Cozumel: Inside Scoop on the Island’s Best-Known Features

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Discovering what Cozumel is known for means way more than quick lists of some fun but same-old excursions and frenzied “cheapest-beach-club-day-pass-coupon” posts. (yep, that is kind of a thing around here.)

To understand why Cozumel, Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, is so popular and has so many loyal, repeat visitors, you have to look just past the basic tourism ads and get to know the variety of special things the island has to offer and the best way to experience them. 

Cozumel is known as a top scuba diving destination and one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the world. Residents and repeat visitors know Cozumel as a safe and affordable Caribbean island with cool people, postcard sunsets, a great food scene, endemic animal species, a wide array of things to do, and a sensual and salt-of-the-earth community vibe.  

To know Cozumel is to really love her.

The island life is quaint and full of local tradition, yet does not lack modern creature comforts, a diverse food and drinking scene, lots of activities for families and adults, and savvy, fun, and friendly locals.  

You just have to know where to look to find some of the best that Cozumel has to offer. 

Cozumel’s Top Quality SCUBA Diving

Diving in Cozumel is known far and wide as a leading destination for the best diving in the Caribbean, if not some of the best scuba diving in the world.

Thousands of loyal Cozumel scuba divers come back over and over, mainly for the truly and consistently superb visibility, warm water temperatures (avg. all year 81F/27), and a fun and very experienced diving culture that infuses the whole island. 

Having a slew of cool and affordable hotel options and top-quality restaurant choices doesn’t hurt! 

Diving here also means exploring a nationally protected marine park along the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world.  

Named one of ocean pioneer Sylvia Earle’s first Mission Blue “hope spots,” Cozumel was also a favorite of Jacques Cousteau – a torch carried forward by his son Jean-Michel and his grandson Fabien, through their continued involvement with Cozumel’s annual Scuba Fest event. 

Scuba divers hovering over hawksbill turtle in blue water of Cozumel.

The dive sites in the marine park are known for good diversity of marine life, including spotted eagle rays in the winter, nesting sea turtles in the summer, and a year-round line up of Atlantic nurse sharks, moray eels, stingrays, midnight- and rainbow-parrotfish, sea snails, starfish, corals, sponges, urchins, and more.

A special feature of SCUBA diving in Cozumel is the chance to encounter our local endemic species – the splendid toadfish, sort of the local mascot of Cozumel diving.  (Read all about the Cozumel splendid toadfish HERE.)   

A dive trip to Cozumel is never a bad idea.

How to Experience the Island’s Best Diving

If you’re already a diver and are coming to Cozumel for the first time, the choices can be overwhelming!  There are so many great dive shops and divemasters here, it’s hard to go wrong.  

Speaking from my own lucky experience, I would start with an affordable dive-friendly hotel like the Casa del Mar Hotel and Dive Resort

This charming, treat-you-like-family hotel caters to thousands of happy, repeat-customers and experienced dive groups throughout the year. It’s also located at the start of Cozumel’s national protected marine park, so you’re right at the top of the action.  

From the hotel, just walk past the pool and across the street (via a convenient and safe foot-bridge) to one of Cozumel’s most highly regarded dive shops, Cozumel Marine World.  

This dive shop is run by two PADI Course Directors, and staffed with fun and very experienced divemasters – all of whom are also certified instructors. 

Cozumel Marine World has several nice roomy boats in their fleet, and follows all of PADI and DAN safety protocols. 

If you’re starting out with beginner scuba diving, you can arrange a Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) class, complete your open-water certification “check out” dives, or just snorkel around their house reef for a while to get your feet wet, so to speak.  

All in all, a great hotel-dive shop combo if you’re coming here to fully experience one of the best places to scuba dive in the world.

Of course, as stated, there are many other hotels and dive operators in Cozumel, and honestly, though I personally have had over 15 years of great experiences with the two operators above, I know many, many others to be completely top-notch in terms of diving experience and customer service.  

Snorkeling Around the Island

Coming in a close second to scuba diving, Cozumel is also known for its snorkeling, especially for those who think the idea of breathing underwater is a bit…er…nuts. 

OR maybe just don’t want to go to all the trouble (or expense), yet still get a glimpse of Cozumel’s great reefs and plentiful tropical fish, crustaceans, bottom dwellers, and the occasional sea turtle or octopus. 

There are many places to access fun snorkeling spots all around the island. 

The more popular and safest areas to snorkel are on the west coast of the island, as it is protected from the typically windier conditions on the east coast (lovingly referred to as ‘the wild side’ from time to time, due to the exhilarating coastal breezes from the east).

How to Get Started With Snorkeling? 

For starters, try the fun vibes, good eats, and easy snorkeling access points at one of these three popular spots along the island’s west coastal road: 

Lots of resorts and hotels have great snorkeling right in front of the property, too – be sure to ask about that when you’re deciding on where to book

For more info and a good introduction on safely experiencing Cozumel’s awesome snorkeling, check out this more in-depth post right HERE

Cozumel Now a World-Leading Cruise Port

High-quality diving may have put Cozumel on the tourism map, but its growth as a cruise ship port has really solidified its place in the Caribbean travel arena. 

In 2020, Cozumel was recognized as the busiest cruise port in the world.  

For a small island, that volume of cruise traffic makes it a clear mainstay in the local tourism market. 

With three large operating cruise ports, including Puerto Langosta in downtown Cozumel, and the International Pier and Puerta Maya further south, Cozumel can sometimes see upwards of 10+ cruises in port on busy days. 

Many people I’ve met who saw the light (sorry, not sorry) and became divers or even eventually permanent residents here, got their first taste of Cozumel on a cruise ship.  

While the debates rage on about the benefits of spending a whole vacation here rather than just one port day, and about the negative impact the cruise industry may have on the planet or on local independent businesses… there’s no doubt that the cruise industry has contributed to a huge growth in Cozumel’s reputation as an awesome Caribbean getaway destination. 

Ideas for a Port Day in Cozumel

This website is full of posts on activities and great things to do in Cozumel, but I’d start with this one on how to make your one day here memorable. 

IF your ship arrives at either Puerta Maya Pier or the International Pier:

I would recommend arranging a taxi for a few hours (around $100) to take you on a tour that includes the San Gervasio Mayan ruins site, then around to “the other side” of the island for some cool coastal views, and lunch and/or drinks at one of several beach-side havens. 

A row of hammocks in the shade at one of Cozumel's east side beaches.

IF your ship arrives at the Punta Langosta Cruise Pier in downtown San Miguel:

I’d encourage you to take advantage of your location and explore the many cultural and culinary things downtown Cozumel has on tap. 

If shopping is in order, skip the cruise ships’ scare tactics, and get a few blocks off of the main drag, a.k.a. Melgar Avenue.  

Melgar is a great place to walk in general – especially along the waterfront. 

When looking for some fun shopping for local Talavera pottery, hand-woven hammocks (an excellent authentic and useful souvenir idea!), or perhaps the best silver craftsmen in Cozumel, don’t be even slightly afraid to poke around the town plaza and the various downtown sidestreets for some more interesting wares, and better prices.  

(p.s. I’ll take full responsibility if you also just happen to stumble onto one of Cozumel’s excellent watering holes, like Wet Wendy’s (known for flavored frozen margaritas as big as your head), or yummy taco joints, like Cuatro Taco on 3rd Street, half a block from the water.)

Cozumel is Far Safer Than Cancun or Playa del Carmen

According to the US State Department’s travel advisories, as well as official advisories issued by the government of Canada, travel to Mexico often comes with cautions, and yet Cozumel itself is never listed as one of the places to avoid.  

Cozumel is a very safe vacation destination in Mexico, and is not plagued with violent drug-related crime. 

As a somewhat remote tourist island, Cozumel is geographically buffered by an ocean crossing, and culturally protected by its value as a huge tourism center, for the diving industry, the cruise industry, and foreign investors. 

The island has a strong police presence, including local, state and federal police, as well as National Guardsmen, and Navy and Coast Guard centers. 

Cozumel and Covid-19

COVID-19 concerns, especially within Canada, have complicated matters, of course. 

Current Mexico travel advisories are often related to coronavirus, a lower rate of vaccinations (currently) in the country, etc. 

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Cozumel island has experienced limited cases of coronavirus, but has not experienced a shortage of hospital beds, or a rampant spread of the virus. The numbers here – while unlikely to be highly accurate – are generally quite low.  Through a combination of sanitary protocols, social distancing (“sana distancia” in Spanish), and a gradual reopening of business and tourism, the island has fared very well.

Vaccinations have also commenced, and as of the mid Summer of 2021, are reaching residents of the age 40 and above.  The supply is a little short, so the process is slower than in the U.S., but it is happening. 

Low Crime Rate in Cozumel 

Regarding significant or violent crime, when consulting the US and Canadian state department warnings, you’ll see that often the state of Quintana Roo has lower advisory levels than other states in Mexico.

Reading further, Cozumel itself is never specifically on the areas the government sites advise travelers to avoid.  It does somewhat logically (and unfortunately) get lumped in with Cancun, despite them being geographically separated by an hour’s drive, and a ferry ride across the water.  

According to the current U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council’s (OSAC) website, incidents of violent drug-related crimes in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo exist, but are concentrated in larger northern cities and “mostly involves those involved in the drug trade or those fighting against it.” 

The information goes on to state that: 

“the infrequent reports of travelers as drug-related crime victims frequently link the victim to narcotics use or purchase, trafficking, or associating with cartel members. The primary concern stemming from drug-related crimes is the potential for bystander- or “wrong place/wrong time” violence.”

OSAC.gov

Now, don’t get me wrong: Crime does occur in the state of Quintana Roo and in Cozumel. Of course, it does. And we all need to be alert.

But in today’s Cozumel you are still more likely to hear about opportunistic petty thefts, pickpocketing, purse-snatching, and unfortunately the occasional mugging or a criminal domestic abuse incident (where the victim sadly knows the assailant).  

So, based on all of this, common street-wise advice remains, first and foremost:  do NOT purchase, traffic, or use street narcotics in a foreign country! 

And after that fairly obvious tip, then be just as safety-minded as you would at home – i.e.:

  • don’t drink too excess/know who and where your drink is coming from
  • when in doubt, stay in familiar, populated, and well-lit tourism areas
  • don’t wander around in remote neighborhoods where you stand out like a sore thumb
  • don’t flash around expensive jewelry, etc.
  • stay mindful of your valuables
  • be sure to secure your passport at all times 

In other words, even though Cozumel is a really nice and safe place to vacation, you should always follow the basic, common-sense rules of thumb for ANY traveler – or any alert citizen, for that matter. 

For more specific tips on avoiding the most common safety setbacks you may encounter in Cozumel, read this companion post about staying safe in Cozumel.

How to Ward Off Bigger Risks in Cozumel

Statistically, there are greater risks to you while traveling – and I mean traveling anywhere, including Cozumel – though luckily they’re not as potentially harmful or scary.  

I tend to be a lot more inclined to anticipate and defend myself against more everyday travel hazards and blunders – meaning, things like: 

  • credit card phishing
  • compromising your data or identity
  • traveling injuries or illness especially if you’re traveling without insurance
  • getting sunburned in the strong Caribbean sun
  • carelessly driving a rental car or moto in another country

A Better Choice Than Playa del Carmen or Tulum 

Cozumel is not only safer than Cancun or its other neighbors, like Playa del Carmen or Tulum, it is also more remote, quaint, and less aggressively touristy than other vacation spots in the Riviera Maya region on the Mexican mainland.  

Despite the cruise ship traffic, Cozumel is definitely less “capital T-Touristy” than Cancun or even Playa del Carmen, and yet enjoys the influx of the international tourists’ spending money, cultural influences, and demand for services that benefit all, like good cellular coverage and high-speed internet. 

Come Prepared!

One great way to come prepared and make sure you understand your surroundings is to have some basic Spanish in your tool kit.

Please and thank you go a long way, but it’s also great when shopping, ordering food, or trying to get directions back to your hotel!

Sign up by clicking this affiliate link (click on image to the right) to get a free 7-day intro to Skillshare and learn some basic words and expressions (psst…then you can cancel, no strings.)

The Island’s Incredible Nature and Biodiversity 

Cozumel has impressed visitors over the decades for its natural beauty, and the diversity of our ecological environments.  

In addition to the stunning turquoise Caribbean beaches and rich coral reef dive sites of the Mesoamerican barrier reef, Cozumel has acres of undeveloped tropical jungle, and critically important areas of lagoons, marshes, and mangroves.  

Mangroves are essential to the health of both the island and its surrounding coral reefs, as they prevent shore erosion, protect the island from storm surge, and create a natural nursery for all variety of juvenile fish, marine life, and waterfowl. 

Cozumel is known in birding circles as a key stop along the annual southern bird migrations. The island boasts an Audubon bird sanctuary, and a running roster of thousands of species spotted and cited, including many birds that are considered endemic to the island.  

As mentioned above, green- and loggerhead sea turtles also return to Cozumel each summer to lay thousands of eggs in nests along our eastern and southern shores.  

Green sea turtle gliding over Cozumel coral reef.
Green sea turtle

The mother turtles start arriving in about May each spring, and then baby turtle hatchlings emerge in ongoing waves from about the beginning of August through the end of October. 

To read more about our local populations of sea turtles, including when and where the annual baby turtle hatchlings arrive, see our Full Guide to Cozumel Sea Turtles post.  

Coz’s Mayan and Modern Mexican Cultures

Cozumel is often known from afar as just a cruise port, but people who really know the place can attest that it has a great number and variety of types of places to stay, annual cultural and athletic events, activities for all ages, and ways to pass your time off in any way you see fit. 

These days, Cozumel can accommodate a wide variety of contemporary vacation styles. 

Picture your urbane tropical getaway.

You want stylish accommodations, days at the infinity pool, replete with fancy cocktails and current tunes on the sound system.

Perhaps a sunset stroll through town to browse at duty-free shops or artisan silver boutiques, capped off by a downright swank dinner at Buccanos at Night or another chic – and delicious – restaurant in town.  

Or, perhaps you’re in for a hardcore dive trip. 

You’re getting up early to catch the dive boat, dropping in for 2 or 3 awesome crystal-clear dives before an afternoon of sun, cold beer, and quesadillas by the pool.

After showering and recharging your dive light and cameras, you and your dive buddies head out for some great local pizza or the famous lobster sandwich at LeChef, a drink or two back at your hotel, and then an early crash to do it all again the next day.  

Scuba divers hovering over hawksbill turtle in Cozumel.

Maybe it’s the first time touring the island with the kids. 

After consulting this helpful list of 26 Cozumel family activity ideas, you have more than enough to keep your days full of swimming, stand-up paddle-boarding, a day at the pearl farm, creative or educational opportunities, and kid-friendly menus – and don’t forget the homemade ice cream shops.  

The scenarios go on. 

Virtually any style of vacation – perhaps a romantic getaway for couples? – can be accommodated by Cozumel Island and all the neat little things to do in town.  

In turn, getting busy with whatever current activities you choose, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately realize that this modern Mexico vacation spot had such rich historical foundations, namely of the ancient Mayan culture.  

Best Cozumel History and Ancient Culture

The island has several small but significant Mayan ruins sites, including the San Gervasio complex and other remnants of Mayan civilization scattered across the island

Known as the home to Ixchel, a Mayan goddess of women and fertility, Cozumel was an important pilgrimage for all Mayan women.  

This key part of the Mayan life in Mexico is still paid homage through an annual reenactment event, known as the Sacred Mayan Crossing, or the Travesía Sagrada Maya.

Statue of Mayan god figure in Cozumel.

There are many other local venues that enrich their experiences with exhibits and performances of traditional Mayan traditions, ball games, and food.  Be sure to check out some of Cozumel’s many cultural venues like Discover Mexico, the Kaokao Chocolate Factory experience, or the interactive cultural park, El Pueblo del Maiz

It’s also a good idea to start your trip with a visit to Cozumel’s newly renovated (2020) Museum of the Island to help put all this in context. 

Exterior of main entrance to Cozumel's museum of the island.

There, you can check out original artifacts and replicas that depict stories of Cozumel’s history, from the early Maya, through Spanish explorers’ discovery and colonization, pirate inhabitants in the 19th C., and even Cozumel’s key production role in a 20th Century item we all know and love:  chewing gum.  

Great Restaurants All Over the Island

Perhaps the best part of current-day Cozumel shows itself right off the bat with a diverse array of excellent restaurants, coffee shops with strong Mexican coffee and strong wifi, sophisticated cocktail bars with edgy mixologists (and more and more non-alcoholic but still adult offerings for the growing sober curious), and a new wave of global hipster influences of the 21st C, like food trucks and stylish outdoor dining courts. 

Coming from New York City, I’ll admit it. I was worried. I love Cozumel and diving, but how was I going to get all the good foods??  

If anything would make me miss home too much, I feared it would be a boring and repetitive food experience.  (Sorry – but food is one of life’s great pleasures, right?) 

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry.  Even the pizza scene in Cozumel is good!

The only thing I really run for when I go back to New York are fresh bagels. 

Otherwise, I can scratch just about any foodie itch here with awesome places to eat, or at the very least (now) find the ingredients to make it myself.  

Yes – that last part is big.  Just in the last few years, the access to international spices and ingredients in Cozumel has expanded greatly, as a testament to Cozumel’s sophisticated role as host to the world, and its ever-growing influx of global tourists and resident expatriates. 

Where to Eat in Cozumel? 

Click this link to check out my ever-expanding list of Cozumel’s best pizza joints, and then go ahead and bookmark this next post for a general overview of some of the coolest and best restaurants in Cozumel – including loads of Google and FB links to help you remember and find them:  Cozumel Best Restaurants article

The People of Cozumel Are Simply Terrific

There is one special entity that Cozumel is known for by its true and loyal fans.  

Her people. 

Ask anyone who has spent time here, including thousands of social media posts, travel forums, and countless articles and posts like this one, and you’ll hear the same:  It’s the local people of Cozumel that make this place shine. 

Period.  

Rachel

Rachel runs and writes CozInfo.com when she's not diving, taking underwater photos, or trying a new local restaurant. After decades of project managing some mighty fine exhibition design projects in NYC, she took an adult gap year to pursue her divemaster training in Cozumel...and never made it back.