Cozumel is the biggest of Mexico’s Caribbean islands, set off the tropical coast of the world famous Yucatán Peninsula. As at many of the region’s tourist destinations, there is plenty of space to relax beside the azure waters with a cold beverage, but Cozumel is most renowned for its recreational opportunities, specifically its premier diving, which is some of the finest in the world. Like the adjoining mainland, it’s also a site rich in Mayan history; Cozumel was once a significant pilgrimage site for these pre-Columbian peoples.
Diving and Snorkeling
Cozumel has been a major scuba-diving hotspot for decades, partly thanks to the publicity of famed marine adventurer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Coral reefs of rich, biodiverse splendor fringe the island, part of the largest reef complex in the Western Hemisphere, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which sprawls from the Yucatán Peninsula southward to Honduras (Reference: Mesoamerican
Reef Alliance). There is no shortage of excellent dive sites around the island, including the protected waters of Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. One of the most renowned dives here is that along the three-mile Palancar Reef, which showcases incredible and convoluted underwater topography, including great horseshoe coral heads.
Keep your eyes peeled for the throngs of small creatures, from brightly colored grazing fish to crustaceans, which roam the intricacies of the coral battlements. Drop-offs and shelves are often cruised by bigger animals, from sea turtles, groupers, and tarpon to big rays and sharks.
Snorkeling is another popular mode of exploration in Cozumel’s near shore waters.
Exploring the Mayan Legacy
Above water, there’s more to explore on Cozumel. You can get a sense for the island’s rich Mayan history at the ruins of San Gervasio, once a place of worship devoted to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, and now the most developed and accessible large archaeological site on Cozumel. Surrounded by tropical forest and roamed by iguanas, this special place features striking arches, temples, and numerous other structures that serve as testament to one of Latin America’s great cultures. In the
ReservaEcológica Faro Celarain, which used to be known as Punta Sur, you can take in a unique stone structure called the Caracol, which warned the Mayans of approaching hurricanes and lesser storms via the whistling of wind through specially designed openings. Such tropical maelstroms, spawned in the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea, regularly batter Cozumel; in 2005, two big hurricanes, Emily and Wilma, made
landfall there to destructive effect.
Other Terrestrial Adventures
TheReservaEcológica Faro Celarain also supports one of Cozumel’s more visible populations of American crocodiles. This sometimes-massive reptile tends to prefer brackish and marine waters, which helps explain their broad distribution in the tropical Americas; they range as far north as South Florida. The impressive, ash-gray predators, which, despite their formidable appearance, are generally shy and
retiring around human beings, can often be spotted in the reserve’s lagoon, either from the vantage of shore or a boat. Exceptionally large male crocs may approach 20 feet in length, though most are smaller.
Birdwatching is a rewarding outdoors pursuit on Cozumel as well. The island harbors a nice assortment of Caribbean species. Among them are hot-pink spoonbills and the aerial pirates, called magnificent frigatebirds, as well as the occasional flamingo. Other wildlife includes a number of endemic creatures, those found nowhere else but the island, such as the handsome pygmy raccoon.
Numerous companies offer treks into the lush interior of Cozumel, with transportation options ranging from ATVs to horseback. Some of these explorations include the enigmatic “cenotes,” dazzling pools in the weathered limestone bedrock that are widely distributed in the tropical Americas.
Cozumel ranks among the Caribbean’s most exciting destinations, whether it’s for the plentiful and creature-packed reefs or the resilient monuments to Mayan culture. Don’t pass up the opportunity to explore its tropical variety.
Andy Johnson is an avid traveler and content creator at US Dish.