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Escape to Cozumel

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Travel Notes: Travel-Write: Central America: Escape to Cozumel

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The island of Cozumel probably couldn't support itself and its beautiful marine parks very well without the cruise ship industry.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a better way to see and enjoy this beautiful island in a relaxed and satisfying way.

A Local's Guide to Avoiding the Cruise Ship Crowd

Just off the coast of Mexico's Riviera Maya lies the small island of Cozumel, a Caribbean gem of an island.

Due to its close proximity to the United States, Cozumel welcomes thousands of visitors each day.

Scuba diving is the defining attraction here: with many world-class reefs only minutes away from shore. If you don't dive or snorkel, nor enjoy spending time in or next to the ocean, Cozumel is probably not for you. The tourism industry is developing rapidly here, creating two distinct groups of visitors: those divers staying in the Cozumel Hotels and the people straight from the gigantic cruise ships.

Sometimes as many as 11 ships (with plans for more) unload their human cargo onto the island in just a few hours. This means that you could be sharing Cozumel's somewhat limited space, with as many as 6,000 other day-trippers.

I've seen many divers and hotel guests become extremely frustrated and annoyed by this cruise ship phenomenon, having to share resources and endure price gouges. So, I'm here to offer you a friendly guide with some handy suggestions and advice for best avoiding the herds.

Follow my lead and you'll be seeing, smelling and tasting the real Mexico hidden behind the Burger Kings and Hard Rock Cafes.

While most of the daily tourist invasion comes from cruise ships in the early morning hours, by late evening, these same passengers are well on their way on to some other Caribbean island.

In only 12-14 hours, passengers have little time to experience much of anything at all, so if you play your cards right, and stay away from a few crucial locations, you'll enjoy your time on Cozumel.

Once you get 'inside the head' of a typical cruiser, you'll know more and make better travel decisions. Or, you can avoid them altogether on Sundays, the only day when cruise ships don't take over.

Getting To Cozumel

The only way to reach Cozumel (apart from the cruise ships) is by fast ferry from Playa del Carmen (35-45 minutes depending on water conditions) or by plane, either directly from some international airports or, more likely, from Cancun; on a tiny puddle-jumper. This flight takes 15 to 20 minutes (depending on weather and wind conditions) and will run you a steep $75 one way.

Generally, AeroCozumel flies back and forth from Cancun to Cozumel four or five times a day. If you're coming from Cancun anyway, this flight is convenient only if you have to wait less than two hours for take off.

Otherwise, hop on a comfortable air-conditioned (bring a sweater!) bus to Playa del Carmen (45 minutes, 80 pesos one way) and then take the ferry mentioned above to Cozumel. The ferry runs daily from early in the morning to late at night.

Inside the Head of a Cruiser

Here's a little run down of the typical cruise ship passenger's itinerary for Cozumel.

The ship arrives early in the morning, with passengers still snoozing off their last night's fun activities (maybe 'Casino Night'). They wake up and either go on a pre-planned cattle-drive snorkel trip, or go shopping on a mall-like expanse of shops lining the waterfront. They're typically looking for diamonds and gold, which they've been encouraged into buying by invested cruise ship partners.

Just from looking at the main tourist strip along the water, you'd think that the only thing these tourists wanted to shop for was gem stones and cowboy boots. That's what's 'good here' apparently. It's not the empty beaches and remote reggae bars, not cheap delicious local seafood or lively cantinas, but gold and hamburgers.

Powered by fear and paranoia about getting Montezuma's revenge, food poisoning and getting 'ripped off', most of these people stick to franchise names they know; few venturing to try a local taco or ceviche mixto. In fact, it often seems as though cruisers want to have nothing to do with Mexicans, acting with disdain and arrogance towards the local people. So if you really want to see behind the scenes, look at the priorities of the average cruise ship passenger:

Seeing Mexico in 12 hours or less

1) Get drunk on free tequila shots and lose your wallet in the bathroom.

2) Make a 5 minute call from a friendly phone that looks 'just like a pay phone from back home' and end up paying $50.

3) Buy diamond stud earrings and get a third earring for half price.

4) Have lunch at Pizza Hut, McDonald's, or TGIFridays.

5) Dance on the tables and blow whistles until you're deaf and blind at Senor Frog's. Dumb goes without saying.

6) Buy t-shirts and souvenirs with 'Cozumel' written on them. Ahhh...the memories!

7) Snorkel and booze on a sailing catamaran with 100 of your newest friends from the ship (alcohol not included).

8) Get back in time to collapse from exhaustion, dehydration, and a tequila headache from hell. Wait a minute, which ship was I on again?

Now don't get me wrong. The cruise ship industry brings in a ton of cash and business to Cozumel and provides jobs for the locals.

The island of Cozumel probably couldn't support itself and its beautiful marine parks very well without the cruise ship industry. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a better way to see and enjoy this beautiful island in a relaxed and satisfying way.

Let the cruisers have their little area, while you take the time to see the rest of the island's charm. There's only three ways to do this: you must go 'in', 'across', or 'under' Cozumel.

Escape Route One: Going Inland

Remember the strip mall sidewalk?

Well, all you need to do to get away is to turn in.

Turn your body away from the ocean, as difficult as this may be, and start walking inland. Go three or four short blocks. Look around. All of a sudden you are in a different country.

Welcome to Mexico

You'll see local people on bikes, in restaurants, doing their daily shopping and business. Just like any other city, there's a hustle and bustle here in the background. Hidden from those who don't wish to experience it.

Most cruise ship passengers don't venture beyond the first two streets of the island, which run parallel to the water. They tend to stick to the main drag, never straying from their comfort zones of Sunglass Huts and Guess Jeans. It's as if it were forbidden for them to explore. Bad for them. Good for us.

The best way to explore the island is by bike or scooter, especially if you won't have a lot of time. Ideally, you should stay at least six or seven days (three or four if you're not a diver), but I realise that many of you also have time constraints so I'll concentrate on the high points.

Bikes can be rented from many places in town, generally running from 100 to 150 pesos for the day.

Scooters are usually about 350 to 400 pesos for 24 hours. There are places which sometimes charge a little less, but you'll have to fight the crowds and have good luck to get them. A scooter is necessary to circumnavigate the island, unless you have thighs of steel on a bicycle. More about this in the 'Across' section below.

Things to See and Do in Cozumel

Walking or biking the interior of the city doesn't bring with it any 'must see' locations, but rather introduces you to the daily Mexican life.

You can stroll through the streets, explore the local market, visit the Plaza Municipal, and stop for a beer whenever you feel the need.

You'll find that many of the services, such as Internet, become much cheaper the further inland you go. An hour at the Internet costs about 40-50 pesos on the waterfront, but the same hour only costs 10 pesos further in. This goes for food and goods as well, including toiletries and pharmacy.

Places to Eat and Drink in Cozumel

Las Palmas

This is my favourite restaurant on the island. You'll find good local atmosphere and great food here. Las Palmas is a fantastic bargain, and therefore always busy.

I usually have the excellent grilled fish (pescado a la plancha), which costs 40 pesos and comes with soup, beans, guacamole, rice, tortillas, salad and salsas.

Others swear by the stuffed chicken breast (pechuga rellena) and the grilled steak (arrachera).

To drink, try one of their home-made aguas like Tamarindo, Jamaica, or Horchata (sweet rice drink). These only cost 10 pesos for a huge pitcher. Two people can easily have a big satisfying meal here for under $10, including drinks and tip.

Las Palmas is located on the corner of Calle 3 and Avenida 25. Lunch only. Open until 4pm daily. Closed Sundays.

La Concha del Caribe

This place has the best and biggest ceviche mixto grande there is.

If you love seafood like conch (caracol), shrimp (camaron), fish (pescado), and octopus (pulpo) then you must try this dish!

Ceviche is a mixture of fresh seafood cooked not by heat, but by the acid of limes (120 pesos for a large). Served cold, ceviche is delicious and typically Mexican.

When you're done, try a shrimp cocktail (cocktail de camaron) or a fish Veracruz style (pescado a la veracruzana).

There are lots of beers on hand in bottles. Try a Bohemia if you haven't already.

La Concha del Caribe is located on Avenida 65 between Calle 21 and Calle 23 Sur. Open daily. Take out orders no problem.


Speaking of take-out, there's a place called 'Pescaderia San Carlos', on Avenida 50 Bis between Calle 3 and Salas, which sells amazing whole cooked fish for about $4 a pound; complete with tostadas, salsa and lime.

Get a big fresh mero (grouper) and go eat with some cold beers by the ocean. Located on the east side of the street, people are not encouraged to 'eat in'. Great value.

Las Seras

Another great place to eat local food is Las Seras; the best place on the island for late-night tacos.

Only open at night, Las Seras is located on the corner of Avenida 30 and Morelos.

This place stays open carving al pastor until five or six in the morning, every morning. On most nights this place is busy until the wee hours, with charmingly inebriated clientele and fantastic tacos and tortas.

Try tacos al pastor (grilled meat with pineapple) or a torta pastor con queso (grilled meat with cheese on a huge hot roll). The green guacamole style salsa is the best on the island, with huge chunks of avocado and just the right amount of bite.

Pollos Estilo Sinaloa

If you're more of a roasted chicken fan, visit a small restaurant called Pollos Estilo Sinaloa on Avenida 30, between Calle 5 Sur and Calle 3 Sur (only a block from Las Seras above).

It's located on the west side of the street, a few doors down from the big pharmacy on the corner. Order a whole chicken (60 pesos) and you get tortillas, lime and salsa to go with the big, beautiful roasted chicken. This is easily enough to feed two or three people.

For some reason the chicken on the island of Cozumel is the best chicken I've ever tasted in all my travels. I have no idea why, but you should try it and see.


For desert, there are a ton of local bakeries which all sell similar muffins, cookies, pastries and sometimes coffee, but my favourite, after much research, is definitely a little place called Zermat.

Named after an alpine village in Switzerland, Zermat has great breads, cakes, and chocolate croissants. They also make a mean cappuccino.

This bakery is located on the corner of Calle 4 Norte and Avenida 5 Norte.

I almost forgot to mention the dozens of lively cantinas in Cozumel.

These open-air bars are a great place to go with your friends for drinks, listen to live music and eat free little snacks called 'botanas'.

It seems to me that the island has a disproportionately large number of these establishments, so you can pick and choose until you find the right one.

Some of my favourites include Las Boyas, Chicho's, and Delfines. All located within four or five blocks from the tourist centre.

Delfines is on Salas diagonally across from Deep Blue; Las Boyas is a bit further inland on Calle 3, between Avenida 15 and Avenida 20; and Chicho's is upstairs on Avenida 10, between Calle 7 and Calle 9.

There are also many high quality restaurants on the waterfront and in the general tourist zone.

The international cuisine served here ranges from authentic Italian to Cajun and French. Expect a wonderful meal at any of these places, but also expect an exorbitant price tag.

Again, the smaller streets a bit further back from the hubbub hold some of the best deals for a good meal.

If you're going to splurge on a meal, I suggest doing so at La Choza, on the corner of Avenida 5 and Salas.

The salsa picante and pina coladas alone are worth the trip, but you should try the shrimp and fish dishes.

A Mexican restaurant with open kitchen, this place is popular and often crowded.

Then, when you've had your fill you can just cross the street and organise your diving with the Deep Blue dive shop.

Escape Route Two: Going Under

Cozumel has become one of the world's most popular diving destination for several reasons.

It's a bargain; the visibility is second to none; the reefs are varied and close to shore; and the over forty dive operations compete with each other to keep the prices down.

If you've been thinking that you'd like to get certified and enjoy the wonders of scuba diving, Cozumel is a great place to learn (much better than doing so in a pool, where the only thing to see is used Band-Aids).

Even during your first dive off the beach, in twenty feet of warm Caribbean blue sea, you'll be greeted by tons of beautiful fish, moray eels, seahorses, spotted eagle rays, and corals.

Then, once certified, you can dive with rest of us; off the boats in gentle currents that whisk you from shark cave to endless wall.

There is a reason people come back here year after year: there's no place like it.

A typical day of diving includes two tanks, transportation on a fast boat, weights, a divemaster to guide you, and plenty of water to drink.

The running price during high season is around $55 but during the low season you can usually drive this price down a little, by resolving to stick with one company for several days.

If you have a limited budget, you should shop around, but remember that you get what you pay for. It may be five dollars cheaper but maybe you won't be as comfortable or the equipment may be old and worn.

In my opinion, there is no comparison to the most professional, intimate, and organised dive shop: Deep Blue.

It may be a few dollars extra, but you know you're getting the best possible service, equipment and guides you can find. The owner, Matt Daines, will do everything to make sure you're comfortable and that you're diving with people of the same level.

Many other shops bunch people together regardless of certification level, causing beginners to feel stressed to keep up and advanced divers frustrated. Not at Deep Blue.

They also organise daily advanced or speciality dives; sometimes the only operation going to dive sites on the north side or the other side of the island.

Deep Blue also limits their boats to eight divers, or four divers per divemaster. Some great guides, who'll assure you'll see lots of sea life, are Sandro, Gabriel, Pepe or Polo.

Deep Blue are located at the corner of Salas and Avenida 10 Norte.

If you are looking to get certified, my good friend and instructor Kevin Holt will take you to the beach and have you breathing under water in no time. A PADI Master Instructor by training, Kevin has also spent many years on the police force in Grason, Texas. Here he used his advanced diver training skills to teach police search and recovery to local departments, often in zero visibility.

If you're lucky, maybe he'll even black out your mask for you. Kevin is an excellent, safe, and thorough instructor. You'll never want to leave the water again and when you're ready to dive off of a boat, you'll be happy to hear that Kevin also works with Deep Blue.

Dive Sites Around Cozumel

Deep Diving

Some of the best deeper dive sites include Palancar Horseshoe (swim-throughs); Punta Sur (underwater cathedral, caves, Devil's Throat); Santa Rosa Wall (steep drop off, brilliant colours); Maracaibo (chance to see something big, go deep); and Barracuda (turtles and strong currents).

Shallow Dives

The shallower dives off Cozumel (under 50 feet) are just as exciting because of their diversity of sea life. In just one dive at Las Palmas, Yucab, Punta Tunich, or a night dive at Paraiso, you can check off a long list of creatures; often including toadfish, seahorses, eagle rays, baby blacktip sharks and turtles.

No matter where you dive, you'll see something good.

Of course, if you don't dive and haven't the time to learn in Cozumel, you can always swim a bit off the coast from Chankanaab National Park and snorkel your little heart out.

Easy to reach by bike or scooter, the areas just past the official entrance of the park (which will charge you about $30 to use their facilities), are free to use and just as good.

Escape Route Three: Going Across

The last way to escape the cruise ship crowd is to rent a scooter ($30-$40 for 24 hours) and take a ride out to Cozumel's east coast.

You'll always hear it referred to as 'the other side of the island' by the locals, because there's no need to say more.

The two sides of Cozumel couldn't be more different. On the west side you have a massive tourism industry catering to thousands of new visitors everyday, but on the east side you have a blissfully people-free expanse of raw ocean beach.

There's no electricity, gas stations or telephones, but there's just the right number of little reggae bars and side-of-the-road restaurants to get you what you need.

A popular weekend habit of locals is to pack up family and friends and go to the 'other side' and find a nice quiet stretch of white sand and drink beers, body surf and catch some rays.

Of course, with privacy, it's clothing optional here. This is the only place on the island where you can really feel alone and away. One note though, the beaches here are rough, and there's only one place calm enough to snorkel.

Save your gear rental for the west side and just enjoy the beauty and power of the ocean, naked from your beach towel, with a cold one in your hand.

Cozumel Tourist Attractions

If you get tired of the many wild beaches, you can take a turn into several small tourist attractions scattered around.

There are also jeep tours, taking you on 4x4 vehicles to the very northern tip of the island. These trips are run by Wild Tours and leave a couple times a day; on a wild ride up to a lighthouse and along more rugged coastline.

You can also check out the ruins at San Gervasio, on your way across the island. The ruins are not nearly as impressive as any of the major Mayan ruins on Mexico's mainland, but it's peaceful enough here.

There is also a National Park established on the southern tip of the island called Punta Sur. You'll find the entrance just past two reggae bars, Bob Marley's and Rasta's; where you absolutely must stop for a beer.

The entrance fee to the park is a steep $15 a person to enter, but this includes a unique ride on their transportation system; a Navigation Museum; small zoo; access to the top of the Punta Sur Lighthouse (great views); a pontoon ride around the freshwater lagoon with a guide; and viewpoints along the way where you can see crocodiles, flamingos and other wildlife.

The main road on the island loops around, so you can't get lost. No matter where you go, you'll end up back in town eventually.

You can circumnavigate Cozumel in about an hour if you don't stop along the way; a perfect leisurely day trip.

Beware of some tourist trap restaurants though, and go with your instincts. If you see a bunch of rented jeeps in the parking lot, you're going to be paying a little more for a beer, but not that much.

Generally this side of the island is much more mellow and relaxed than the west side. Even if you do run into a bunch of people, which is unusual, you can be safe in the knowledge that they'll be in a hurry to get back to their ship real soon.

By Emma Beyn.

Another Recommendation: (Sent in by Luke Thurnau)

You must recommend the adventure sailing with Cozumel Sailing, captained by Dan Libbert. This was truly the highlight of our week long vacation in Cozumel and I can't imagine a Cozumel vacation without this experience.

Captain Dan and his mate provided us with nearly seven hours of sailing and so much more. We had the wonderful opportunity to sail around the north end of the island and find ourselves away from everyone else to enjoy the beautiful colours of the water, and head to shore for some shell hunting and coconut tree climbing.

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