Cozumel is a Mexican island in the Caribbean Sea that blends beautiful white-sand beaches with a dense jungle interior. It has all the luxury resorts and lively nightlife one would expect of a Caribbean island, along with the excellent food and endless Margaritas that come with travel in Mexico. There are also interesting Mayan ruins on the island itself, and the dramatic Mayan city of Tulum is situated just across the water on the mainland. Cozumel is especially well-known for its diving and snorkeling, with easy access to some of the most spectacular underwater terrain and marine life in the Western Hemisphere.
I visited Cozumel almost solely for the diving. As a destination, it’s not the first place on my list of places to visit. In fact, the Caribbean as a whole is not a place I have much affinity towards. Most of it is jam packed full of tourists, all-inclusive resorts, and Middle America cruise ships. If you’ve read any part of my blog at all, it’s easy to see this is not how I like to travel. Nevertheless, diving is one of my favorite hobbies, and I can’t just pick up and go to Mozambique whenever I want. Nor can I charter my own yacht to find the less traveled parts of the Caribbean.
I spent a few weeks in Honduras on the diving island of Utila and very much enjoyed it. The food however, was so awful (diving was great), that I just wasn’t enthused by the thought of re-visiting. Other less known places like Bonaire are supposed to have great diving but flights are nearing the 4 digit range and have numerous layovers making it a difficult destination to casually visit. Upon the recommendation of some of the divers I met in Honduras, I figured I’d give Cozumel a shot. It’s purported to have great diving and I’m a big fan of Mexican food so there is promise.
Money and things
I’ll keep this brief and to the point. USE MEXICAN PESOS when in Cozumel. Cozumel is a very developed and touristy island and 90% of its tourists are from America. Anyone reading this, Americans included, can all agree that Americans are not the most intelligent of travelers. The Mexicans know this and offer up prices in US Dollars and Mexican pesos, leaving the choice in the hands of the tourist.
Thing is, 90% of the American tourists have no idea what the official exchange rate is and the Mexicans will take advantage of that fact and offer up ridiculously unfavorable exchange rates. For example, the exchange rate was about 15 pesos to $1 when I visited. If I went to the ATM to withdraw cash, I would get very close to this exchange rate. Restaurants, shops, and bars mostly have menus in pesos, and if you asked to pay in dollars, they would convert their prices at say 12 pesos to $1, 20% more expensive. Also, the symbol for pesos is also the $ sign so do not be tricked into thinking a peso price actually means US dollars.
So if I was at a restaurant and the bill came to be 450 pesos, I would be paying 450 / 15 = $30, whereas the rookie American tourist that pays in dollars would be paying 450 / 12 = $37.5. The Mexican vendor would gladly accept the dollars, and laugh all the way to the bank where he changes it back to pesos at a higher exchange rate. I saw this all day every day while in Cozumel. There were plenty of times I wanted to say something: “Yo idiot, that’s not the exchange rate. They’re ripping you off”, but I just refrained because it was likely just a lost cause.
Is there any hope?
Let’s be clear here. Cozumel is a place for the vacationer. It’s not a budget destination (although accommodations are reasonable and there are plenty of Airbnb apartments for cheap), nor is it a backpackers destination. Cozumel is primarily for your average American tourist that enjoys diving, your families that want to go to an all-inclusive and relax (and dive), and it’s a huge hub for cruise ships so you’ll see plenty of cruise shippers docking for the day. It’s generally for the older crowd as well (40+) and you’ll meet many people here that have made it a yearly ritual for the past decade or two.
So why the hell did I come here twice? Well the diving is great and not overly expensive (although not cheap), it’s an easy and affordable place to fly into, but it was the FOOD that kept me coming back.
As Cozumel is an island, there are essentially two days of getting to Cozumel; plane and boat. By plane, there are direct flights from places like Houston, Dallas, Miami, Cancun, Mexico city etc. From New York, I usually fly to Houston and transfer to Cozumel (about 7 hours total). The longer, and not as economical as you’d think approach is to fly into Cancun, take a taxi southward to Playa Del Carmen, and then ferry across (~45 minutes) to Cozumel.
Catching a taxi
For those like myself that elect to fly into Cozumel airport, getting a taxi is tricky. Technically, the taxis in Cozumel are NOT allowed to pick up people from the airport. Only shuttles from hotels, resorts, or tourist companies are allowed to do this. There will be plenty of people upon exiting customs offering you taxis are outrageous rates ($20-30) and they’ll tell you it is the only way to get to the city.
Avoid these people completely, head to the ATM to grab some pesos, and then walk outside of the airport. Literally walk outside of the airport parking lot to the main road. It is here that you can find real taxis. It might feel like you’re in never ever land but this is the only way to hail a local taxi. We just stood on the corner with our bags, looking like tourists and a taxi eventually came up. Negotiate a rate here. I paid about 80 pesos ($5) to get to the city center.
Diving in Cozumel
Ah finally, to the important stuff. The diving here is the main draw for me. Cozumel is among the Western Hemisphere’s best scuba diving destinations, with miles of crystal clear water containing a myriad of marine life. This sea life is particularly concentrated among the giant reefs situated just offshore, including a stretch of the 175-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, possibly the second-largest contiguous coral reef in the world. Many companies offer tours out to such spots, as well as snorkeling. While the diving doesn’t compare to places like Northern Mozambique, nor is it as cheap as Honduras or Dahab, it is still well above average.
Cozumel has year round diving and water temperatures stay warm throughout. I came in Feb and the water temps were 25c (77 f), and again in July where temps were 29 c (82 f). The only time that is questionable is in Sep-Nov during the Hurricane season.
Cost of things:
Generally, a dive in Cozumel is about $40-50, and this does NOT include equipment, another $10-20 a day. There’s about 100 different dive operators on this island and after extensive research, almost all the shops charge the same prices. Most shops will give discounts if you’re diving for multiple days as well. I did four days of two-tank dives that equaled to be about $35 a dive WITH equipment included. The operators I dove with were Dive with Martin and Scuba Mau.
Both operators were good but I couldn’t help but feel like Cozumel diving is just pure business. Perhaps that’s just the nature of the island as it’s more of a vacation spot. When I was diving in Honduras and Dahab, I felt like I was in a diving community where it was about the experience and people first, and the business part of diving was second. Nevertheless, I have nothing bad to say about the two operators I went with.
The Dive Sites:
Cozumel is great for its reefs. There are corals abound and marine life aplenty. Turtles, nurse sharks, moray eels, eagle rays, and all sorts of other marine life were common. There’s no big game here unfortunately. There are many wall dives as well and it’s consistently rated as one of the best places to dive in the Caribbean and I can see why. All the diving here are drift dives, so it’s like you’re getting a “free ride” as the current takes you through the dive site. You do very little work, and therefore can conserve more air and enjoy longer dive times. My favorite sites in order are:
- Columbia Wall
- Santa Rosa Wall
- Punta Tunich
- Punta Sur
A Clip of us diving!
Eating in Cozumel
The food on Cozumel is absolutely fantastic; there are hundreds of restaurants here. Mexican food lovers rejoice because there are a ton of restaurants on this island for very cheap prices. Right off the bat, steer clear from all the tourist restaurants. Which ones are tourist restaurants? Pretty much anything that you’ve heard of before (Hooters, Pizza hut etc), all restaurants on the main road by the water, and pretty much any restaurant that has more Americans than locals. These restaurants will be serving mostly mediocre Tex-mex, and overpriced foods. Ignore. Move on. Stay the hell away from it.
All the good stuff is inland where the locals live. Not only is the food 1000000x better, but the prices are incredibly cheap as they cater to locals. The food is served fresh and there is ALWAYS numerous levels of spicy salsas. Heaven for me. If you like spicy food, Mexico is does NOT disappoint. The restaurants in Cozumel all provided more than enough heat for a spice lover like myself. Yes, the inner part of Cozumel isn’t as tourist developed as the main strip but it’s completely safe. This island brings so much tourist revenue, the government wouldn’t dare let anything happen.
The taquerias are where abundant on this island and offer some of the best of Mexico’s cuisine. Los Otates was one of my favorite taquerias and we ate here numerous times. Located about 10 minutes walking from the main tourist road, this place is a proper shack. It is not the most inviting of places, but are you here to eat or be pampered? If it’s to eat, this is the place to go. The tacos are fresh, the horchada is cold, and most of all, the habenero salsa is SPICY. A El Pastor taco (pork loin) is only 10 pesos (~$0.60) and the other tacos range from 15-25 pesos. They are also well known for their Pozole, an authentic Mexican soup dish of pork, hominy (similar to corn?), onions, and other things. We ate here numerous times and for 3 people, would spend around 300 pesos (~$20).
Another taqueria closer to the tourist streets but very much a local type spot. This place has delicious horchada, always available when I went, and the tacos are delicious as well.
Another taqueria on the tourist strip, this place is the taqueria for the tourists that aren’t adventurous enough to venture inland, but do not want to dine at the tourist trap restaurants. I actually thought it was a really damn good taqueria. The tacos are big, meaty, and well priced. Make sure to try the Lengua (cow tongue) taco here. It might sound unappealing but I can vouch that cow tongue tacos were the best tacos we ate on the island.
A real locals spot, this place is far inland and is probably 95% locals. The El Pastor tacos are fantastic here and the prices again are all reasonable. Dinner for 2 should be no more than 250 pesos (~$15)
La Hach Restaurant
For fish tacos, this was the best place I could find. Located on the beach a little outside the main part of town, we would come here routinely after our dives to gorge on some fish tacos. This was the only place I could find grilled fish tacos, as most other places preferred fried. They also include guacamole with the tacos which was a nice mix to the fish and salsa. Make sure to ask for it lightly salted however.
Located literally right outside of the airport, we always come here when we land, and before we go. It’s literally not even 5 minutes from the airport. The tacos are fantastic here and it’s just great to start the trip with some delicious tacos and end them as well.
Fantastic Lobster rolls freshly caught from the ocean. Located right in the middle of town and although more expensive than the tacos around town, it’s well worth it for a splurge (~200 pesos or so). It’s still bigger and more meaty than any lobster rolls I’ve ever consumed.
El Billy’s Asados Al Carbon
It’s clear I love my tacos. I ate them every day for lunch and dinner and had no problems whatsoever. It’s delicious, cheap, not so heavy, and spicy. The perfect post-diving food. However, I was told about this asado (spanish for BBQ) by a fellow diver and it sounded amazing. It’s far inland so a cab or scooter rental is advisable. Nevertheless, THIS is the place for anyone wanting some serious meat. They do not mess around here and they have 4 giant grills going on at the same time, grilling out chicken, pork, chorizo, and steak.
This is definitely a locals jaunt for sure but in the best of ways. It’s a bit of a dive but the people are very friendly and I mean you’re here to eat meat. It’s damn good at doing that. We got the sampler plate with a whole chicken, pork chops, chorizos, and taco shells (along with their very delicious spicy salsa). I’d highly recommend the chicken here as it is absolutely fantastic. Prices are very cheap as well.
I never actually went here but this is a fine dining restaurant near the water that has very favorable reviews on TripAdvisor. We thought about going as it got such good reviews, the pictures looked tasty, and the setting seemed nice. Then we just thought about all the amazing options we had with tacos and meat, and thought is there any reason to go to this expensive restaurant that is 100% tourists? The answer was no. However, for those looking for a more romantic and less rustic experience, this place looked very good.
What else to do in Cozumel?
Well this one is a bit of a no brainer. There’s always a visit to the beach if you’re bored. The most tropical of beaches are on the southwest side of the island, where all the all inclusive resorts are naturally. I went to Punta Sur on the south side to check out the beaches. They aren’t bad but expect to see plenty of tourists sunbathing here. The water also wasn’t as clear as I thought it’d be. Playa Del Carmen on the mainland had better looking beaches in my opinion, but was also 5x more crowded. Unless you’re staying in the southern parts, you’ll need a car to reach these beaches.
Day Trip to Tulum:
Those not so into diving, Cozumel is still a great place to chill out at, do some snorkeling, and eat some tacos. Mexico is famous for its Mayan ruins, three in particular that are close to Cozumel are Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Coba. The former is much easier to get to but the latter is far more impressive. I elected to visit Tulum as it was a quicker, easier day trip from Cozumel.
From Cozumel, we caught the ferry to Playa Del Carmen, then took a taxi colectivo, which is Mexico’s version of the group van taxi. These vans are quite nice in comparison to some of the group taxis I’ve taken in Africa, although not as nice as the ones I took in Turkey. The collectivos can be found in Playa Del Carmen, outside of the tourist central pier area. We just asked the locals and were pointed in the general direction. Those not keen for this experience can take the Ado bus (departs 8:30am and 12:30pm), or just take a regular taxi. The collectivos are much cheaper however (30 pesos one way).
They dropped us off at the entrance of Tulum (about 45 minutes driving) and we walked the rest of the way to the entrance of the ruins. There will be people trying to sell you entrance tickets ($10, even $15 I was quoted!) and naturally just ignore them because you can buy tickets at the entrance of the ruins for only 70 pesos.
The ruins are beautiful and ever so scenic as it is right on the beach overlooking the Caribbean. There’s not a whole lot to see, and I thought we’d be able to climb up one of the pyramids but they’re all fenced off. When we went in February, the high season for this region, it was absolutely packed. There were thousands of people in this place and tour groups everywhere. I suppose I left a bit unimpressed as I was really hoping to climb the Mayan pyramids. As far as pyramids go, I had just visited the Pyramids of Giza, and Petra so obviously Tulum does not compare to those, and while the beach in Tulum is nice, it doesn’t compare to the beaches I saw in Africa. Nevertheless, this is a great day trip for people staying in Cozumel!
Take a drive around the island
Most of the Cozumel’s action is on its Western coastline. All the beaches, dive sites, and city is concentrated on this side. The eastern coast however, boasts something completely different and awesome. The scene is much more chilled out, the waves are more intense, and it is largely devoid of people. The beaches on the east side are not as tropical as they are Mediterranean. The scenery vaguely reminds me of some of the beaches along the Garden Route in South Africa.
We rented a car, paying about $50 for the day, and drove around the island to check out the other side. There are some cool bars scattered along the coastline, my favorite being Bob Marley’s bar. For those that don’t have time to go to Tulum or Chitzen Itza, there are Mayan ruins on Cozumel as well at San Gervasio. Not as large or as dramatic as the ones on the mainland, it is still something cool to see. It takes about 1.5 hours to drive around the entire island of Cozumel (without stopping).