|Easy-drift currents and prolific reefs keep Cozumel veterans coming back for more, year after year. Photography by Ethan Gordon|
It's easy to spot the Cozumel veterans as I near the departure gate in Houston. I can tell from the dive-logo shirts, hats and the carry-on regulator bags that just about everybody on this direct hop to Mexico's largest Caribbean island is a diver. But the Cozumel vets have an easy air about them. This two-hour flight is as familiar to them as their morning commute to the office. They stow their luggage with practiced ease, joke with the flight attendants and begin removing the top layer of clothes they won't need when the cabin door reopens to the warm Yucatan air. They tell old jokes and stories about the last trip, and when the captain comes on the intercom with the weather report from the island on this January morning--sunny and 72--one diver can't help but exclaim, "Perfect!"
"Seventy-two on top means the water will be 80 degrees," another explains to his traveling companion, rubbing his hands together with obvious satisfaction. "It's going to be great!"
|Cozumel's coral pinnacles feature archways, tunnels and swim-throughs to explore. Photography by Steve Simonsen|
Cozumel veterans are divers who can't get enough of world-class drift diving, bargain resort packages and the festive atmosphere of this legendary island. They return year after year, often several times a year, forever in search of the ultimate experience. They trade dive shop recommendations and resort critiques with an intensity others might reserve for hot stock tips. They're on a first-name, how's-the-family basis with the dive crew and they know exactly where on the backstreets of San Miguel to find the best hidden restaurants.
While nothing short of repeat visits to the island can make you a Cozumel vet, we can help you get started.Let's start with the main reason to come here: effortless drift diving. A warm, two- to three-knot current sweeps the leeward west shore of the island, nourishing a healthy reef system that lines the drop-off of the 12-mile-wide Yucatan Channel. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride on more than 40 recognized dive sites that fall into three distinct categories.
Vertical walls like Maracaibo Deep and Santa Rosa Wall range from 70 to 130-plus feet and offer heart-pounding blue-water excitement. Look for plate corals, monstrous sponges, deepwater gorgonians, and a variety of reef and pelagic fish species.
|Tanks ready for the morning dive. Photography by Chris Crumley|
Coral pinnacles are some of the best-loved sites on the island, offering great dives for every skill level. Sites like Palancar Horseshoe, Columbia Pinnacles and Punta Sur range in depth from 30 to 130-plus feet. Instead of a vertical drop-off, these sites are formed by a picket line of towering coral plateaus that fuse together in a maze of tunnels, archways, canyons and swim-throughs.
The nearshore coral gardens like Cedar Pass and Santa Rosa Shallows may not be the island's top attractions, but they are loaded with tropical fish and they are the only place in the world where you will find the splendid toadfish, a species found only in Cozumel. With depths ranging from 20 to 50 feet, they are excellent second dives.
A recent addition to the natural reefs is the C-53, or Felipe Xicotencatl, a former Mexican Navy minesweeper. Prepared as an artificial reef, the 184-foot vessel sits upright and intact on a white-sand bottom near Chankanaab Bay. The wreck has been opened so that experienced divers can explore the interior by following their guide and permanent lines through everything from the engine room to the officers' quarters. Inside the wreck you'll find schools of glassy sweepers and a few oversized grouper. Under the rules of the Cozumel marine park, guides are allowed to take no more than four divers into the wreck at a time, so you may need to sign up for this dive early in your stay.
Get the Drift
|Shallow coral gardens offer extended bottom times and lots of marine life, like this school of porkfish. Photography by Ethan Gordon|
It's the current that makes Cozumel drift diving so addictive. But to truly enjoy this free ride, you'll need to find that sweet spot of neutral buoyancy. It's also important for safety--on deep wall dives where there is no hard bottom to stop your descent, you don't want to be kicking or leaning on the power inflator just to stay neutral. And at the end of every dive, you'll need to make a drifting safety stop without the assistance of an anchor line.
A lot of divers begin their week in Cozumel seriously overweighted. At the coldest, water temperatures hit 75 degrees, so you can go easy on the neoprene and therefore the weight. Don't be afraid to ask your divemaster for help in fine-tuning your buoyancy. They routinely help first-timers strip pounds off their belts.
Drift diving also requires you to follow certain rules for safety. For example, you have to follow the dive guide and stay with your group. To maintain control, your guide will set maximum depth and time limits. Because the dive boat follows the group's bubble trail and the guide's surface marker, you need to stay within visual range of your divemaster, but there's no reason to bunch up on his fins. With consistent 100-foot visibility, you can space out and stay in visual contact.
Twice a day, an armada of dive boats large and small, old and new, literally race south to the reefs on two-tank excursions. Most operators follow a predictable pattern. Morning trips start with a wall dive to a max depth of 80 to 90 feet for 30 minutes--or until the first diver reaches 700 psi. After a one-hour surface interval, divers explore the edge of the drop-off. Afternoon trips dive the edge of the wall and shallow nearshore reefs.
The better shops usually try to group divers on different boats according to skill level (i.e., the beginner's boat, the advanced boat, the computer boat, etc.). Trips to advanced sites like Punta Sur, Maracaibo Deep and Barracuda are usually done only on request. If you feel up to diving an advanced site, ask early in your stay to give the operator time to check out your skills and find enough divers to make the trip.
|All fins on deck: Guides are allowed to take small groups of experienced divers inside the C-53, a former minesweeper. Photography by BradleyIreland.com|
|Downtown San Miguel at night. Photography by Ethan Gordon|
Even in the time of the ancient Mayans, who populated the entire Yucatan region from 300 to 900 A.D., Cozumel's main industry was tourism. Back then, the attraction was religion, not reefs. Mayan women made pilgrimages to the island to worship Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility. Ruins from the era are found all across the island, but the best have been excavated and reconstructed at San Gervasio. Topside, Cozumel offers:
> BEACH CLUBS. Rent a car and drive to the island's windward eastern shore where you can chill out with volleyball, cerveza and an afternoon siesta on the beach. Along the way, you can enjoy an awe-inspiring view of the island from the lighthouse at Punta Celerain on the island's southern tip.
> DOWNTOWN SAN MIGUEL. You can find it all on the funky backstreets of the island's only town. The Museum of Cozumel is a quiet, cool place to spend a hot afternoon. While you're in town you can shop for jewelry, perfume and liquor, and visit more trinket shops than you can count.A visit to Carlos 'n Charlie's bar, now located in the Punta Langosta, is a Cozumel rite of passage. Yard-drinking contests, upside-down shooters and rock 'n' roll cranked up to 11. Party on--as long as you're not diving the next day.
There are any number of great restaurants to choose from. For fine dining in a casual atmosphere, try La Prima. For the best "local flavor," try La Choza. Any cab can get you there, or look for the tall thatch roof.
And whatever you do, don't miss Sunday evenings in the town square. There's a fiesta every weekend with live music, dancing, food vendors and artists at work.
10 Favorite Cozumel Dives
SANTA ROSA WALL
Depth: 60 to 130 feet. Skill Level: Intermediate.
A jagged row of coral heads lines the wall's edge and is covered in deepwater gorgonians, sheet corals and a variety of sponges. To the northern end of the reef, there is a series of swim-throughs you can follow back to the shallows. When you're exploring the maze, expect to see grouper and coneys hanging out on the reef while juvenile wrasses pick them clean of parasites.
Depth: 35 to 60 feet. Skill Level: Novice to intermediate.
Look for moray eels hidden in the coral crevices of this popular coral ridge. It's a fast drift over ground-level encrusting sponges and diminutive coral heads that grow bigger as you head north. The largest coral heads are perforated with swim-through tunnels, and if you duck into the lee you're sure to find big schools of grunts and snapper.PALANCAR HORSESHOE
Depth: 30 to 130-plus feet. Skill Level: Intermediate.
Named for a U-shaped protrusion on the wall, this site features a maze of tunnels and swim-throughs through tall heads of brain, star and sheet corals. Tunnels lead to arches and grottoes with sunny skylights looking toward the surface and blue windows looking out to the channel. Expect schools of blue and brown chromis and bar jacks. Inside the tunnels, you'll pass alcoves filled with glassy sweepers.
Depth: 80 to 130 feet. Skill Level: Intermediate to advanced.
This site is home to the Devil's Throat, a near-vertical coral passageway that swallows divers at 80 feet and spits them out again in the channel at 120 feet. Watch for eagle rays and turtles cruising the deep.
Depth: 60 to 130 feet. Skill Level: Advanced to expert.
Lots of deep blue water and the possibility of reversing current on the island's southernmost reef make it best suited to advanced divers. The wall starts at 90 feet and is covered with black corals, orange elephant ear sponges and broad sheet corals, but the real thrill is the chance to see sharks, rays and loggerhead sea turtles out in open water.
Depth: 70 to 90 feet. Skill Level: Intermediate to advanced.
This site features a lush, rolling field of near-virgin reef that few divers ever visit. Tropicals swarm over a field of gorgonians that sway in the unpredictable and sometimes changing currents.DALILA
Depth: 45 feet. Skill Level: Novice.
Washed by a gentle current, this low-profile patch reef features lots of angelfish and colorful sponges. It's also a splendid place to find the splendid toadfish, so bring a light and peer beneath crevices and inside holes.
Depth: 50 to 70 feet. Skill Level: Intermediate.
The strong south-to-north current at Tormentos makes this site the fastest drift diving on the island. You'll soar over large coral heads topped with whip corals and sea fans. Need a break from the water ride? Drop into the lee to surprise the schools of grunts and creole wrasse. Look for lobster in the crevices of the coral heads, too.SANTA ROSA SHALLOWS
Depth: 40 to 60 feet. Skill Level: Intermediate to advanced.
Want drama? Need excitement? Try drifting alongside the spectacular coral cliffs where the current has carved out caves, grottoes and tunnels.
Depth: 70 to 110 feet. Skill Level: Advanced.
Don't expect to be taken to this site unless you've demonstrated excellent air consumption and the skills to handle a deep current dive. The wall is a beautiful example of deep coral formations--vast plate corals, orange elephant ear sponges and deepwater gorgonians, but the real reason to dive here is the chance to see sharks, manta rays and sea turtles.
Be An Instant Expert
|Photography by BradleyIreland.com|
First-timers and Cozumel vets alike will benefit from flipping through the pages of the new Cozumel Dive Guide and Log Book. Published by Underwater Editions and compiled with the help of divemasters from across the island, the book offers accurate descriptions of popular sites. More importantly, its foldout color maps of the dives show you, at a glance, the reef structure and the route most dive guides follow. The book is available at most Cozumel dive shops for $26 or online at www.underwatereditions.com.
Water Conditions > Water temperatures vary from 75 degrees in winter to 85 degrees in summer, but you can count on 100 feet of visibility just about year-round.
Climate > Cozumel averages a balmy year-round temperature of about 80 degrees. During the May-to-October rainy season, expect afternoon thundershowers.
Getting There > Daily flights from Houston, Miami and New York. Commuter flights from Cancun are scheduled several times daily. Inexpensive ferry boats from Playa Del Carmen run from before dawn to well after midnight seven days a week.
Documents > Proof of citizenship; either a valid passport or the combination of a birth certificate and driver's license is required.Getting Around > Shuttle vans or rental cars are the only transportation from the airport and make the circuit to all the hotels. Cabs are readily available at all hotels, or you can wave one off the street. You can also rent jeeps, cars and scooters.
Language > Spanish, though English is widely spoken.
Electricity > 110 volts/60 cycles.
Time > Cozumel is in the Central time zone and does observe daylight-saving time.