Cozumel is one of Mexico’s busiest cruise ports, often receiving as many as 20,000 passengers a day during the winter high season. This traffic makes it necessary for the tiny, 28-mile isle to have three ports. It also means the scene is pretty hectic: Picture crowds of cruisers shopping for trinkets, or piling on buses to head to various excursions, from snorkeling and golfing on the island itself to touring ruins on the mainland.
Despite all the choices, some visitors never leave San Miguel’s main downtown area with its abundance of shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as the Plaza del Sol zocalo, where you can often hear live mariachi music. Best of all, you’ll have ample time to check it out, since many ships remain in port until 7 pm, and some even stay until 10 pm.
Breakfast: Palmeras – Sure, you can find an “American” breakfast at this spot right across from the Cozumel ferry dock, but look around at the plates of the local patrons and chances are you’ll be intrigued to order Mexican fare instead. A popular choice: motuleños, two fried eggs on crisp tortillas topped with refried beans, ranchera sauce, cheese, and served with fried plantains.
Lunch: Coconuts – You’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi to get to this eatery in rarely explored Punta Morena on the island’s eastern coast. The journey is worth it for the fresh conch ceviche, guacamole, and shrimp tacos. Since the restaurant is cliffside, the ocean views are just as impressive as the food.
Dinner: Pancho’s Backyard – If you’re at the Punta Langosta port in San Miguel, head across the street to this restaurant and museum. (It’s hidden in a courtyard behind the waterfront Los Cinco Soles store.) The building dates back to the early 20th century, and you’ll find artistic touches like hand-painted plates and hand-blown glasses. Order a tart reposado margarita and a pepito — a thin, charbroiled beef tenderloin served on a Mexican baguette and topped with black beans. It’s usually served for lunch, but ask nicely and they’ll make it for dinner.
Dessert: El Postrecito – Visit this bakery on Avenue 11 South, in the town square, and order a cup of decadent Mexican hot chocolate that’s laced with cinnamon, along with a sopaipilla — fried dough topped with honey.
Tip: All businesses on the island accept dollars as well as pesos, so don’t bother exchanging money. Best of all, local vendors prefer American bills, so you’ll be more likely to get a bargain.
For Everyone: Cozumel Palace Resort – This all-inclusive resort is just a few minutes walk from the Punta Langosta port, and it’s a great choice for those who want to spend a day by the pool. Sign up for a day pass ($89 per person), and you can actually hang out by either of the two pools, snorkel in the reef, or play in the sand. The fee includes all food, drinks, and activities, as well as access to a changing room.
For Couples: Bike the island – A great way to see Cozumel is by bike. Head to the Park Royal Hotel and look for the sign that says, “I Wanna Rent.” This small rental outfit will set you up with a bicycle, map, lock, and helmet for just $15. Biking here is easy, since roads have a bike lane and cars respect riders.
For Families: Ecological reserve – Few know about the reserve on the island’s secluded Punta Sur section. Make arrangements in advance, and you’ll be able to spend a day at this pristine beach, visit the crocodile observatory, go bird watching, and explore the turtle sanctuary, which includes 6,000 nests. Visit between May and September, and you can even help release turtle babies into the sea.
For the Adventurous: Scuba Du – Cozumel is surrounded on one side by the second largest barrier reef in the world, so diving is big business here. One of the island’s oldest and most organized operators is located at the Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa, near the Puerta Maya port. Whether you’re a beginning or advanced diver, it won’t be long before you’re 130 feet into the water of the Marine National Park, surrounded by a colorful party of triggerfish, parrot fish, harmless nurse sharks, and eagle rays.