Don't MissSan Miguel, Cozumel's one and only "big" city (some refer to it as a large town), owes its economic well-being to the growth of the cruise industry, which has transformed this once-sleepy fishing village into a tourist outpost, crammed with stores selling every imaginable souvenir. While many restaurants offer Mexican fare, others favor American tastes, with several U.S. fast-food chains represented, along with such notable names as the Hard Rock Cafe. Most shops stay open until 5:30 or 6 p.m. - or whenever the last cruise ship departs.
San Miguel revolves around its two landmarks: the "zocalo" (town square), known as Plaza del Sol, and the downtown pier. Easily the most distinctive and fabulous store on Cozumel is Los Cinco Soles (we've easily lost a whole day there), which sells gorgeous Mexican crafts (plenty of the unusual along with more common items), silver jewelry and fashions. There's a tequila bar, and the shop wraps around the wonderful Pancho's Backyard restaurant. Also of interest to shoppers: Adjacent to the Plaza del Sol is the modern Villa Mar Complex, an air-conditioned mall with several notable silver shops. (Be sure to look for the 925 stamp, indicating quality silver.) Among the best buys in the mall are hand-woven hammocks, shell and black coral jewelry, and local handicrafts. You'll also find many duty-free items, such as perfumes and watches.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are the top priority for many visitors. Along with Grand Cayman, Roatan and Belize, Cozumel offers the best diving and snorkeling sites in the Caribbean. In some areas, visibility reaches 250 feet, and prime sites for "divehards" include Palancar Reef (part of the nearly 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest reef system in the world, behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef), Chankanaab Caves and La Ceiba Reef. At La Ceiba, the underwater universe contains a sunken airplane that came to rest after being blown up for a Mexican disaster movie. A word to the wise: Keep an eye out for dive operators who post C.A.D.O. stickers in their windows; these are considered the island's most reputable dive establishments. Operators are located up and down the main road along the waterfront, between the International Pier and San Miguel.
Snorkelers can find outfitters in this area, too, or simply drop into any of the multiple beachside bars and restaurants for a beer, tortilla chips and a day of exploring the reef right off shore. We enjoyed refreshing stops for a snorkel (and beers) at restaurants Tikila and Tio Jose during our walk back and forth between the International Pier and San Miguel. Both are located on the coastal road, and the beach is the "ironshore" kind, typically best for snorkeling, but water shoes are recommended for tender feet.
Glass-bottom boat tours provide a glimpse of the reefs for those who might prefer to stay dry in the comfort of a boat; some of these tours also stop occasionally for snorkeling breaks.
The Museum of the Island of Cozumel, located three blocks from the San Miguel ferry dock, is one of few options for culture vultures. It features interesting exhibits on underwater life and the reef ecosystem, as well as displays on Mayan and colonial life.
San Gervasio, the best of several small Mayan ruins sites on Cozumel, is located approximately seven miles from San Miguel. During its heyday, San Gervasio served as a ceremonial center dedicated to the fertility goddess Ixchel. The oldest site is El Cedral, about three miles from San Miguel, though little remains there except a Mayan arch and a few small ruins.Playa del Carmen: Accessible via fast ferry, this mainland resort town is a fantastically bustling place that's chock full of shops (some of the tacky touristy variety, others, particularly in a conclave just off the ferry dock, much more upscale) and cafes. Better known to Europeans, the town owns an indefinably foreign air, so you'll feel a million miles away from Cozumel. The "Mexico Water Jet" ferries passengers back and forth between Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan peninsula and Cozumel. The ferry operates continuously, and the crossing takes approximately 45 minutes; depending on sea conditions, the ride can range from super-smooth to extremely bumpy. Be prepared with cash for the each-way fare.
Playa del Carmen is also the jumping-off point for the region's best-known Mayan sites. Try a daytrip to the ruins of Chichen Itza, the Yucatan's most renowned, which contains a mix of temples, pyramids and carvings dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. Other Mayan ruins are located at Tulum, situated on the coast 35 miles south of Playa del Carmen. The site features several Mayan temples - including a stunning temple right on the coastline - government buildings and a beach below the ruins. Daytrips to both Mayan sites can be booked through local tour operators. Three of the most reputable tour operators are Caribe Tours (011-52-987-872-3100), Intermar Caribe (011-52-987-872-1535) and Turismo Aviomar (011-52-987-872-5445).
Note: Independent travelers should know that an excursion to Chichen Itza spells a long day - about a three-hour bus ride in each direction; don't forget to factor in the ferry ride from Cozumel. This is one of the times we actually recommend taking this trip as part of your ship's shore excursion program because the logistics are so complicated.