Mexico's largest island, Cozumel, is a heady mix of cosmopolitan restaurants, hotels and shops set amidst astounding natural beauty. It has become famous for its superb scuba diving, and also as a cruise ship destination where stylish amenities are offered in a simple island atmosphere.
San Miguel de Cozumel
Cozumel's only town, San Miguel, has a laid back elegance combining the charming remnants of colonial Mexico with the conveniences of modern life. Its heart and soul is the center plaza, known officially as Parque Benito Juarez, but often referred to as the zocalo, or simply as Plaza Central . Shops, restaurants and hotels surround the plaza, and since the whole area is blocked off to traffic, it can become quite crowded. Still, the area is a pleasant place for a paseo (walk), particularly on Sunday evenings when the locals gather to enjoy the free open-air concerts and dances. The main stretch, Avenida Rafael Melgar, is lined with high-end jewelry boutiques, souvenir shops, department stores and restaurants.
Running parallel to Avenida Melgar is the malecón, an ocean-side boardwalk decorated with sculptures commemorating events in Cozumel's history. Follow it north to the tidy Museo de la Isla de Cozumel to learn more about the Maya. Downtown San Miguel is also the place to find family-owned hotels with lower prices and a more Mexican atmosphere. When the plaza or main streets get congested from cruise ship traffic, walk east from 25 Avenida A onwards into the more residential neighborhoods, where the small tiendas (stores) and markets charge local prices.
North and south of San Miguel are where the luxurious hotels and beaches start. The Costera Norte (North Coast), informally called Zona Hotelera Norte, begins just past the airport road. Much of its beachfront has been taken over by posh resorts with their grand lobbies and pools. The longest beach is Santa Pilar Beach, followed by San Juan Beach . Here the north road ends and you must take a boat to reach the pristine north coast lagoons, such as Laguna Ceiga or the uninhabited Passion Island .
The Southern Hotel Zone, located along Carretera Chankanaab, and also known as the Costera Sur, offers the best beaches beginning at Corona Beach and ending at Palancar Beach . The famous coral reef running parallel to this part of the coast is a protected zone called Parque Marino de Cozumel .
The first attraction along the way is the popular Chankanaab Park , a park with a landlocked lagoon connected to the sea. Just off the fine sandy beach is excellent snorkeling where you can spot tame fish, underwater statues, a sunken ship and a pirate cannon.
The two largest beaches, San Francisco Beach and Mia Beach , are popular spots with the cruise ship crowd that swarms both beaches by early afternoon. On Sundays, San Francisco Beach is the gathering spot for Mexican families who come to enjoy the beach and bring along their music, games and family picnics. You may want to visit Mr. Sancho's for its free admission, laid-back beach atmosphere and good Mexican cuisine. Crowds and noise aside, both beaches offer excellent swimming and snorkeling. Those in search of more tranquility can follow the highway west to where Costera Sur takes a northern turn becoming the Costera Este (Eastern) Highway. Here the beaches are wild, wind-swept and, for the most part, deserted. Along the way is Cozumel's original settlement founded in 1847. El Cedral is now a charming farming community known for its country fairs. Beside its modern church are the remains of the oldest Mayan structure on the island. Signs along the highway will point you in the right direction.
Parque Punta Sur to Punta Molas
Just as the highway turns north you will find Punta Sur Park , a national wildlife refuge. Inside the park is the ancient Mayan lighthouse, El Caracol, which was built as an early hurricane warning system. At the southernmost tip is Celarain Point Lighthouse , a historic lighthouse that has been transformed into a navigational museum.
Paradise Beach is the first beach just outside of the park's entrance. Close to Chen Rio Beach are two smaller Mayan ruins, El Mirador and El Trono. The best beaches for swimming are found at the crescent shaped Chiqueros Point cove and at San Martin Beach . If you are on this beach during the full moon in May or June, you may see giant sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Further north is Morena Point , which is popular with surfers and boogie boarders because of its pounding surf.
Punta Este has a blustery beach, perfect for beachcombing, and is the final stop before the paved highway turns west and becomes Avenida Benito Juarez, leading back into San Miguel. An unpaved road continues north, leading to some of the most unspoiled beaches: Ixpal Barco, Los Cocos, Hanan Reef, Ixlapak and Playa Bonita are all what you would expect from a Caribbean beach. Along the way is the Mayan ruin of Castillo Real . The roads end at Mola Point Lighthouse , the island's most northern point. A tour is recommended to explore this extremely rugged area.
Ixchel's Ceremonial Center
Located in the lush sub-tropical forest, the serene San Gervasio ruins were once a ceremonial center where Ixchel, the Maya goddess of fertility and childbirth, was worshipped. Believed to have been occupied from 300 to 1500 CE, San Gervaiso has many excellent examples of Classic and Post-Classic Mayan architecture. Guides are available at the site, but you can also buy an excellent guidebook at the museum in town.
Cozumel is 11.5 miles (18 km) from the mainland and Carmen Beach , one of the largest cities along the Riviera Maya coastline, is a 45-minute ferry ride away. From there it's a one hour bus ride south to the Mayan ruins of Tulum , or north to the mega-resorts of Cancun. Other nearby attractions include underground caves, snorkeling at Xel-Ha , and the unashamedly commercial Mayan theme park, Xcaret .
Many of the restaurants on Cozumel serve Mexican fare that focuses on seafood. However, visitors can also enjoy French, Italian, Cajun and Yucatecán cuisine. Fast food chains, including KFC, Subway, Burger King and Baskin Robbins, are in abundance in downtown San Miguel. Street vendors sell everything from corn on the cob to fresh orange juice. If you are really lucky you may come across one selling homemade hot tamales.
Cozumel is not a late-night town, since most of its visitors are up bright and early to enjoy the sights or dive the reef. What little nightlife there is on the island is confined to San Miguel. Restaurants along the east coast tend to close at sunset since many do not have electricity. But downtown party goers keep things hopping from the late afternoon until midnight. A few clubs and bars stay open until 2am, along with an elite handful that cater to die-hards and stay open all the way to 5am.
As the only city on Cozumel Island, San Miguel sees a lot of tourist traffic. During the day the city's numerous restaurants and bars are packed with tourists, many from the cruise ships docked at the international pier or day-trippers from the mainland. Reservations are recommended at those places that accept them. It is a good idea to arrive early at those restaurants that do not accept reservations. Lunchtime, particularly if a cruise ship has arrived, can be the most hectic meal of the day. Most of the fine dining restaurants do not open until the evening and do not cater to the cruise ship crowd.
Avenida Rafael Melgar is the most heavily traveled street in San Miguel, so naturally the most popular restaurants are clustered here, many with waterfront views. Those in search of fresh tacos head to El Foco , while seafood enthusiasts can be found at Acuario , dining amongst aquariums filled with tropical fish. Jeanie's Restaurant offers hearty breakfasts until 3:30p while the French Quarter brings a taste of New Orleans Cajun cuisine to San Miguel. Pizza lovers will be happy at Nino's Pizza or at Guido's , where the pasta is also fresh and delicious. Java drinkers and people-watchers frequently stop in at Coffee Bean , Zermatt Bakery , or Rock and Java Cafe to enjoy a cup of coffee, delicious pastries or a quick bite.
Caribbean-style meals in a romantic atmosphere can be found at La Veranda , while Prima offers fresh pastas and salads. The island's Italian ex-patriots hang out at La Cucina Italiana (that includes the chef). Be sure to check out Pancho's Backyard for its delightful Mexican menu geared to the gringo stomachs. Those who like to get off the beaten track will enjoy the innovative cuisine of La Cocay . This small restaurant is considered the best on Cozumel.
Casa Denis , La Choza and El Turix are all recommended for the adventuresome who would like to try Yucatecán dishes like pollo pibil (chicken in banana leaves) or poc chuc (pork steak marinated in a sour orange sauce) and tikinchic (fish in a sour orange sauce). These regional delicacies are world-renowned and shouldn't be passed by.
As for bars, Carlos 'n Charlies is generally the most popular as it is in the center of the downtown party circuit. Margaritas and frozen daiquiris are the most recommended beverages at Fat Tuesday , another open-air bar that has a DJ who keeps the joint rocking. The Hard Rock Cafe is part of the Cozumel party tradition, where having a good time is priority number one and T-shirt buying has become a routine custom. Los Dorados De Villa is known for its impressive tequila selection and generally stays crowded until closing. Neptuno Dance Club is another great place to go dancing. For those who would like listen to hot jazz and smoke Cuban cigars, The Havana Club is just the place.
North Hotel Zone
Just north of San Miguel, there are several fine restaurants worth the 15-minute drive. The Palma Azul beachfront restaurant offers a laid-back atmosphere and casual dining. It's located in the Playa Azul Hotel . Half a block away is the kitschy La Cabana del Pescador , a lobster lover's haven.
South Hotel Zone
About 10 minutes south brings you to Las Gaviotas , serving seafood and Mexican cuisine at the Sol Cabanas del Caribe . The Ceiba Hotel is home to La Chopa Loca , where Mexican cuisine and piña coladas are the house specialties. For a more laid back option, there's the Hogtown Cafe .
When leaving San Miguel, follow the Costera Sur Highway until it turns north into the Eastern highways. Right at the crossroads is the funky Paradise Cafe , where margaritas and reggae are a way of life. A few miles further at San Martin Beach is Coconut's Bar and Grill . Located on the island's only hill, it has a spectacular view and offers light fare that is popular with divers and casual diners. The highway ends at Mezcalitos Bar & Restaurant , the quintessential beach restaurant on the dramatically beautiful beach of Punta Este . From here it is a short haul back to San Miguel.