Cozumel is located roughly 12 miles of the Mexican mainland, and around 50 miles south of Cancun. The island is about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, covering an area of roughly 185 miles squared. It is Mexico’s 3rd largest island, and its largest island in the Caribbean. Around 80,000 people call Cozumel home, and the majority of them live in the town of San Miguel. The Mayans used to make pilgrimages annually to Cozumel, to worship the goddess of fertility, Lx Chel. Nowadays the island is popular with divers, honeymooners and cruisers who enjoy the relaxed pace of tradition Caribbean style, mixed with its Maya and Mexican roots.
The island is very flat, with its highest level being only 15 metres above sea level. The island is based on limestone, which has over thousands of years has eroded in many places to form many cave systems. In 1990 a group of cave divers discovered the 5th largest underwater cave in the world. Scrubland and mangrove forests cover much of the land, and many animal and plant species are endemic to Cozumel.
Cozumel is one of the most popular diving locations in the Caribbean, and the western hemisphere. It is often referred to as the drift dive capital of the Caribbean, and frequently features in the world’s top drift diving locations. The island boasts over 30 dive sites, and many of the dives are world class wall dives where the reef starts at around 12 metres, and drops down into the dark abyss. Because of the strong currents, many parts of the reef have been carved into a stunning network of caverns and tunnels just waiting to be explored. The constant water movement means that the water is normally crystal clear year round, with the visibility frequently being well over 30 metres.
A boat dive for certified divers will usually set you back around 90 USD for a two cylinder trip. Just be aware that the price only includes cylinder, weights and a guide. You can expect to pay an additional 25 USD for all the other necessary bits of equipment, plus you will need to pay a marine park fee.
Popular Dive Sites
Airplane wreck is an old passenger airliner that was sunk deliberately in 1977 as a prop for a movie. She was intact until 1995 when hurricane Roxanne passed and broke her up, leaving bits scattered around the sea bed. This is a shore dive, and ideal for beginner divers as she is protected from currents and waves, and the maximum depth is around 12 metres. The wreck is now home to many grunts and snapper.
Palancar Garden is a very interesting reef hat starts at roughly 5 metres and drops to around 20 metres. There is usually a mild to moderate current running, which has resulted in the reef being carved into many interesting fissures and caves, just waiting to be explored. There is an abundance of black corals, huge sponges and soft corals, all teaming with juvenile fish.
Maracaibo Reef is a very deep reef that can have some unpredictable currents. The top is around 18 metres and it drops down into the abyss. Only experienced divers should attempt this dive, and only under the supervision of local experienced dive masters. Due to strong currents, the reef has been carved into a stunning labyrinth of caves, caverns and tunnels, and many pelagic species can be seen here.
Punta Sur Reef is a fantastic deep reef that starts at 24 metres and drops down to well over 40 metres. One of the most popular dives in the area as there are huge caves and caverns to explore. Black corals, huge sponges, spiral whip corals and colourful gorgonians encrust the wall, and there are some complicated cave systems to explore if you hold the right qualifications. Because of the depth and strong currents, this site is only for more experienced divers.
When to Visit
Cozumel has a tropical savannah climate, which is similar to a tropical monsoon climate. The dry season lasts only from February to April, and the rainy season makes up the rest of the year. The wettest months are September and October. Being a Caribbean island, there are chances of Hurricanes hitting the island during the autumn months. In 2005 Hurricane Wilma battered the island and did a huge amount of damage, but this has been almost completely repaired now. The water temperate has an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius, and temperatures vary little between summer and winter months.
The island is very popular with holiday makers from all over the world. During the summer months you may be fighting for space as cruise ships drop thousands of people off daily. The quietist time is usually November and early December, before the winter tourist rush happens.
Cozumel has an international airport that receives flights from the US and Canada, as well as regional flights from Mexico City. However most visitors choose to fly into Cancun and then take a bus or minivan to Playa del Carmen, followed by a short ferry ride to the island. You can also charter a small plane from Cancun for around 75 USD per person one way.
There are hourly ferries that run to the island costing about 13.50 USD (156 Pesos) per adult each way. You should only buy a single ticket as you may need to use another ferry service to return, and tickets are non-transferable between companies. Two one way tickets cost the same as one return ticket anyway. There is also a car ferry that runs to the island four times a day, which supplies the island with much of its produce. It is important to note that rental cars are not allowed onto the car ferries, and using them is generally a massive hassle, and involved a lot of waiting on both ends.
There is no public transport available out of San Miguel, so you will need to either walk, rent a car or take a taxi if you want to get away from the crowds. The docks are teeming with pushy agencies trying to get you to rent a car or moped. If you want to spend a lot of time away from the town this is probably the cheapest option, with a jeep or moped costing around 20 USD a day. If you can speak Spanish and ask for a discount you can save a significant amount of money.
Some of the roads are not in the best condition, so it you are not an experienced moped driver, we would advise you avoid them. The majority of traffic accidents on the island involve tourists who either cannot drive properly, are not used to Mexican roads, or who have had a few too many alcoholic beverages.
Eat, Sleep and Drink
There are many local restaurants in the city’s main square. Most of them are nice, and not too expensive. Traditional Yucatan and Mexican cuisine is plentiful, and you can expect to eat a lot of fresh seafood! Be aware of buffet style restaurants, it is easy to get food poisoning if the food has been left out for a while. Some places will mix left over food with the newly cooked batches. Only eat at these places if you can see the food is fresh, and piping hot! This is Mexico, so expect the Tequila to flow, and the parties to be loud, wild and run all the way throughout the night. The bars rarely check customers age or intoxication level so be aware about the journey home afterwards. Do not drive under the influence, or you may ruin your holiday.
There are a number of different hotels and hostels around to suit every budget. Hotel prices vary from less than 50 USD a night, to well over 100 USD. For the backpacker style visitor, hostel rooms are available for as little as 12 USD a night for a multi bed dormitory room.
Non Diving Activities
History. Cozumel has a rich Mayan history, and at least 24 archaeological sites have been discovered on the island. Some of these historical sites have been excavated and some have not. You can visit many of these sites, and the admission fee is generally low. The most impressive sites that have been fully excavated, or partially uncovered, are San Gervasio, El Cedral (the oldest on the island) and Castillo Real.
Submarine. Although you will probably be spending much of your time in Cozumel scuba diving, you can also take up the chance to dive dry in a real submarine! Passengers will be taken for a 40 minute dive to a maximum depth of 30 metres, piloted by fully qualified drivers in a real US Coast Guard Submarine. It may not be as good as actually diving, but when else will you get a chance to try this?!
Surfing. The beaches on the east side of the island offer pumping waves throughout most of the year. Because the coastline is rocky, and the waves break over reefs, this is only recommend for experienced surfers. This side of the island also get most of the wind, so kite surfing is also popular on these beaches.
Shop. Cozumel has a few large shopping areas selling all kinds of goods. Silver is cheaper here than it is in the US, but look out for the .925 stamp as a few places sell fake silver jewellery.
Cozumel is considered to be one of the safest travel destinations in Mexico, if not the safest. Petty crime is rare and violent crime is almost non-existent. Normal precautions should be taken as anywhere else in the world, such as keeping little cash on you, and not leaving valuable items in plain sight.
If visiting during Hurricane season you should pay close attention to weather broadcasts, and listen to any warnings. Although the island rarely gets badly affected, they pass nearby roughly every 2/3 years. The last major one was in 2005, where Hurricane Wilma battered the island with winds of over 140 mph for over 24 hours.