Vacation in Cozumel, and odds are you’ll go home utterly relaxed and with memories of spectacular scenery and friendly people. A 34-mile-long by 11-mile-wide island of Mexico, Cozumel is quite unlike its neighbor, Riviera Maya. It’s largely undeveloped, with expanses of jungle and untouched shoreline. Travelers don’t come for the partying, boisterous beach bikini volleyball games, or designer shopping. The city of San Miguel has a laid-back vibe and a shady plaza (El Zócalo), but little in the way of nightlife or high-end shops. Yes, you’ll find souvenir stalls and Cozumelenos selling handmade goods, especially near the waterfront and around El Zócalo, but most of the wares are brought in from the mainland, and thus pricier. Nightlife is more casual (think bars with guitar players and chain restaurants, such as Carlos N Charlie’s and Senor Frog’s) than the sophisticated club scene across the sea. Here are 11 more things every traveler should know before setting off for Cozumel.
1. The snorkeling and scuba diving is incredible.
Just off Cozumel’s southwestern coast lies the world’s second-longest coral reef system (only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef beats it). The Mesoamerican Reef System spans about 175 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to Honduras. The exceptionally clear waters put Cozumel high on many divers’ bucket lists. It’s common for divers to see vast coral heads, vivid sponges, tropical fish, and tunnels and caves housing species found only here, such as the Cozumel splendid toadfish. The Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, a popular diving area, is home to several endangered creatures, including the loggerhead sea turtle, the queen conch, and black coral.
2. Don’t drink the water.
No, you still shouldn’t drink the water in Mexico, even in the fanciest tourist havens. Stick with bottled water (even the locals often drink it), including when you brush your teeth. Try to keep your mouth closed in the shower, too.
3. It’s easier to get to than you think.
Believe it or not, nonstop flights to Cozumel International Airport operate from a fair number of big cities in the U.S., including Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, and Miami. That list grows during high season (roughly early December through Easter). Otherwise, it’s easy to catch a ferry from Playa de Carmen. It’s about a 45-minute ride, and they run regularly.
4. Everyone can find a beach to love.
While there are plenty of Instagram-worthy white-sand stretches (hello, San Francisco Beach), it’s worth thinking about what kind of beach you want. Pretty? That’s all of them. Beyond that, beaches on the eastern side of the island are rocky, and the water is often rough, but they’re beautiful and feel much more undiscovered than others on the island. Cozumel is not a surf destination, but beginner and intermediate boarders often sign on with a surf school for a day. Northern coast beaches, north of San Miguel, tend to be popular with families with kids, since the water is calm and shallow. Limestone “iron shore” beaches are top spots to go snorkeling -- just make sure to wear water shoes. All of the beaches on Cozumel are public, but that doesn’t mean they’re free. Technically, the use of the actual beach is free, but many impose cover charges that apply toward your bar or beach club food tab.
5. It’s cruise ship central.
Cozumel is a stop on many cruise line itineraries. The good news? Passengers typically don’t venture much farther than the harbor, so if you’re aware of when the ships dock, the tourist crowd is easy enough to avoid.
6. It’s safe.
No place in the world is 100 percent safe for all visitors all the time. That said, Cozumel is generally considered safe for travel by the U.S. State Department. The drug-related crime in Mexico that makes the headlines is concentrated near the borders. Violent crime on Cozumel is rare. Of course, you should still take proper safety precautions. For example, wandering on a beach alone at night isn’t a smart idea. Plus, check the U.S. State Department’s travel advisories for updates before your trip.
7. You don’t need a visa...
...But you do need a passport. The only exception is for those traveling on closed-loop cruises, which start and end at the same U.S. port. In that case, only a birth certificate and driver’s license is required.
8. You can use American currency.
Most tourist merchants in Cozumel accept U.S. dollars, but will give change in pesos. On a similar note, English is widely spoken. That being said, you’ll be able to get by without brushing up on your high-school Spanish.
9. The sun is no joke.
Pack more water-resistant sunscreen than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to ruin your vacation by skimping on sun protection. Another tip: Whether it’s your style or not, wear a brimmed hat when you’re in the sun.
10. You can get your archaeology fix.
While you won’t find anything on the scale of Chichen Itza here, you can explore the San Gervasio Mayan Archaeological Site. It’s set in a jungle-like wildlife refuge (watch out for the iguanas!) that visitors say feel other-worldly. And history buffs find the backstory of this site, an eastern outpost of the Mayan empire, fascinating.
11. Watch out for hurricane season.
Like many other lovely islands in the Caribbean, Cozumel has a hurricane season from August through November. The ideal times to visit are late April and early May, months which are usually sunny and low in humidity (and crowds). June and July are the wettest months, but the rain is similar to that in Florida: it starts suddenly and ends just as quickly.
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