Embarrassing as it is to admit, it’s been several years since my last visit to Cozumel Island, even though I live less than 30 miles away in Akumal Mexico, on the mainland Riviera Maya. So last month when I was invited to dive Cozumel with fellow Loco Gringo Scott Brown and his girlfriend Marieke White, and her three friends from Scotland, I jumped at the chance. I had dived Cozumel years ago and I couldn’t wait to get back to its air clear water, rainbow colored reefs and prolific marine life. Cozumel is probably the most famous of all Mexican Scuba diving destinations, and it’s just 20 miles off the Riviera Maya coast in Quintana Roo, Mexico.
It was a gorgeous morning as we departed Playa del Carmen on the 9am Ultramar ferry headed for San Miguel, Cozumel’s biggest tourist town. The ferry has changed quite a bit over the years. In the old days we referred to it as the “chicken boat” because the trip took over 45 minutes, sitting outside on the upper deck, rolling along, inhaling diesel exhaust fumes while seated among locals toting everything from fruit and veggies, to toilet paper and live chickens. Today the trip takes 20 minutes on an affordable, high-speed water-jet miniature cruise ship; where beer and snacks are sold to passengers seated in an air-conditioned cabin while being serenaded by LIVE music! I had to shake my head in disbelief. In this case, I don’t miss the “old days”!
Once we arrived on Cozumel, the dive boat from Blue Angel Dive Shop met us at the ferry dock where we boarded for the short cruise to their dive shop. Along the way we passed two massive cruise ships in port. Cozumel is a major destination for these gargantuan floating hotels and as we passed their towering super-structures I understood how a sardine must feel swimming past a whale.
Cozumel’s reefs are part of the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park which was established in 1996. It encompasses approximately 85% of Cozumel’s dive sites providing a safe refuge for countless fish species and assorted marine life. Our first dive was on the Santa Rosa Wall, one of the island’s most popular dive sites. Santa Rosa’s reef has tall coral columns with vertical cuts and a couple of short coral caves to swim through. There was a mild current, which is the case on most of Cozumel’s reefs, and we sailed along with it accompanied by the divemaster who kept us all together. The boat followed behind keeping an eye on our bubbles. This is typical Cozumel diving. No need to fight the current. Just go with the flow and enjoy. Marieke snapped off a series of excellent underwater photos as we all glided over the underwater scenery. While we were under some weather blew in and I could see the rain dancing on the surface above. When I surfaced I inflated my vest and floated, watching the nearby boats disappear and reappear out of the downpour. It was rather magical and despite the rain, quite beautiful.
The second dive of the day was on Paradise Reef. With a maximum depth of 45 feet this is an easy dive, perfect for beginners, and a good follow-up to our deeper first dive on the wall. Paradise Reef has long coral fingers that reach out from shore to create a series of troughs and rises. We flew over these like birds, pushed by the current. There were plenty of interesting sea-critters and the water was crystal clear.
The Blue Angel dive crew was first-rate. I found them to be professional, considerate and helpful. Because of the popularity of Scuba diving and aqua tours in Cozumel there was quite a bit of boat traffic. The staff made sure we were safe from any boats passing nearby. After the dives, we enjoyed lunch at the Blue Angel Dive Shop where we chowed down on a tasty lunch while gazing out on the blue sea. For about $8 we had a delicious meal of fresh fish, chicken, salad and a baked potato. Including lunch, my two dives and the dive gear rental, the total came to about $75 US, plus a well deserved tip for their staff.
While waiting for the ferry back to the mainland I had the opportunity to wander the streets of San Miguel, Cozumel’s tourist town. San Miguel is clean, quaint and tropical. All the government buildings are painted in pastel Caribbean colors. Several jewelry shops line San Miguel’s main street hoping to sell their “treasures” to turists who venture in. More often than not their clients come from the cruise ships. On Cozumel there is a wide variety of stores offering everything from diamonds to Tee shirts. Cruising Cozumel’s waterfront is a great way to kill a couple hours and work up an appetite.
Chankanaab Park is one of the most popular spots on the island, especially if you have the family in tow and like to enjoy a postcard perfect view. Chankanaab is on the leeward side of Cozumel and so has calmer water. The park offers snorkeling, diving, a restaurant, bar, lockers, showers and people from all over the world.
Cozumel has plenty of taxis for getting around and touring the island, and you can rent dune buggies or VW bugs too. A popular excursion is to go to the east side of the island which is less developed and more a naturalist’s realm. This is the windward side of Cozumel with more sandy beaches and bigger waves. Be careful if you go in the water as undertow can be an issue for swimmers, especially on windy days.
To get to Cozumel, you can catch a ferry at the dock in Playa del Carmen. Buy a one-way ticket and when you’re ready to return to the mainland it easy to buy a ticket in Cozumel for the ferry that best matches your schedule. There are two ferry companies and their trip times are posted at the dock. Cozumel is an all day affair so go early and plan to spend the entire day exploring and experiencing all this little island has to offer.