Cozumel is one of the most famous Mexican island “balnearios” or seaside resort towns in the Caribbean sea. Located just across the way from Playa del Carmen, it is a very convenient stop for cruise ships. Another municipality in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula, it is famed for its snorkeling/scuba diving and shopping. Once a bustling Mayan pilgrimage site to fertility, now tourists arrive in droves to sip on cervezas and eat tacos.
Sorry, that’s a bit reductive, but I think the rich history of this region is lost amongst the thick blanket of tourism that is now its main economy. And I’m also a little salty that the main Cozumel museum was closed when I visited. Saltier than the rim of a fresh marg.
Even though I’m not the biggest fan, I get why its included in just about every cruise to this region. It’s the closest to “American” as you can get, full of creature comforts with which tourists are already familiar. The main city is San Miguel de Cozumel and it’s a big oceanside strip mall with plenty of opportunity for offshore excursions and money making for the local economy. And it brings it quite a bit of cash flow through the region, so you can’t hate too much. There were plenty of offerings on our cruise, from trips to the mainland, ecological parks, dolphin encounters (always dolphin encounters!).
As a person who likes to immerse themselves in the culture of a region, it was a shame that their museum was closed for renovations (as of March 2019). There is an opportunity to travel by ferry to Playa del Carmen on the mainland, which is a good starting point to get to Tulum or Cancun. The ultramar ferry is a little more costly but will get you there in 20+ minutes, the slower Winjet will get you there is about 45 minutes.
Otherwise, the port area is very sterile, very catered to tourists. There are, count ‘em, two Starbucks on the main drag. Immediately after disembarking from a ship, there is a huge shopping mall waiting. This is probably the best place to get your embroidery, shot glasses, miniature Dia de los Muertos skulls, what have you.
No joke, it’s a legit shopping center with a Hooters and a Senor Frogs. Again, ubiquitous Diamonds International and its sisters, Tanzanite and Zultanite International, silver shops, places where you can get those wind chimes and paper mache fish mobiles that they mark up at your local World Market. I don’t like being heckled or sold on things, and mainly that’s what souvenir hawkers try to do, so possibly why it’s not as enjoyable to me.
Tip for local vendors: I do like browsing like the rest of the world, but calling out Ni Hao will get you a lecture about how I am not china, Bonita or not.
If you travel further from the cruise port, you will happen upon more “local” vendors in tucked away little plazas and alleyways. Prices are all about the same, but at least it feels more authentic.
There’s lots of little flea markets and a big central plaza, el Parque Benito Juarez, where there’s A TON of restaurants to rest your weary feet. The large coral-hued clock was originally built in 1910 to celebrate the centennial of the War of Independence in 1810. It’s not the original one, and apparently it gets a new facelift every few years due to the harsh salt air.
If you are uppity, there’s also upmarket Cinco Soles which boasts a really fancy veranda restaurant in the back along with very beautiful, artisanal, curated (re: expensive) picks.
For all of my hating, I have to admit I did the most American thing in the world: I went to Starbucks. They provide clean bathrooms, and I’ll be damned if a pink drink wasn’t the most refreshing thing in the world after being baked by the Riviera Maya sun. The view can’t be beat either.
Also, keep your eye out for colorful art in form of murals and sculptures that are pervasive through town. Are they tourist photo ops? Yes. Do they make things more interesting? Also yes.