Sailing the high seas is a tradition that has been around for centuries. There's something very old-world and romantic about boarding a floating palace and setting off for a new corner of the globe. We recently found ourselves setting sail on our first Caribbean cruise, and we realized how fun and relaxing cruising can be. While we thoroughly enjoyed exploring three different ports (and only having to unpack once), we wished we were able to spend more than just a day at each destination.
One of our favorite ports on the itinerary: Cozumel, Mexico. After our experiences in Cozumel, we discovered that this island city is ideal for day-trippers as it is a relatively small and easy to traverse. Between the ice-cold cervezas, white-sand beaches, and pristine diving (vetted by Jacques Cousteau himself), you're sure to find a little something to please everyone while docked at this port.
For those who want it all
Shopping, drinks, and authentic Mexican comida can be found as soon as you exit the port in Cozumel. Our first recommendation for any visitor to Mexico is to head straight to a nearby market, stand, or grocery store where you can pick yourself up a nice cold Mexican Coca Cola. This beverage tastes like magic (slow clap for real cane sugar) and pairs well with the hot Caribbean sun.
Viewfinder Tip: Get to Chankanaab National Park early if you want to secure prime beachfront real estate and shaded lounge chairs.
Once you've got your Coke in hand, hail a cab and head to Chankanaab National Park. The park is open to visitors from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, and the admission price includes access to the beach, pool, botanical garden, and educational sea life shows. Chankanaab is perfect for groups with limited time and varying activity preferences, as you have your choice between tanning on the beach, hiking nature trails, or chartering your own snorkel or dive tour. Word on the street is you can even get a massage with the beautiful lagoon as your backdrop. And never fear, there's a Tequila Factory on the premises for those of legal drinking age.
For the independent traveler
Trade the taxi for a bicycle and take yourself on a self-guided tour of downtown San Miguel. For about US$15, you can rent an iron steed to ride for the entire day. There are many bicycle outfitters to choose from. Ask around for the best price and feel free to negotiate if you need to. A little haggling can go a long way.
Secure your helmet and start your day with a little bit of local history by pedaling to El Museo. This museum features art displays by local artists and an exhibit on the island's heritage and history. To continue on your "Tour de Cozumel," head to El Mercado. This traditional market is a great place to sample fresh squeezed juices, grab a snack, and interact with the locals.
You may whet your appetite at the market, but save room in your stomach for some authentic Yucatán dining. For a sample of fresh seafood, head to Camillos (across from the The Sports Bar on Avenida 5). Breaded shrimp tacos start are cheap and the shrimp stuffed avocados are not to be missed. La Candela (on the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 6) is a dining haunt that's popular with locals. The restaurant offers large flavorful portions with hot plates and cold beer. Try the chicken tacos or a generous helping of the chicken and rice soup. If you're only in the mood for a light snack, order the guacamole with freshly made tortilla chips.
Once your bellies are full, spend the rest of your bike tour exploring inner San Miguel. The colorful houses, eccentric murals, and friendly locals make for a captivating ride. If you're feeling a little more ambitious, you even can cycle yourself to the aforementioned Chankanaab National Park for a little afternoon frolic on the beach.
For adventure lovers
Some of the most beautiful beaches on Cozumel are on the east side of the island. Those who love the feel of the wind in their hair will enjoy exploring the island by scooter. Do a little research to find the best rental shop for you. But consider this: We recommend only renting a scooter if you've had previous experience operating a 2-wheeled motorized vehicle, as there's nothing like an unexpected road accident to ruin a good vacation.
Once you're on your new speed machine, the fastest way to cut across the island is on the Carretera Transversal (cross island road). This 10-mile thoroughfare will lead you to the beautiful Playa Punta Morena. The views only get better from there. The east side of the island is significantly underdeveloped and lacks the monstrous hotels that line the port. There's only green shrubbery and blue ocean for the majority of your drive.
Follow the steady line of white sand beaches and straw-thatched cabanas east until you reach Mezcalito's Beach Bar and Grill. This is the place to enjoy a cold margarita while taking in the blue hues of the ocean. Spend a few hours sobering up in the cool ocean water or swaying in one of Mezcalito's many hammocks. Once you're good enough to motor out, follow the road southeast until you're back at port.
What sorts of activities do you seek out on shore days of a cruise?
Cruising is renowned as a romantic form of travel. Chris and I always have had visions of us traveling by sea, visiting new countries, and soaking up the sun. While both of us have spent a considerable amount of time on the water, neither of us ever had taken a cruise before. We thought we were prepared to set sail, but soon discovered that we knew very little about the cruising lifestyle. To ensure that you get the most out of your future cruise, we've made a list of some of the lessons and surprises we experienced at sea.
First, some background. We went big (well, HUGE) for our first cruise. Hopping on-board the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, was almost like setting foot on a floating Las Vegas Strip resort. Our ship (apparently only landlubbers refer to it as a "boat") featured an assortment of restaurants, bars, and shopping options to please every type of traveler. With all of the options on-board we almost forgot about the three destinations on our itinerary: Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private island off the coast of Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; and Cozumel, Mexico.
Making yourself at home is easy
To be honest, Chris and I weren't sure if cruising was going to be for us. We are backpackers at heart, and love the thrill of having our possessions on our backs and at the ready the second that adventure calls. Imagine our surprise when we realized that we would be able to visit three different countries on our cruise and only unpack once! This was a luxury that we didn't even know we adored. It also was convenient on shore days when we could explore with just a few necessary items instead of lugging around everything we owned. We had the added reassurance that our belongings were safely locked away in our cabin.
Viewfinder Tip: Room service is available on-board most cruise ships, for those who wish to cozy up in their cabins. The Oasis of the Seas allowed us to order either by in-room phone or through the TV.
The dining options are endless
Until we went on a cruise, the first things that popped into our heads when asked about dining were overwhelming buffets with long lines. What we didn't expect was the plethora of dining options (25, to be exact) on-board the Oasis. A burger shack, pizzeria, and buffet allowed for quick dining on the go. If we wanted to enjoy a sit-down restaurant with full menu, we had our choice of the elaborate dining hall or pay-as-you-go restaurants. My favorite dining spot was Park Cafe located in Central Park (yes, our ship had its own "outdoor" park with real plants and trees). The Park Cafe served up made-to-order salads and sandwiches, my favorite being the grilled tuna melt with creamy avocado. It was a light and healthy meal that gave me the perfect fuel for the day.
For those who like to drink their carbs, the Oasis of the Seas is home to 20 bars that serve up specialty cocktails and an assortment of beer. In our opinion, the bar with the best people-watching was the British-themed Globe and Atlas Pub. As for the most memorable bar on-board, the Rising Tide Bar is the first-ever moving bar at sea—it rises slowly, like an elevator, every 15 minutes. Regardless of which watering hole you choose, be sure to sample my favorite concoction, the Captain's Caipirinha, made with muddled lime, rum, and simple syrup. Ahoy, mateys!
Staying fit on board is easy
Indulging in the unlimited food left us feeling a little guilty. To prevent the swimsuits from getting too snug, we decided to attempt to work out whenever possible. We challenged ourselves never to take the elevator (which ended up being a huge feat as our cabin was on the bottom floor) and instead hoof it up the stairs. We estimate that we climbed well over 50 flights of stairs every days. This gave us cause to indulge in the scrumptious Bailey's and banana creme brûlée.
Stairs aside, we also took advantage of the ship's high-tech gym and outdoor jogging track. The track allowed us to feel like we were walking (or running) on water; 2.5 laps around the ship equal one mile. While it's typical for us to gain a little weight on trips, with this one we both actually came back a little lighter. I'm sure the on-board fitness options played a big part.
There are opportunities to get fancy
It's no secret that Chris and I like to get dressed in our best and hit the town for a date night. We were warned ahead of time that there would be a Captain's dinner on one night, and, not exactly knowing what this meant, we packed our moderately elegant clothes. Little did we know that this was a night to get serious; I'm talking sparkling ball gowns and stilettos. As two people who normally overdress, we were slightly embarrassed by our seemingly plain attire. We would recommend treating yourself to a new outfit. Ties and a jacket for the guys and lavish dresses for the ladies would be perfect for the Captain's dinner.
Beverages are not free
One could easily live on-board the ship without spending a dime; almost everything is taken care of before you even board. That being said, before you board the ship for the first time, you'll submit a credit card for any expenses you accrue while sailing. And while you can have endless plates of food at the buffet, almost any beverage that isn't water will be put on your tab. As two people that enjoy their liquid libations, we realized that our drink bill was piling up quickly. If we were to do it again, we would purchase a drink package ahead of time.
You'll never be bored on-board
Knowing that Chris and I are two people who need constant stimulation, our friends feared that cruising would be too tame for us. It couldn't have been more opposite. We found there was so much to do. We even left feeling that we could have done more.
Our favorite features on-board were the indoor ice rink (you heard that right), the 18,000 sq. foot Casino (jackpot!), and the wet and wild FlowRider. The FlowRider is an artificial wave pool (there are two on-deck) that allow the brave to practice their surfing and boogie-boarding skills. When we wanted to relax we headed to the Solarium. This little slice of heaven, with a wall of windows, was for adults only, and had some of the best views on the ship. While we loved getting off the ship on shore days, we often found ourselves excited at the prospect of being back on-board, sipping another Captain's Caipirinha. Who knew cruising could be so fun?
What are your favorite aspects of cruising?
Cozumel, off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the Caribbean’s most popular tourist destinations with an international airport offering daily flights from a number of major airlines and a host of accommodations to fit every budget and vacation style. We recently spent the day in Cozumel when it was one of the ports of call on our Holland America seven-day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the MS Nieuw Amsterdam. With three piers to receive international cruise ships, Cozumel has become a very popular destination for day visitors, and we're here to tell you all about it.
Getting around Cozumel is easy. The island is just about 10 miles wide and 28 miles long. You can rent a car, scooter, or bicycle to explore on your own, or take a charter or sail boat for a pre-arranged excursion. If you go for the latter, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and a brimmed hat are a must. It gets mighty hot here, especially in the late spring and summer months. Most importantly, stay hydrated. However, guzzling margaritas at every stop doesn’t count.
One of my favorite places to walk from the port is Los Cinch Soles, a.k.a. The Five Suns, a beautiful shop where you can buy authentic Mexican arts & crafts, silver jewelry, and over a dozen varieties of tequila. If you’re a baker, I suggest stocking up on their organically-grown vanilla that is very reasonably priced.
Wander out back to the lush tropical garden and you’ll find Poncho’s Patio, featuring live marimba music, killer margaritas, and authentic local Mexican dishes like veracruzana, guacamole with chips, and tamales. This is a great option if you want to get a taste of Mexico without venturing far from the port.
A short cab ride away you’ll find Mr. Sanchos Beach Club, a relaxed atmosphere with a full-service restaurant, featuring a white sandy beach with palm huts, swinging chairs, and tropical umbrellas, serving up exotic libations with an ocean view. If you want to do more than just take in the sun, Mr. Sanchos has plenty to keep you entertained. You can take an ATV tour, go horseback riding along the shore, play ping pong, or even get a beach massage. There is something here for everyone.
Back in the early 1960s, famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited Cozumel, which at that time was a well-kept secret. He discovered Palancar, a beautiful coral reef on the southwest side of the island and shared it with the world. This underwater paradise has since become a mecca for divers. The diving conditions in Cozumel are ideal for everyone, from novices to experts. Divers of all skill levels rave about the brilliant colors and plethora of underwater sea life.
If you’re not a diver but want to experience marine life, head to Chankanaab National Park, a conservation area for fauna, flora, and marine life. Snorkel (or dive) around the reef and you’ll see tropical fish, underwater sculptures, caverns, and colorful coral. If you have kids, they will love the Dolphin Discovery feature of the park. You can even swim with manatees, visit crocodiles, or if your not so touchy-feely, watch a sea lion show. Stroll through the botanical garden and you’ll see a replica of a Mayan settlement. Keep your eyes peeled for iguanas because they roam freely here. Oh, and did I mention there’s a tequila tasting?
If you like deep-sea fishing, Cozumel’s crystal-clear blue waters are a sport fishing wonderland, home to blue marlin, sailfish, wahoo, tuna, dorado (mahi mahi), barracuda, and grouper. Many local restaurants will even cook up your catch for you. Fish tacos anyone?
If you’re looking to go where all the tourists go for a rowdy, let-your-hair-down, tequila-shooting, bead-throwing, anything goes good time, don’t miss Carlo’s ‘N Charlie's or Senor Frogs. They’re high energy fun for the young adult and young at heart.
Viewfinder Tip: Don't be afraid to negotiate for your purchase. It's all part of the experience.
If it's a deal you're after, then head off-the-beaten-path to a shop where Rick calls it, "haggling," and I call it, "bickering." It made my palms sweat and I was overcome by waves of nausea (though I'm not sure whether it was a result of all the negotiating or just the bean burrito I had for lunch).
There’s an art to shopping in Cozumel and few things are the price they are marked. They say that if a store has air conditioning then they aren't likely to bargain. That's the price you have to pay to stay cool in Cozumel. The farther you get away from the waterfront, the more likely you are to get a better deal. There is an art to bargaining and it should be a civilized discussion on the price. Start the negotiating by offering 50% of the asking price and let the game of cat and mouse begin. It’s a dance and a ballet of pesos, although U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Cozumel. When you reach your bottom line, be prepared to put forth your best award-winning performance. Remember to keep the conversation light and the negotiations fair and fun. There’s no need to go to war over a sombrero. After all, this is paradise!
What do you think would be your favorite activity to do in Cozumel?
What’s the best thing about diving in Cozumel? First of all, it’s in Mexico, one of our favorite vacation destinations in the world. The energy of the Yucatan Peninsula is always fun and upbeat and the minute we get off the plane, we can’t help but feel happy. Second, the waters of Cozumel have pristine coral reefs filled with an abundance of underwater wildlife that can be seen with amazing clarity. Cozumel is known for its crystal clear waters with visibility reaching over 100 feet.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island, located a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. In 1961 Jacques Cousteau discovered the magnificent diving here and declared the area as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world. Thanks in part to the popularity of diving in these waters, they were declared a national marine park in 1996. This has allowed the reef to thrive and the wildlife to flourish, making for one of the most sensational diving experiences you're likely to ever have, with wildlife and colorful reefs waiting to be seen at every turn.
Viewfinder Tip: Never touch or stand on coral. Diving places great stress on an ecosystem and responsible operators help protect the reef rather than destroy it.
Our trip to Cozumel was our first diving trip outside of Canada. I think Cozumel is the perfect trip for a first dive like this, since there is something for all levels and interests. The visibility is second to none and the water is warm. Whether you're a beginner or advanced diver, you’ll be astounded by the diversity of diving in Cozumel.
I’ll never forget going from diving the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River in Canada to experiencing the clarity of Palancar Reef in Mexico. We had never seen such beauty. A highlight was swimming through Palancar Garden and witnessing the amazing coral pillars jutting up from the sandy seabed. We swam through arches and around mountains of coral. Diving gives you the feeling of being on another planet and Cozumel definitely has an out-of-this-world landscape.
Cozumel is known for its swift current and it was here that we enjoyed many drift dives. We hopped in the water, relaxed, and then let the sea sweep us away. The fun of diving here is that you don’t have to work very hard while swimming, but just follow the current and you’ll drift lazily through the dive site with ease. While you can see spectacular reef systems and wildlife in merely 20 feet of water in Cozumel, we also managed many deep wall dives reaching 120 feet. The water is so clear that you don’t realize just how deep you are. It’s important to keep an eye on your gauges as it’s easy to dip past the 120-foot recreational dive limit.
Although diving deep is fun and exciting, our favorite dives were definitely the shallower dives. The underwater world is bursting with color that can’t be seen deep down. When you are in shallow waters, the sun ignites the coral and fish, making their colors more vibrant. In shallow water, your oxygen lasts longer, while wildlife is plentiful. There are over 250 species of fish in Cozumel and some of the highlights we saw on our dives included seahorses, trumpet fish, barracudas, eagle rays, and sharks. During one dive, we drifted above a black tip reef shark for most of our time underwater. He could have been drifting in the same current, or maybe we were just his entertainment for the day. Whatever it was, we were happy to have him along for the ride. At the end of another dive, we found ourselves in very shallow water with a sandy bottom covered in a field of starfish. There were so many of them, I thought that the dive operator may have put them all out on display to amuse their clients. I had never seen anything like it.
On the mainland
Cozumel’s main attraction may be the Palancar Reef, but a must for divers is to head to the mainland for a day to explore the extraordinary cenotes of the Riviera Maya. Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes created by a cave ceiling collapsing. This sinkhole gives you access to underground rivers that can be explored by divers and snorkelers alike.
Choosing a dive vacation in Cozumel gives you plenty of time to explore underwater and because many of the dive sites are just a short boat ride away, it cuts the travel time down, giving you more time to enjoy the island above water as well. You can spend an entire week on the island of Cozumel and never get bored. It’s a world-class vacation destination with resorts and spas, nearly deserted beaches, and the lively downtown of San Miguel. There’s even a ruin or two to explore. After all, Cozumel is in the heart of the Mayan Riviera, once inhabited by the great Mayan nation. So if you do make your next diving vacation a trip to Cozumel, make sure to get out of the water every once in a while and see all the activities the island has to offer.
Where is your favorite diving destination in the world?
Header photo above of Cenote courtesy of Expert Vagabond