If travel to the tropical paradise Mexican island of Cozumel is not already on your bucket list, it should be. Traveling to Cozumel delivers a larger than life tropical experience with a laid back islander feel.
Cozumel is located in the Caribbean sea off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The island is mostly undeveloped except for along its coasts and in the town of San Miguel. The majority of tourists arrive by cruise ships and don’t stray too far from the dock, while others languish in the all-inclusive resorts along the west coast of the island.
Unfortunately, this type of travel misses a lot of the highlights and a true experience of the Island’s interesting culture. Cozumel is a worthwhile destination to explore for any length of time and there’s a lot to see outside of the typical all inclusive vacation.
Getting to Cozumel
If you’re not arriving on a cruise ship, there are two main ways to get to Cozumel. One is to fly to Cancun, Mexico, take a bus or taxi to Playa Del Carmen on the mainland, and then a ferry to the island. The ferry takes about 45 minutes to reach the island and runs 365 days a year, provided the weather cooperates.
The other method is to take a flight to Cozumel’s small airport, but the planes only fly from a few major hub airports in the US, such as Denver and Houston. There are rumours that Air Canada flies direct from Toronto too, but we could not find any decently-priced flights from a Canadian carrier.
If you’re flush with cash, you could always charter a float plane or private yacht but unfortunately the Zen Travellers are not!
Staying in Cozumel
Once on the island, a quick taxi ride will get you to the town of San Miguel where there are plenty of hotels, vacation villas, apartments, and hostels for every budget. We rented an apartment through AirBnB that had a nice pool and garden, a kitchen to prep some of our meals, and even a cute little dog named Maya who enjoyed soliciting belly rubs.
If all inclusives aren’t your scene and you’re new to AirBnB, it’s a great way to find accommodation in any city. Click through this link and get $45 CAD to spend on your first rental!
Getting around Cozumel
Getting around the island is really easy as it’s very walkable and bikeable. If you’re staying in San Miguel everything you might need is within walking distance. But if you’re at one of the all inclusives, you’ll likely need to take a taxi or use one of the resorts fun beach cruisers to get back into town.
There are also scooters and cars for rent, but we preferred to bike or walk most places. It gives you more time to take in the beautiful street art, enjoy the swallow-stamped streets, and look for wildlife like the super cute and unique-to-the-island Cozumel Emerald hummingbirds! You can also cycle around the whole island using a separated bike lane.
If you decide to travel around the island in search of beaches and reefs, another thing to consider is that the east side of the island features a beautiful but very rugged coastline. There are strong currents and rip tides so use extreme caution if swimming on any of the east beaches. They are spectacularly beautiful and if we were to go back, we would pack a lunch to sit and enjoy the view. There are also many beach front restaurants that serve catch of the day seafood and of course, delicious and refreshing margaritas!
We rented bikes from Rogelio with Sombrero Rentals for about $120usd for a week (2018 prices).
Food on the Island
Food on Cozumel is delicious and will suit a wide variety of budgets. We found that the best eats were away from the main street along the waterfront where all the cruise-ship tourists go, unless you really really want to eat at Senor Frogs. There are also two big supermarkets, Chedrau and Mega, as well as a local market to buy groceries.
Best Restaurants in Cozumel
Seafood is abundant and many restaurants serve catch of the day. In addition, the classic Mexican fare such as chips and salsa, guacamole, tacos, huevos rancheros, moles, enchiladas, etc is to die for. Just be careful as some of the food can be very spicy! Here are some of the absolute best places where we ate during our time in Cozumel. We tried others to be sure, but these are the good ones:
Kondesa serves up delicious seafood dishes and often features live music. Be sure to try the lionfish cakes. Although those buggers are beautiful, they are totally invasive in Caribbean waters so they need to be eaten. Do your duty. There is also an adorable kitty who may come meet you while you dine. You can make reservations on Open Table too.
This place has a great outdoor patio, good selection of wine, and makes a mean mole sauce. In fact, it was one of the best we had on the island and we aimed to go back, but when we tried they were closed.
We loved the margaritas, fusion cuisine, and chilled out patio offered at this place. We came for the lobster grilled cheese for an after diving lunch twice. The patio also offers good birdwatching too!
This is probably one of the best places to get tacos on the island. They will not disappoint and frequently sell out by mid-day.
Freedom in Paradise (AKA the Bob Marley Bar) – East Island
If you take our advice and do the cycle trip around the island, this is a wonderful place to stop for lunch and drinks. It offers beach side dining, refreshing cold drinks, and super fresh catch of the day seafood.
Cooking Class with Josefina
We also took a cooking Cocina con Alma class at the end of our trip with Josefina. It was a wonderful way to get a taste of some amazing local dishes on the island but in hindsight, we should have done it first to apply our learnings to the rest of the trip! She begins with a trip to the local market where you load up on fresh ingredients and then you make, no joking what are probably the best refried beans, guacamole, and margaritas that you will ever have. Although I found it a bit intimidating, you make your own corn tacos with her too.
For the main, you choose with your group what you want to make and ours went with a chicken dish from Josefina’s childhood home in the Veracruz mountains. It was flavoured with a sauce made of four kinds of roasted peppers and baked in a banana leaf. Divine. You can buy her cookbook afterward too.
Best Bars in Cozumel
Mexico is of course, famous for the Margarita. Tequlia, triple sec, limes, and salt combine for a super refreshing drink in the heat. They go down a little too easy and you’ll probably want to sample a variety of restaurants to find your favourite. Many restaurants have two for one specials during their happy hours.
They make a mean, massive margarita here and feature two for one happy hour. Just be sure to specify if there are two of you that you just want one happy hour order, otherwise you’ll end up with 4 margaritas that you will obviously have no other choice but to drink.
Do go do a tequila tasting here rather than the one on the waterfront. This is a smaller, family-run business that makes quality products and offers a pressure-free tasting experience. There is also a nice restaurant with a beautiful garden patio. It is a bit of a hike from the Centro area, but easily done on a bike or a cheap cab ride.
Turquoise Beach Bar
As the name suggests, this is a true beach bar and offers amazing views to go with refreshing drinks. It was our last stop on our cycle trip around the island where we watched the sunset and rested our legs. The view is accounted for in the prices though.
Is Cozumel Safe
Cozumel is a tourist town and considered to be very safe for foreigners. The town of San Miguel is designed around tourism and the people of Cozumel are very friendly. That said, take basic safety precautions – don’t flaunt your wealth, don’t carry all of your cash at once, and be aware of your surroundings.
When checking out the beaches that Cozumel has to offer, avoid swimming in areas where black or red flags are posted as these mark dangerous currents.
As with the rest of Mexico, water should be filtered or boiled prior to drinking. Most travel websites and blogs say to purchase bottled water but we prefer taking a filter water bottle such as this Katadyn one. There’s enough plastic in the world already.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving in Cozumel
As for activities, while the cycling is incredible, it’s underwater where Cozumel truly shines. Its expansive reefs are teeming with sea life and you can easily see such underwater highlights as sea turtles, nurse sharks and eagle rays in one day of diving like we did!
Snorkeling is another favourite activity there and some restaurants offer it right in front of their businesses. Consult this map for beaches and dive spots. The natural reefs in Mexico are considered national parks and great care is taken to preserve them, but we recommend avoiding the captive dolphin attraction at “Chankanaab National Park – Dolphin Discovery.” Their name suggests that they are affiliated with the Marine Reserve of the same name, but they are not.
Keeping dolphins in a pen to perform tricks for humans is cruel and a practice that should be stopped, so please don’t give them your money. Instead, money you spend diving or snorkelling with a responsible operator will go toward conservation of the reefs. If you’re lucky, you may even get to swim beside a sea turtle in its natural habitat which is so much better than the manufactured, cruel dolphin prison experience.
We dove with Alex Scuba and we highly recommend them for your diving and snorkelling needs. Alejandro’s staff are professional, extremely committed to safety, as well as knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. They were great at pointing out undersea treasures and making sure the dives as safe and enjoyable as possible.
They also deserve extra points for being so patient with me as I struggled to finish some of the more challenging Open Water skills. I’m glad they persisted since it was great to be able to dive afterwards without worrying about finishing the course. Their commitment to conserving the reefs was evident too when we saw a divemaster wrangle a wayward child away from the reef in a strong current! Their prices are more than fair and the seem to attract many repeat visitors. We know we would be happy to dive with them again and would recommend them to others.
These are just a few highlights of all the fun Cozumel has to offer. With its spectacular coastlines, diverse wildlife, and friendly people, Cozumel has been our favourite island since visiting Zanzibar in 2014, and that set a pretty high bar!