Only a two-hour flight from Miami and Houston, Cozumel is one of the Caribbean's most accessible dive destinations. But this island would still be popular with U.S. divers if it was halfway around the world. That's because it features huge reefs, teeming marine life and some of the clearest ocean waters anywhere.
Mexico's largest Caribbean island lies 12 miles off the Yucatan peninsula, separated by a channel more than a half-mile deep. Dense, dry tropical forests cover most of the island's interior and the windward eastern coast is still mostly wilderness. The main tourist zone extends along the leeward western coast and includes hotels of every description, more than 20 dive operators and many beautiful beaches.
Cozumel was first inhabited by the ancient Mayans, who settled here as early as 300 A.D. Remains of temples and shrines dedicated to the Moon Goddess Ixchel still dot the landscape.
Thankfully, the island has held on to its heritage, and most residents are descendants of the ancient inhabitants. A special Mayan-Mexican hospitality and ambiance prevails.
Divers began discovering Cozumel's underwater assets as early as the 1960s. Today the island hosts thousands of divers each year, but thanks to the establishment of a marine park, on-island education programs and a stiff current that keeps most divers away from the coral, the reefs remain in good shape. Cozumel's reputation as the Caribbean's wild west party island is also intact. Yet its dive operations are modern and safe, with highly professional staffs of instructors and guides.
The currents that sweep across Cozumel's 20-mile-long system of reefs deliver both clear water and a constant food supply for corals and other reef-building organisms. The result is mountainous coral formations and underwater visibility that nearly always hovers between 100 and 200 feet. Because virtually all of the dive sites are on the lee side of the island, seas are calm nearly year-round.
Most dive outings feature a wall dive followed by a dive on the shallower inner reef. Though sometimes intimidating to new divers, experienced divers use the constant current to their advantage, riding the flowcompletely relaxed.
The island's most famous diving attraction is Palancar Reef. There are numerous entry points along this nearly mile-long reef system. Palancar Gardens, at the north end, is a shallow reef laced with caverns in 40 to 60 feet of water. Horseshoe Reef, the site most often identified with Palancar, boasts a series of tightly packed coral heads rising from a natural amphitheater. Farther south, Palancar Caves offers a network of buttresses, tunnels and caverns in 60 to 90 feet of water. Palancar Deep, the final section of wall, begins in 90 feet of water. Other popular sites include Yucab Reef, with its rolling coral formations and array of fish life; Santa Rosa Reef, which has a line of popcorn-shaped coral heads perched on a plateau; and Tormentos Reef, which features a series of striated coral heads populated with schooling tropical fish.
Cozumel's Grand Canyon reefs are huge pinnacles and mounds of coral, some as tall as a six-story building. They sit on the edge of a sugar-sand plateau, the ocean side often plummeting directly to forbidden depths below. Drop-offs and ledges are carpeted with tube sponges, rope sponges and deep-water sea fans.
Finding something to do besides diving is never a problem. Once a sleepy fishing village, the town of San Miguel has become a bustling tourist mecca. Dozens of restaurants and bars and hundreds of gift shops line the beach strip and extend several blocks to the east. More tranquil sightseeing excursions include a museum featuring historical and environmental displays and the nearby Mayan sites.