Cozumel: Coral Realm and Sacred Island of the Maya

Set sail from Playa del Carmen and a short boat ride across the turquoise and indigo waters of the Caribbean takes you to Cozumel, Mexico’s largest inhabited island. In ancient times it was the sacred island of the Maya but nowadays it is world-famous for the beauty of its spectacular reefs. Spend a day or two here and you’ll find incredible underwater beauty, beautiful beaches, rich history and traditions.

San Gervasio Cozumel

Ancient history

Cozumel or Cuzamil, “land of the swallows,” as the ancient Maya knew it, was the site of a shrine to Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Temples still dot the flat, jungle landscape and there are lighthouses and lookout posts on the coast, testimony to the days of Mayan seafarers when the island was an important maritime center on the Caribbean maritime route.

San Gervasio is the largest of Cozumel’s 25 archaeological sites. In addition to receiving Mayan merchants, 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 into the west. They eventually crossed the Gulf of Mexico and landed on the coast of Veracruz. Lured by tales of gold and a legendary lake city beyond the mountains, they continued through the highlands and reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now the site of Mexico City. 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 largely forgotten, and its deserted shores became a haven for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Miguel Molas. In the 1850s, refugees fleeing the Caste War on the Yucatecan mainland settled the island.

Located in the island capital San Miguel, the Cozumel Museum has interesting 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. Visitors also 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, the Cozumel coatimundi, Cozumel warbler and the Cozumel emerald hummingbird.


Reef paradise

Most visitors to Cozumel are drawn by its spectacular coral kingdom, a chain of reefs off the west coast that was made famous by Jacques Cousteau and Mexican diver Rene Cardona. Magnificent coral buttresses and walls festooned by huge red, yellow and orange sponges and gently waving sea fans are honeycombed with caves and canyons and inhabited by 300 species of fish and other colorful marine life of all shapes and sizes.

The water visibility around Cozumel is as high as 200 feet and the current enables divers to practice drift diving and literally fly past coral walls and drop-offs, keeping pace with sea turtles, huge groupers and schools of eagle rays.

Divers can 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 pillars, caves and walls.

Some shallower reefs such as Chankanaab and Paraíso are great snorkeling spots and swimmers have their own up-close encounters with queen angelfish, parrot fish, blue tangs, sergeant majors and jacks. 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.

Chankanaab Cozumel

Take a tour of the island

As a break from scuba, snorkeling or fishing sign up for an island tour or rent a car, moped or a taxi and explore at your own pace. The island’s sheltered, palm-lined swimming beaches are all on the west coast. The rugged windswept east coast has some beautiful, deserted stretches of sand for a stroll but not for a dip. Strong currents and undertow make swimming dangerous on the windward coast.

Chankanaab Park is one of the most popular spots on the island. The crystal-clear lagoon and reef are ideal for snorkeling. In the jungle there is a cenote or sinkhole that is connected to the Caribbean by an underground river. Other attractions include a botanical garden and dolphin swims.

Nature lovers and bird watchers should head to Punta Sur nature reserve on the southern tip of the island and Isla de la Pasión in the north for a glimpse of water birds such as herons, roseate spoonbills, ibis and even flamingos.

Arrange a boat trip to El Cielo, a shallow reef and calm stretch of crystal-clear water off the north coast where the seabed is covered with starfish. Take photos but don’t disturb these living treasures.

Planning your Cozumel trip
Your Concierge can help you arrange Cozumel diving, snorkeling and fishing trips or island excursions.