It’s not another Cancún yet, but Cozumel’s days as a rustic divers’ hangout are history. Whether arriving at the airport or the gleaming ferry terminal, visitors soon realize there’s nothing deserted about this island.
That has its advantages. It’s rare to find such stunning natural beauty, crystal-clear aquamarine seas, and vast marine life combined with top-flight visitor services and accommodations. As a result, Cozumel’s devotees are legion. Divers sharing stories of lionfish and sharks sit table-to-table with families tanned from a day at the beach club, while Mexican couples spin and step to salsa music in the central plaza. But the elephant in Cozumel’s big and bountiful room is the throngs of cruise-ship passengers who take over the countless craft and jewelry stores along the seaward boulevard downtown any day there are ships in port—which is to say, just about every day except Sunday. But take just a few steps off the beaten path and you’ll soon see that the country’s third-largest island offers big rewards. Windswept beaches, wild and vibrant natural parks, and miles of coral reef are still yours for the discovering.
Irregularly shaped, Cozumel is, at most, 48 km (30 miles) long and 15 km (9 miles) wide. Plaza Central, or just "El Centro," is the heart of San Miguel, directly across from the ferry docks that serve Playa del Carmen. Residents congregate here in the evening, especially on weekends, when free concerts begin at 8 pm. Heading inland (east) takes you away from the tourist zone and toward residential areas of town. Most of the island’s restaurants, hotels, stores, and dive shops are concentrated downtown and along the two hotel zones that fan out on the leeward coast to the north and south of San Miguel. Cozumel’s solitude-seeking windward side has a few beach-bar restaurants, one hotel, and miles of deserted beaches.