The colorful island of Cozumel is laid back, peaceful, and has a feeling of authenticity about it. Beach lovers will find plenty of things to do in Cozumel, who come for the white sands and the sun.
Snorkelers and divers explore the abundant reefs, part of the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest reef system in the world.
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, you could visit the only working pearl farm in the Caribbean, go on a tequila tasting tour, stroll the waterfront El Malecon, or take a day trip by air to explore Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya city-state.
Here are 12 of the best things to see and do in Cozumel.
Snorkel & Dive Cozumel Marine Park
Since Cozumel rates as a top snorkeling destination in the Caribbean, exploring the underwater reefs is one of the best things to do here. Stunning coral reefs, part of the largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere dazzle snorkelers and divers.
In 1996, the Mexican government created Cozumel Reefs National Park, a 30,000-acre reserve that includes 85 percent of the island’s dive sites.
The crystal clear waters push visibility to 150 feet in places, and at other sites, the reefs beckon snorkelers with fans, sponges, and rainbow-colored fish schooling just a few feet below the surface.
Divers admire the boulder-sized gardens of brain coral and the black coral trees shooting to nearly 25 feet, as well as grouper, moray eels, nurse sharks, and sea turtles.
The water is clear and the marine life abundant, making it one of the best scuba diving spots in the Caribbean.
Take in Downtown San Miguel
Vibrant San Miguel, the largest town in Cozumel, is a mix of Mexican culture and Caribbean flair. Exploring the downtown area is one of the best things to do in Cozumel as you while away a morning before heading to the beach.
At El Mercado, the island’s traditional market, produce stalls are piled high with papayas, bananas, and pineapples. Vendors sell fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice, and slabs of pork and beef hang from hooks.
At the eateries in the market, try fish stew, tacos, empanadas, and other authentic dishes.
On a stroll along San Miguel’s waterfront strip, El Malecon, officially the Avenida Rafael E. Melgar, you can feel the sea breezes and almost taste the salty air. Sculptures of eagles, dolphins, fish and other critters enliven the broad sidewalk.
The iconic and colorful Isla Cozumel sign graces Benito Juarez Park, a good place to pause on a shaded bench before shopping in Cozumel. Keep an eye out for the town’s vivid murals as you search for take-home treasures.
Shop after shop sells pottery, paper maché fruit, wood carvings, brightly colored hammocks and silver bracelets, necklaces, rings, serving pieces, and pitchers. Browse, bargain, and then bargain some more.
Go Snorkeling at Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park
Popular Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park lures visitors with its sea life. “Chankanaab” means “little ocean” in the Mayan language. The beach park lies within Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park.
On a snorkel or dive, you float among grunts, snappers, and other schools of rainbow-colored beauties and can admire the Christ of the Abyss statue, a Chankanaab landmark.
Even non-divers can savor underwater views with SeaTrek or Snuba, experiences that use floating oxygen tanks or helmets pumped with compressed air. You can also swim with gentle manatees and interact with dolphins.
Out of the water, meander through a tropical garden dotted with re-created Mayan structures and glide on a zipline.
Swim, Sun, and Play at Playa Mia Grand Beach Park
Mexican beach parks entice you with their one-stop approach to sun, sand, and sea. At Playa Mia Grand Beach Park, one of the best beaches to visit in Cozumel, bring your towel, find your lounge chair, and relax under the Caribbean sunshine.
You’ll find kayaks, water trikes, and twisting water slides here. Up the excitement with parasailing, wave runners, snorkeling, and signing up for salsa dancing and salsa making. Make a day of it by adding lunch.
Because of the sea’s constant current—two to four knots northward – a relaxing drift dive or snorkel tour from a boat lets you see more because you don’t need to swim back to the shore or kick against the often substantial Cozumel currents. Consider a two-stop drift tour to Palancar Reef and Colombia Reef.
A Cozumel legend, Palancar Reef, more than three miles long, rewards mask and fin enthusiasts with large coral heads, barrel sponges, and sea fans. At Colombia Reef, look for turtles, damselfish, and grouper; in terms of natural beauty, this is one of the best things to see in Cozumel.
Explore Punta Sur Eco Beach Park
Located at the southern tip of Cozumel, this 247-acre park, established in 1999, protects the sandy shores and mangroves and serves as a refuge for turtles, fish, alligators, birds, and beach lovers.
Dense groves of sea grapes and stands of palms line some roads. Because of the park’s size, it’s best to arrive by car or on a guided tour.
The less-visited beaches farthest from Punta Sur’s entrance are the most pristine. At these beaches and others in the park, enjoy listening to breaking surf, watching a phalanx of sea birds fly overhead, and strolling the shore.
Resist the urge to swim because in many places Punta Sur’s sea can have strong currents and waves. It’s best to swim where officials say it’s safe and to snorkel with a guide who can lead you to the calmest waters.
Punta Sur is also home to flamingos, herons, and spoonbills, which may be seen from an observation tower. To catch sight of the alligators, walk a boardwalk trail over a lagoon.
For panoramic park views, climb the 133 winding steps of the 19th-century lighthouse.
Several Mayan ruins dot the park, including El Caracol, cleverly constructed with shells. According to legend, the whistling noise of the vibrating shells due to high winds warned people of an impending hurricane.
Learn the History of Chocolate
At the Mayan Cacao Company, discover the Mayans’ fascination with chocolate. Learn how the Mayans used cacao beans to create chocolate and how their version differs from what we delightfully devour.
After picking, grinding, and mixing cacao with chili and, sometimes, honey, the Mayans served the rather bitter drink cold to priests and royalty, the only ones allowed to enjoy the caffeinated kick.
Nowadays, you can get hands-on by using a metate, the tool used by the Mayans, to grind and mix ingredients, creating your own Mayan-style chocolate bar.
Go modern by concocting a chocolate margarita. Chocoholics can stock up on chocolate bars, chocolate bath soaps, and chocolate lotions at the gift shop.
Stand Among Starfish at El Cielo
“El Cielo” means “heaven” Reachable only by boat, El Cielo isn’t a beach, but a sandbar covered in waist-high water. On an outing, turquoise seas and blue skies surround you, creating a feeling of boundlessness.
Although no one truly knows the derivation of the site’s name, a local theory has it that the many starfish scattered across the underwater sand reminded early visitors of stars in the sky, so the site became known as El Cielo.
El Cielo is a peaceful place, especially when few boats arrive. The fluttering you might feel at your feet are the stingrays gracefully flapping their wing-like fins as they float by.
Spend a Beach Day at Playa Palancar
Playa Palancar, a public beach, is a white sand ribbon on Cozumel’s southwest coast. A drink from the bar, a plate from the restaurant, or a reservation for parasailing, jet skiing, diving, or snorkeling entitles you to a lounge chair.
From the beach, it’s a 20-minute boat ride to Colombia or Palancar reefs, iconic Cozumel snorkeling and diving sites known for their schooling fish and brilliant corals.
Take a Reef Tour with Atlantis Submarine
Go below on an Atlantis Submarine to experience a diver’s eye view of the deep without getting wet, learning scuba, or even knowing how to swim. Diving with the Atlantis Submarine is one of the best things to do in Cozumel as you’ll descend far deeper than you would on a dive, down to 100 feet.
You should see snappers, manta rays, schools of rainbow-colored fish, and maybe even a turtle swimming past the portholes. At Chankanaab Reef, you also see the sunken wreck, the Felipe Xicotencatl, resting at a depth of 50 feet.
Marvel at Chichén Itzá
Your adventure to Chichén Itzá, an impressive city-state built by the Mayans, begins with a flight over the Yucatán Peninsula. Taking a plane to the ancient city makes visiting the site, an impressive Maya ruin and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a feasible day trip from Cozumel.
Chichén Itzá rates as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. On a walk through the four-square-mile site of this ancient city-state, you time travel back to 600-1200 C.E. to learn about the Maya.
Skilled mathematicians and astronomers, the Maya built many of the 40 or so excavated or semi-excavated structures to use in sacred ceremonies, tell the time, and celebrate the seasons.
El Castillo, the massive, 79-foot tall, pyramidal temple has a total of 365 steps, the same number as the solar calendar.
On the spring and fall equinoxes, sunlight hits El Castillo’s steps in such a manner that it appears that a shadow is slithering down the staircase to join up with a large sculpted serpent head at the structure’s base.
Each of the four windows in El Caracol, a circular tower used as an observatory, faces a cardinal direction.
Another highlight, Juego de Pelota Principal, the Principal Ball Court, is the largest ancient ball court in any of Mexico’s archeological sites. Players used their hips to maneuver the ball.
Although no one knows the rules of Pok Ta’ Pok, historians think that getting the ball through a stone loop gained a player bonus points but was not the game’s objective.
The game could be deadly. Friezes on the ballcourt’s wall depict sacrifices, probably that of the losing captives who had been forced to play. That’s just part of the mystery surrounding the city and its decline.
Exploring Chichen Itza is fascinating. Be sure to wear a hat and bring several water bottles as it’s hot in the jungle.
Go Tequila Tasting
On a tequila tasting tour, find out about the history of tequila, a centuries-old drink that Mexico is known for, from the Aztecs’ fermentation of agave to produce “pulque” to Mexico’s 1974 registered ownership of the term “tequila.”
Tequila is officially produced in only five regions of Mexico: Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located. Anything produced outside those regions cannot legally be labeled tequila.
Guided by your master tequilero, you’ll taste the differences among three basic tequilas: undiluted Blanco, Reposado aged in oak barrels for two to 12 months, and Anejo, aged in oak barrels for one to three years.
The tequilero also reveals the secret to making the best margaritas, one of the most popular Caribbean cocktails.
See How Pearls Form
Pearl necklaces have long connoted elevated social status. Martha Washington wore one, as did Jacqueline Kennedy, and Michelle Obama. The three-strand pearl necklace Queen Elizabeth II wears so frequently has come to serve as her signature adornment.
Find out how the prized iridescent spheres are cultivated at the family-owned Cozumel Pearl Farm, the only active pearl farm in the Caribbean. A guide explains the process and why the farm uses the oyster Pinctada radiata, a.k.a. the Atlantic Pearl Oyster, a species almost extinct in the region before the farm cultivated it.
Afterward, you can snorkel above the oyster beds, walk on the pristine, white sand beach, and enjoy a grilled Caribbean lunch. Tours are limited to about eight people, something else that makes the experience special.
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