If I've learned one thing in my decade-and-a-half as roving editor for Scuba Diving, it's that the best way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture is to celebrate with it. There's an undeniable allure to being connected in laughter, song and dance with thousands of people you can barely understand. Of course, a few margaritas always help you get in the mood. But I have to keep reminding myself I'm in Cozumel on assignment, timed perfectly with its annual Carnaval, a week-long fiesta that brings Mexico's largest Caribbean island to a screeching alto. Looks like work will have to wait until mañana. Cozumeleños take their fiestas seriously, and if you think things shut down for siestas here, wait 'til you see this.
Like many of our readers, I've been to Cozumel, the de facto 51st state of the United States of Diving America, a dozen times. For most East Coasters, Cozumel's location in the extreme northwestern Caribbean means getting here is a shorter hop than to most islands. In many cases, you can board a plane early in the morning in your hometown and be feet-first off the dive platform that same afternoon. You never forget your first time to Cozumel, and you'll soon realize that your last time probably won't be. In fact, writing about Cozumel is always my toughest assignment, knowing that so many of you have already been here, and have your own deep-rooted opinions of the best dives, the best dive operators and resorts, the best tacos al carbon, the best margaritas. How can I compete with so much combined experience?
This is one hell of an island, and the diving planets obviously aligned to create this destination. A perennial favorite in our Top 100 Readers' Choice Awards, its honors are as exhaustive as finning against its currents-Best Advanced Diving in the Caribbean, Best Visibility, Best Value, Dive Destination with the Best Topside Activities, Best Dive Destination to Take Kids, #3 in Top Dive Destination Overall, #4 in Destinations with Best Beaches, and #5 in Top Wall Diving. In short, you love Cozumel.
I picked Carnaval to come here, but I could have easily picked any week out of the year. In fact, many divers pick several weeks to enjoy the island in the same calendar year. With airfare priced lower than gas prices for a family road trip to Disney World, and dive and hotel packages that are so affordable that you could argue that they're cheaper than staying at home, why not? Cozumel is a year-round destination.
Carnaval is like Mardi Gras, Star Search and a small Fourth of July parade all rolled into one, but held at night and featuring a lot of booze. I stake my claim on a foot-wide gap in the crowd on the balcony of the island's only McDonalds and soak in the culture. Oh, the irony.
Fun and game aside, however, there's a serious renaissance taking place on this island. For starters, the quality of diving operators and resorts has never been better. In October of 2005, Hurricane Wilma hastened a sort of evolution process which has, over the last couple years, separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Established, reputable operations have shined and flourished, and resorts have reinvented themselves with concrete and paint-and in nearly all cases, look better than ever before. And despite some reports of the degradation of the island's reefs and overall diving experience, I found that simply not to be the case. In fact, the storm actually created some new diving experiences, such as the wreckage of an 18th-century Spanish galleon on the island's windward eastern side. (See "The State of the Reefs" and "Secrets of the East Side")
Cozumel, in short, is as good as it's ever been. And despite this renewal, Cozumel is still little old Cozumel at its heart. The people are as friendly and gracious as ever, the water, clear and warm, and the authentic guacamole and cold cervezas still hit the spot at the end of the dive day. I'm already planning my return for 2008's Carnaval. And this time, it will be for pleasure, not business.
Carnaval is Cozumel's version of Mardi Gras, a week of parades, dance and music. If you're not up for dancing in the streets, grab a table at an outdoor cafe, and sip a margarita while enjoying the festivities (which last until the wee hours of the morning). Traditionally, the last parade of Carnaval is on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday); in 2008, Carnaval runs January 23-30. For more info, check out www.cozumelinsider.com/CarnavalCal.
For this diving mecca 12 miles off the Yucatan coast, the post-Hurricane Wilma chapter is a remarkable story of rebirth for Cozumel. "It's the same thing as if you're a person whose immune system is in good health," says Robert Cudney, director of the Cozumel Marine Park. "If you have a scratch, you'll get a little scab and have no problem. If you're not healthy and have a little cut, it might get infected and take longer to heal. A healthy reef can withstand a hurricane and will rebuild itself. Immediately, one week after [Wilma] hit [In October 2005], you could already see the process of it healing itself. It's resilient, and has the capacity to bounce back from an impact such as this."
Memo Mendoza from Aldora Divers echoes Cudney. "One of my instructors told me it's like somebody just moved the carpet," he says. "A lot of things have come back. We still see a lot of marine life, more than before. It's hard not to see a turtle on a dive in Cozumel. We've seen sharks more frequently and they're bigger every year. We even saw a hammerhead yesterday, my third sighting in 22 years."
After a dozen trips to Cozumel, I first dived the east side of the island on my last trip, and wished I'd done it sooner. In stark contrast to Cozumel's more popular buttressed deep wall formations, the east side of the island offers shallower diving on "micro atolls," elkhorn coral gardens and swim-throughs, all in 50 feet or less. But what really makes this side of the island unique is that now you can also see about 15 cannons, two anchors and countless cannonballs that have been exposed since Hurricane Wilma tore through the island in 2005. These remnants of a Spanish galleon are believed to be from the Sevilla area and date to the 1760s. Wilma may have uncovered these treasures, but the reef was mostly spared, and shows remarkably little evidence of the Category 5 storm even having been here.
It takes hours to get to these sites via boat from San Miguel. Instead, contact an operation that specializes in doing dives on this side. They'll pick you up at your hotel, drive you and your gear to the eastern shore, where you'll board a dive panga on the beach for the short hop to the dive sites.
The Yucatan is riddled with cenotes, freshwater pools formed when the roof of an underwater cave collapsed, and guided expeditions to them are offered by dive operators in Akumal (about a 25-minute ride from Playa del Carmen).
Cenote Esqueleto: Cenote Esqueleto is popularly known as Temple of Doom. You'll make a 300-yard trek through the jungle from the road. The cavern area is about 20 feet below ground level, so the easiest entry to the cenote is a giant stride. You'll make a descent past twisted roots into a massive room of limestone columns.
Aktun Ha: Also called Car Wash. Your dive light will illuminate this cave's delicate structures.
You don't have to make your way to Akumal to dive in a cenote. Cozumel boasts two major cave systems, Cueva Quebrada and Cueva Aerolito.
Aerolito de Paraiso: One of three cenotes in the Cueva Aerolito system, Aerolito de Paraiso (Paradise Crater) is just five minutes south of town and boasts profuse life-for a cave, anyway-including juvenile barracuda, sea stars and lobster. You enter through an emerald lagoon and slip through a crack to explore sunny passageways. Open-water divers and cavers alike will have plenty to explore.
Dive Site Sampler
Nestled in the protected lee of the island's west coast are some of the world's most famous reef dives-Columbia, Palancar, Punta Sur, Maracaibo, Santa Rosa, Yucab, Barracuda. These stunning examples of Caribbean reef structures tower over a brilliant white sand bottom on one side and plunge into the 3,000-foot-deep Yucatan Channel on the other. They're also riddled with tunnels, caves and swim-through passages, allowing you to see the reef from the inside out. Even better: A steady current sweeps past at a nice clip, so you don't even have to kick. Just ride along, watch your depth and when you surface, the dive boat is waiting to pick you up. Most reefs have at least two or three sites, ranging from deep to shallow. Here's a sampling.
Columbia Shallows: Healthy coral formations rise from the sand bottom at 40 feet on this sun-drenched coral garden packed with grunts, snappers and barracuda. Like all of Cozumel's shallower reefs, Columbia Shallows is usually done as a second dive as it's a nice lazy drift in the current.
Columbia Deep: The wall butress here is a picket line of towering coral plateaus that fuse together in a maze of pinnacles, grottoes, tunnels, swim-throughs and an enormous drop-off, with a chance of seeing bigger stuff, like turtles and eagle rays.
Palancar Horseshoe: Named for a U-shaped protrusion on the wall, this site features tunnels and swim-throughs carved into the reef. Tall heads of brain, star and sheet corals form a city-like skyline. Expect schools of blue and brown chromis and alcoves filled with glassy sweepers.
Palancar Bricks: This section of Palancar also boasts dramatic pinnacles. Lots of swim-throughs, and if you're here early before other dive groups arrive, you have a good chance of spotting a hawksbill turtle or two resting on the ledges found in quiet alcoves.
Punta Sur/Devil's Throat: Home to wild tunnels and ballroom-sized caverns that start at 80 feet. Experience the thrills afforded by Devil's Throat, a tunnel that deposits divers out in the Cozumel Channel at 130 feet.
Punta Sur Sur: The lesser-dived extreme southern end of the Punta Sur reef system, this site features a series of coral mountains, dramatic reef formations and a chance to see wild stuff, including an occasional hammerhead.
Santa Rosa Wall: A jagged row of coral heads lining the wall's edge at about 60 feet where it spills into an armored wall of deep-water gorgonians, sheet corals and sponges. At the northern end, you can drift through a variety of swim-throughs, back to the shallows.
Santa Rosa Shallows: Drift along spectacular coral cliffs where the current has carved out caves, grottoes and tunnels.
Maracaibo Shallows: At the southernmost point of Cozumel, this site features a lush, rolling field of gorgonians swarmed by reef tropicals.
Maracaibo Deep: Lots of deep blue water and the possibility of reversing current make this site best suited for advanced divers. The wall starts in 90 feet of water, and is covered with black corals and orange elephant ear sponges. The real thrill: The chance to see sharks and rays in open water.
Yucab Reef: A nearshore coral garden, this color-drenched reef is surrounded by a white sand bottom. Some of the taller coral heads have caves that have been scoured out by the current-look for sheltering lobsters and crabs. At the northern end of the reef the sand slopes rapidly toward the wall.
Barracuda Reef: This site is the stuff of myth, with sometimes psychotic currents. Hammerheads, eagle rays and black-tip sharks are often found in the open water. And, of course, squadrons of barracuda. You will have to prove you're an advanced diver, and find a reputable operator willing to take a small group to this northern site.
Mid-80s in the summer and mid-70s in the winter. It's almost always humid, and rain can occur at any time.
Summer temps are in the mid-80s, winter temps in the mid- to high 70s. Vis is consistently great, near 100 feet on deeper sites, slightly less on shallower reefs.
Most major domestic air carriers offer service to Cozumel either by themselves or via a code share partner. You should have no problem cashing in frequent flier miles to get here. Also, many folks fly into Cancun-which can be cheaper to fly into-then catch a collectivo, or shared van, to Playa del Carmen, then hop the ferry to Cozumel.
A passport is now required for travel to Mexico. Departure tax is usually included in the airline ticket price.
You will rarely, if ever, need anything more than casual wear on Cozumel. You may feel more comfortable in some of the more upscale resorts and restaurants in a collared shirt and trousers, but you'll almost always fit in perfectly in shorts and flip-flops out in town.
The Mexican peso. You'll need a credit card to check into your hotel and to rent a car, but if you can avoid it, do not charge items or services to your card while you're in Cozumel as there is often a bank fee of up to 10 percent that will be added to the purchase price, and you will have no control over the exchange rate you are given. Exchange rates at the banks are usually the same as those offered at money exchange houses, but you can get the job done much faster at the money exchange. There should never be a fee involved in changing money.
Same as the U.S.
Spanish, but English is widely spoken at resorts, restaurants and dive shops.
Central Time Zone, and the island does observe Daylight Saving Time.
scubadiving.com/travel/caribbeanatlantic/cozumel, which includes links to our exclusive online videos featuring Cozumel. You can also check out the island's official tourism web site at islacozumel.com.mx. CozumelInsider.com is also a fantastic resource.You can find in-depth coverage of Cozumel on our web site at