Always A Top Dive Destination
One of the most visited dive destinations in the world has to be the island of Cozumel. Part of the local allure is that it is has short flights from major cities. This means that practically before the ice melts off your shoes from Chicago or New York, you could be standing barefoot on a beach letting the sun drenched sand warm your toes. For many visitors, this is all they need, for others the allure of a favorable rate of exchange and already low local prices has made Cozumel an ideal tourist/diver destination, but for divers like us, we become excited when hearing things like: the Palancar Reef is part of second largest barrier reef in the world and runs from the tip of the Yucatan and goes south some 700 miles to the Honduras, and the local waters are home to a thriving community of some 300 species of fish and numerous communities of invertebrates, crustaceans, corals and the associated marine park is now over twenty years old.
Tourists have been coming to the island of Cozumel for more than the past thousand years. It was the aspiration of every Mayan female to visit the temple of Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility, medicine, and weaving and located in San Gervasio. Over ten thousand Mayans lived on the island of Cozumel until 1520 when a few members of the crew of Pánfilo de Narváez gave the Mayan locals a glimpse of Spanish metal hats and swords, traded a considerable amount of glass beads, and unknowingly gave the locals a plethora of smallpox. By 1570 less than 360 locals survived the epidemic. By 1650, most of those locals still remaining on the island were relocated to the mainland due to constant attacks by pirates. By 1848 refugees from the Yucatan peninsula began repopulating the island, and after Cousteau stopped by in 1959, scuba divers began profusely washing up on shore and/or showing up in greater numbers at the airport, each and every one in search of a shaker of salt, a lime-flavored beverage, and scuba tank filled with a fresh supply of air.
For scuba divers, Cozumel comes in a wide variety of travel packages and hotels. Some hotels have their own dive operations on site, while others have docks and work in tandem with third party dive charter operators that moor long enough to take on and later drop off divers. One creative operation even has the hotel on one side of the main street, and an on property underground tunnel leads to a private dive club located beach side; on the other side of the street. There are a handful of well-known large dive charter operations that operate daily as well as countless numbers of small boats and independent dive operators that seem to magically appear during peak tourist seasons. Most operators rotate the dive sites by the day, but others may have multiple daily scheduled dive sites, or may be booked by groups to go to selected dive sites. As for the hotels themselves, they may be all inclusive resorts, small to mid-sized, near town, or locations mostly towards the southern end of the island near the main section of the adjacent marine park. If you are in one of the large all-inclusive hotels, you can choose from Italian, Japanese, American, or even Mexican cuisine nightly. The town of San Miguel is lined with shops, restaurants and cafes, There literally is a hotel, dive operation, restaurant or shop tailored for everyone coming to visit the island of Cozumel. And if all this isn’t enough, ferries from the Mexico mainland areas of Cancun and Riviera Maya can bring divers or sightseers for the day.
As far as the dive sites go, most are easy drift dive sites. On some, the only time you will kick with fins is to stay in place while taking an image of a seahorse, frogfish, or huddled spiny lobsters or while descending down a tunnel or out though a small cave like opening. Marine park rules don’t allow divers to wear gloves as they don’t want the coral killed by divers using coral outcrops as handy tripod stands. Your divemaster will go over some marine park rules when you purchase your marine park band that has to be visibly worn on your wrist while diving. You can stay between 12m (36ft) to 20m (60ft) on most dives, but you can also choose to move down the sloping walls depending on your level of training. Farther out from shore you could go down some 30m (90ft) and look down at a vast amount of nothing beneath you except for waters that are deep blue and continue to descend down to 1,000m (3,000ft), but fortunately, near the reefs is where most of the scuba dive action happens and fish hang out.
Some of the popular dive sites include: Santa Rosa, a wall dive, with lots of corals and barrel sponges, and stingrays. Al Cedrals is a good spot to fine nurse sharks nestled amongst the corals. The Caves at Palancar Reef where you can swim in and out of tunnels and then over to sand banks where stingrays hide in the sand and helmet cowries lodge in the crevasses. San Francisco is a shallow wall with some tunnels, a pinnacle and tons of coral for small fish to hang around and lots of lobsters. La Francesa is two dive sites in one. During the day expect to see stingrays, a giant grouper and even a giant hermit crab in a cave. On a night dive expect to see upwards of eight octopus, and over a dozen lobsters walking out in the open. Locals call the sweet succulent tasting slipper lobster “la cucaracha” for just like cockroaches, they are found everywhere. Coral polyps are also out at night and give the coral a soft surreal appearance. For deep dives we should mention The Bricks at Palancar. At 33m (99ft) black coral and a pinnacle are found at the edge of a great drop off. Maracaibo has swift currents, but schools of fish on the south end near the lighthouse, and Barracuda has lots of passing fish on the far northern end of the island.
For shore dives you might like The Plane Wreck in front of what is now the El Cid Hotel. Not much is left of the original aircraft frame, but there is usually an octopus or a moray eel hiding in the wreck and squid or a few schools of fish passing by. Another interesting place to do a shore dive is over at Chankanaab National Marine Park. You pay a fee to get in like any other water park, but the shore diving is free once inside the park. After a dive you can eat at a snack shop, do some shopping, see some Mayan artifacts, walk around the lagoon, see some botanical gardens, swim with some dolphins, or snorkel back out to the reef and count the turtles passing by.
For non-diver day activities, you might like shopping down town at the San Miguel square, visiting the Island Museum, or taking the Mayan Choco edible educational/tasting tour at the Kaokao Chocolate Factory: Yes, we like chocolate. And yes, there are even more tourists activities near where the cruise ships dock including Mall of America name brand restaurants, a Discover Mexico Cozumel Park, and Dolphinaris, but keep in mind that these last few activities are less crowded when the cruise ships are not in port. For outside the city activities you might enjoy the scenic beauty at Punta Sur Eco Beach and nearby lighthouse or step back in time and visit the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. You can also visit one of Cozumel’s own cenotes, but these smaller cenotes are not available for recreational diving like the larger and longer one’s over on the Riviera Maya side of the mainland.
So are you excited to go? Cozumel is next to the second greatest barrier reef, it has lots of interesting dive sites and shore activities, it has non-stop flights and an easy direct flights from many North American cities. The rate of exchange and prices are good and the local seafood is fantastic. You may not want to come here every year like some of the tourists covered in oil do, but just like Cozumel was like Mecca for Mayans, these warm tropical fish filled waters are one of the top visited destinations for both new and seasoned divers too, and some times all it takes is a little fun in the sun to change one’s attitude, no matter the latitude.