As Mexico’s third-largest island and home to windswept beaches, vibrant natural parks, and miles of coral reef, the Island of Cozumel has evolved from being a rustic divers’ hangout into one of the region’s most desirable destinations.
Upon hearing its name for the first time it’s common for travelers to ask, “where is Cozumel?” Located 12 miles off of the Yucatan Peninsula shoreline just south of Playa del Carmen, this popular destination is home to some of the Riviera Maya’s most exotic beaches, marine life, snorkel and dive sites, and excursions. When the numerous cruise ships clear out of its port, the charming “centro” (center) of San Miguel is often filled with locals dancing to traditional Mexican music and enjoying the local cuisine.
With most of its restaurants, hotels, shops, and underwater activities located near the city center and along the two hotel zones that expand north and south along the leeward side of the island, Cozumel is a bit calmer than some of its nearby neighbors, such as Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
While it may be a more tranquil destination, Cozumel offers some of the best underwater activities and excursions throughout the entire Riviera Maya. If you plan to visit this popular regional favorite, you’ll need to have a few excursions in mind. To help you select the best options available, below you find six unforgettable day trips to take during your stay.
1. Diving at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
If the island of Cozumel had to pick one thing to be famous for, it would most certainly be its unparalleled marine life and underwater excursions. Home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world, Cozumel offers over 45 dive sites along this incredible underwater life source, which extends down the Mexican coast all the way to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.With numerous dive operators in the area, both independent and private, visitors have limitless options for single or multi-day diving excursions.
Known for its easy drift dives, advanced deep-water excursions, stellar visibility, vibrant colors, diverse marine life, and year-round warm waters, there is no better place to witness life below the surface. With options to experience shallow, colorful dive sites as well as deeper drift sites along steep, underwater walls and swim-throughs, both experienced and beginning divers are sure to find an excursion that meets their needs and experience levels. For those still unsure of deeper waters, there are also plenty of Cozumel snorkeling opportunities around the island.
During the underwater adventures, divers are sure to catch a glimpse of the nearly 500 fish species and wide variety of corals, sea turtles, groupers, moray eels, nurse sharks, and toadfish. When in Cozumel, its evident that you will need a day or two reserved especially for these un-matched underwater expeditions. Some of Cozumel’s top dive sites include Palancar Reef, Chankanaab Reef, Barracuda Reef, and Columbia Deep.
2. Cozumel ATV Excursions
If you’re feeling crunched for time and don’t think you will have enough days to dedicate each one to any single particular activity, not to worry! Cozumel ATV excursions are the perfect option for exploring the island while hitting many of its most well known attractions. Participants will have the opportunity to explore the island’s dense jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, stunning beaches, fresh-water cenotes (sinkholes), and hidden caves.
Sites such as San Gervasio, a pre-Columbian Mayan civilization historically known as Tantum Cuzamil, and Chankanaab, a coastal cenote located in the Marine National Park of Cozumel, are two of the most praised stops during the tour. Participants will also have the option of stopping to enjoy many of the island’s hidden beaches and even partake in underwater activities, such as snorkeling.
The sites visited during ATV excursions are characteristic of the islands claim to fame – incredibly diverse marine life, crystal clear waters, pristine beaches, and ancient history. The best part – you get to cruise the island on your own ATV away from the crowds! Additional activities such as swimming with dolphins, flying through the air on coastal zip-lines, and kayaking in open waters are offered by select operators.
One popular activity among participants is diving down to witness the underwater Christ and Virgin sculptures found at the Chankanaab reef. In between activities, riders will be exposed to the nearly 350 local plant species that line the jungle paths and spill out to the island’s shores. Needless to say, these ATV excursions are not meant for simply riding around the island, but exploring the many hidden gems that call Cozumel home.
3. Cenote Tour
Simply put, cenotes are the iconic natural treasures of the Yucatan Peninsula. These naturally occurring sinkholes expose visitors to the majestic bodies of water and underground rock formations found below the Yucatan Peninsula. Formed over the millennia by the Riviera Maya’s massive underground river system (the largest in the world), this network of underground wells, caves and rivers houses an extraordinary environment of aquatic life and spellbinding underwater rock formations.
With more than 7,000 cenotes hidden in the peninsula’s jungles, it would be a crime not to witness their mystic beauty during your stay. With numerous local cenote tours that offer day trips to the most iconic cenotes in all of the Riviera Maya, visitors are able to plan their excursions at almost any time throughout the week.
Leaving directly from Cozumel via Ferry to the mainland and nearby Playa del Carmen, most tours include visits to between 2-4 cenotes throughout the region. Visits to cenotes of different types, such as open cenotes, semi-open cenotes, and cave or “closed” cenotes expose visitors to their diverse beauty. Not only are visitors offered the opportunity to visit these fascinating, natural creations, but are also able to explore their deep wells, underwater caves, and exquisite marine life via stimulating activities such as swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and even zip-lining.
Popular cenotes frequented during tours include, but are not limited to, Cenote Ik Kil, Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Xkeken, and Gran Cenote. If that doesn’t have you sold, most tours also include all necessary excursion equipment, transportation, lunch, water, and additional snacks. If your wish is to witness some of the most impeccable and heart-stopping natural landscapes, both above and below the earth’s surface, the Yucatan’s cenote tours are the perfect activity for you. Don’t miss out – go witness the absolute best cenotes in Riviera Maya. You won’t be disappointed.
4. Chankanaab National Park Manatee Encounter
While a number of underwater activities can be found all throughout the Riviera Maya, ranging from snorkeling and diving, to cenote and underwater museum excursions, the island of Cozumel offers visitors one particular activity available nowhere else in the entire Caribbean. Located just off its shores at Chankanaab National Park, locals and travelers alike are granted the opportunity to partake in the infamous Manatee Excursion!
One of the world’s most unique marine creatures once referred to as the “mermaids of the sea” by early explorers, Manatees are sea grass grazing, marine mammals that can measure up to 13 feet long (4 meters) and a weight of 1300 pounds (590 kilograms)! While these endangered species are rarely seen in the wild, Cozumel’s Manatee Encounter allows visitors the chance to get close up and personal with these charismatic, gentle giants.
For those staying on the island, a quick car or taxi ride to Chankanaab National Park is the best way to arrive, while those from the mainland will need to take the Ferry from Playa del Carmen. The excursion lasts for approximately one hour and includes entrance to the park, interaction with the Manatees, English-speaking instructor, and all-day use of Chankanaab National Park facilities. Although the encounter itself only takes about one hour, other popular activities and underwater excursions are located right there in the park, making this location one of the best one day get-a-ways.
Go snorkeling at the world-class Chankanaab National Reef, zip-lining through the surrounding forest, to the park’s tequila tasting events, or to its thrilling alligator exhibition. It’s safe to say, this day one-of-a-kind experience has more to offer than most, and it may just inspire you to open up some more time for a second (or even third) round of exploring!
5. Cozumel Submarine Tour
While boat tours like the Cozumel catamaran excursions are definitely worth the experience, its Cozumel’s submarine tours that have people talking. Yes. That’s correct. The island of Cozumel offers visitors a truly remarkable underwater sea excursion via its very own eco-friendly submarines! Equipped with 26 side portholes and one large viewport across the bow of the submarine, participants are exposed to intimate views of the extraordinary Chankanaab Coral Reef, the second largest in the world.
This day excursion onboard a submarine has become one of the island’s most in-demand underwater activities, as it transports visitors of all ages to depths of over 100 feet (30 meters) below the water’s surface, exposing them to some of the world’s most captivating coral reefs and marine life, including exotic fish, sea turtles, and manta rays. Lead by a professionally trained guide, and lasting anywhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours, participants will not only witness life on the seafloor, but will also learn about the marine ecosystem and the critical role in plays in sustaining life on earth.
One of the excursion’s biggest draws is that anyone can participate. This means that those who prefer to stay dry and/or are unable to partake in diving activities are provided with the equal opportunity of witnessing the sea’s truly exceptional flora and fauna. In addition, participants will witness the sunken ship known as Felipe Xicotencatl, located 50 feet (15 meters) below the water’s surface, as well as the 400 foot (122 meter) vertical reef drop known as “The Wall”. As you pass over the steep drop, be prepared to look down nearly 1,800 feet (550 meters) below.
Now, that’s what I call deep-sea exploration! To add to the experience, complimentary snacks and drinks are provided during the excursion, and participants can sunbathe on the boats that take them to and from the submarines. This is truly an experience you won’t want to miss. With the secrets of the deep sea etched on your brain, you will truly have made vacation memories that will last a lifetime.
6. Tulum Mayan Ruins
When visiting the Riviera Maya, regardless of your destination choice, there is one activity that each and every visitor must experience – a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins that populate the Yucatan Peninsula. With hundreds of archeological sites throughout the region, travelers and locals alike have more than enough opportunities to visit these once powerful, thriving Mayan cities.
One such city is that of Tulum. Located 45 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, Cozumel visitors need only take a short ferry ride to the mainland where numerous tours gather prior to beginning the excursion. Although smaller than the famous Chichen Itza, Tulum is perhaps the most well preserved coastal Mayan city, as well as the second most visited in the entire country.
Roughly 800 years old, this ancient port city served as both a strategic trading post as well as a fortress against enemies approaching by sea. Perched atop a 40 foot (12 meter) cliff, Tulum offers visitors a drastic and mesmerizing view of the Caribbean Sea. Its mighty stone structures set against the sea’s turquoise waters makes for a truly breathtaking sight. Tours usually last up to two hours, allowing time for a guided tour, free time to explore, and a quick visit to the pristine beach found at the sites base. Transportation to and from the site is usually carried out via air-conditioned vans with English-speaking tour guides.
Options to go on your own are also available, however, in order to learn about these impeccable ancient cities and their inhabitants, a guided tour is highly recommended. After all, it’s important to remember that the stunning region known today as the Riviera Maya was once inhabited by an ancient people whose traditions and customs can still be found in present-day Mexican culture.
Cozumel, a part from being one of Mexico’s greatest treasures, is one of the most unique islands in the world. With pristine waters, vibrant marine life, exquisite coral reefs, natural wonders, and a prime location, it’s no wonder that this once small, uninhabited island has transformed into one of the Riviera Maya’s most popular destinations. If you are one of the hundreds of thousands of travelers that choose to visit this year, be sure to save time for the island’s truly awesome nature excursions and archeological tours. They are sure to leave you with a life-long, unforgettable impression.