Quintana Roo, Mexico
Top diving destination, ancient Maya ruins, Maya museum, beaches. Much of this large island is still left untouched.
So what does the island have to offer? A deep-water pier was built here in the 1990s for cruise ships to dock (causing some damage to the reefs) and the cruise ships come here at high season in the winter months but plenty of visitors come here for one-day trips, mainly for scuba diving and snorkelling in truly blue waters.
The majority of the island's population live in the town of San Miguel (about 70,000 people), which is on the island's western (ferry) shore. Right opposite the ferry terminal there is the main square, where you can spend an hour browsing or having a drink watching the people. Or contemplate the island's history over your drink. The Mayan island was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century and out of 10,000 people only 350 were left alive as the Spaniards brought with them the deadly smallpox. In 1861 American President Abraham Lincoln wanted to buy the island to relocate freed American slaves offshore but the Mexicans would not have it. The island was struck directly by two category 4 hurricanes in 2005 (Emily and Wilma) causing substantial damage. Next, Donald Trump wanted to buy part of the island in 2006 but the Mexicans would not accept that either. Today the island remains slightly underdeveloped and for me it is a reclusive place.
I have been here a few times, each time for a different experience. First time (in 2017) with my husband Rhod and some friends, we were just browsing and walking about. Second time, in the same year, we came for a sailing trip, organised by my friend Claudia.
The next visit (in 2017) was very personal: we renewed our vows here with my husband Rhod (after 27 years of marriage) at a shaman ceremony on the 'wild' side beach (the other side from the ferry). We hired a Volkswagen bocho (as you do if you come to Cozumel) and enjoyed our ride across the island to the beach (you can also go around but it will take longer than half an hour). The advantage of having a shaman ceremony on the east coast was that we did not need a beach wedding permission, which can be costly (the Riviera Maya coast is a popular place for weddings). As nobody knew about us on the wild beach, we just paid for the shaman's ceremony. We wanted to keep it low-key, only inviting our son and three friends. This way the shaman did a cleansing ceremony for all of us, as we were all intuned into getting some positive energy. We received a small ceiba tree from the shaman (the sacred Mayan tree of life) and our son received seeds of the same tree, for good luck (he was leaving Playa for Europe after two years here). We planted them and then half a year later replanted his and our trees in the Sacbe jungle on the outskirts of Playa. That way we will always have a tree to come back to. Our soul is connected to this coast through its roots.
There are plenty of wild beaches on the rugged east side of the island. If you hire a bocho, you can drive along this coast and hop out and take a swim anywhere. Note the coastal dune plants, such as sea grape (coccoloba uvifera), siricote (cordia dodecandra), beach cabbage (scaevola taccada), coconut palms. There are a few small beaches with bars here, the first one after you cross the island is Mezcalitos, then Punta Morena, followed by Ventanas del Mar. A favourite spot is Coconuts Bar although at times it is full of loud drunk tourists.
We chose the one next to the Ventanas al Mar Hotel (Windows of the Sea), the ocean-front eco-friendly hotel. We had the beach to ourselves and words can't describe how romantic that ceremony felt, the 'wilderness' hugely contributing to it.
For dinner we decided to go to the ferry side of the island, to Buccanos Restaurant, a trendy place with a panoramic ocean view. This western side of the island is lined with restaurants and small hotels: Corona beach bar, Uva Beach Club, Playa Azul Beach Club, Paradise Beach Club and Palancar Beach just to name a few. If you are after snorkelling, this is where you need to go as tours depart from this side. When you get off the ferry, turn right and walk along the long road or take a taxi.
We did not hurry back to the ferry. Instead we stayed a couple of nights at the oceanfront Cantamar Condos (also on the ferry side of the island, but further along, near the Navy base). We had a great time here, playing games with friends and snorkelling. The condo sits on rocks but has a man-made sandy beach area and steps leading into the sea. This type of access to the sea is common in most hotels and beach bars on the west coast as the shore is rocky here.
My next visit here was with a group of friends for the annual carnival, in April 2018. Carnaval de Cozumel is larger than the one in Playa del Carmen (where we live), with a great ambience. The locals put great effort into their costumes. It is held in February in correlation with the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday. We walked to the Sunset restaurant for drinks and when the parade started we just moved upfront. There are plenty of beach bars on the East side, walkable from the ferry (just turn right when you land). If you want to be seated during the carnival on the street side, it is best to book a table beforehand. However, the street is lined with many people, both locals and visitors, so the best view is from a standing position.
Cozumel means the Land of Swallows. The name comes from the ancient Mayan site, now called San Gervacio. Its original name was Tantun Cuzamil (Flat Rock in the Place of the Swallows). The island today contains a few ruin sites but San Gervasio is the largest. I visited the ruins on a separate trip in 2018 with the shaman Eduardo (or rather Ah Men, as they call the shamans here). The ruins were once a hub of worship of the goddess Ix Chel, deity of the moon, childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving. The Maya came here for pilgrimage trips from all over Central America. These sacred journeys are now renewed; the canoes depart from the Xcaret park, usually in May. The ruins are set in a quiet jungle park, a very pleasant stroll. For full details see my separate post on San Gervacio.
And yet another trip I made here was just for the museum with the ancient artefacts from the island. Museo de la Isla de Cozumel is right on the waterfront and has a lovely restaurant with sea views.
For tequila lovers you can visit the local tequila factory at Hacienda Antigua, on the traversal road across the island, just before you reach the ruins of San Gervacio.
If you're a wildlife lover, take a hiking trip through the Punta Sur Ecological Park at the southern tip of Cozumel where you can see exotic birds, crocodiles and sea turtles. Families like to go to Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park, located inside Cozumel's National Marine Park. There is a lagoon here (with underwater caverns, home to manatees and sea turtles) that gives the park its name as Chankanaab in Mayan means 'Little Sea'.
How to get there:
Cozumel is an hour's ride on the ferry from Playa del Carmen. There are three ferry companies that cross from Playa Del Carmen to Cozumel: Barcos Caribe, Ultramar and Mexico Waterjets. The prices are on average around 10USD one way (locals get discounts). All the boats are similar and go on average every hour; at certain times of day, every half hour. All of the ferry companies have kiosks near the ferry pier. Most people just show up and take whatever boat is leaving next. You can buy one-way or round-trip tickets. I recommend just getting a one-way ticket and then buying another ticket when you are ready to come back. For orientation, see the map on the left (source: cozumelliving.com).
If you are coming from Cancún airport, take a bus to Playa del Carmen. It is a two-minute walk from the bus station to the ferry terminal, just down the hill towards the sea.
Cozumel's small but modern airport offers international flights with nearly daily non-stop services from US hubs in Houston (United Airlines), DFW (American Airlines) Charlotte (US Airways) Atlanta (Delta Air Lines) and Miami (American Airlines).
And when is the best time to visit? The winter (from December to March) has cooler weather and is the most popular time (the prices are higher too). The rest of the year is hotter but less crowded (although Cozumel never gets crowded in the same way as Playa del Carmen does).