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Cruisin’ Sunny Cozumel

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Cruisin’ Sunny Cozumel

Our family loves warm water and sunny beaches, especially when exotic marine life and colorful coral wait beneath the waves. In fact, we’re always on the lookout for new places to build sandcastles and chase fish. “Then you must have loved Cozumel,” said my travel writer colleague Maribeth Mellin. Oops. I’d heard of this destination in Mexico, but never seriously considered going there. When I looked at a map I remembered why: the island of Cozumel appears to be close to the city of Cancun — renowned for frat-party fun — and I’d foolishly lumped the two places together. “No way,” said Mellin, author of a dozen Mexico guidebooks. “They’re nothing alike.”

 

As a result of this conversation, three generations of our family spent two weeks in beautiful Cozumel in December — and Mellin was never far from my thoughts. “How could I not have known about this wonderful place?” I repeatedly wondered.

Sunset from Casa de Las Flores
Sunset from Casa de Las Flores

The island is about 26 miles long and 8 miles wide. The east coast faces the Caribbean Sea, while the west is 12 miles from the Riviera Maya on the mainland. Most of the 90,000 unfailingly kind and helpful residents live in the town of San Miguel. Moreover, Cozumel is easily the cleanest, safest place I’ve ever been in Mexico. Hotels abound, but we rented a house from Cozumel Paradise Villas and enjoyed having plenty of space, our own pool, and a scenic waterfront location. (www.cozumelparadisevillas.com)  

Casa de Las Flores is the perfect family home-away-from-home
Casa de Las Flores is the perfect family home-away-from-home


Two weeks sounds like a long time, but it was barely long enough for us to sample all that Cozumel offers. Here are a few recommendations:

 

Snorkel/Dive

Cozumel is surrounded by the second longest reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). We did a few shore snorkels, but had the most fun going out with Rene Mena on his Chili Charters boat. The first time he took us up the coast north of San Miguel where we saw lots of fish and several sting rays. We snorkeled with the current, and his captain followed us in Belinda while Mena helped spot marine life. He simply couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating.

Chili Charters is the best!
Chili Charters is the best!

Another day, our sortie with Mena included spots farther from the coast, including Cardona Reef and Columbia Shallows. This was a great experience with air and water temps about 80 degrees and visibility excellent. On this drift snorkel, I spotted lots of fish, a manta ray, and, most surprising, quite a few huge conch shells. After snorkeling, Mena took us to his favorite spot, El Cielo, a low island surrounded by shallow aquamarine water, where we played in the sea and devoured copious amounts of homemade guacamole and pico de gallo. (www.chilicharters.com)

The bright aquamarine water around El Cielo is breathtaking
The bright aquamarine water around El Cielo is breathtaking

Eat

We were pleasantly surprised by Cozumel’s great food. Mena recommended Parrilla Mission Restaurant because our son-in-law was craving tacos, but it was Cozumel’s super-fresh seafood that stole our hearts: empanadas filled with shredded shark, grilled camarones (shrimp), and lionfish at La Perlita; Mayan style dorado at Restaurante del Museo; fish fajitas at Chankanaab; and seafood soup, grouper en papillote, and lime soup at El Moro. (www.parrillamission.com, www.laperlitacozumel.com, www.cozumelinsider.com/museumrest, www.cozumelmexico.net/Cozumel-Restaurants)

Diners at beachfront Chen Rio Restaurant can wiggle their toes in the sand
Diners at beachfront Chen Rio Restaurant can wiggle their toes in the sand

In general, we found the best places to eat in residential neighborhoods well away from the cruise ship terminals on the waterfront. It was also fun to experiment at home with local ingredients — these ranged from the best-ever flour tortillas from Tortilleria Lucy to fruit, veggies, and amazing pastries purchased at super-modern Mega market. (www.cozumelmexico.net/Mega_supermarket)

Explore/Enjoy

Because we had our own wheels and no particular timetable, we could cruise around the island at will. At Chankanaab Park, an expansive west coast reserve covering both land and water, we explored a botanical garden graced with stunning (reproduction) Mayan sculptures, saw a sea lion show, snorkeled, kayaked, and watched others swim with dolphins and manatees.

Chankanaab Park
Chankanaab Park
Cozumel’s Mayan heritage is evident throughout the island
Cozumel’s Mayan heritage is evident throughout the island

Punta Sur Eco Park on the southern tip of the island was another fun spot. Turtle nesting was out-of-season, but we saw a crocodile in the lagoon, caught sight of a flock of flamingoes illuminated in the late afternoon light, and learned about the local ecology at the Navigation Museum. Punta Sur’s long sandy coast is great for snorkeling, kayaking and building castles. (www.cozumelparks.com)

Punta Sur Eco Park
Punta Sur Eco Park
Flamingos at Punta Sur Eco Park
Flamingos at Punta Sur Eco Park

We also enjoyed the beaches on the undeveloped east coast of the island. After a great meal in the shade of a palapa overlooking the beach at Chen Rio, I looked out at the beautiful sky and water and asked myself one more time, “How could I not have known about this wonderful place?”   ELIZABETH  HANSEN

Chen Rio Beach
Chen Rio Beach

Photography Courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS

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