|For 165 bucks, you can dive face-to- bottlenose with Tursiops truncatus at Dolphin Discovery in the Chankanaab Marine Park.|
|Reef Fish Identification|
By now, I'm virtually oblivious to the Great Wall of cruise ships, Guns 'N' Roses blaring from Carlos 'n Charlie's and the "Federal Bureau of Intoxication" tank tops. I walk right by the timeshare salesmen and pay the jewelry hawkers no mind. I've been here enough times to know that beyond San Miguel's commercial waterfront is a secret, exotic side of Cozumel that few divers will ever see, and that's where I'm headed.
Mexico's largest Caribbean isla is 30 miles long by 12 miles wide, and it's bigger than it seems--partly because most tourists will never venture beyond the bustling little town of San Miguel, and partly because the island is relatively flat and featureless. But one aspect of Cozumel that is readily apparent is the island's popularity among divers. Of the thousands of Reader Ratings surveys we get every year, more of them are about Cozumel than any other destination. So when you come here, don't expect to be a trailblazer. There are thousands of divers on the island at any given time. If you want to beat the crowds and find the unknown Cozumel, you've got to know where to go.
Cozumel's Secret Sites
Don't overlook the classic sites--Palancar, Columbia and Punta Sur--if you've never dived them before. But if you're a Cozumel veteran and your Corona T-shirt with fake regulator and beer-bottle tank faded years ago, it might be time to branch out and try some new sites. Reef sites in the north and east offer uncrowded alternatives to Cozumel's west-central and southwestern shores, which are lined with the vast majority of the island's most popular dive sites. Here's a quick reference to the best sites you've probably never dived.
IN THE NORTH While most dive boats head south out of the docks, a few hook north to sites like Barracuda and San Juan reefs where the big fish hang out. At Barracuda Wall, Cozumel's northernmost regularly dived site, surface chop and strong currents are the norm. But you've got an excellent chance of seeing sharks, barracuda and jacks.
|Colorful reefs, transparent water and lots of value are the three big reasons thousands of North American divers invade Cozumel every year.|
IN THE SOUTH Many folks have dived Punta Sur and Maracaibo Reef, but far fewer have savored the site wedged between the two--Chun Chacab. The reef gently slopes to about 100 feet here at Cozumel's southernmost site, and then suddenly falls into the inky blue. Sandy patches and seagrass beds are home to myriad juvenile species. Depending on the speed of the dive boat, a trip here can take up to two hours.
IN THE EAST The dozen or so dive sites along the wind- and wave-battered eastern shore are best dived when conditions are calmest, usually April through August. Surge is a factor and currents are unpredictable. Be careful. El Islota is a huge coral outcropping swarming with parrotfish in a vast plain of sand. Punta Chiqueros' sheltered lagoon habitat is packed with juveniles, and Chen Rio is an invertebrate paradise. At Los Atolones, a collection of 15-foot-high mini atolls form a complex habitat for fish in depths from 10 to 30 feet.
CENOTES You don't have to launch an expedition to Nohoch Nah Chich or Dos Ojos to be awed by the Yucatan's world-famous cenotes. Cozumel boasts two major cave systems (10th and 11th longest in the state of Quintana Roo), 9,000-meter-long Cueva Quebrada and 6,100-meter-long Cueva Aerolito. One of three cenotes in the Cueva Aerolito system, Aerolito de Paraiso (Paradise Crater) is just five minutes south of town and is packed with 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 of ambient-light-filled passageways to discover.
Chances are you'll spend at least half of your time here wet, so you'll want to make the most of your dry time.
MAYAN RUINS Itching to see Chichen Itza but don't want to lose a day of diving to go there? The ruins (and village) at El Cedral are not as monumental but worth a stop. Quieter and more remote, El Castillo in the north is Cozumel's largest Mayan site.
BEACHES Take the Cross Island Road to the island's wave-battered eastern shore, where you'll find a small sheltered caleta, or cove, near Punta Morena. This little crescent-shaped pool is calm most of the time. The beach is packed on Sunday when locals have the day off.
Tours Intermar Caribe (IMC) takes small groups in boats to Punta Sur Park to watch the crocodile-tagging program. IMC also spearheads a sea turtle protection program from May to September, and you can help. E-mail Manuel Chacon at email@example.com for more info.
|Carlos 'n Charlie's is the ground zero of Cozumel's party scene.|
MINI GOLF The Cozumel Putting Course isn't Pebble Beach, but it is lots of fun. Choose your own soundtrack from hundreds of CDs and call in your drink order on a walkie-talkie, provided.
BASEBALL Cozumel's semi-professional Piñeros--literally, "pineapple pickers"--play pro teams from the mainland, and often win. Games are played at the team's park on 30th Avenue on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in summer. Tickets cost about five bucks.
FOOD You can play it safe at the well-traveled tourist restaurants or slip down Cozumel's side streets to sample the real flavors of Mexico. Find Café Denis, a sidewalk café just off San Miguel's main square, for reasonably priced Yucatecan favorites and strong margaritas. Try the slow-roasted pork tacos al pastor made fresh daily at Super Taco el Pique across from the San Francisco Supermarket.
Cozumel's Most Popular Dives
The sites in Cozumel most frequently visited by divers in the past year, according to a sample of our 2003 Reader Ratings survey:
- Palancar Reef*
- Santa Rosa Wall & Shallows
- Columbia Pinnacles & Gardens
- Punta Sur & Devil's Throat
- Paso del Cedral Reef & Wall
- Paradise Reef
- Tormentos Reef
- Dahlia Reef
- Chankanaab Reef
* Palancar Reef comprises several sites, including Palancar Deep, Palancar Shallows, Palancar Horseshoe and Palancar Caves.
Same As It Ever Was?
Cozumel isn't the quiet place it used to be, but for your pesos, it's hard to find a better spot to dive your brains out. Here's what our readers say:
"Since most people don't look for them, the laid-back spots are always available." J.F., Waco, Texas.
"Cruise ship traffic overwhelms the tourist zones, but clears out around suppertime." K.K., Bear Lake, Minn.
"Cozumel is the antithesis of Cancun." R.T., Bronx, N.Y.
"The topside's gotten more touristy, but still a great diving value and tough to beat." J.U., Houston, Texas.