3 PERFECT DAYS IN COZUMEL, MEXICO

Essence of the Yucatan

INTRODUCTION TO COZUMEL

The island of Cozumel lounges in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, just opposite Playa del Carmen.  The name Cozumel was derived from the Mayan “Cuzamil”, which means the island of swallows. Centered on the west coast of this 30 mile long by 10 mile wide island is the vibrant city of San Miguel de Cozumel, population 90,000.  Actually, it’s the only city.  Despite the fact that the economy of Cozumel is based on tourism, this safe and friendly Mayan/Mexican community has retained genuine traditions, customs and a strong cultural identity.  It’s one of the very few places left in the Mayan Riviera where visitors can experience or become involved in traditional Yucatecan culture.

Candlelit nichos above a fountain lend just that right Yucatecan atmosphere for relaxation.

Candlelit nichos above a fountain lend just that right Yucatecan atmosphere for relaxation.

GETTING TO COZUMEL

Most visitors to Cozumel arrive by cruise ship.  Cozumel is served by a small but well-run international airport with non-stop flights from US airports such as Houston, Dallas, Miami and more.  Compared to Cancun, travelers flying directly to Cozumel can expect quick clearance through customs and immigration.  Additionally, regular ferry service links Cozumel with Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland.  The trip takes little more than half an hour.  To stay in touch with friends and relatives, it’s helpful to know that Cozumel is on Central time (like Chicago, Houston, and Mexico City) and observes daylight saving time.

Six or more cruise ships visit Cozumel daily, docking at one of two deep sea piers convenient to downtown.

Six or more cruise ships visit Cozumel daily, docking at one of two deep sea piers convenient to downtown.

BEST TIME TO VISIT COZUMEL

I’m not sure there is a bad time.  For the lowest hotel rates and smallest tourist crowds, the week or two right after Easter is optimal.  Cozumel enjoys a “tropical savannah” climate throughout the year. For those visiting from northern latitudes, any day in Cozumel feels like paradise.  Nonetheless, there are distinct “seasons” that you should take into account as you plan your vacation.

March – June:  Skies are generally sunny, humidity is relatively low, and storms infrequent. Conditions make for calm, flat seas, with water temperatures averaging 79-81o F.  My favorite time to go!

July – October:  Cozumel’s rainy season brings cloudier skies and higher humidity.   Storms punctuate the day, alternating with brilliant sunshine.  This is also the heart of hurricane season.  Water temperatures at this time are quite warm, averaging 80-84o F.  Since the rainy season also brings a lull in tourism, this is another time you can expect smaller crowds and less expensive rates.

November – February:  Although the locals call this time of the year “winter”, the weather is in fact beautiful by almost any standard.  Rain is less frequent but conditions are often breezy, making for choppy seas and limiting shore-based snorkeling.  But skies are mostly sunny, and the water is warm (78-84o F).  

Sunset frames the dive sculpture along Cozumel's Avenida Rafael Melgar waterfront promenade.

Sunset frames the dive sculpture along Cozumel’s Avenida Rafael Melgar waterfront promenade.

Travel Guide to Cozumel

Cozumel is a popular cruise ship port of call famed for its scuba diving.  The west side of the island, facing the Mexican mainland, is where everyone lives and stays when they come to visit.  During the day in San Miguel the waterfront road and promenade, Avenida Rafael Melgar, is crammed with cruise ship passengers and day-trippers from the mainland.  However, they’re gone by sunset.  This populous westside is largely sheltered from the strong winds and battering surf that are near constant visitors on ‘the wild east side’.  The developed west side and loop road exists in stark contrast to the central portion of the island, which is mostly undeveloped and brimming with wildlife.    

Evening on the water in the port of San Miguel de Cozumel, Mexico.

Evening on the water in the port of San Miguel de Cozumel, Mexico.

DAY 1 IN COZUMEL

–THE PEOPLE

During the day in San Miguel, Avenida Raphael Melgar the waterfront road and promenade is crammed with cruise ship passengers and day-trippers from the mainland. However, they’re gone by sunset.  All you need to do is venture a few blocks inland at any time of the day to discover a different, mellower world.  Here riots of pink or purple bougainvillea tumble down over bright-pastel walls, church bells toll and children laugh and play soccer in the streets until long after dark.

Bouganvilla tumbles down walls and fills every available space on the island of Cozumel.

Bouganvilla tumbles down walls and fills every available space on the island of Cozumel.

LIVE LIKE A LOCAL

My favorite thing about Cozumel is the friendly and happy people (although fabulous beaches are a close second). You’ll meet all sorts: hardy Mayan housekeepers in embroidered finery, glossy-haired mothers with flocks of children in tow, Mexican sailors strolling along Avenida Rafael Melgar (the waterfront road) with their sweethearts.  Early every morning, the symphony begins.  Listen for the bread man’s clap as he peddles past, announcing that his pan dulce is ready to eat.  Strain to hear the song of the old knife sharpener – a haunting flute tune played as he wheels slowly through the quiet streets.  Await the crescendo of lilting children’s voices as they head off to school.  The final strains of the serenade are composed of a tattoo of footsteps – hungry residents as they head into their favorite bakery for conversation and breakfast.  Thus begins the day, which is rounded out with shopping in the heart of residential sections far from the tourist-frequented areas and sampling the island’s wide variety of Mexican, Yucatecan and international cuisine.  And tequila.

Cozumelenos of Mayan descent relax on their patio.

Cozumelenos of Mayan descent relax on their patio.

— SHOPPING ADVICE

If you want to escape the tourists completely and check out where real Cozumeleños shop and work, face away from the ferry pier and walk straight up Benito Juarez Avenue. You’ll pass dress stores, pharmacies, baby and pet stores, ice cream parlors — all places where locals shop.  A must-see is the island’s oldest market, El Mercado, active from 6am to 1pm-ish.  The main building is on the corner of Avenida (Avenue) 25 and Rosada Salas. Heading inland on Juarez, when you get to Avenida 25, hang a right. The big mercado building with its rabbit warren of little shops and restaurants behind begins 1/2 block up Avenida 25.

 

This beautiful Jaguar Shaman Rainstick is one of my prized memories of many trips to Cozumel.

This beautiful Jaguar Shaman Rainstick is one of my prized memories of many trips to Cozumel.

Usually I prefer to take home memories, but there's something about Cozumel that I want to bring home with me every time...

Usually I prefer to take home memories, but there’s something about Cozumel that I want to bring home with me every time…

— DANCING

Try to schedule your trip to be on the island on a Sunday evening. Visit the downtown, pedestrian-only plaza between 8 and 9 PM at the large pink gazebo.  There is often a free event going on here on Sunday evenings.  Frequently, it’s live Mayan fire shows or music and dancing that goes on into the night.  And as in most of Latin America, the men dance!  They are very skilled at it and willing to partner a tourist.  (I’m in heaven!!!)  Food vendors arrive at the plaza with the setting of the sun and cooling temperatures.  What a great place to people watch and mingle with regular Cozumeleños who pack the square.  

 

Pink Gazebo in the Center of Cozumel, Mexico's Central Plaza and the Site of Sunday Night Festivities.

Pink Gazebo in the Center of Cozumel, Mexico’s Central Plaza and the Site of Sunday Night Festivities.

— Mayan Shaman Fire Show

Mayan Dancer at Cozumel Sunday Night Festivities.

Mayan Dancer at Cozumel Sunday Night Festivities.

DRINKING AND DINING

The touristy areas adjacent to the cruise piers have all the usual restaurant chains and work hard to create an atmosphere of wild abandon.  Meh…  I prefer to seek out the restaurants, bars and juiceries where the locals go.  Get off the beaten bath and just ask around.  The character there is still very festive, but far more genuine.  As is the food and drink – served without gimmicks like the 2 foot tall margarita tubes.  I so enjoy the sheer ingenuity of the entrepreneuers, coming up with far out themes for their bars.  Like the rocking saddles in a little courtyard of a shopping area.

If the alcohol doesn't go to your head, the rocking saddles will!

If the alcohol doesn’t go to your head, the rocking saddles will!

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in some of the fancier restaurants, the waiters put on a spectacular performance.

Waiter prepares a fiery sauce to adorn your dish, giving a whole new meaning to fiery hot Mexican food.

Waiter prepares a fiery sauce to adorn your dish, giving a whole new meaning to spicy hot Mexican food.

COZUMEL’S FESTIVAL SCENE

— SANTA CRUZ FESTIVITIES & EL CEDRAL FAIR

The Festival of Santa Cruz / El Cedral Fair is a historical tradition held in the town of El Cedral, in southern Cozumel Island. This fiesta includes fairs, traditional feasts, rodeos, bullfights, music and competitions. The celebrations last about 5 days in all and are held every year at the end of April or beginning of May.

— CARNAVAL de COZUMEL

This is one of the most important Carnaval festivities in México. Traditionally celebrated since the mid-1800’s, it fills Cozumel’s streets with parades, beginning the week before Mardi Gras in February. Cozumel’s Carnaval is a tradition passed down through many generations to celebrate the mixture of cultures that make up Cozumel.  Carnaval de Cozumel was started by young people dressed in vibrant costumes known as “Estudiantinas” or “Comparsas” to express themselves in dance, song, and fantasy.

Joyous Carnaval Parade Along Avenida Rafael Melgar in Cozumel, Mexico.

Joyous Carnaval Parade Along Avenida Rafael Melgar in Cozumel, Mexico.

 

 

DAY 2 – THE WILD EAST SIDE

Cozumel’s beautiful and wild east side faces the open Atlantic and Cuba. This coast has had no electricity and hence no development since Hurricane Gilbert battered the island in the 1990’s.  Here, sea turtles come to nest and send their little ones off into the big ocean to repopulate.  It is a lovely place for a drive and to stop in at one or more of the little beach bars.  We urge you not to swim on this side of the island, however.  There are dangerous rip tides and even experienced local swimmers have died there.  Wading in protected areas is fine, ‘tho.  Plus there are great beach bars to hang out and just chill.

Mezcalito's Beach Bar on the Wild East Side of Cozumel, Mexico

Mezcalito’s Beach Bar on the Wild East Side of Cozumel, Mexico

If you’re more into the active scene, horseback riding as well as hiking is available.

The Wild East Side of Cozumel is a Mecca for Horseback Riding and Wildlife.

The Wild East Side of Cozumel is a Mecca for Horseback Riding and Wildlife.

— THE NATURAL SCENE

The fauna of Cozumel is different than that on the nearby mainland Yucatan.  Like most islands, Cozumel has a number of endemic species and subspecies of birds including: Cozumel emerald hummingbird, Cozumel great curassow (highly endangered), Cozumel thrasher (nearly or already extinct), Cozumel vireo, and the Cozumel wren.

Several endemic dwarf mammals are found on the island: Cozumel fox (nearly or already extinct), Cozumel Island coati (endangered), and the Cozumel Island raccoon (critically endangered).  The splendid toadfish is a marine endemic to the island.

Showing off his throat patch to defend his territory and attract females.

Showing off his throat patch to defend his territory and attract females.

DAY 3 – AN UNEXPECTED HISTORY

The first Spanish expedition visited Cozumel in 1518. The following year, Cortés stopped by the island on his way to Veracruz. These Spanish ships were received peacefully by the Maya of Cozumel, unlike the expeditions’ experiences on other parts of the mainland. Even after Cortés destroyed some of the Mayan idols on Cozumel and replaced them with an image of the Virgin Mary, the native inhabitants of the island continued to help the Spanish re-supply their ships with food and water so they could continue their voyages.  As many as 10,000 Maya lived on the island then, but in 1520, infected crew members of the Pánfilo Narváez expedition brought smallpox to the island. By 1570, only 358 Mayans were left alive on Cozumel.  In the ensuing years Cozumel was often attacked by pirates, effectively depopulating the island. 

In 1861, American President Abraham Lincoln ordered Secretary of State, William Seward, to meet with Mexican officials to explore the possibility of purchasing the island of Cozumel for the purpose of relocating freed American slaves there. The idea was summarily dismissed by Mexican President Benito Juarez. 

Tribute to the Maya on Cozumel who helped re-supply the Spanish ships.

Pirates repeatedly attacked the island until it was entirely depopulated.

DAY 3

— SAN GERVASIO’S GODDESS IX CHEL

This is a fascinating Mayan archaeological site.  Mayan women traveled from the mainland to visit this shrine and pay tribute to their goddess of love and fertility, Ix Chel. Although the site is large, the ruins have not been reconstructed as most mainland sites have. Many of the buildings are in their natural aged state, but covered by a palapa to limit further decay. We recommend hiring a local guide to get the most out of your experience. Enjoy viewing all the small lizards and the large spiny iguanas that we’ve dubbed, “guardians of the ruins”.

Not restored like counterpart mainland sites, San Gervasio was dedicated to the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ix Chel.

Not restored like counterpart mainland sites, San Gervasio was dedicated to the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ix Chel.

The area is covered in fine black sand that gets into your open shoes or will make flip-flopped feet filthy. Closed shoes recommended. You can visit San Gervasio any day from 8 a.m. to 5 pm for a meager admission fee of $4. They do charge a small extra fee if you intend to take photos or videos. On site are the usual gift shops and a small outdoor snack bar. Bathrooms are sparse, but clean.

Welcoming fountain in the courtyard of San Gervasio Archaeological Site in Cozumel, Mexico.

Welcoming fountain in the courtyard of San Gervasio Archaeological Site in Cozumel, Mexico.

COZUMEL KEEPS ME COMING BACK

There is something special about this island.  The peace, the people, the energy, the ocean, the land.  I can’t identify it.  Like a magnetic force field, it will draw you in from a distance and make it hard to escape the experience.  I don’t think I have ever escaped the lure of Cozumel, nor do I want to.

Creativity manifests everywhere on the magical island of Cozumel, Mexico.

Creativity manifests everywhere on the magical island of Cozumel, Mexico.

 

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