Mexico is a nation of natural wonders, and if you happen to visit Cancun or anywhere in Riviera Maya, you simply cannot miss out Isla Cozumel – the largest island in the Mexican Caribbean. Though the name Isla Cozumel literally means the land of swallows in Maya, what makes Cozumel the special place it is is the sheer fact that it is located in the Caribbean Ocean.
Home to one of the world’s largest barrier reefs (linear reef complexes that parallel that shore and are separated by a lagoon), Cozumel is a paradise for snorkelers and divers, where they can witness marine wonders like the rare black coral and other impressive marine species. This piece will give you a few tips for your snorkeling/diving adventure at Cozumel. And yes, even amateur swimmers/snorkelers/divers can do it!
How to Get There
Cozumel is a less-than-45-minute ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen. The pier at Playa del Carmen is located on Avenue Benito Juarez (just walk south along the busy Quinta Avenida [5th Avenue] towards the lower street numbers).
There are ferries almost hourly to and from Cozumel, leaving as early as 6:00 am from Cozumel to as late as 10:00 pm from Playa del Carmen. You can buy you tickets in advance but since space on the boats is ample, you don’t really have to worry about availability. Just buy your ticket when you are at the pier.
There are three ferry companies: Mexico Waterjets, Cozumel Express and UltraMar. Even if you have purchased a snorkeling package, it’s likely that you would have to purchase a ferry ticket to Cozumel separately. Cozumel Express is the cheapest as of mid-March 2015, at 135 pesos/ USD 10 one-way. You can always buy your return tickets as well – the return tickets can be used for any returning ferries by the same company on that day.
Remember to arrive at least 15 minutes before the departure time. The ferries are very comfortable, with air-con and Katy Perry and Bruno Mars music videos playing on the TVs.
Around the pier at Playa del Carmen (and basically along the 5th Avenue), there are many journey tour operators around promoting the various tours they offer. Since we are newbies to snorkeling, we decided to join a snorkeling tour to save the trouble. You can always search online in advance to compare prices, but prices of the various operators we talked to are pretty similar. I am pretty sure we can find cheaper prices, but we just didn’t bother to because we were getting lazy submerged in the relaxed holiday mood around Riviera Maya. The one we joined is Lalo’s, who charged us the children’s price (USD 30 + 3 for the national marine park fee) since we are petite Asian girls. The tour includes 2 and 1/2 hours of snorkeling at 3 reefs, snorkeling equipment, free and unlimited water, sodas and BEER!, and traveling to snorkeling spots on a glass bottom boat.
The whole process is we paid, we arrived at Cozumel, we found the company’s people at the Cozumel pier, and we waited about one hour for the actual tour by shopping around. You HAVE to get dressed before getting on the boat and there is a public toilet on the second floor of the pier building.
The glass bottom boat carries about 10 people per trip. To be frank, do not expect to see anything from the glass bottom boat – the boat moves too fast and it is awfully dizzy to look down. WAVES ARE HUGE! And even for trained swimmers like me who is used to swimming in oceans, I got quite sick and was on the verge of throwing up. So do take motion sickness pills beforehand just in case. Along the way the guide will teach you how to use the snorkeling equipment and appropriate hand signs. You can choose to wear life jackets, but I chose not to and just held on to the lifebuoy so the guide could pull me along and I could be lazy. So don’t worry, inexperienced swimmers, you won’t die out there in the sea.
The boat will take you to three snorkeling spots. I seriously recommended investing in an underwater camera because the views underwater are breathtaking. You can see all the way to the bottom of the sea because the water is just crystal clear. At the first spot we were surrounded by loads of tropical fishes. The guide pointed out the special species to me but I was too busy looking underwater to listen. At the second spot, the guide will hand you some breadcrumbs and you can feel the fishes nibbling the crumbs from your fingers (they bit me!) The third spot would be where you can see amazing barrier coral reefs (at the previous two spots too, but those at the third spot are more spectacular). Somewhere along the way they will take a photo of you surrounded by swarms of fish, which you can purchase later when you are back on shore.
It was getting freezing cold by the time we left the third spot (another reminder: bring your own towel and possibly a change of clothes) and I was super nauseated once I got on the boat again. The guide will ask for tips so bring cash. The whole experience was one-of-a-kind though.
It’s true Cozumel is filled with amazing snorkeling sites, many of which can be reached by yourself without the help of tour guides. This page contains a pretty good summary of the good spots. The ones mentioned frequently during my research are the Money Bar Beach Club and Chankanaab National Park. Basically the south side of the island is filled with sites for beginner and intermediate swimmers/snorkelers/divers, and the north side requires higher skills. But if you are an amateur snorkeler, an avid beer drinker, don’t have your own means of transport at Cozumel, don’t have your snorkeling equipment, have a few bucks to spare or want a concentrated snorkeling experience without any fuss, tours are for you. The same thing goes for scuba diving. You can book daily dive tours with dive operators on the island, many of which are personalized.
Other things to do
Being one of the world’s most important cruise destinations, there is much more to Cozumel than just snorkeling and diving. The main town on the island San Miguel is just outside the pier and the streets along the shore are filled with shops selling black coral jewelry, T-shirts and many other tourist souvenirs. You can find those pretty easily at Playa del Carmen though. The pier is an amazing spot to enjoy the gorgeous sunset and the clear waters of the Caribbean (with free wifi).
And of course, just like many other places at the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel has its own Mayan ruins. You can also swim with dolphins, visit the Faro Celerain Eco Park and just spend your afternoon on one of the many beaches on the island. The only thing you need to remember is that Cozumel is a large island of over 180 mi². Traveling around the island is not as easy as you imagine as there isn’t public transportation like buses. You can always take a taxi, or rent a car or a scooter.
You can check the official site of Cozumel for more information.
The Riviera Maya is filled with attractions and activities that would appeal to people of all ages. I recommend basing at Playa del Carmen, which is very much the center of Riviera Maya and go to your destinations with the very convenient bus system. You can travel south to Tulum, Coba ruins and Akumal (where you can snorkel with turtles and see them lay eggs during the nesting season from end of April to October), or travel north to Cancun and Isla Mujeres (where you can swim with whale sharks from June to September). You can literally spend several months here without getting bored.
Starting from February 2015, the Mexican government has forwarded the time one hour ahead for the state of Quintana Roo (which covers places like Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel) to boost the tourism sector by creating longer, lighter evenings. The state will not use Daylight Saving Time so if you are visiting during DST period (typically March to November), remember this area will be one hour ahead of other Mexican regions!
Just to remind you again, Cancun iTips provides a really simple and easy-to-understand guide, with useful maps to Cancun, Riviera Maya and Yucatan in general (Tulum included of course). Be sure to check out their website or just grab a copy of their guide at a tourist information centre (there is one just outside the ADO bus terminal at 5th Ave in Playa del Carmen).
By Frances Sit