The Mexican island of Cozumel is an exciting place for all ages to learn to snorkel and dive. Find out the best places to stay and play.
Sitting just a few miles off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the pristine Caribbean, the island of Cozumel has long been a popular stop on the world-wide scuba diving circuit. Though it may be best known for its amazing coral reefs and diving schools, the island has many adventures to offer families with or without their scuba certification or personal snorkeling gear. But, if the kids have ever expressed an interest in underwater exploration, this is the place to learn.
Indeed, most families come to Cozumel for aqua-fun at the all-inclusive hotels and beach clubs. Just about every seaside property on the island offers some form of introduction to snorkeling for the younger ones, and scuba for teens and adults.
Going Down Under
Learn-to-snorkel and dive programs are conducted at the Melia Cozumel’s children’s pool, free of charge. Participants start out listening to introductory info and safety tips, then move into the water to get acquainted with the gear. Eventually they move out to the beach and just down the shore a bit, where a long pier partially encloses a shallow reef area, which is actually netted off from the open sea. Novice snorkelers and divers develop their ‘sea legs’ among some impressive coral formations. Later on, instructors of the younger children throw out food which attracts all kinds of fish. Soon little flippers are paddling around after schools of tropical swimmers that manage to stay just out of human reach.
Back in the lobby, the activities desk can arrange for a continued underwater adventure with any one of 30 or so dive operators on the island, which conduct daily tours of the many dive sites just off the shores of Cozumel, all catering to varying ability levels for both snorkeling and scuba.
As mentioned, some of Cozumel’s are known to be among the premier diving spots in the world but their availability may be limited, as several of the shallow water reefs are in the midst of recovery from damage suffered during October 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Inquire about the environmentally sensitive techniques being used; at our visit, pressured water hoses were being used in some areas to “wash” the sand off of reefs that had been smothered. Be sure to stop by the Museo de Isla de Cozumel on the main town’s waterfront promenage, where children will appreciate the bilingual display about coral reefs, how to keep them healthy, and the variety of plant and marine life that they’ll meet while snorkeling.
Family Resort & Amenities
Cozumel accommodations run the gamut from inexpensive downtown motels that cater to a hard-core diving crowd, to the five-star Intercontinental. With almost 4,000 rooms available, there’s certainly a lot to choose from, but for families, the moderately-priced all-inclusive hotels seem to be the best bet.
One such property, the four-star, all-inclusive Melia Cozumel Beach Resort ( 011 52/987/872-9870), is ideal for wave-crashing families. Just a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown San Miguel (where the ferry from Playa del Carmen stops), the Melia Cozumel offers 89 attractive standard rooms decorated in a Caribbean motif, many with ocean views, all with private terraces.
Parents will appreciate the full days of activities, nearby golf course, supervised events for ages through 16, a games room, and lots of watersports fun. The resort’s 46 bright junior suites, where two children 12 and under stay free with parents, provide plenty of space for a family of four. As with any all-inclusive, we didn’t pay out of pocket for anything, including watersports like sea kayaking and paddleboat rentals, or any other activities, such as horseback riding and tennis, that are offered onsite.
And despite what you may think, all the food at the buffets was quite tasty, though it certainly doesn’t compare to the handful of excellent Mexican cuisine dining options that can be found in town, most notably the Casa Mission and the casual but excellent Las Palmeras.
In 2005, the Melia chain extended its very popular association with The Flintstones characters to the resort’s Yabba-Dabba-Doo Bazaar, kids club programming, themed gardens and swimming pools. The kids club looks like a blast. Kids from ages 4-12 and an enthusiastic staff spend the afternoon swimming at the kid’s pool (the second pool on-site is reserved for adults), then learning Caribbean-style dance routines.
Later, we saw the whole group get up on a small stage and perform for appreciative parents and onlookers. It really looked like all were enjoying themselves.
Exploring The Island
For those looking for a fun day trip or a change of pace, the Chankanaab Lagoon water park is just a few minutes south of town. It is one part beach club (with white sand beach, two seaside restaurants, snorkeling, jet skiing, volleyball, live music, etc.), one part botanical gardens (beautiful, with over 350 species of native plants), one part Dolphin Discovery center (where kids can experience a ‘swim with the dolphins’ program and watch a SeaWorld-type sea lion show), and one part island overview, with miniature replicas of the archaeological sites on Cozumel and details on Mayan history.
I’ll vouch that at my last visit, the park was clean and well kept, though the hotel beachfront was less crowded. However, it’s been closed for several months while repairing damage done by Hurricane Wilma and you’ll have to tell me what it’s like when it reopens. I do recall that the dolphin shows are done better elsewhere throughout the Caribbean. On the plus side, there is a shallow coral reef here that’s perfect for youngsters who have really taken an interest in snorkeling, but aren’t quite ready for a trip out on a dive boat. The park is open daily from 7:00AM to 5:00PM. Admission to the park is US$16 for adults and US$8 for children ages 3-11.
While the here and now on Cozumel is very obviously the ultra-modern resort and diving scene, the island’s past can provide visitors with an altogether different type of adventure. Originally settled over 2,000 years ago by the Maya Indians, Cozumel has seen numerous civilizations and cultures come and go, and come back again. While there are a number of monuments and buildings on the island celebrating the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the remnants of those original inhabitants’ communities on Cozumel provide the most fascinating glimpse of the history of the island.
Though not quite to the scale of the more popular Mayan ruins at ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡ and Tulum on the mainland (which are worthwhile day trips if you have the time), the temples and structures at the San Gervasio archeological site are indeed something to be seen if your travel itinerary doesn’t include the Yucatan Penninsula.
A 20-minute drive from the center of San Miguel, San Gervasio consists of a clearing in the thick tropical growth that covers the island, where, in differing condition, a half-dozen stone structures sit, excavated. A handful of Maya Indian families who have returned over the years to settle where their ancestors once thrived, serve as tour guides at the site. Their explanations and tales illuminate a visit; as lizards scamper about and large birds call out from the trees, one can almost see the Mayan village come to life. Our guide, with a heavy accent, told of the uses of the structures, the meaning and lure associated with various monuments and statues, and customs and practices of daily Mayan life a few thousand years ago.
Though one may be hesitant to shop for local goods at such an obvious tourist stop, the woodcarvings and jewelry for sale here seem more interesting than most of what’s offered to the masses off the cruise ships on the main streets of San Miguel, so go ahead and browse. Admission to the site and the guided tour is just US$6 per person, while children under 11 are admitted free of charge.
Preserving The Environment
Driving inland from San Miguel through the jungle along the paved Transversal Road, away from the bustling town, cruiseship tourists, and hotels, you will arrive on the far side, where Cozumel is amazingly transformed into a lazy, gorgeous tropical hideaway. Save for an occasional oceanside cafÃ©, the newly repaved east coast road of the island is void of development and crowds; just a long road that runs along the rocky waterline, buttressed on the other shoulder by mile after mile of federally protected marshland.
Though not ideal for swimming, as tides and rocky outcroppings prevent sandy beaches from taking hold, this coast is a prime sea turtle viewing area from May through September. (Sea Turtle Tours must be done with an organized tour.) Families eager for break in the sand and in the shallowest part of the surf should stop at Playa Bonita and El Mirador, two sand stretches with small sand-under-foot cafes and vendors, where the undertow is milder.
At the far southern end of the west coast drive sits Punta Sur Ecological Preserve. A Mexican national park, this 250-acre expanse of inland mangrove jungles, white sand beaches and stunning reef formations is unknown to most who visit the island. At the entrance to the park, an information center provides details on wildlife that may be spotted. Two tall, wooden observation towers have been built to give visitors a grand lay of the swampy land, and bicycles as well as kayaks are rented to provide the best access to Punta Sur.
Near the information center, the operational Punta Celarain Lighthouse beacons anyone with some extra energy to climb the hundreds of steps up to the light deck for a bird’s eye view of the coastline. In the base of the lighthouse, an excellent museum charts the history of sea navigation in the region; and the kids will get a kick out of a history of the real life ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ All in all, Punta Sur is the perfect area to take in the unspoiled beauty of Cozumel, spot an alligator or two, and sit on a beach that you may have all to yourself.
Again, at my most recent visit, the access roads to these two sites were closed due to hurricane damage, but I can’t imagine that a rebuilt natural paradise could be any less worthwhile than the original one.
Keeping Your Head Above Water
For more information on the island of Cozumel and all of the properties and parks mentioned above, check out www.islacozumel.com.mx or call the Cozumel Tourist Bureau at 011 52/987 20972.
Special Note: Although it may not seem so at times, with English spoken by the staff at hotels and restaurants, and prices listed everywhere in U.S. dollars, Cozumel is part of Mexico, and some travel rules still apply (avoid tap water and street food).
In the town of San Miguel you can easily rent a Jeep or other 4WD vehicle for touring the island. Drive carefully: cruise ship passengers invade in late morning, scoop up hundreds of mopeds and ATVs, visit several bars, and sometimes just take off!
One more thing: if you’re looking for a real Mexican cultural experience, stroll away from the center of San Miguel; the farther away from the cruise ships you get, the ‘realer’ it becomes. And check out the open-air Mercado Benito Juarez on Salas Street. It’s an exceptional view of modern life, not to be missed on a family’s first foray in Mexico.
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