Cozumel, a small island just 11 miles off of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, is a cozy but complete tropical destination. I recently spent eight weeks in there earning a scuba Divemaster certification, so I've got a local's viewpoint.
To help you get as much from your experience as possible, here's a quick guide that covers some of the best things to do, places to eat and drink, new foods and drinks to try, and some unique experiences you should have.
How long should I stay on Cozumel?
This depends on whether you're scuba diving or not and how much you enjoy it. If you're not diving at all, I'd suggest staying 3 days maximum. If you're diving or taking dive classes, set the baseline for 1 week and adjust to your meet your preferences.
Do I have to know Spanish on Cozumel?
If you stay in the downtown area or tourist areas, no, but you really should know some. Basic Spanish knowledge is really useful here. You can get better deals, better service, and will be much better off if you explore inland Cozumel.
Do they accept US dollars on Cozumel?
Lots of businesses accept US dollars with their own exchange rates (usually comparable to the official one). However, some price their products in dollars and pesos. Sometimes they're very different: a much lower one in pesos and a higher in dollars. Be aware.
You may be given pesos as change for dollars.
Are credit cards accepted on Cozumel?
Only tourist-heavy businesses accept credit cards. Non-food purchases may have a card processing fee (sometimes as large as 16-20%!) attached. Excluding restaurants and very large purchases, it's just best to pay in cash whenever you can.
There are currency exchanges (for USD and EUR) throughout the island, but I find it easier to withdraw pesos from ATMs in reputable banks. You can use the ATMs in public locations, but there's always a chance that they're bugged.
Is Cozumel safe?
Yes. It's much safer than the close-by cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, even at night. Just keep the common advice about traveling alone at night in mind, especially if you're a young woman.
Inspect Your Change
If a peso note you receive as change is torn or not 100% intact, ask for new change. Unlike US currency, legal tender becomes invalid if part of the bill is missing or damaged.
Late November-March is the high season on Cozumel. If you visit outside that time range, some bars, restaurants, and public areas will feel deserted. If you want the most personal diving, visit during the low season.
Keep an umbrella in your bag since one minute the sun will be blaring, and the next, the road could be flash-flooding.
Tipping around 10% in restaurants is expected.
Things To Do
Don't Just Hang Around the Cruise Ship Ports
The most important piece of advice here.
Most people visiting Cozumel come here on a cruise ship stop. The drop-off areas are full of overpriced food, luxury stores, and people trying to sell you anything that they can.
These places aren't the real Cozumel. Do yourself a favor and take a taxi to the town center (if you're not close enough to walk). From there you can walk a few blocks inward and have the true experience.
Sure, you can eat at Hard Rock, Margaritaville, Bubba Gump, or Señor Frogs's, but don't you want a better story than that?
Diving is the reason that Cozumel is famous. If you visit Cozumel with a scuba certification and don't dive, shame on you.
The island boasts some of the greatest scuba diving in the world. I definitely agree, but don't take it from me: it was one of Jacques Costeau's top 10 favorite dive sites. Most of the tourists I met from around the world agree that this place spoils them.
If you don't already dive, there are plenty of reputable schools around the island where you can either try scuba diving for a day or get your certification so you can dive anytime you want to. I'm biased toward Cozumel Dive School since I did my Divemaster internship with them.
Cozumel is known for drift dives, dives where the current is strong enough to navigate you along the reefs. This is awesome because it means less work for you and better air consumption (which means longer dives) as a result. The only downside is that it can be difficult to stop and take a closer look at things. Current strength changes each day and varies by dive site.
The Palancar Reef and Paso del Cedral are my favorite dive sites here, but there are over 20 to explore.
If you don't dive, and don't feel like trying it, at least treat yourself to some snorkeling. There are tons of snorkeling tour companies on the island, so read reviews before settling on one.
If you just want to snorkel one location without paying a high price, the best individual site to snorkel is the shore off of the Tikila Bar. There's a fee, but it's small.
Explore San Miguel de Cozumel
San Miguel de Cozumel is the main "city" on the island. Not all of the cruise ship ports drop you off in town, so get a taxi if you're not already there.
It should cost 35-40 pesos to hire a taxi to the town center. If they start higher, you can probably work the taxi drivers down if your Spanish skills are decent. (Always negotiate a price before the taxi starts moving.)
The beachside drag is fun, but if you want a glimpse at what true Mexican life is on Cozumel, explore the area a few blocks back from the beach. Everything becomes a lot cheaper, and it gets different very quickly.
Rent a Vehicle, and Visit the East Side
The western side of Cozumel is awesome for relaxing, diving, and snorkeling, but it's not great if you want a traditional beach.
You can find miles of beaches and a handful of beach bars on the eastern side of the island. To get there, rent a Jeep, a scooter, or any vehicle you can find. (Be careful not to get ripped off. Do some research on the best companies to rent from, and take pictures or a video of the vehicle you're renting before you start driving it.)
If you don't want to pay a lot for food and drinks, pack your own since every single bar or beach club charges American prices.
Note that cell service is practically non-existent on the eastern side of the island.
Help Baby Sea Turtles
If you come to Cozumel between (roughly) April and October, you have a unique opportunity to assist in sea turtle conservation efforts.
Sea turtles make nests on the beach where they were born and bury their eggs in large heaps of sand. When the turtles hatch, they unearth themselves and crawl for the ocean, hopefully before getting snagged by predators.
In an effort to increase the sea turtle population, volunteers help to unearth the stragglers and get them to the ocean without the danger of predators. I got a chance to do this in September. (Depending on the month, you may do different volunteer work.)
There are some sad parts too. You find some eggs that have gone rotten and that some turtles didn't make it, but it's worth it for the ones that you find.
Sure, it's messing with nature, but it's a great time, and it's amazing to watch baby sea turtles satisfy their calling. When else do you get to play with baby sea turtles?
Where to Eat and Drink - Mexican Prices
Authentic Mexican food at a pretty decent price given its short distance from the town center. Only one side of the restaurant serves alcohol.
This tiny quesadilla place in-between the main two supermarkets serves really great fast food for an amazing value. They have about ten different types of nice-sized quesadillas at 30 pesos a pop.
If you find yourself more inland, give this place a try. It's almost unfair how little they charge you for large tortas.
You're not visiting Mexico to go to an Italian restaurant, but if you're up for some amazing homemade pasta and bread, you have to come here. Prices are extremely reasonable for the meal you're served.
Where to Eat and Drink - USA Prices
Imagine a much better, more authentic Chipotle burrito. Not the cheapest prices, but they make gigantic burritos. My favorites are the chorizo-potato breakfast burrito and the chicken-bacon burrito.
Cerveceria Punta Sur
Amazing pizza, beer, empanadas, and cocktails. This place is a winner. Their house specialty is Lionfish Pizza.
No Name Bar (and Beach Club)
I shared some appetizers here with a friend, and the food was surprisingly delicious for a touristy place. Plus, it's got a pool and a great ocean view in the back. Sometimes they host pool parties.
Foods/Drinks to Try
In Mexico, some restaurants make their own aguas frescas, soft drinks made with certain types of fruit, flowers, grains, or seeds. The two most common are horchata and jamaica.
Horchata is a milkly drink made with rice, cinnamon, and sugar. It tastes like rice pudding. (It's my favorite, but you've got to find a good homemade one. If it tastes odd, it's probably made with a packet mix.) Jamaica is just sweetened habiscus tea.
If you like Bloody Marys (or Bloody Caesars), you'll love a michelada. You choose your favorite Mexican beer as a base and add a Bloody Mary-like mix. The flavor varies tremendously based on the mix, usually very salty or a good level of sour.
The best one that I had was during a Mexican Independence Day celebration. For 80 pesos, I got a 32oz Michelada complete with a tamarind candy straw.
Visit any OXXO convienience store on the island and pick up a few snacks that you've never heard of before. Anything unusual will do, but here are some of my favorites:
- Tamarind candy (sweet, sour, and a little spicy)
- Chocolate-covered peanut marzipan
- Chicharrones (pork rinds)
- Ruffles Queso
Where to Go Out
If you like to party and dance, the best option by far is Señor Frogs (the one next to Hooter's). In the high season, some other places will be busy, but in the low season, it's your only hope.
During the day, you'll see families and tourists eating overpriced meals, but at night, you'll find young tourists and locals alike getting sloppy on the dance floor.
Ladies Night at Frog's is on Thursdays. Women get free drinks for a couple of hours. You have to be a local to take advantage of the offer, but if you're a clever girl, you might be able to get in on it. (And if you're a clever guy, you'll take a few gulps of your girl's drinks.)
Viva México is another oceanside bar/club that can get pretty busy in the high season. Just be careful that the workers don't rip you off on drinks.
Expect to pay American prices anywhere you go out.
Where to Stay
If you're visiting from a cruise ship, you don't have to worry about this.
If you're coming down to dive or to take dive courses, many dive shops and schools offer included accomodation with your purchase. Look into this before booking a hotel if you don't mind staying in a basic accomodation.
I can't speak for any hotels since I stayed in a diver's accomodation, but if you're staying independently, there are some really nice Airbnbs available very close to the downtown area. (Full disclosure: if you use my link to Airbnb, you'll receive $40 off your first trip, and I'll get a $20 referral credit. Win-win.)
...and If You Have to Work
In the town center, there is an oceanfront Starbucks with the usual menu, prices, and free WiFi. Don't let that fool you.
Climb the stars, and you get a shaded ocean-view patio with tons of comfortable seating and power outlets. Easily the best Starbucks I've ever worked in. (That's where I'm writing this from.)
As always, I'd love to hear from you if this guide was helpful. Enjoy your trip!