LIVING IN COZUMEL, MEXICO FOR A MONTH
On our most recent slow travel journey in Mexico, what was intended to be a short diving trip on the island turned into a month long stay. It’s definitely touristy but there are still some good reasons to go there. In between laying by the pool at our condo, scuba diving with the best dive shop in Cozumel, and working on our blog, we were able to explore a bit. In this post, we’ll share what we loved most about our time there. We hope it gives you some new ideas if you’re planning a trip!
Due to the island being largely protected as a designated marine park, Cozumel is a world-class diving destination. The Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park offers some of the best easily accessible snorkeling and diving on the planet. Whether you’re an experienced diver or just starting, this is the perfect place to get your fins in the water and see some wildlife.
The fascinating backstory of Cozumel
Isla de Cozumel translates from the Mayan language to mean “island of swallows” because when the Maya first arrived on canoes over 1,500 years ago they saw swallows flying everywhere. The island is located 19km (11 miles) off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Maya believed it to be the end of the world because it was the furthest land to the east that they knew existed. Cozumel, similar to Isla Mujeres, was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess. It was a popular pilgrimage site, mainly for women wishing for fertility, and her influence is still present on the island.
Mexico’s largest Carribean island, Cozumel has become one of the most popular ports in the world for international cruise ships. Hence why it’s touristy, but obviously there’s no need to spend all of your time near the cruise port either. It’s a common day trip destination from Playa del Carmen, but if you’ve got time, it’s worth it to spend at least a few days here. It’s also known to be one of the safest places in Mexico for both locals and visitors.
Cozumel’s reef is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest reef system on Earth. It stretches over 1,000km (600 miles) from the southeast coast of Mexico down to the Honduran Bay Islands. Jacques Cousteau, the father of scuba diving, claimed that Cozumel had some of the most spectacular diving in the world in the 1960s and this drew people from across the world to see what was lurking beneath the azure waters.
We had the pleasure of doing eight dives with Scuba Tony Cozumel and we would highly recommend them to anyone who plans to go scuba diving in Cozumel. It had been a year or so since we had dived and we were feeling a little nervous about getting back in the water, but the entire team at Scuba Tony made us feel comfortable and prepared.
The dive instructors also have a great sense of humor and make it fun! Many divers in our groups had returned to dive again for a second or third time, which we feel really attests to the quality of their services. In just a week of diving, we saw spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, several turtles, eels, and schools of reef fish. This was the highlight of our stay on the island!
Our favorite dives sites
Two of our favorite dive sites are Columbia Deep and the Santa Rosa Wall. At Columbia Deep, you’ll find breathtaking coral formations featuring caverns and swim-throughs. At Santa Rosa Wall, you can experience a relaxing drift dive along a giant drop off that gives you the sensation of flying.
We also recommend doing their two-tank twilight/night dive where you can see octopus, crabs, bioluminescent plankton, and all kinds of nocturnal creatures. It was one of the best experiences we’ve had in Mexico…or was it an alien planet?
This is one of the best places to snorkel on Cozumel island. You can snorkel here for 100 pesos or $5 per person if you have your own mask. You can easily spend the day here. The food is a bit overpriced, but if you buy food you don’t have to pay the entrance fee.
There are hundreds if not thousands of sea fans right off the shore and loads of macro creatures. Just be careful to stay buoyant above it all and not to kick anything. Swim slow and examine the coral, you can see nudibranchs, sea centipedes, and a variety of Angelfish. Combine it with a visit to the Money Bar. They’re located on the same road.
Money Bar Restaurant and Dzul Ha Reef
Dzul Ha (pronounced zool-ha) is the go-to free spot for offshore snorkeling on Cozumel. You can find this reef right in front of Money Bar Restaurant. You can use the lounge chairs and order food and drinks if you want to hang out here. Otherwise to the right of the parking lot is a free area under some palm trees. Bring something to sit on and if you have your own mask it’s free to snorkel. Just a heads up, they don’t rent snorkels here.
Make sure to swim out far enough to see things. You’ll have to go at least 200m (650 ft) to find an artificial reef and if you go all the way to the buoys, where you’ll see a variety of hard corals and fish. It’s best to go in the afternoon.
Across from the airport runway
Heading north on the island past Hemingway’s you’ll pass the airport runway, if you keep your eyes on the left side you’ll see a white gravel path next to a stone wall. At the end of the path, you’ll run into beautiful azure water and the jagged rocks that surround most of the island. You can jump into the water and get back out if you’re careful. The visibility is fantastic; we saw a stingray and pufferfish within the first few minutes here.
Several dive shops on Cozumel also offer snorkel boat tours. These tours often include three snorkel spots. The most common places to snorkel are El Cielo, Columbia Shallows, and Palancar.
El Cielo has a plethora of starfish in white sand, Columbia Shallows is a deeper water snorkel spot with a colorful reef that reaches close to the surface, and Palancar is a dive site where you might see turtles or other larger animals.
The prices for these tours range between $40-50 per person and are highly recommended to people that aren’t planning on diving or want to see more of what the island has to offer. Go early in the morning to avoid being surrounded by boats.
BEST BEACH FREE OF SARGASSUM (2019)
The beaches on the east side of the island must have been extraordinarily beautiful at one time, but sadly as of June 2019, they’re almost completely covered in sargassum.
The west coast of Cozumel is still relatively sargassum free and where you’ll find the best beaches on the island. Unfortunately for those who prefer public beaches, many of these beaches are privatized, which means you’ll have to pay to access them. But there is still one long stretch of perfect white sand to be found that you can enjoy free of charge.
In our opinion, this is Cozumel’s best beach. The only downside is it’s at least a 20-minute drive to get there from town. The good news is that entrance is free and parking is based on tips only. This place also has the best of both worlds. There’s still a thatched roof restaurant where you can order food and drinks if you’d like to be served in a lounge chair under an umbrella.
Alternatively, for those wanting to hang on the beach and self-cater, walk to the left of the restaurant and find a spot somewhere in the glistening white sand. The water here resembles the Lagoon of Seven Colors in Bacalar.
OUR FAVORITE EATS
The burritos here are legendary. This friendly little shop is located close to Crazy King Burrito which is widely regarded as the best on the island. But we have to disagree because Burritos Gorditos offers guacamole on their burritos… and we love guacamole. Try them both and you be the judge!
A simple, straightforward menu, serving lobster, shrimp, and steak in different combinations, served in either a roll, burrito, or rice bowl. Their lobster rolls are truly to die for, but honestly, everything we saw there looks delicious.
The rolls are so buttery and soft and the chunks of lobster are big and full of flavor. Lobster rolls for $10 are unheard of in America, so we knew we had to go for it, multiple times, and this place never disappoints.
You have to start at least one of your days in Cozumel with chilaquiles con pollo (chicken chilaquiles) from Corazón Contento. It’s located in a cute little house a few blocks back from the ocean. The cozy atmosphere, friendly staff, and variety of salsas are reason enough to swing by. The fresh (refillable) coffee doesn’t hurt either. Easily one of our favorite spots for breakfast while living in Cozumel.
Had one too many tacos and in need of some comida sana (health food)? They offer smoothie bowls, fresh salads, wraps, and loads of vegan options. Service is slow but worth the wait. Not a bad place for breakfast if you want something light and fresh.
Cerveceria Punta Sur (the first microbrewery in Cozumel)
Help the environment and your hunger with lionfish pizza. If you’re unaware, lionfish are an invasive species of fish that have been propagating around the world threatening coral reefs and upsetting the balance of the ecosystem. They have no natural predators, and that’s where you come in.
This place has decided to be part of the solution, serving up these fish to help reduce the growing population. Ironically, they are super delicious on pizza with capers and dried chilies. The open-air restaurant has chill vibes and is the first microbrewery in Cozumel. Try their hibiscus wheat for something tropical!
This was our favorite taqueria in Cozumel! It’s no-frills and the staff is really friendly and efficient. Their pastor tacos are excellent and include nice chunks of pineapple on top. Make sure you also try their pollo con queso tacos. For 12 pesos a taco, it’s hard to stop eating once you start.
GET YOUR DRINK ON
El Gato Negro
A true Mexican cantina that offers the best value on the entire island. This is the place to go if you want to get drunk on the cheap or just to see the real side of Mexico. There are no extravagant decorations, no tourists, just loud music and friendly local company. You can get a beer here for 25 pesos ($1.30) or a shot for 40 pesos ($2).
The best part is they feed you just for showing up! Keep ordering drinks and they’ll bring you botanas (bar snacks) free of charge. Enjoy ceviche, chips and frijoles, fried fish, jicama and cucumber, or roasted pork. Chances are you’ll have to politely decline more food after a few rounds of beers. Don’t forget to tip well for the generosity!
A stylish spot along the Malecón. The bar seems like it’s been moved from the garden district of New Orleans and placed along the shores of the Caribbean. It makes for the perfect sunset spot, especially while sipping on one of their cucumber Mezcal cocktails!
Owned by Canadians this is a fun bar with an outdoor setting that televises many sporting events and offers some excellent savory bar food. They serve nachos, burgers, pulled pork, and poutine, french fries smothered in brown gravy topped off with toppings of your choice. A must visit whether you’re just visiting or living in Cozumel!
Cozumel is directly across from the party hub of Playa del Carmen. To get there you’ll first have to make your way to Playa del Carmen, and from there you’ll take a short ferry ride over to the island.
Downtown Cancun to Playa del Carmen: 80 pesos, takes 1.5 hours
Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen: 260 pesos, takes 1.5 hours
Tulum to Playa del Carmen: 88 pesos, takes 1 hour
Getting from the bus station to the ferry: the bus station in Playa del Carmen is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue. Exit the station towards 5th Avenue (towards the waterfront) and turn right. Go two blocks and then turn left towards the ocean.
There are two ferry companies running boats between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Ultramar and Winjet. The cost for a ticket is about 220 pesos ($11) for one way and 400 pesos ($20) for a round trip. We recommend buying round trip tickets because it’s a better deal, but also because the return tickets can be used at any time for an entire year, so you don’t have to worry about catching a specific boat on a specific day.
You’ll find several booths selling tickets, and most will be around the same cost. We found a booth charging 360 pesos ($18.75) per person for a round trip on a Winjet ferry, so you can shop around. It’s a smooth ride and takes about 45 minutes. Ultramar tends to be more expensive, but it has outdoor seating.
From Playa del Carmen: boats leave every hour starting at 7am and ending at 11pm
From Cozumel: boats leave every hour starting at 5:45am and ending at 10pm
If you’re arriving by ferry look for the official taxi lineup on the left when you get out to the main road. We’ve listed the costs of taxi rides to different spots on the island as listed on the official taxi rate sign (June 2019). In our experience, many taxi drivers didn’t have change, so try to be prepared with both big and small bills.
- A short distance ride within the town area costs around 40-50 pesos ($2).
- Marina Fonatur, where many of the diving boats leave from – 110 pesos ($6-7).
- Money Bar – 120 pesos ($6)
- Playa Corona – 155 pesos ($8)
- Paradise Beach – 170 pesos ($9)
- Playa Palancar – 300 pesos ($15)
The average for a scooter rental runs around 4-500 pesos ($20-25) per day. They typically come with a helmet, a full tank of gas, and liability insurance coverage. You’re expected to return the bikes at the same level of fuel you leave with.
However, the most you’ll pay for gas will be 30-60 pesos ($1-3). Fill it up right before returning it. We recommend Pipian Rental, speak to Jesus, he runs an honest company that won’t rip you off. Better prices are available for multi-day rentals.
Have you ever been to a touristy place that you ended up liking more than you thought you would? Cozumel definitely grew on us the longer we stayed. We met some friendly people, ate good food, and best of all we explored the underwater world. Diving with Scuba Tony made our trip and we can’t wait to do it again someday
Have you been to Cozumel? What did you like or not like about it?