What can I say about Cozumel, Mexico? A heck of a lot! Cozumel is one of Mexico’s most enchanting islands that sits just off the Riviera Maya. It blends traditional culture with today’s trending vibes. The town of San Miguel de Cozumel is very colorful and filled with life. It presents a simple, but curious international mystique and flare. It attracts divers and Oceanographers from all around the world wanting to experience Cozumel’s renown aquatic environment. The people are very friendly, the food is exceptional and the tropical landscape is beautiful. There are an abundance of homegrown shops and boutiques that are filled with textiles – clothing, crafts and souvenirs.
The island’s 100,000 full time residence, with the concentration of that being in and around San Miguel, rely mostly on tourism as their source of revenue. The ferry services that shuttle between Playa de Carmen and Cozumel start their repetitive route at 6am and make their last pier to pier voyage at 10pm.
Our adventure starts around 10am on a lustrous Tuesday morning. The weekdays seem to be a little less crowed on the island, but the ferry terminal is always busy. We purchased our tickets, which can be bought at a discount depending on what time you want to depart. We proceeded down the ramp to the awaiting ferry. The trip takes 35 to 40 minutes depending on conditions. The channel that separates the two ports is usually pretty calm, but that can be dictated by any storms that might be in or around the area.
Once we boarded the boat, the decision was made to be on the main deck and outside in the shaded seats. The ferries are well maintained, have restroom facilities and serve for a price beverages and snacks. This wasn’t our first trip to Cozumel. There is always something going on during the brief voyage, and the views are always fabulous! We settled into our seats and listened to the on-board entertainment. This particular individual sings Spanish songs will adding a Jamaican flare to them. All this for a few pesos from several passengers in the way of tips. Most everyone seemed excited to be going to Cozumel for a day of fun. There are others who make the trip for either work or business. Then there was one particular passenger (pictured below – right) who used the time to get a few winks in before their day gets going.
We pulled into port and headed towards Av. Rafael Melgar. The Avenue was named after a well respected Military General who became Governor of Quintana Roo in 1935. We briefly admired the artwork that can be seen on both sides of the pier. The bronze statue of swallows that spearheads the pier’s entrance represents the Mayan name given to Isla Cozumel, which translated means “Island of Swallows”. Just to the left and down about a fifty feet is a water feature that has several aquatic figurines intertwined around an arch. The plaque reads that the arch and its sculptured theme brings attention to the discovery of the reef, its creator, and all the life it supports.
One of the major factors that makes Cozumel such a desired destination for divers and avid snorkelers is that the world’s second largest reef – in the western hemisphere, follows along its shore. The reef starts at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, goes up through Central American and around the Honduras islands. The Mesoamerica Reef is 620 miles of underwater beauty. Its biodiversity is essential to the many fish, estuaries, cays and mangrove forests that encompass its existence.
We crossed the street and pointed ourselves towards Benito Juarez Norte and to the Main Square and park. The parque central, as it is pronounced in Spanish, is surrounded by hundreds of restaurants and shops. The park is dedicated to Benito Juarez who served five terms as one of Mexico’s premier presidents. His executive reign started in the mid 1800’s and lasted until his death in 1872.
In 2005 Cozumel was hit by two major hurricanes coming from the warm Caribbean waters. Emily hit on July 10, 2005, and was followed by Wilma on October 19 that same year. Wilma’s fury brought New Orleans to its knees shortly after destroying many parts of the Yucatan Peninsula. The park’s renovation took approximately 10 years to fully complete. It stands as a symbol for those who died and suffered through the devastation.
We walked the streets that circle the square. They are lined with Royal Palms that act as a buffer from the sun for the shops and eateries that are strung together. There are numerous merchants who display their goods out in the open for all to see and browse through. We took time to visit some of the clothing boutiques and craft shops. It was starting to get rather warm, so we decided to find a place to cool off.
We started making our way south down Rafael Melgar to a place we have visited before. The Hotel Barracuda and its joint partner the No Name Bar, was our destination. They offer a place to do some snorkeling, grab a bite to eat, and refresh ourselves with a few cool beverages.
While on the way to our next destination, I spotted a curious site that always captures my immediate attention. If you remember reading any of my past travel articles, you would know that lighthouses are a nautical fetish of mine. The Punta Langosta Lighthouse in San Miguel didn’t provide me with very much information regarding its past. However, with a little research on-line I did find out that it was built in the early 1900s, and was just recently commission to again help guide sailing vessels into Cozumel’s port. The Punta Langosta – translated means Lobster tip, stands at a height of just under 5o feet. It is one of the shorter lighthouses I have visited as of yet.
The Hotel Barracuda’s red brick building started to come into sight as we traveled further south on Rafael Melgar. By this point we are hot, thirsty and hungry. We walked through the open lobby and out into the courtyard. There is a nice pool, plenty of lounging area, the No Name Bar and spectacular views of the water. What more do you really need!
There is one amenity that I do love about this particular location and that is it has a snorkeling portal. The “Portal”, as I call it, is an indented shelf like edge that is filled with crystal clear and perfect temperature Caribbean water. The portal has a platform with steps that lead down to the water. From there you can get your snorkeling gear fitted properly and your buoyancy adjusted to the environment before you advance out to the open waters.
When I say “crystal clear waters”, I am not exaggerating the fact that you can see your toenails perfectly being in over 5 feet of water (shown right). The colorful marine life that can be seen while snorkeling is amazing. We saw stripped, blue, yellow and rainbow colored fish swimming all around us. In between our snorkeling explorations, we enjoyed some delicious ceviche and nachos pollo. The No Name Bar will serve you food and beverage either indoors, under a table with an umbrella or a lounge chair while sunning yourself. No matter where you sit, the views are spectacular. We elected to sit at table just across from the portal.
Hotel Barracuda provides exceptional accommodations that caters to divers. They have their own pier (shown – left) where guest can be picked up and dropped off by the tour boat. Talk about pier side service! We took a few more self guided snorkel excursions around the portal and surrounding water before we packed up. It was getting to be later afternoon and we wanted to walk around and maybe get bite to eat before heading back to Playa del Carmen.
Cozumel’s street grid is pretty basic and easy to get to know. From the ferry pier leading directly east to Benito Juarez, which separates the even numbered streets running north (Norte) and south (Sur). Avenue (Av) Rafael Melgar begins the Avenues going east in increments of five. If this is confusing, you can pick up a street map almost anywhere around town.
Most all of the streets are packed with shops, restaurants and attractions that could never ever be visited in one, or even possibly two full days. There is no shortage in finding a jewelry store, clothing shop or boutique that will have something you might need or want to have. This also goes for the abundances of eateries and cantinas. There are also plenty of curbside vendors selling their goods as well, and usually at a better price.
One of the side streets we visited seemed like a giant parking lot for scooters and smaller sized motorcycles. The Island of swallows is 30 miles long and just shy of 10 miles wide at it greatest point. More than three quarters of its inhabitants live in the town of San Miguel and utilize various forms of transportation to get around. One of them is what we have been utilizing all day and that is feet to the street. We also noticed that lots of people use peddle power. Its cheap transportation and gets you pretty much anywhere you want to go. And obviously motorized two wheelers are very popular as well.
As we casually strolled down the street, we stumbled upon an odd looking site. It looked like a Volkswagen beetle. It was painted lime green and has half its top cut off to somewhat resemble a partial convertible. I think this was a first for us. Parked just around the corner and across the street was a completely different form of transportation. The horse and buggies were situated against a photo perfect backdrop. It could have been a picture right out of a Cosmopolitan magazine.
It was getting close to five o’clock and our stomachs were asking to be feed. We selected a grill that didn’t have a trade name attached to it. The one we selected actually had a slight connotation to it. The “Mary Y Juana Restaurant and Grill” not only had good food (pictured left) and beverages, but had a nice view of the water as well.
We hung out for awhile and did some people watching. On our way back to the ferry terminal, we laughed at some of the oddest things we happened upon. How many times have you ever needed to grab some quick cash and couldn’t find a “Cashola” machine? Mexico has that problem figured out for you.
How about not tearing out a tree, but instead building around it? It could bring a little character to your design. We can learn from others on how to save nature by adapting instead of destroying it.
As we waited for the ferry back to mainland, we thought about how our day trip was a total success. We enjoyed touring around town, swimming in fabulous water and experiencing some of what this wonderful island has to offer. The next time we visit this little piece of paradise, it will be in a jeep exploring its undeveloped shores and hidden coves.
If you ever get around to visiting this part of the world – they do have an international airport, don’t forget to bring your snorkel or diving gear with you. Cozumel’s transparent Caribbean fed waters provide some of the world’s greatest underwater natural environments known to man. Believe me when I say it is well worth stopping and spending time on the Island of Swallows.
Author: Anthony Scopel
Photography: Anthony Scopel
Associate Editor: Maureen Scopel
Technical Mastering & Support: Matt Kemper