An underwater world of majestic coral walls and columns festooned with huge sponges and sea fans, home to endless species of colorful fish, large and small, Cozumel’s reefs are one of nature’s wonders, attracting divers from all over the world. Yet there’s more to Mexico’s largest inhabited island than coral reefs and it has a rich history.
Taking the plunge
First brought to international attention by Mexican diver René Cardona and French conservationist and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, the chain of reefs girdling the leeward side of the island offers adventures for divers of all levels. Visibility is as high as 200 feet, 300 species have fish have been identified in the area and the coral gardens teem with marine life of all shapes and sizes. The current enables divers to practice drift diving and literally fly past coral walls and drop-offs, keeping pace with sea turtles and schools of eagle rays.
Divers spend a lifetime exploring reefs like Paraíso, Chankanaab, La Herradura, San Francisco, Yucab, Santa Rosa, Colombia, Maracaibo and the largest of them all, Palancar, famous for its coral buttresses, caves and walls.
Some shallower reefs such as Chankanaab and Paraíso are also suitable for snorkeling and schools of blue tangs, sergeant majors and jacks and pairs of angelfish sail past swimmers. For visitors who would prefer to see the underwater world without getting wet, there are glass-bottomed boats and an unforgettable immersion on the Atlantis submarine, which dives to a depth of 100 feet.
Mayan Goddesses, Conquistadors and Pirates
In ancient times, Cozumel or Cuzamil, “land of the swallows,” as it was known was held sacred by the Maya as the site of a shrine to Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Ancient temples still dot the flat, forested landscape and there are lighthouses and lookout posts on the coast, testimony to the days of Mayan seafarers.
San Gervasio is the largest of Cozumel’s 25 archaeological sites and during the pre-Hispanic period it was a bustling city and a center of maritime trade. It was also visited by pilgrims who would travel hundreds of miles overland and then make the perilous sea crossing from Xaman-Há (Playa del Carmen) and Pole (Xcaret) to worship at the shrine of Ixchel.
In 1519, a Spanish expeditionary force led by Hernán Cortés landed on the island. From Cozumel, Cortes and his band of soldiers sailed westward around the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually landing on the coast of Veracruz. They made their way across the mountains to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. By 1521, this ruthless band had defeated the Aztec army and overthrown a mighty empire, seizing its land and treasures.
During the Colonial period of Mexican history, Cozumel was uninhabited and became a haven for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Miguel Molas. In the 1850s, refugees fleeing the Caste War settled the island.
Call in at the Museum in the island capital San Miguel for a glimpse of Cozumel’s history, traditions and natural heritage. There are exhibits on the ancient Maya, the coming of the Spaniards, pirates and the 19th-century colonization of the island. Other displays showcase local festivals such as the Carnival and the El Cedral Fair held at the beginning of May. Learn about the formation of the coral reefs and the island’s flora and fauna. The tropical forest and wetlands are rich in wildlife, including endemic creatures such as the pygmy raccoon.
Exploring the island
If you are not going straight out on a dive, snorkeling or fishing trip, why not rent a car, moped or a taxi for a tour of the island? The island’s sheltered swimming beaches are all on the west coast but the rugged windswept east coast has some beautiful, deserted stretches of sand for walking (be aware that strong currents and undertow make swimming dangerous on the windward coast).
Other island attractions include Chankanaab, a nature park with a crystal-clear lagoon and reef for snorkeling, a cenote or sinkhole connected to the Caribbean by an underground river, a botanical garden and dolphin swims. Punta Sur nature reserve on the southern tip of the island and Isla de la Pasión in the north are also worth a visit and are rich in birdlife. Arrange a boat trip to El Cielo, a shallow reef and calm stretch of crystal-clear water where the seabed is covered with starfish. Take photos but don’t disturb these living treasures.
If you would like to visit Cozumel, the Concierge will help you plan an unforgettable excursion, including the ferry crossing from Playa del Carmen, snorkeling or diving, and other island sightseeing adventures.