Cozumel is one of Mexico’s most popular destinations for tourists, particularly with the cruise set: More than half of all of the country’s cruise arrivals docked in Cozumel in 2018. Like many other areas of Mexico, Cozumel is a relatively safe destination for tourists to visit. While the COVID-19 outbreak is currently making it unsafe to travel anywhere, Cozumel has previously received the same U.S. Department of State threat-level ranking as countries including Japan and the Netherlands. Violent crime is low, however, there have been reports of tourists drinking tainted alcohol at all-inclusive resorts, and there were two incidents involving explosives on tourist ferries in 2018. Is it safe to visit Cozumel? Read on.
Never been to Cozumel? Here are 11 things every traveler should know before visiting Cozumel.
Cozumel Safety: An Overview
Beyond the global travel advisory in light of COVID-19, U.S. State Department has issued the country of Mexico a Level Two warning, last updated in December of 2019. This level advises tourists to “exercise increased caution.” The state Cozumel is in, Quintana Roo, is also under a Level Two warning. The U.S. Department of State specifically mentions criminal activity and violence in areas frequented by tourists as a concern. This violence is usually targeted and not directed at random passer-by or tourists, though bystanders have been injured. There are no U.S. State Department restrictions beyond those for COVID-19 on travel to Cozumel specifically nor for specific areas on the island.
Cozumel is a largely undeveloped island, and its urban center, San Miguel de Cozumel, is the only urban zone on the island. The downtown is quite safe (especially during the day), and there are no large areas where it’s generally considered unsafe for tourists to venture. A good rule of thumb in Cozumel is that if there are families around, it’s probably a relatively safe area.
Cozumel Safety: Common Types of Crime
While there are no urgent safety issues in Cozumel, it’s always good to exercise safety precautions. According to the U.S. Department of State, criminal activity and violence do take place in the state, though the attacks are usually targeted and not aimed at general crowds or tourists. The UK’s foreign travel office also mentions that the Mexican government consciously steps up protection for major tourist destinations including Cozumel and that drug-related crime and violence there is less prevalent there than in other areas of Mexico.
Do keep an eye out for scams surrounding supposedly “free” tours. Only purchase tours from legitimate outlets. Also be wary of buying items from street vendors with deals too good to be true, especially pertaining to jewelry with supposedly authentic jewels or gemstones. Vendors near the piers, where the cruise ships unload, are overpriced compared to shops in town.
In 2018 there were two incidents involving explosives on tourist ferries operating out of Cozumel. The first detonated and injured 26 people, including U.S. and Canadian nationals. The Zetas cartel claimed responsibility for it. The second bomb was found by law enforcement on a different ferry operated by the same firm, though that particular boat wasn’t in operation.
Cozumel Safety: Tips for Staying Safe
Common-sense precautions are the name of the game when it comes to staying safe in Cozumel. The main town on the island, San Miguel de Cozumel, generally has low crime rates, though the island has special tourist police who speak English and are available to help visitors. It’s also important to understand that much of the violence in Mexico has more to do with cartels than tourists, and it takes place mostly in the border regions. Risks of violent crime like mugging is low in Cozumel, though it would be a smart idea to leave your best jewelry and watches at home anytime you travel. However, avoiding isolated areas, like beaches and empty streets, at night is always good practice when it comes to staying safe.
Cozumel is a major tourist area, so like in any other similar place, keep an eye out for pickpockets and petty theft. Consider traveling with an anti-theft purse or backpack, and keep them close to you at all times when you’re out and about. Don’t display a large amount of cash when you’re making a purchase at a store or paying a restaurant bill. Storing valuables like phones and laptops in your hotel safe is also a good idea no matter where you are.
Taxis in Cozumel are generally very safe and have set rates. Taxi drivers carry a laminated rate card with fees set by the local taxi union. The cards list rates for both within and between zones, as well as hourly rates, special trips to beach areas like Chen Rio, and fees for waiting time. To avoid any trouble, or to avoid being scammed with your fare, only use taxis from registered taxi stands called sitios. Do not flag a taxi down on the street. Also, avoid renting a moped on the island, especially if you’re new to driving one.
At the beach, keep an eye on color-coded flags (red means don’t swim) that indicate whether it’s safe to swim or not, and take that advice seriously. If you’re on a beach with lifeguards, always pay attention to their warnings and instructions. Undertows are very strong in Cozumel and can be dangerous.
Cozumel is surrounded by 25 coral reef formations, which contribute to the island’s reputation for excellent diving and snorkeling. However, they also pose a little danger: Coral reef is extremely sharp if you step on it with bare feet. It’s a good idea to bring a pair of water shoes for swimming and wading out in the water. If you go in for a swim, don’t leave your belongings on the beach unattended.
Cozumel Safety: Choosing a Hotel
Tourist hotspots in Quintana Roo generally offer a range of resorts and hotels that are safe places to stay. However, in 2017 there were widespread reports about tainted drinks at upscale, all-inclusive resorts in Cozumel as well as in Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Tourists reported blacking out after drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, including quantities as little as a single drink. Some were sexually assaulted or robbed during this lapse in consciousness. While the spiking appears to have been random, and the Mexican government pledged to take action, reports continued through 2018.
In 2019, the U.S. State Department took steps to address the tainted-alcohol complaints by asking Mexico’s health inspection department to check bars, hotels, and restaurants. Two establishments were shut down. As of March 2020, the U.S. State Department has not issued a current warning or travel directive for Quintana Roo referring to these events, but it is a good idea to keep an eye on your drink as it’s being made and to be wary of accepting drinks from strangers or anyone who is overly social. If your cocktail tastes off, do not continue drinking it. If you feel exacerbated symptoms of drunkenness for the amount of drinks you had — think dizziness, nausea, and confusion — inform staff you might have had tainted alcohol and seek medical attention. Consider bringing your own alcohol in from duty-free at the airport, and be sure to check the seals on the alcohol in your hotel room mini-bar. Keep in mind, however, that tainted alcohol is not just a problem in Quintana Roo or Mexico — incidents have occurred all over the world. Most hotels in Cozumel and the larger area are perfectly safe and incident-free, just be sure to read recent reviews and do due diligence when you’re researching your hotel or resort stay.
It’s worth researching whether the resorts you have in mind have their own water purification system, as it’s not safe to drink the tap water anywhere on Cozumel. Use bottled water to hydrate, wash fruit, and brush your teeth to avoid gastrointestinal issues. Most restaurants also prepare meals using purified water instead of tap water, but if you’re concerned, confirm this with your server.
If you’re planning a trip during the June to October season when storms are prevalent, consider a resort or hotel that offers “hurricane guarantees” or “hurricane policies.” These usually apply once the U.S. National Weather Service has declared a hurricane warning.
In the event of inclement weather like hurricanes or tropical storms before or during the trip, the policies help to protect guests who have put down money for reservations by offering credits for a rebooked stay, penalty-free refunds. Many accommodations also have hurricane shutters, which help protect belongings in the event that guests are unable to depart due to airport or port closures before a storm lands. However, each hotel and resort make their own policies, so don’t assume anything and double-check yours before finalizing your reservation.
Cozumel Safety: COVID-19
Because of the developing nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s best to do research for up-to-date information for the latest Cozumel COVID-19 updates and warnings. However, it is currently not safe to travel anywhere: Even if you do not display symptoms, you could be an unsuspecting carrier of the virus.
As of March 25, there were 27 positive cases of COVID-19 in the state of Quintana Roo. The vast majority were in Benito Juarez, and no suspected cases at the time of publishing have been tested positive in Cozumel. However, the amount of infected cases with this virus grows exponentially, so numbers can change dramatically each day. Low rates in an area do not necessarily mean it is low-risk to visit.
As of late March, Governor Carlos Joaquín has still not imposed limitations on free transit in the state due to COVID-19. Some cities in the region are asking people to self-isolate by staying at home and encouraged them to practice social distancing.
After the initial outbreak and period of self-isolation, also keep in mind that it’s possible that there will be smaller repeat outbreaks — especially once travel restrictions are lifted, and tourists carrying the virus begin to return to the area. If you are symptomatic, it is imperative that you do not travel to Cozumel, and that you self-isolate for two weeks even if hospitalization is not needed.
Cozumel Safety: Natural Disasters
Cozumel’s high season runs from March to June, which is when tourism numbers peak. However, hurricane season along both of Mexico’s coasts and nearby islands begins in summer and early fall, lasting from as early as June through the end of November, and with an increased chance of hurricanes in August and October.
Cozumel has seen its share of devastating hurricanes, so it’s best to avoid planning your vacation to the area during that time. October 2005’s Hurricane Wilma was one of the most destructive to hit Cozumel and the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. The storm reached wind speeds up to 175 miles an hour, necessitated the evacuation of thousands, took down even hurricane-reinforced buildings.
Even if there’s no storm gathering, the seasonal rains can also thwart plans for a day on the beach. A good website to monitor storm activity is the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Keep in mind while considering your travel plans that destruction from hurricanes and tropical storms can occur hundreds of miles away and severely disrupt essential services, including electricity and travel by land or air. Official warnings and recommendations to leave the area should be heeded.
It is always a good idea to book travel insurance when you are planning a trip, but some hotels also offer a hurricane policy. If you have a flight scheduled during that season and warnings appear close to your departure date, consider canceling the trip versus running the risk of being stuck should a storm blow in.
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