Cozumel: The Perfect Day Trip, Cruise Trip & Culture Trip
For those of you who don’t know, I live and work on a cruise ship. (I know. Message me with your questions. I promise I’ll answer them.)
And while I love my job, and the opportunity to constantly see new places, allow me to restate what I’ve said before about Caribbean cruises. Examine your itinerary. Not all ports are equal. Some are wonderful gateways to countries with vibrant cultures, and others are property seized by cruise companies and turned into Las Vegas-style water parks with poorly treated dolphins.
So how lucky am I, that every two weeks my floating home docks in Cozumel, Mexico?! (The answer is “extremely lucky.”)
Because guess what? Cozumel is in the best category of cruise ports. It is an absolute treat of an island, filled with opportunities to see the real Mexico.
Or should I say middle Mexico.
Cozumel, in my humble, semi-professional opinion, is a paradise for you adventurers seeking the middle ground. You know, the perfect balance between local, everyday bodegas that still have authentic charm and roots, but also believe in refrigerating meat and hand washing? Cozumel has it all.
So let’s break down the wonders of this island paradise
First and foremost, the main town on the island, officially known as San Miguel de Cozumel, is easily accessible by foot, and every side street is full of quaint restaurants, local bakeries, and of course, a few too many souvenir shops. I recommend walking along the water, where the main street is, for the views of mainland Mexico (just 19 kilometers away), but avoiding the shops on this street. Instead, explore the smaller alleyways and plazas, which are full of hidden gems. I had an unforgettable meal at Casa Denis, where two friends made the hilarious mistake of ordering a “grande grande” margarita. Should you be looking for a fishbowl drink for four people, order a “grande grande” margarita. Otherwise, avoid uttering those words at all costs…
But besides the town center, Cozumel is an island full of surprises, and better yet, you can see most of this beach-laden paradise in one day’s time.
How do I know?
Well, one fateful Thursday morning, my boyfriend Kris and I rushed off the ship after his morning office hours, shimmied into a tiny “handmade” convertible, and off we went, to take in the Cozumel that lies beyond Señor Frog’s. My advice is to take a full day, rent a car, and drive around the entire island, stopping as you please to explore all of the beaches, scenery, and history that Cozumel has to offer.
Tip Numero Uno
Rent a car from a local business. There are a few bigger car rental companies, but they’re much more expensive. For about $45-$65 you should be able to get a car for an entire day. We sprang for a convertible, which turned out to be a tiny Chevy, which had a run in with a saw, resulting in said “convertible” top. But hey, a quirky car with two quirky people in it is a pretty great start to a day in Cozumel.
(Make sure you have the contact info for the rental company, as breakdowns are common.)
Once you’ve acquired said antique, vintage, rusty car, head south along THE main road. Luckily, Cozumel has only one main street that circles (almost) the entire perimeter of the island, making getting lost nearly impossible. Go past the beach resorts and the eco parks, and drive until you get to the eastern part of the island, lined with white sand beaches, and far fewer tourists than the western side. Pull over wherever you want on this large stretch of open, beachy road, as you really can’t go wrong. Kris and I first stopped at, what looked like, a surf shack, as he’s always on the hunt for a board and some waves, but the shack turned out to be exactly that: A shack, sans people, boards or business. However, we did make our way to an open business in the form of a little coconut hut, perkily positioned on a rock ledge by the waves. Taking my position on a hammock overlooking the sea, I settled in with a fresh coconut to take in the view.
Tip Numero Dos
A lot of the beach cafes also serve food, but I advise you to hold out for the local, cheaper places near town. Then again, it’s Mexico and the guacamole is heavenly everywhere you go, so order up if the mood strikes you.
Kris and I had a lookout system on our drive. Whoever wasn’t behind the wheel was on the hunt for the word “taqueria” and would yell at the driver to pull over when it was spotted. We wound up at el Camarón Dorado and enjoyed a variety of tacos, including an egg-spinach variety, which was surprisingly delightful, and downed it all with a refreshing (not too sweet, hallelujah!) tamarind juice, recommended by the friendly guy running the place.
Allow me to interrupt this story for a brief moment to let you in on, quite possibly, the biggest reason I love Mexico (and Cozumel) so stinkin’ much: The People.
Every person I’ve interacted with has been nothing but kind, friendly, and incredibly proud of the beautiful country from which they come. As with any place, you still need to keep your wits about you, as every week our ship stops in Cozumel, another couple gets robbed (normally by leaving expensive things in plain sight). But don’t let the bad eggs ruin the smiles and open hospitality of all of the other eggs!
Now, on to my favorite part, thus far, of Cozumel:
The Mayan Ruins
Did you know the little island of Cozumel is littered with ancient Mayan temples, stones and structures dating back to 1000 AD? You didn’t know? (I didn’t either.) But now we both do. Praise the Mayan gods and godessses. And while the historical site of San Gervasio isn’t as famous as its Mayan counterparts in mainland Mexico, its just as mystical, and in fact, much less crowded than the other archeological tourist hot spots in the Caribbean.
Tip Numero Tres
Unless you’re a massive Mayan history buff, forego the guided tour at San Gervasio. Grab a map, wander around, and absorb the information on the plentiful signs detailing the history of the structures. You can easily see the highlights here in about an hour’s time.
After purchasing a ticket, which will cost you around $12 USD, grab a map and navigate your way down the bamboo-lined path chock-full of iguanas to Ka’na Nah Temple. Set in a perfect clearing, this temple, devoted to a goddess of some name I never learned (ok, maybe get a tour guide…), is the largest intact structure at San Gervasio. Kris and I wandered around this impressive stack of historical stones for quite some time, without the company of a single tourist (besides each other), which, in my opinion, is the magic of this hidden gem in Cozumel.
After walking around some more Mayan history, and carefully avoiding the well-camouflaged iguanas, we piled back into our little Chevy chariot, and hopped back on the main road towards downtown Cozumel. While the main road around Cozumel is flanked by “eco parks” and commercial beach clubs, this dusty stretch of asphalt will also take you by many run-down homes, local bodegas and tortillerias, in other words, you’ll get to drive through the “real” Mexico. It’s humbling, eye-opening, and a piece of Mexico that every tourist should see.
Because Cozumel is more than tequila tastings and all-inclusive resorts
While its residents may not be swimming in pesos, Cozumel is an island rich in history, culture, and authentic Mexican charm. And with eight hours, four wheels, and a few tacos, you can discover the magic of “meh-hee-co” for yourself.
And once you’ve returned your rental car, you may pass go, collect $200 and proceed to the tequila tasting… Or in my case, head back to the ship, take a quick shower, and begin hair and makeup for the ABBA show that evening.