Cozumel See And Do
Hurricane Wilma hovered over Cozumel in October 2005, blowing sand out to sea and blasting the fragile limestone coastline and coral reefs. The wide white beaches fronting hotels on the northwest coast, including Playa Azul and Playa Santa Pilar, are gradually reappearing, however. WaveRunners, kayaks, and busy bartenders are back at the largest beach clubs—like Paradise (Carretera Costera Sur, Km 14.5, 52-987-871-9010, www.paradisecozumel.com) and Mr. Sancho's (Carretera Costera Sur, Km 15, 52-987-876-1629, www.mrsanchos.com)—and most hotels in the south.
The beaches on Cozumel's wild, easterly coast, such as Playa Bonita and Punta Morena, fared better during Wilma. Swimming off the east coast can be risky because of swift currents and strong surf, but there's no danger in lingering at beachside cafés like Coconuts (near Punta Morena) or Mezcalito's (intersection of East Coast Road with Av. Benito Juarez) for cold cervezas and fried fish—as long as you're with a designated driver.
Avenida Rafael Melgar at Calle 6 Norte
San Miguel , Cozumel
Tel: 52 987 872 0914
High-ceilinged rooms in one of the island's first waterfront hotels hold displays on coral reefs, Cozumel's topography, and the island's history as a Maya pilgrimage site, a pirate's den, a military base, and a tourist destination. The second-floor café has shaded tables overlooking the street and waterfront; the menu appeals to both local and gringo palates, though everyone's best off ordering traditional dishes like huevos motuleñoseggs topped with ham, peas, cheese, and salsa.
With easy access to the second-longest barrier reef on the planet (the Maya Reef, which extends south along the Riviera Maya all the way to Honduras) and many of the most popular dive sites in the western hemisphere, Cozumel means serious submersion—of both the snorkel and scuba varieties. Wilma did some damage to the portions of the reef near Cozumel, but most of the best dive sites here were deep enough to escape harm. At some of these sites, such as the famous Santa Rosa Wall, divers can see the same Hawksbill turtles and eagle rays that they always did. Even the shallower spots like Yucab and Palancar have made an almost complete recovery; beginners hovering just 20 feet below sea level will find themselves surrounded by gardens of sponges and swarms of tropical fish.
Several levels of scuba certification are offered by dozens of dive shops, and most hotels offer some form of resort course that allows first-timers to hover around coral formations 15 feet underwater. Top dive shops include Aqua Safari (Cozumel Palace Resort and 429 Av. Rafael Melgar; 52-987-872-0101; www.aquasafari.com), Blue Angel (Caribe Blu Hotel, Carretera Costera Sur, Km 2.2; 52-987-872-1631; www.blueangel-scuba.com), and Scuba Du (Presidente InterContinental Resort, Carretera a Chankanaab, Km 6.5; 52-987-872-9505).
Try not to bonk an egret or heron on the head when your ball goes wild at Cozumel Country Club, a Nicklaus Design Group course. The links flow around native trees, dense jungle, and lagoons that are home to so many birds and animals that Audubon International certified the course as a Cooperative Sanctuary. Some hotels on the north shore (including Playa Azul) offer special golf packages. (Carretera Costera Norte, Km 6.5; 52-987-872-9570; www.cozumelcountryclub.com.mx)
Honeymooners take note: Cozumel was once a sanctuary for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, who ruled over fertility and the moon. Women traditionally crossed the sea from mainland Tulum to Cozumel in dugout canoes with offerings for Ixchel when they wanted to get pregnant. Some say the act of homage still works. Small temples are scattered around the island, with the largest concentration at San Gervasio, midway between central Cozumel and its east coast. The modest site includes several small structures, including one marked with manitassmall handprints. (Carretera Transversal, Km 7.5; 52-987-872-0914; www.cozumelparks.com.mx/eng/parks-sanervasio.asp)
Nearly half of Cozumel's low jungle and wild coast remains undeveloped, and crocodiles, egrets, and pelicans make themselves at home in lagoons and mangrove swamps. Much of the sea is protected as well in the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, allowing tropical fish to swarm about coral heads in abundance. Adventurers find plenty of natural attractions and activities on land and in the sea, and can rest assured that locals are intent on protecting their piece of Paradise. Here are two of our favorite parks.
Chankanaab National Marine Park
Established in 1980 as one of the first natural sanctuaries in Mexico, Chankanaab National Marine Park has recovered nicely after taking a direct hit during the 2005 hurricane season. The native trees and shrubs in the extraordinary botanical gardens are coming back to life, and snorkeling and dive shops and restaurants are in business again. You'll find playgrounds and plenty of hammocks for leisurely siestas facing the tranquil sea and one of the best snorkeling spots on the island.
Faro Celarain Eco Park
Faro Celarain Eco Park (formerly Punta Sur Park Ecological Reserve) covers more than 2,700 acres of mangrove swamps and long, pristine beaches on the island's southern tip. Visitors check in at the palapa at the park entrance and choose from activities including catamaran rides on the lagoon, where you can spot flamingos, egrets, and perhaps the odd crocodile or two. Private cars aren't allowed on the park's sandy roads; instead, guests ride on bench seats in open trucks to the lighthouse (climb to the top for tip-to-tip island views) and a museum dedicated to navigation. The beaches here are usually nearly deserted, and concessionaires provide lounge chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, and cold drinks and snacks. You can easily spend a full day exploring the park as if you're lost in a Robinson Crusoe fantasy.