Cozumel Travel Guide

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Cozumel Travel Guide

Cozumel Local History

The Mayans were settled in here way back in the day, starting from 300 AD. In the post-classic period, Cozumel thrived as a trade centre and, very significantly, a ceremonial site. Mayan women from all over the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond made pilgrimages here to pay tribute to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and the moon, at a temple erected in her honour at San Gervasio, near the centre of the island. The first Spaniards, Juan de Grijalva and his men, made their way to Cozumel in 1528. At the time, there were at least 32 Mayan building sites on the island. A year later, conqueror Hernan Cortes sacked one of the Mayan temples but left the others intact, apparently satisfied with converting the island population to Christianity. As if that were not enough, Spanish conquistadors introduced devastating smallpox to the islanders, the disease wiped out half of the 8000 Mayan population.

A period of virtual desertion on Cozumel followed, during which the island became a refuge for notorious pirates such as Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan. In 1848, Indians fleeing the War of the Castes found their way to Cozumel, and by the early 20th century its now mostly mestizo population grew, thanks in the most part to chewing gum. Locals harvested chicle on the island (Cozumel was a port of call on the chicle export route); the natural gum was sugar-coated in America and turned into the ubiquitous Chiclets. The later invention of synthetic chewing gum meant the need for chicle eventually waned, as did Cozumel's major industry. However, the economy stood strong for a while because of the construction of a US air base during WWII.

After the US military said adios, the island hit a real economic slump, and many of its residents moved away. The hangers-on fished for a living. Then in 1961, everything changed when ocean explorer-extraordinaire Jacques Cousteau produced a documentary about Cozumel's glorious sea life. Almost overnight, the tourists began to arrive. In its new incarnation as one of the world's most sought-after diving destinations, Cozumel has gone through something of a growth spurt. The islanders now number over 75,000. A certain percentage of the populace seems determined to squeeze the last centavo out of the foreign visitor, but in the main Cozumel's native citizens are friendly, and polite to the point of courtliness.

Cozumel Attractions

Top Attractions

San Miguel de Cozumel - Isla Cozumel's only town is San Miguel de Cozumel, and it is where you will find many restaurants, bars, hotels, tour agencies, banks and other amenities. It is well-equipped to deal with the global influx, you can chow down on food ranging from vegetarian to Mediterranean to local mesquite-grilled chicken. The waterfront Avenida Rafael Melgar is generally bustling with cruise-ship tourists; wander off the track a little for a dose of the vibrant local scene. But before leaving Avenida Rafael Melgar, check out the fine Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, which presents a clear and detailed picture of the island's flora, fauna, geography, geology and ancient Mayan history. Well-scripted signs in both English and Spanish accompany the exhibits. Get your lesson on Coral 101 here before heading out to the reefs. Plaza Del Sol, the town's main square, is a popular spot for strolling, hanging out and people-watching, especially on Sunday evenings when all of the locals seem to be out, soaking up the atmosphere.

You can also swim with dolphins - Dolphin Discovery (tel. 998/849-4757) has several programs for experiencing these sea creatures. You will need to make reservations well in advance. The surest way is by e-mail or through the website. The dolphin swim and other programs are very popular, so your best bet is to plan ahead. Still, if you are already in Cozumel, you can try by calling tel. 987/872-9702. The dolphin swim costs $119 and features close interaction with the beautiful swimmers. There is also a swim and snorkel program for $89 that gets you in the water with them but offers less interaction. Dolphin Discovery also offers a program only in Cozumel where you can swim with sea lions ($59); make reservations for this. There is also a sea lion show, which does not require reservations. It costs $5 per adult, $3.50 per kid. Tickets are available through any travel agency in town. The show also includes some scarlet macaws, which, like the sea lions, were rescued from illegal captivity.

Maya Ruins - One of the most popular island excursions is to San Gervasio (100 B.C.-A.D. 1600). Follow the paved transversal road. You will see the well-marked turnoff about halfway between town and the eastern coast. Stop at the entrance gate and pay the $1 road-use fee. About 3km farther, pay the $5 fee to enter; still and video camera permits cost $5 each. A small tourist center at the entrance sells cold drinks and snacks. When it comes to Cozumel's Maya remains, getting there is most of the fun, do it for the mystique and for the trip, not for the size or scale of the ruins. The buildings, though preserved, are crudely made and would not be much of a tourist attraction if they were not the island's principal ruins. More significant than beautiful, this site was once an important ceremonial center where the Maya gathered, coming even from the mainland. The important deity was Ixchel, the goddess of weaving, women, childbirth, pilgrims, the moon, and medicine.

A History Museum - The Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, Avenida Rafael Melgar between calles 4 and 6 Norte (tel. 987/872-1475), is more than just a nice place to spend a rainy hour. On the first floor an excellent exhibit illustrates endangered species, the origin of the island, and its present-day topography and plant and animal life, including an explanation of coral formation. The second-floor galleries feature the history of the town, artifacts from the island's pre-Hispanic sites, and colonial-era cannons, swords, and ship paraphernalia. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $3. A good rooftop restaurant serves breakfast and lunch.

Sorrisi, Best Italian restaurant in the island...loved it! I was walking through the streets of Cozumel looking for a nice and attractive restaurant nearby and suddenly I found this rustic Italian restaurant called Sorrisi´s, as soon as I walked in, the gave this special attention to me. The service was great as well as the food and the drinks, specially the sangria that they gave me to taste (awesome!), and the special licore gelatto, just great!. So far the best italian cuisine in the island and the Caribbean, I highly recommend it!, and the good thing is that is located in downtown, almost in between the ferry pier and the punta langosta´s main pier (cruise). Believe me, if you´re planning to visit Cozumel you should go and visit Sorrisi too, you won´t regret it. The finest cuisine in the island. Just in case price listings are around 15 to 45 dllrs per person excluding tax, tips and drinks. It was worth each penny.
submitted by Robert, 26/08/08

Piratas Restaurant Bar Snorkel and Dive Is located south of Fiesta Americana just before the row of beatiful villas and before Chankanaab. It is owned by a very friendly gentleman by the name of Reuben, who has owned it since Wilma. Ice cold beer and Great company. awesome food and drink!!!! There is also an entrance to the water there for snorkeling. Stop and visit with Reuben, I´m sure you´ll make a new friend. We´ll be stopping there ourselves next month. only 36 days to go!!! I´m a pirate....Argggggg!!!!
submitted by Cozforme, 05/03/08

Alberto's Beach Club This beach is located on your way to the south end of the Island and is a gem of a find! Stay and watch the sunset as they bring in fresh fish from their wooden boats! Not the best place to swim, but great food and great views. It is very quiet and not many people. Alberto is usually there later in the day and he is always so nice to talk to. I like to visit an hour or two before sunset. Tell Alberto, I said HI!
submitted by Kattie, 28/03/07

Rileys Tavern Best ex-pat tavern in the island. Located on A.R. salas in downtown Cozumel. Iced down beer, good food and wine.42" plasma TV... American and Canadian owned. We have been here 16 years, and know the island, and its wonderful people. Come and enjoy an evening with us.
submitted by James Ewing, 03/02/06

Cozumel Shopping

If you like shopping for silver jewelry, you can spend a great deal of time examining the wares of all the jewelers along Avenida Rafael Melgar. Some duty-free stores sell items such as perfumes and designer wares. Visitors interested in Mexican folk art, can visit one of the three stores on Avenida Rafael Melgar that have merchandise better than what most stores offer:

Los Cinco Soles (tel. 987/872-2040), Indigo (tel. 987/872-1076), and Viva México (tel. 987/872-5466). There are also some import/export stores in the new Punta Langosta Shopping Center in the southern part of town in front of the Punta Langosta Pier. Prices for serapes, T-shirts, and the like are lower on the side streets off Avenida Melgar. Across the street is a small gallery called Casa Chaak (no phone), which is the joint effort of eight island artists.

For diving and snorkeling, there are plenty of dive shops to choose from, including those recommended below. For island tours, ruins tours on and off the island, glass-bottom boat tours, fiesta nights, fishing, and other activities, go to a travel agency. Recommended is InterMar Cozumel Viajes, Calle 2 Norte 101-B, between avenidas 5 and 10 (tel. 987/872-1535 or 987/872-2022). Open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 8pm, Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

Cozumel Activities

Boat Trips Travel agencies and hotels can arrange boat trips, a popular pastime on Cozumel. There are evening cruises, cocktail cruises, glass-bottom boat cruises, and other options. It is worth inquiring whether the trip will be filled with cruise-ship passengers, because trips that cater to the cruise-ship crowds can be packed.

One rather novel trip is a ride in a submarine, offered by Atlantis Submarines (tel. 987/872-5671). The sub can hold 48 people. It operates almost 3km south of town in front of the Casa del Mar hotel, and costs $76 per adult, $39 for kids 3 to 12 years old. This is a superior experience to the Sub See Explorer offered by Aqua World, which is really a glorified glass-bottom boat.

Snorkeling - Anyone who can swim can snorkel. One shop that specializes in snorkeling trips is the Kuzamil Snorkeling Center, 50 Av. bis 565 Int. 1, between 5 Sur and Hidalgo, Colonia Adolfo Lopez Mateos (tel. 987/872-4637 or 987/872-0539). A full-day snorkel trip costs $65 per person, $50 for children under 8. It includes the boat, the guide, a buffet lunch, and snorkel equipment, and it visits four reefs. You can call directly or make arrangements through a local travel agency. Half-day trips are $40 adults, $30 children.

Cozumel Parks & Gardens

Chankanaab National Park - This is the pride of many islanders. Chankanaab means "little sea," which refers to a beautiful land-locked pool connected to the sea through an underground tunnel, a sort of miniature ocean. Snorkeling in this natural aquarium is not permitted, but the park has a lovely ocean beach for sunbathing and snorkeling. Arrive early to stake out a chair and palapa before the cruise-ship crowd arrives. Likewise, the snorkeling is best before noon. There are bathrooms, lockers, a gift shop, several snack huts, a restaurant, and a palapa for renting snorkeling gear.

Surrounding the land-locked pool is a botanical garden with shady paths and 351 species of tropical and subtropical plants from 22 countries, as well as 451 species from Cozumel. Several Maya structures have been re-created within the gardens to give visitors an idea of Maya life in a jungle setting. There is a small natural history museum as well. Admission to the park costs $10, and it is open daily from 8am to 5pm. The park is south of town, just past the Fiesta Americana Hotel. Taxis run constantly between the park, the hotels, and town ($9 from town for up to 4 people).

Punta Sur Ecological Reserve - This is a large area that encompasses the southern tip of the island, including the Columbia Lagoon. The only practical way of going there is to rent a car or scooter; there is no taxi stand, and, usually, few people. This is an ecological reserve, not a park, so do not expect much infrastructure. The reserve has an information center, several observation towers, and a snack bar. In addition, there are four boat rides per day around the Colombia Lagoon, where guides point out things of interest about the habitat (bring bug spray).

Punta Sur has some interesting snorkeling (bring your own gear), and lovely beaches kept as natural as possible. Regular hours are from 9am to 5pm. A special program (tel. 987/872-2940 for info) allows visitors to observe turtle nests in season, and you can participate as a volunteer in the evenings during the nesting season. Admission is $10.

Cozumel Beaches

Playa San Francisco - A 14km jaunt from San Miguel on Cozumel's west coast, Playa San Francisco is one nice sandy spread. And with white sands running for more than 3km it is a popular spot, where locals and day trippers from the cruise ships go to snorkel, relax and play beach games like volleyball. It is a great spot to picnic, or alternatively, pricey food is available at one of several restaurants within reach. If dive shops get your heart pumping, you will find plenty to keep you occupied here.

A little more isolated in nature, Playa Palancar, a few kilometers south, has calm jet-ski-less waters to its credit. It is a beautiful place for a swim.

Along both the west and east sides of the island visitors will see signs advertising beach clubs. A "beach club" in Cozumel usually means a palapa hut that is open to the public and serves soft drinks, beer, and fried fish. Some are more elaborate. Nachi Cocom, south of Chankanaab, even has a swimming pool, a good restaurant, and water sports equipment rental. A little farther south you will come to Playa San Francisco and, south of it, Playa Palancar. Food (usually overpriced) and equipment rentals are available.

Other beach clubs include Paradise Cafe, on the southern tip of the island across from Punta Sur nature park, and Playa Bonita, Chen Rio, and Punta Morena, on the eastern side. They are scattered along the coast and do a big business on Sunday, when the locals head for the beaches, otherwise they are not crowded. Most of the east coast is unsafe for swimming because of the surf. Small beaches occupy the spaces between rocky promontories, and you can have one all to yourself.

If you are not trying to get away from the crowds, there is an all-inclusive beach park, Playasol (tel. 987/872-9030). It sells different packages for people wanting a day at the beach for $50 to $70, depending on the package. The park offers guests the use of a pool, restaurant, bar, and a number of water sports. The owner of Playasol operates the ferries from Playa. It promotes the park on the mainland offering direct transportation there. The park also gets cruise-ship passengers, so it can be crowded.

Cozumel Restaurants and Bars

The highly inventive menu emphasizes tropical ingredients and fuses West Indian with European cooking. Every dish tried here is delicious and artfully presented.

The spiced mussel soup had a delicious broth scented with white wine. Veranda mango fish included a mango sauce that was both light and satisfying. And Palancar coconut shrimp consisted of shrimp boiled in a coconut sauce with little bits of raw (not sweet) coconut.

Cozumel Restaurants

Cabana del Pescador (Lobster House) - The only item on the menu is lobster boiled with a hint of spices and served with melted butter, accompanied by sides of rice, vegetables, and bread. The weight of the lobster you select determines the price, with side dishes included. Candles and soft lights illuminate the inviting dining rooms set amid gardens, fountains, and a small duck pond. The owner, Fernando, welcomes you warmly and will even send you next door to his brother's excellent Mexican seafood restaurant, El Guacamayo, if you must have something other than lobster. Credit Cards are not accepted, and lobster (by weight) $19-$30. Located Km 4 Carretera Santa Pilar (across from Playa Azul Hotel). No Phone.

French Quarter - In a pleasant upstairs open-air setting, French Quarter serves Southern and Creole classics. The jambalaya and etouffee are delicious. You also have the choice of dining indoors or having a cocktail in the downstairs bar. The menu lists blackened fish (very good) and fresh lump crabmeat. Filet mignon with red-onion marmalade is a specialty of the house. Reservation are recommended during Carnival, and main courses are $10-$27. Located at Av. 5 Sur 18. Tel: 987/872-6321.

La Veranda - This is the perfect place to go if you are getting tired of fried fish or fish with achiote sauce, or if you just want something different. The highly inventive menu emphasizes tropical ingredients and fuses West Indian with European cooking. Every dish tried here is delicious and artfully presented. The spiced mussel soup had a delicious broth scented with white wine. Veranda mango fish included a mango sauce that was both light and satisfying. And Palancar coconut shrimp consisted of shrimp boiled in a coconut sauce with little bits of raw (not sweet) coconut. The indoor and outdoor dining areas are airy and quite pleasant. You can hear soft jazz and the whirring of ceiling fans in the background. The tables are well separated and attractively set. Reservations are recommended during high season, and main courses are $14-$20. Located on Calle 4 Norte (between avs. 5 and 10). Tel: 987/872-4132.

Prima - Everything at this ever-popular hangout is fresh, pastas, vegetables, and seafood. Owner Albert Domínguez grows most of the vegetables in his local hydroponic garden. The menu changes daily and concentrates on seafood. It might include shrimp scampi, fettuccine with pesto, and lobster and crab ravioli with cream sauce. The fettuccine Alfredo is wonderful, the salads crisp, and the steaks outstanding. Pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven. Desserts include Key lime pie and tiramisu. Dining is upstairs on the breezy terrace. Reservations are recommended during high season. Prices for pizzas and pastas are $6-$10, seafood $10-$20; steaks $15-$20. Prima is located on Calle Rosado Salas 109A, Corner of 5th Av. Tel: 987/872-4242.

Pepe's Grill - The chefs at Pepe's seem fascinated with fire, what they do not grill in the kitchen, they flambe at your table. The most popular grilled items are the good-quality beef (prime rib or filet mignon) and the lobster. For something out of the ordinary, try shrimp Bahamas, flambeed with a little banana and pineapple in a curry sauce. Pepe's is a second-story restaurant with one large air-conditioned dining room under a massive beamed ceiling. The lighting is soft, and a guitar trio plays background music. Large windows look out over the harbor. The children's menu offers breaded shrimp and broiled chicken. For dessert there are more incendiary specialties: bananas Foster, crepes Suzettes, and cafe Maya (coffee, vanilla ice cream, and 3 liqueurs). Reservations are recommended, and main courses are $18-$35, children's menu $7. The Grill is located Av. Rafael Melgar at Salas. Tel: 987/872-0213.

Cozumel Bars & Clubs

Cozumel attracts divers and other active visitors who play hard all day and wind down at night. The nightlife scene is often low-key and peaks in the early evening. The exception is the cruise-ship crowd. Most of the music and dance venues are in two areas: one is just north of the main plaza on Rafael Melgar, and includes theHard Rock Cafe (tel. 987/872-5271); the other is in the Punta Langosta shopping center, in front of the pier of the same name, not far from Hotel Plaza Las Glorias. Here you will find Carlos 'n' Charlie's (tel. 987/869-1646) and Senor Frog's (tel. 987/869-1651). On Sunday evenings the place to be is the main square, which usually has a free concert and lots of people strolling about and visiting with friends. People sit in outdoor cafes enjoying the cool night breezes until the restaurants close. The town of San Miguel has three movie theaters. Your best option is Cinepolis, the modern multicinema in the Chedraui Plaza Shopping Center, across Avenida Melgar from the Plaza Las Glorias Hotel. It mainly shows Hollywood movies. Most of these are in English with Spanish subtitles (pelicula subtitulada), but before buying your tickets, make sure the movie has not been dubbed (doblada).

Cozumel children's activities

Boat Trips Travel agencies and hotels can arrange boat trips, a popular pastime on Cozumel. There are evening cruises, cocktail cruises, glass-bottom boat cruises, and other options. It is worth inquiring whether the trip will be filled with cruise-ship passengers, because trips that cater to the cruise-ship crowds can be packed.

One rather novel trip is a ride in a submarine, offered by Atlantis Submarines (tel. 987/872-5671). The sub can hold 48 people. It operates almost 3km south of town in front of the Casa del Mar hotel, and costs $76 per adult, $39 for kids 3 to 12 years old. This is a superior experience to the Sub See Explorer offered by Aqua World, which is really a glorified glass-bottom boat.

Snorkeling - Anyone who can swim can snorkel. One shop that specializes in snorkeling trips is the Kuzamil Snorkeling Center, 50 Av. bis 565 Int. 1, between 5 Sur and Hidalgo, Colonia Adolfo Lopez Mateos (tel. 987/872-4637 or 987/872-0539). A full-day snorkel trip costs $65 per person, $50 for children under 8. It includes the boat, the guide, a buffet lunch, and snorkel equipment, and it visits four reefs. You can call directly or make arrangements through a local travel agency. Half-day trips are $40 adults, $30 children.

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guide to what to expect in Cozumel, Mexico.

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