Cozumel - Island Of Many Faces
For many visitors to Cozumel, the island's downtown is merely a cruise ship stop or a blur out the taxi window on the way to one of the resorts that cluster on the north and south end. However, if you venture into San Miguel, you'll find a buzzing little metropolis that is a tempting target in its own right. A visit to San Miguel with its safe streets, great food and family-oriented atmosphere offers a remarkable opportunity to experience a vibrant Mexican/Mayan community first-hand. The center city is a lively place to live, work and visit.
Cruise ship passengers and day-trippers from the mainland pack Avenida Raphael Melgar, the waterfront road and promenade. However, if you wander a few blocks inland, you'll discover a totally different atmosphere. Here, riots of pink or purple bougainvillea tumble down pastel walls. Tailor shops, key makers, produce markets and tiny family-run restaurants intermingle closely with schools, doctors' offices and private residences. Church bells toll and children laugh and play soccer in the streets until long after dark.
Although plenty of taxis whiz through the town at all hours, the car is not king here. In fact, most Cozumelenos prefer to walk or get around on bikes and motor scooters (which you can rent). Except during siesta hours (roughly 1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.), the streets are full of people from morning until late at night. On Sunday nights, townspeople crowd the large, downtown plaza with its whitewashed flamboyant trees, gazebo, tall clock tower and cooling view of the sea. They come to giggle and flirt, to listen to salsa music and to dance. Parents show off their children, carefully groomed and dressed-up. Older folks sit on one of the many cool, stone benches chatting softly in Mayan and keeping a sharp eye on the scene.
San Miguel is a food lover's paradise too. Stores sell fresh yogurt laced with walnuts, crystallized limes and sour orange juice squeezed while you wait. On Avenida 30, five blocks from the waterfront, the smell of chicken, cooked over mesquite-fired grills, fills the air. On Avenida 25, at El Mercado, San Miguel's traditional inner-city market, you'll find stall after stall of fresh fruits and vegetables, colorfully arranged and inexpensive enough to make a vegetarian's heart sing for joy. In another section of the market, butchers busily slice family-sized portions of meat from slabs of pork and beef hanging from hooks, while nearby vendors hawk everything from aprons to zippers.
Much of Cozuel's action and fascination happens in or under water. Mexico's largest island is also one of the top five dive destinations in the world, due to its spectacular coral reefs and abundance of sea life. There's plenty of close-to-shore snorkeling, too.
On the west side of the island, at Chankanaab Nature Park ($10 admission) is a great place for snorkelers and divers to get up close to the sea life among the reefs, in a more protected environment than the open ocean. Within the park, you have a variety of water choices: the ocean, underwater caves, offshore reefs, and a protected bay. Here, you can also swim with the dolphins ($120), attend a dolphin show, or merely watch dolphin trainers feed these friendly sea mammals.
So far, we've been talking about the west side of the island. The less developed east side of the island also offers many opportunities to enjoy and discover the seashore and the ocean. Deserted except for a few ramshackle but pleasant restaurants and bars, the "other side of the island," faces the open Caribbean and prevailing easterly winds, which mean this area is wilder than the sheltered side. You'll find beautiful white-sand beaches and crashing surf here, as well as blowholes, tide pools and exposed coral shelves cut into arches by the sea action. Chen Rio Beach with its knee-deep, close-to-shore tide pools is a particularly good choice for children.
But the best thing about San Miguel is its people. You'll meet all kinds: stout Mayan housekeepers in embroidered finery, glossy-haired mothers proudly pushing baby prams, sailors strolling with their sweethearts. Listen for the bread man's clap as he peddles past, announcing to the neighborhood that his pan dulce is ready to eat. Next, the knife sharpeners who plays a haunting tune on his flute as he wheels slowly through the quiet streets.
Dignified, merry and kind, Cozumelenos judge you not by what you do, but by who you are. So next time you're in San Miguel, be sure to smile and say "hola" to the people you meet. You may be be surprised at how many will reward you with a wide, warm grin in return.
WHERE TO STAY
Cozumel has accommodations to fit just about anyone's pocketbook. At the lower end, $35 to $60 a night will get you a clean, pleasant double room in town, in bed and breakfast places or small, family-run hotels. These are air-conditioned but generally lack pools. In the middle range, $70 to $100, you can find in-town hotels, often with pools, and near the downtown Plaza del Sol, where the ferry from the mainland docks. At the higher end, you'll find plenty of beach resorts and hotels right on the beach or across the street from the beach. These prices range from $120 to $400 per night.
Here are a few recommendations, based on our personal experience. Prices are for high season for two people in a double room. Off-season rates (May to November) are often 20 percent or more lower.
- El Presidente:
- This has one of the best beaches on the island, with snorkeling in front and two restaurants (pricey at $75 for dinner for two). Great service, low-key atmosphere but not near town and shopping.
- El Cozumeleno and Allegro Diamond Resort:
- These are two of the best all-inclusive resorts. Allegro runs $240-$300 a night, El Cozumeleno $150-$240.
- Plaza Las Glorious:
- This is in an excellent location, on the water, with a small man-made beach and pool. It's a 10-minute walk from the center of town. Double rooms have a mini-fridge and coffee maker, $100 to $150.
- Sol Cabanas del Caribe:
- This is a smaller hotel offering a combo of on-the-beach moderate prices and good service, with several on-site restaurants. Rooms are spartan but comfortable and snorkeling is decent. $120 to $140.
- The Flamingo Hotel:
- We haven't stayed here but have heard good things about this small, close-to-the-waterfront hotel on the north side of San Miguel. $70.
- Costa Club Cozumel:
- Larger and more impersonal than other choices, this place gets our nod for it's huge, well-kept pool and a location that's only a 20-minute hike to town. It's on a busy road across from beach, with its own beach access. $80 a night, $165 for junior suites.
- Club del Sol:
- This small, rustic, low-key hotel is across the road from one of the best snorkeling sites on the island, Dzul Ha. Rooms are basic, pool small. $80.
- Alicia's Bed and Breakfast:
- This leads the pack for cheap accommodations. Although not centrally located, it's in a pleasant, safe Mexican neighborhood. Alicia serves large, luscious gourmet breakfasts and hospitality. $35.
- Hacienda San Miguel:
- We haven't seen the inside of this small hotel on north side of town, close to waterfront but it has received some raves on the Internet. $50.
- Del Centro:
- This small, two-story hotel is locally owned, which usually means great service. Located in the heart of San Miguel, four blocks to the waterfront, it's reported to be clean and pleasant. $50.
- B & B Caribo:
- The oldest bed and breakfast on the island, this inn has an excellent location in the middle of town. A big, American-style breakfast comes with the $60 per night rate for a double.
- Vacation Villa Rentals
- If you want to "go native" and experience Cozumel as the locals do, consider renting a villa. The writer owns one with a superb in-town location--a quiet neighborhood 2 blocks from the waterfront and 3 from Plaza del Sol. For photos and more info see: www.cozumel-vacation-rental-homes.com
Cozumel has a very nice airport; big enough to accommodate jets from all over the world and small enough that there's never a waiting line for take-offs and landings. Continental, American and Mexicana airlines fly directly into Cozumel from selected cities. Also, a number of charter companies fly into Cozumel and these can be considerably cheaper, but must be booked through a travel agent.
Another possibility is to fly into Cancun, which has more direct flights. From Cancun, you can take AeroMexico jet shuttle to Cozumel (20 minutes, from $80 to $100 per person each way). Or, take an air-conditioned van south to Playa del Carmen (45 minutes, $60 for 3 persons). From there, air-conditioned ferries leave every hour for Cozumel ($7, 35 minutes). A more economical way is to take a colectivo van from the airport to the bus station in Cancun ($9, 60 minutes), then take a first class air-conditioned bus to Playa del Carmen ($3, 50 minutes). Buses leave every 20 minutes during the day.
More info on vacationing or living in Cozumel can be found at www.cozumelmycozumel.com.