Prepare to be blown away. At a site called Palancar Bricks, fantastical formations are stacked 100 feet high, Seussical layer cakes in every shade of orange. Sponges pile upon sponges — rope, elephant ear, encrusting, vase, tube. A giant turtle flies by, so close that it startles all. Swim-throughs are so huge, they’re more like caverns. Move up a little and cross over gleaming white sand, where a stingray tormented by a cleaner fish climbs up and up and up, the highest-flying stingray ever. Keep going through beautiful shafts of light until an ancient anchor catches your eye below, reminding you there’s history as well as beauty here. This is definitely Cozumel my way.
AN INDEPENDENT STREAK
Mexico has the palatial all-inclusive down to a fine art, nowhere more than on the southwest side of this 185-square-mile island (more on that later).
But for the diver who is a little more independent, environmentally aware and mindful of how his or her vacation dollars impact the planet, there’s Hotel B, on Cozumel’s northwest side.
Dazzling white stucco pops with touches of red, aqua and indigo — everything is light, airy and as fresh as a sea breeze. Its 45 rooms feature local handicrafts, gauzy drapes and bold colors. A tiered infinity pool edges a lagoon that leads to surprisingly good snorkeling on the mini wall outside, while an orange-painted hot tub built into seaside rock glows like an inviting little moon at night: “My favorite spot,” says owner Beatriz Tinajero.
Tinajero knew she wanted to involve artisans and artists from the beginning, to give them access to a marketplace — most of Hotel B’s decor is for sale — but reducing impact on the environment was equally important. Hotel B offers workshops to staff and guests that combine these ideals, on subjects like handicrafts, recycling, photography, yoga and making ceviche (Hotel B’s Costeñito Bistro serves 10 kinds). A planned expansion to 77 rooms is being designed with diminishing impact in mind: LED lights, and the latest in water-heating technology and air-conditioning inverters, to name a few.
Hotel B is pet-friendly too. “They are our guests also,” says sales manager Alejandro Graniel.
Tinajero is a certified rescue diver from Mexico City who came to love this spot as a graduate student looking for a quiet place to work on her dissertation. The daily parade of dive boats was a problem.
“They’d say, ‘There’s a space, want to come?’ And I’d think, ‘I’ll work through the night,’ ’’ she says with a laugh.
Today Hotel B has a partnership with PADI Five Star dive center Scuba Du, which has on-site shops here and at the Presidente InterContinental to the south. “We’ve worked with Scuba Du since the beginning. We like that they have smaller boats and personalized service,” Tinajero says.
“Personalized” is an understatement. From the minute we arrive on the dock, we don’t touch anything. Scuba Du’s staff takes over all equipment, setting up and switching over between dives, including taking weights and BCs right from the water.
After our spectacular visit to Palancar Bricks, Scuba Du divemaster José Luis Aragon leads us to long, low Dalila Reef. Right away, a free-swimming nurse shark comes straight for us. It doesn’t veer away — in fact, nothing does along this little undersea highway that seems to run for miles, from sharks and turtles to giant grouper and monster parrotfish. It’s a super-fishy site — a single cleaning station can boast 10 different species, and a school of black durgon 100 strong lets a diver get right up among them. On our return, we’re pampered with a round of cool, fresh face cloths.
It’s just one reason Cozumel is a magnet for repeat divers — once you’ve experienced it, you’re hooked.
It’s hard to imagine ever getting bored with the best-known dive sites here, on the southwest side, but for frequent visitors, or adventurous divers who want to strike out into the unknown, there’s PADI Five Star IDC Aldora Divers.
Aldora means “gift of the wind” in Greek, and the gods are very generous on this day with gusts of 25 knots and seas 4 to 5 feet and getting higher. It’s exhilarating, and clearly suits owner Guillermo “Memo” Mendoza and his longtime crewmen, Gilbert “Momia” Caamal — a plastic mummy is Aldora’s lucky charm; “We always dive with it,” Mendoza says — and sinewy Felipe “Gato” Catzin.
Mendoza doesn’t rap divers who love Cozumel’s more-famous sites, but for him, the unexplored north is where it’s at. We’re headed to the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, bypassing intact mangrove forests and zero development. Reefs are not as well-organized here, and are more exposed to wind and waves, but they’re untouched and completely natural.
Mendoza says he finds those sharks on seven of 10 dives here. On this day we spy only one, wide awake and zipping away as fast as it can, but our attention is immediately diverted: eagle rays. First one, then a pair, then seven in all, performing swooping, balletic maneuvers that are beautiful to watch. The next dive, five of them return, circling around and around and around until our time is up.
A COZUMEL CLASSIC
There’s a spot on the south side of San Miguel de Cozumel’s modern downtown waterfront where you might feel as if you’ve slipped back in time, to Mexico’s colonial days — or even further, to a bougainvillea-drenched, whitewashed vision of Moorish Spain. (The Spanish influence on Coz dates to the 16th century.)
Scuba Club Cozumel is the grand old señora of Cozumel dive resorts, where charm oozes from every mismatched stone in its eclectic terraces, arched porticos and quatrefoil windows that peek out in unexpected places.
Charm aside, this PADI Five Star shop is where serious diving happens. SCC’s on-site operation is the soul of the 61- room complex, an always-bustling corner where you can plan your dives, meet new buddies, or talk shop. At SCC, divers who didn’t know each other at breakfast are fast friends by lunch and old comrades by happy hour, which can start at any time.
The vibe here is muy auténtico. SCC’s Fat Grouper Grill, with dining rooms upstairs and down, might sound awfully American — and there’s plenty to please a Yanqui palate — but the staff is proud of its Maya specialties, a change from what you might think of as “Mexican” food.
The dive operation also offers surprising extras. Reef Star, a bi-level 48-foot day boat that’s part of SCC’s fleet of seven, has camera tanks and tables bigger than some liveaboards’. After a thorough safety and dive briefing, our guide Jose “Pepe” Ernesto Canton Ake — also a charmer — leads us down to Palancar Gardens, a favorite with divemasters, he tells us.
If you associate Coz only with ripping drifts, you might be unprepared for the loveliness of this site. We go over the 80-foot wall and encounter a maze of monumental structures with wide pathways between. We gradually spiral downward on a magic-carpet ride, gliding through formations stuffed with gigantic elephant ears and swinging rope sponges. Room-size domes under every overhang are plastered with more sponges — mosaics of yellow, purple and green. We follow Pepe in and out; this is a site you could do 100 times and never tire of it.
On our next drop, at shallower Tormentos Reef, Pepe proves himself the equal of any critter spotter, pointing out sailfin blennies in courtship display, dragonets, multiple splendid toadfish (endemic to Coz), pipe seahorses, pipefish, snapping shrimp. We’re surrounded by happy divers, all face-down in the sand, pirouetting around their muck sticks, strobes popping. I surface whooping. “Pepe, you da man!” He smiles shyly. “It’s my job,” he says. “It makes the people come back.”
THE LUXE LIFE
Fifty-six footsteps: That’s the distance from the hammock-slung patios of the beachfront rooms at luxurious Presidente InterContinental to Scuba Du’s on-site dive shop — about as close as you can get to rolling out of bed and onto a dive boat without actually being on a liveaboard.
If liveaboard-style amenities are a hallmark of some of Coz’s best dive operations, service also is paramount at the Presidente. From the top-shelf tequila that welcomes you to your rooms to highly trained staffs at giant, poolside El Caribeño restaurant and more-intimate, gourmet Alfredo di Roma and Napa Grill, you won’t find a thread out of place here, nor will any of your wants go unmet.
That ethic applies in ways large and small. Early one morning, before the sun even peeks into the open-air lobby, a young bellhop carefully adjusts an out-of-place blossom in a fantastical floral display. Undoubtedly not his job, but his pride of place and service make an indelible impression.
Farther down the ribbon of highway that takes visitors away from town and toward Cozumel’s greener south is the island’s beachfront all-inclusive zone.
Iberostar Cozumel looks like a luxury hotel, with its spectacularly pretty grounds, kid-friendly menagerie and indigenous Mexican take on a “storybook cottage” look, but its prices belie the surroundings. It’s home to Dressel Divers, who take us to the “Cathedral” end of Punta Sur, a series of five pinnacles that’s one of Cozumel’s most famous dives.
The briefing is cautious — Dressel does not do dives below 100 feet, like Devil’s Throat at the opposite end of this site — and thorough. Currents can be “fast and weird” here, says our divemaster Erika Poorter. They’re strangely mild on this day, leaving lots of time to appreciate the pretty pinnacles, with turtles, nurse sharks and plenty of splendid toadfish.
Just to the north is an all-inclusive that’s making an effort to attract divers, next-door to a sister resort with an exclusive Royal Club worth every peso.
Occidental Grand Cozumel and Allegro Cozumel all-inclusives, now part of Barceló Hotels & Resorts, are neighbors on San Francisco Beach. While the Grand’s Royal Club level features suites, a private restaurant and luxurious amenities, the more family-friendly Allegro has been renovated top to bottom and is offering a package called the Ultimate Dive Experience.
Dive coordinator Carla Guardiola looks after divers at both resorts. What services does a dive coordinator provide? Just about anything: That morning a diver left a backpack at the Grand; Guardiola retrieved it and sent it by taxi to meet its anxious owner at the airport. She also can make dinner or other reservations for you while you’re out on a dive boat, or even do things like let the hotel know your mattress is too hard.
The Ultimate Dive Experience makes sense here in the south part of the island, Guardiola explains, because the most popular dive sites are a stone’s throw from the resorts. “And we pamper them a bit more,” she says of divers enrolled in UDE.
The UDE package includes perks like one free tank per day, free Internet for divers in a private lounge area with two dedicated computers, a kids’ club that will host children ages 4 to 12 while you dive, a discount for group bookings, and 36 rooms redesigned with divers in mind, including private drying racks, located near Pro Dive Mexico’s on-site dive shop.
Pro Dive Mexico, a PADI Five Star with nine locations in the region, is the on-site operator at both Grand and Allegro. We get a taste of their services with a dive to Palancar Caves, another site along the 3-mile Palancar system. These are not true caves but caverns and swim-throughs, painted with light and shadow and full of marine life. We drop also at Paso de Cedral, a carpet reef home to turtles, octopuses, many reef fish and the comical splendid toadfish that are present on almost every Cozumel dive. We end with what our guide Marc Gaugain calls a “Superman float,” arms outstretched, eyes to the blue, going where the current takes us.
It’s a state that induces contemplation, moving weightlessly through this varied undersea world. Looking back on a multitude of experiences here, from raw adventure to the ultimate in pampering, the thing that stands out is service, and a universal warmth that makes you feel welcome. “It makes the people come back,” our guide Pepe had said, and for us, it surely will.
Museo de la Isla de Cozumel
You’ll likely stroll past this yellow edifice as you amble along the downtown waterfront; step inside and check out exhibits about the history and ecology of the island (including diving), a re-creation of a Maya palapa, works by local artists and photographers, and a popular cafe with seaside views.
Five hundred years ago, women made pilgrimages to this Maya mecca to honor Ixchel, goddess of fertility and love. Today the small collection of ruins mid-island — Cozumel’s only official archaeological site (above) — is mostly open to the public.
BABY TURTLE BRIGADE
Raccoons, vultures, crabs, crocs — that’s what’s waiting to snap up baby sea turtles along Cozumel’s southern beaches, nesting grounds for green and loggerhead turtles. They were once hunted by islanders, but today it’s a minimum 9-year sentence to kill or sell a turtle, and populations have rebounded. Volunteers give the tiny creatures a leg up, literally, by digging out mature nests and releasing hatchlings at the waterline at Punta Sur Eco Beach Park. Visitors can join these sunset missions from mid-June to mid-November.
Spectacular formations in vivid hues create swim-throughs and caverns that host lush, gorgeous sponges of all types, plus turtles, sharks, stingrays and grouper. Look for the giant anchor toward the end of the dive, and the eponymous bricks — ballast from a forgotten wreck.
Muck diving in Cozumel? You might think so from the parade of critters in the sand along this low-profile reef at 55 to 60 feet, including sailfin blennies, splendid toadfish, dragonet and pipe seahorses.
The wall starts at about 25 feet and steps down to 3,000 or more. Divers drop to 70 or 80 feet to drift along at 2 knots or so, exploring big, colorful formations that are home to small stuff too, and many feeding and cleaning stations.
Punta Sur / Cathedral
Currents can be challenging around these five pinnacles that rise from about 120 feet at the sand. Their tops, at about 65 feet, are full of life. (If you want to do famed Devil’s Throat, at the northern end of this site, make sure you are with an operator willing to go to 100 feet or deeper.)
Average water temp: 75 degrees in winter to 85 degrees in summer
What to wear: 3 to 5 mm wetsuit
Average viz 100 feet
When to go: year-round
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