COZUMEL, ISLAND OF SWALLOWS
The Mayan “island of swallows” known as Cozumel basks in the warm Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Famous for idyllic beaches, water sports, diving on the Meso-American Coral Reef with its rich underwater flora and fauna, the isle is a warm, welcoming immersive experience into Mexican and Mayan culture. Relaxation is the commodity desired by cruise ship passengers and land-based vacationers.
THE BEACH SCENE
The island of Cozumel has three basic types of beaches: sandy, rocky and human-made.
Smooth white sand beaches stretch into seas so impossibly blue that at times it’s difficult to determine where the ocean ends and the sky begins. Sunset or sunrise will help with that little problem. Some of the best sands can be found near the southern and northern tips of the island’s developed west side. The wave action here tends to be gentle — like the Gulf of Mexico. The currents can be strong but nothing alarming. Although they tend to be much stronger on the north end than at the south. There are also several lovely white sand beaches on the island’s uninhabited ‘wild east side’. Beautiful for lounging or paddling around protected shallows, but bad for snorkeling. Go any further out and you will frequently encounter dangerous rip tides. Upon occasion, waves are suited to surfing, but this is not a surf mecca.
The second type of beach you’ll encounter on Cozumel island is the rocky, limestone variety sometimes referred to as “iron shore.” Although not as aesthetically pleasing to some as white sand–and certainly not as easy on the feet–this is where you’ll find the best shore snorkeling. Use water shoes. I’ll say it again—wear water shoes or swim fins. The rule of thumb is: If you don’t see ironshore, the snorkeling will be no good.
The third type of beach you’ll encounter on Cozumel is a human-constructed hybrid. Chankannab National Park has one, as do the majority of oceanfront condos, villas, resorts and hotels. When I say constructed, I mean they’ve brought in sand and created beaches above the naturally occurring rocky limestone outcroppings. With man-made beaches like Chankannab and many others, you get the beach scene with the sand, shaded palapas, lounge chairs, etc. But you can also usually hop into water and actually see some fish.
DIVING AND SNORKELING
Cozumel is covered with mangrove forest, and supports many endemic animal, fish and plant species (that is, species that occur nowhere else in the world). The major worldwide threat to mangroves is human impact, including fish farming, agriculture, urbanization, and forestry. Mangroves are also destroyed as the land is converted to salt flats or used for industrial or urban development. Just like on the Yucatan mainland, the substrate of Cozumel is limestone, with the highest point on the island less than 49 feet above sea level, which renders it vulnerable to flooding from major storms. Mangrove forests help protect the island from flooding by absorbing much of the wave action. In 2005, the Atlantic hurricane season struck Cozumel with unprecedented fury. The island suffered direct hits from two Category 4 tropical storms — Wilma and Emily. For nearly three days, Wilma devastated the island with hurricane-force winds. This resulted in heavy damage to the island’s infrastructure and wild environments along with impacts to the coral reefs and fishes – particularly at shallower snorkel and dive sites. Additionally, like elsewhere in the world, climate change in the form of increasing water temperatures and acidification is beginning to devastate the coral. Visit now while you can still enjoy these beautiful coral reefs protected from the open ocean by the island’s natural geography.
THE MESOAMERICAN BARRIER REEF
The reef system here has been a magnet for scuba divers since the 50’s when Jacques Cousteau documentaries brought international attention to this bountiful underwater world. Scuba diving is still one of Cozumel’s primary attractions, mainly due to the coral reef marine communities. In 1996, the government of Mexico established the “Arrecifes de Cozumel” National Marine Park, forbidding anyone from touching or removing any marine life within the park boundaries. Here, divers can explore a section of the Mesoamerican Reef and Museo Subacuático de Arte’s submerged art sculptures. Much of the diving here is termed “drift diving”. That is where a diver expends very little effort and just drifts along with the current running along the reef. In fact, it’s exhausting work when you want to stay in one place to watch something interesting!
TRAVEL TIP FOR NON-SCUBA DIVERS
What many people don’t realize is that the snorkeling is great here, too. Whether you take a boat tour or snorkel from shore on your own, there’s a fascinating, colorful life to explore below the waves. And you don’t have to be a PADI-certified scuba diver to appreciate it. You can snorkel the shallower areas or take an excursion on the Atlantis submarine, diving to a depth of 100 feet.
EXPECT TO BE AMAZED
Expect to see abundant coral and plant life as well as an amazing variety of fish. Large schools of yellow and black striped sergeant majors flit through coral. Angel fish, groupers, and rainbow-colored parrot fish glide lazily thru lacey sea fans and whips. Tourists contort their brightly-clad swimsuited bodies in amusing efforts to take selfies with underwater cameras.
SNORKELING TRAVEL TIP
Some of the best snorkeling can be found very close to the shore — at the edges of the ragged iron shore that borders much of Cozumel’s southern coast. Just float here for a bit and you may spot star anemones, spotted eels, spiny lobster and other interesting stuff. On a lucky day you may see barracuda, yellow rays, or a sea turtle. You just never know — which is what keeps you coming back for more. TRAVEL TIP: Look out for the yellowish slime covering the rocks! Don’t touch it! A rogue wave swept my leg into yellow slime, and I had such a severe allergic reaction that I had to see my doctor three weeks later when I returned home.
CHANKANAAB BEACH ADVENTURE PARK
Chankanaab is an eco-park surrounding a lagoon with underwater caverns, and home to dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but still one of my favorite places on the island. In the Mayan language, Chankanaab means “little sea”. This park is located within the boundaries of the National Marine Park and provides a diversity of entertainments.
TRAVEL GUIDE TO CHANKANAAB
This well-maintained park provides diving and snorkeling opportunities, including underwater sculptures to view. Experienced divers may want to charter their own tour and head off the island, but Chankanaab is a great alternative for families with small children and amateurs seeking to improve their diving skills. The park offers dolphin, seal and, most unusually, manatee encounters.
SO MANY CHOICES, SO LITTLE TIME
In addition to the lovely beach, there are nature trails, botanical gardens, small shops, animal exhibits, and several cafes.
MAYAN ARCHAEOLOGY AND CULTURE
Replicas of major Mayan archaeological relics are integrated into the botanical gardens at Chankanaab, and cultural activities and presentations occur regularly. The grounds are idyllic for exploring, learning and relaxing.
A relatively new offering at Chankanaab is the exhibit on growing, preparing and tasting that most Mexican of libations, tequila. In the tasting room, they feature our favorite brand, Cava Antigua. How fortunate for us, because Cava Antigua is conveniently available here while sadly not sold in stores in the USA. Can you believe that?! There is no limited legal drinking age in Mexico, so it was funny to watch a few American families allow their young teens to taste alcohol for the first time. Grimaces were the kids’ common response, whereas ours were big grins.
TRAVEL ADVICE FOR CHANKANAAB
If you are time-limited (very sad on a vacation), this place has it all. The admission price includes dolphin and sea lion shows as well as beach access. For the best spot on the beach, get there early and nab a lounge chair under a palapa (thatched shelter). The further you walk from the entrance, the more the crowds thin out.
Be aware that entrance to the water can be a little tricky near the best snorkel sites because you go down rock or metal steps into the ocean, where heavy waves may buffet you. Local families like to congregate and sit on the steps, which further complicates getting in and out of the water. For people a little unsteady on their feet, the lagoon area provides an easier sandy walk-in access. Where’s the bathroom, you ask? They are spaced throughout the park, very clean, personally attended and they provide showers with changing rooms. Lockers are also available in the main pavilion.
Chankanaab used to be open to visitors every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Their updated website indicates they are now closed on Sundays. Check before you go. Admission is $21 USD for adults and $14 USD for children aged three to 11. The park is a quick taxi drive south of San Miguel.
PARQUE ECOTURISTICO PUNTA SUR
If you’re a wildlife lover, a trip to Faro Celerain Eco Park is a must. Also known as Parque Punta Sur, it envelopes 2,500 acres at the southern tip of Cozumel. The park’s boundaries shelter a variety of indigenous species, including exotic birds and crocodiles, not to mention sea turtles. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but don’t let the animals distract you from everything else the park has to offer. Take some time to explore the El Caracol Mayan ruins and the Faro Celerain Lighthouse, where you’ll find a small maritime museum. Also, make sure to pack a swimsuit and towel to cool off in the calmer waters of the Laguna Colombia. To make the most of your visit, stop by the visitor’s center where you’ll encounter an onslaught of information. Consider taking a catamaran or kayak tour of the Laguna Colombia.
The Faro Celerain Eco Park is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 USD for adults and $6 USD for children ages three to 11; guided boat tours will cost extra. For more information, check out the Cozumel Parks website.
Cozumel is an extraordinary island all-too-often visited only as a 6 hour stop on a Caribbean cruise. We hope this and our follow-up post next week will entice you to plan a longer visit to explore everything this island and its people have to offer.
Get started making Baby-Boomer travel magic. Subscribe now to our weekly travel update for tips, tricks and secret getaway spots.