach. Both are great options; San Miguel is fun and very convenient while beachfront accommodations are always indicative of vacation.
Once a sleepy backwater island, Cozumel beaches are the perfect alternative for those seeking a tropical paradise getaway but without the partying, commercialism, and crowds of Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.