I am just going to come out and say it: I don’t much care for Cozumel — or at least the Cozumel most tourists experience. The island’s main port is jam-packed with tacky souvenir shops, American chain restaurants, and pushy vendors.
But this is not to say that Mexico’s largest Caribbean island has nothing to offer — it most certainly does. It’s just that you have to work a little harder to get to experience it.
The main issue is that when you arrive in Cozumel, either by ferry from Playa del Carmen or a cruise ship, you will be dumped right in the middle of the tourist zone where taxis are extremely expensive. Drivers are incentivized to herd you towards tourist traps serving plastic-tasting food, watered-down drinks, and annoying servers who will insist you pose for photos wearing a sombrero.
The only real way around this tourist trap is to rent yourself a car, scooter, or bicycle and get the heck out of the docking area ASAP. The good news is that rentals are plentiful, and at least on the southern end of the island, the roads are quite good, if a bit narrow.
Once you have nailed down your means of transportation, a new island full of virgin beaches, amazing archaeological sites, great food, and wildlife will suddenly open up. Like on the Yucatán Peninsula’s mainland, Cozumel is chock-full of Mayan archaeological sites, the largest and most visited of these being San Gervasio. The site features impressive temples and beautiful grounds ideal for birding and exploring surrounding caves and cenotes. Smaller sites also dot the landscape, including the admittedly difficult to get to Castillo Real near the island’s northeast tip.
The best beaches on Cozumel can be found on the island’s eastern side, facing the open Caribbean. Finding a large stretch of beach entirely for yourself is easy, and the combination of white sand, coral reefs, and the calm ocean breeze makes it hard to keep track of time.
This far side of the island is also home to several small restaurants serving up freshly caught seafood at much better prices than in town in a highly laid-back Caribbean atmosphere. Some have run away with their Caribbean identity and resemble more the places you may expect to find in Jamaica or Barbados, but they have plenty of Mexican food on the menu.
Cozumel is also jam-packed with wildlife, including wild boar, deer, and several species of birds, including the island’s iconic swallows and sea hawks. The island is also famous for scuba diving within one of the most spectacular sections of the great Mesoamerican barrier reef.
Another thing that the eastern side of the island has to go for it are real cycling lanes, so if you are feeling adventurous and have the time, travel by bike is a great option, just maybe not during the hottest months of the year (late March through early June.)
Spending the night in Cozumel is lovely as the late evening and early morning offer some great views and calm, cool breezes that go beautifully with an excellent hot coffee or cold beer.
So is Cozumel a tourist trap? Parts of it are, but the island is much more than its tourist strip and resorts. This is one place where being a little adventurous pays off.