While Cozumel Island is usually listed as one of the best diving in the Caribbean, we missed our mutual introduction 12 years ago. Here is a story about giving second chances to places that didn’t succeed in giving us a good first impression. During my first trip to Mexico, while staying in Playa del Carmen, I took a day trip by ferry twice. Seeing my first ever hammerhead shark wasn’t enough to make me forget a touristy side that didn’t appeal to me back then.
As I returned to Playa del Carmen for a one-month stay, I decided to go for a long weekend in Cozumel and sleep on the island, which I didn’t do the first time. Things can quickly change, and my impressions were reversed in the end. While it used to be easy to find an authentic Mexican vibe in Playa del Carmen, it has become a giant open-air mall by day and nightclub by night (and don’t get me started on the state of the beach). I loved my short stay in Cozumel so much that it almost made me regret booking a month in Playa del Carmen.
Here are the reasons that made me fall for diving in Cozumel despite visiting the island with an early hurricane approaching. Let me share all the facts that surprised me the most. It seems all I had to do was stay a little longer!
Diving in Cozumel at a glance
How good diving in Cozumel is?
1 – Amazing visibility even in stormy weather
While living in Playa del Carmen for a month, I had already to postpone once my long weekend in Cozumel due to an early start of the hurricane season. Anyway, it was all sunny and warm when I finally made it to the Mexican Caribbean Island at the end of May. So much I made the mistake of leaving all my warm clothes and rain jacket behind at the flat. I didn’t realise another storm was coming.
Contrary to the first dates initially planned, the harbour remained open, and I could go scuba diving for 2 days as planned. On my last day, my snorkelling tour to El Cielo was cancelled, but it allowed me to explore more of the island.
Back to diving, I could not believe the underwater conditions remained so bright and colourful. Usually, rain means reduced visibility due to the particles carried away. It seems in Cozumel, the only reason for lower visibility is finding yourself behind a carefree diver with its fins. Cozumel white sand is extremely thin and tends to react like silt if moved.
From the moment I put my head below the surface, it was like someone had switched on the light. All my underwater pictures were taken during these two stormy days as proof of what I say. My estimation of the visibility in Cozumel? 30 m on a bad day and 40 m on a sunny day, maybe!
2 – The right level of currents to learn drift diving in Cozumel
If you have more than 20 logged dives and want to step up your scuba diving skills, learning to manage currents underwater is an excellent way to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of currents, dive spots are usually an all-or-nothing thing (for instance, the Galapagos Islands are the last place you want to learn drift diving).
Drift diving along Cozumel’s reefs made the island famous among divers. Now I have experienced it at different seasons and with a different experience level, I can confirm this is the right level of currents you want to learn. There is no better place to appreciate drift diving as a beginner (reminder: drift diving consists of a descent at one spot and an ascent at another down the current).
In Cozumel, you’ll definitely feel the current. Still, you’ll have enough time to experiment with your buoyancy, adjust your position to slow down (perpendicularly to the current) or shelter behind a rock to see a cool marine critter.
3 – Meeting the splendid toadfish & other surprising marine species
Most divers love the Caribbean because it’s nice, warm and pretty. But I rarely hear people talking about exciting underwater encounters (except those who persist in participating in shark feed dives). It might be because I learnt how to look at reefs with a more careful eye, but I think Cozumel has something more than the other islands of the Caribbean, especially when we talk about marine species.
First and foremost, let me introduce you to the scuba diving mascot of Cozumel: the splendid toadfish – Sanopus Splendidus. This adorable colourful fish comes with blue zebra strips and yellow fins. It has a wide head with a large mouth but a long body, almost like an eel.
The splendid toadfish is endemic to the island of Cozumel so finding one is at the top of most divers’ list. Don’t hesitate to tell your dive guide you hope to see one; they usually know their favourite hideout. Remember to be gentle when approaching as they tend to be extremely shy.
Among the other noticeable species, they are more than a few sharks (pelagic fish love currents). Bull sharks are common in the winter, but on my first trip to Cozumel in November, I saw this very first hammerhead shark! While this is rare, the nurse shark I saw in May is more common.
Seeing a nurse shark doing something else than sleeping isn’t common. It was actively hunting! It stayed around us doing its business for a solid 10 minutes. I also saw an enormous loggerhead turtle during the same dive (Punta Dalila). I think this is the first time I got a picture of one.
Some of the most common fish species of the Caribbean are the angelfish: queen angelfish, grey angelfish, and French angelfish are found from Florida to Panama. However, there was again a little guy I had never spotted before: the rock beauty angelfish. It’s small, so you have to look for it carefully, but its black and yellow pattern makes it highly recognisable.
Here is a short list of the other marine species you are likely to see diving in Cozumel and featured in my underwater pictures:
- Hawksbill turtle
- Honeycomb cowfish
- Blue striped grunt
- Green moray eel
- Spotted moray eel
- Flamingo tongue snail
- Caribbean spiny lobster
4 – Rotating dive site closures
I wish more diving areas in the world would do this. While an entire closing season can be frustrating, Cozumel got the brilliant idea to let a group of dive sites in peace for 2 months on a rotating schedule. The program led by the authorities of the Cozumel Reefs National Park (Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel) and CONANP (National Commission of Protected Areas – Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas) started in 2020. The returning species proved it was working in only 2 years.
Here is the current timetable for the dive sites closure in Cozumel:
- December/January: Chankana’ab
- February/March: Cedral & Francesa
- April/May: Dalila, Palancar gardens/horseshoe
- June/July: Paraiso
- August/September: Colombia & Palancar caves/pinnacles
- October/November: San Francisco & Santa Rosa
For the latest information, have a look at the Cozumel Reefs National Park Facebook page.
5 – Sunscreen is prohibited
Yes, you read correctly. As you may already know, sunscreen chemicals are toxic to coral reefs. No more “what type of sunscreen?” or “what about nano-particles?” discussions in Cozumel. All types of sunscreens are prohibited. People in Cozumel say, “wear UV-protected clothing!”.
The program led by Healthy Mayan Reef includes educational posters all around the island. For instance, you can’t miss the giant poster at the exit of the ferry terminal. They give clear instructions on how to protect the pristine reefs of Cozumel in 3 main points:
- Wearing UV-protected clothing
- Maintaining a distance of 1,5 m from the reef
- Not throwing ANY waste in the ocean
This is a bold position after a timid tentative from some countries or islands to forbid only toxic sunscreens.
6 – Life on the island of the swallows beyond the cruise ships
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m talking about the cruise ships that boosted Cozumel tourism in the last 20 years. In case you weren’t aware, these ships pollute enormously and threaten the reefs (for this reason, local activists are fighting against the construction of a new pier). I was reluctant at first to return to Cozumel because of that. However, I discovered a surprising fact by giving Cozumel another chance and staying overnight.
Tourists from the cruise ships stay on the island for over half a day. At 4 pm, all ships are already gone. It leaves the island peaceful, with the right level of the hustle and bustle in the streets of San Miguel, the island’s main town.
Basically, in the mornings, I was underwater, and by the time I had taken my shower and rinsed my scuba gear, the island was quiet again. So, in a way, it protects the island of the swallows from mass tourism by containing it (Cozumel comes from the Mayan word Cozamil which means swallow).
7 – Mouth-watering cuisine without breaking the bank
After 12 years, the prices at the restaurants in Playa del Carmen sky-rocketed to American/European levels, and it was more complicated to find a local restaurant at regular prices. I used to walk to the 10th avenue; it was only on the 30th avenue this time to find a little gem (only to learn that it closed a few months later).
Against all odds, this is on Cozumel Island that I had the most delicious meals without spending a fortune. Here we go for the foodie spots I found in the streets of the centre of San Miguel de Cozumel:
- La Choza, 10a Avenida Norte #216: An institution on the island since 1991, even if this is their third location. Ask for the special daily menu when you are handed over the menu. You’ll get a choice of starters (try the sopa de lima – lime soup – if they have it that day) and a selection of main courses. Good news, they are more than happy to accommodate vegetarian diets. I ate the most delicious veggie fajitas I had in Mexico.
- Bebamus, 5a Avenida Sur #260: A bit more expensive and less traditional than the previous one, but we shared a delightful dinner with my dive buddy! We covered the table with tapas-style portions of the fusion Mexican-Italian menu. Best guacamole ever: The secret ingredient was a few drops of olive oil.
- Restaurante Wiliam, 5e Avenida Sur: This is where to go if you feel like fresh fish and seafood in a non-touristy eatery. Local fishermen manage the restaurant, and the fish for the ceviche and other dishes are only traditionally and freshly caught. Prices for the ceviche start at 150 pesos (about 7$/€).
I also loved my sunset cocktails on the rooftop terrace of the Cozumel Museum, the Novena Ola, and my ice cream fix at the Flamingo on the main square (Parque Benito Suarez).
8 – Meeting the sea crocodiles of Punta Sur
Not only the diving in Cozumel offers some of the best in the Caribbean, but if you’re a nature lover, you can extend your experience by going to the island’s southern tip. The nature reserve, appropriately called Punta Sur – South Point, is the perfect excuse to rent a car or a scooter to drive around the island (HTL rentals offer scooters from 20$ a day and cars from 45$ a day).
The entrance to the Punta Sur nature reserve is 14$ per adult. Take the time first to climb the stairs of the Celarain lighthouse. You get a breathtaking view of the ocean and the laguna separated by a thin strip of land. The trail starting behind the lighthouse offers additional opportunities to spot wildlife like birds, iguanas and tortoises, but this is at the viewpoint over the laguna that you can get a shot at meeting Cozumel’s sea crocodiles.
I thought it wouldn’t be that easy to see them. Wrong! One enormous individual was quietly waiting below the deck of the viewpoint. It was slightly rainy that day, so maybe there were fewer visitors. It could explain why this crocodile stuck with us for a long time.
9 – A hands-on introduction to Mayan Culture
Never say never. I’m not a huge fan of any themed park around the local culture as it often tends to accommodate the preconception and stereotypes people have about a place. I had this unpleasant experience in the past, but Cozumel again proved me wrong.
In the heart of the island, the small cultural park Pueblo del Mais – Village of the corn – is the perfect example of how things can be handled better. The attraction is managed by locals from Cozumel who are deeply involved in preserving and sharing their Mayan cultural heritage (they organise local festivals and perform at other events all over Yucatan).
I loved to be more than a passive visitor, only taking pictures since most of the park consists of interactive workshops where you’ll get to practice different aspects of what used to be daily life in a Mayan village. A large part of them is about food, so I couldn’t be happier in my case since I love learning recipes everywhere I travel. We made tamales from scratch (steamed corn dough in a leaf) and chocolate after toasting the cocoa bean (were you aware chocolate was first created in Mexico?)
Tours are in English or Spanish. The entrance is 20$ for adults.
10 – Ocean themed street art to call on preserving it
Is it even possible to be a travel blogger these days without mentioning the street art scene of any given place? When I discovered the numerous ocean-inspired murals in Cozumel, I must admit it was impossible to resist talking about them.
These murals form part of the Sea Walls project around the world. It’s a project to bring awareness about the different threats the ocean is facing through art. Cozumel is the second location in the world with 53 of these sea walls.
My favourite? The mural called “Perdida de coral es perdida de cultura” (Lost coral is lost culture).
11 – Easy to combine with diving in the cenotes of Yucatan
With the ferries going back and forth between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, it’s easy to venture on the continent for a day trip, even if you decide to stay in Cozumel. With Winjet ferries, it only takes 40 minutes to cross the channel between Cozumel Island and the Yucatan Peninsula. There are 7 ferry crossings on each way every day from 8 am to 9 pm. A return ticket is 25$ per adult.
The cenotes of Yucatan are an absolute wonder and a unique magical diving experience in the entire world. You shouldn’t miss the opportunity to go diving in the cenotes, even if you spend only a week on Cozumel Island. The best and closest cenotes to visit would be Ponderosa and Tajma Ha which are only a 30-minute drive away from Playa del Carmen.
My tops tips for going diving in Cozumel
I summed up below everything you need to know to prepare for your trip to go diving in Cozumel: best season, water temperatures, best dives, best dive centre and the best places to stay.
When to go diving in Cozumel?
It’s safe to say it’s always warm in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, there is one thing you need to take into account: the hurricane season. It’s from June to November and especially from July to October. Note it doesn’t guarantee anything since last May, we got an early start of the season in Yucatan, including a harbour closure in Cozumel. This is also the season with fewer people and lower accommodation prices.
One thing to point out, though, is that while the sargasso season (seaweed) in Yucatan is from May to October, Cozumel is nearly unaffected. Meanwhile, in Playa del Carmen, they have to organise truck turns to clear up the beaches every morning to give some access to the visitors.
Regarding the water temperature, the “coldest” is at 26°C from December to February, then 27-28°C from March to May, and up to 30°C from June to November. Cozumel has no thermoclines; you can expect these temperatures to be down to 30 m. In Late May, I was diving with only my UV-protected rashguard and leggings. If you need a wetsuit, a 3 mm will be enough. If you plan to go diving in the cenotes, take a 5 mm with you.
Regarding marine animal migrations, the season from November to March is good for spotting bull sharks and spotted eagle rays. I didn’t see any of these in my two trips to Cozumel, but I saw a hammerhead shark in November. During this season, the currents are slightly stronger and pelagic fish love currents!
Where are the best dive sites in Cozumel?
Most Cozumel dive sites are on its southwest coast, facing the Peninsula of Yucatan. There the reefs are sheltered from the open sea. The channel formed by the island of Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula also explains the currents, hence drift diving.
This part of the reef forms the Cozumel Reefs National Park (Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel), covering about 120 km² since 1996. The protected marine area, home to 205 coral and 262 fish species, is also registered as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
In my two trips to Cozumel, I explored 6 different dive sites. Here are my top 5 :
- Cedral Pass – depth 20-30 m – advanced divers: this dive site has a bit of everything, a wall then a sandy bottom with great marine biodiversity; I spotted hawksbill turtles and even a hammerhead shark there.
- Santa Rosa wall – depth 18-20 m – beginners & advanced divers: gorgeous sponges and gorgonians along the wall, lots of different angelfish and this is thez spot I saw a splendid toadfish.
- Punta Dalila – depth 15-18 m – beginners & advanced divers: a relatively flat sandy bottom with seagrass and spotted coral reefs, but great encounters with a nurse shark and a loggerhead turtle.
- San Francisco wall – depth 18-25 m – beginners & advanced divers: gorgeous reefs with lots of types of coral & sponges with thin white sandy bottoms around.
- Palancar gardens – depth 10-18 m – beginner divers: a shallow dive site but beautiful coral reefs with great diversity.
I’ll need another longer stay in Cozumel to bring a complete description of all the best dive sites of the Mexican Caribbean Island. Great excuse to return, isn’t it?
Which dive centres to book with?
I had the pleasure of being picked up from the pier of my hotel by Sharky’s Scuba Cozumel every morning. The local dive shop was recently established by local instructors and dive guides with more than 10 years of experience diving in Cozumel.
After a detailed dive briefing, entry is done with a back roll from their spacious boat. Even doing drift diving, there was no need for a negative entry in Cozumel. Underwater, they are great marine species spotters but always show the example of approaching gently, keeping some distance and never touching anything.
While the weather wasn’t with us, they still tried their best to make their famous fancy fruit platter at the surface interval. The entire team is perfectly bilingual in English/Spanish. Please say hi to Walter on my behalf if you go with them. It’s a family business, and I felt treated as such.
The price for a 2-tank dive trip with them, pick-up by boat and scuba gear included, is 83$ if you book at least 2 days. Note there is a 3$ daily fee for the National Park, which is included in their price. Nitrox is available as an option for 10$ per day.
Where to stay on Cozumel Island?
Choosing where to stay will be mainly between the centre of San Miguel and the resort area down the southwest coast, where most dive sites are. The more south you go, the latest you can wake up in the morning to go diving since the dive centres come to pick up guests at all the different piers hotel by hotel (that felt very luxurious to proceed this way, think about bringing a mesh bag if you have your own gear).
However, the more south you are located, the more expensive the taxi rides to the centre are if you want to enjoy the lively centre of San Miguel and its excellent restaurants. If you plan to stay at your resort the whole time to chill, that’s another story, but please don’t forget to explore the island at some point.
I stayed at El Cid La Ceiba Hotel, a local Riviera Maya chain of resorts. This is one of the closest resorts to the centre of San Miguel de Cozumel. It was only a 100 pesos taxi ride away (about 5 $/€). The advantage of staying at a seafront like this one is the direct access to their pier for being picked up by scuba diving centres in the morning. The hotel is about 30 minutes away by boat from the dive sites. The ocean-view twin room I shared with my dive buddy had two queen size beds. The bathtub and balcony were useful when we turned our room into a dive centre to rinse and then dry our scuba gear (fun video to watch on my Instagram!).
I loved their breakfast options, so I made sure to wake up early enough to enjoy it all before diving. You can have a delicious cooked breakfast with Mexican flavours (if you have never tried chilaquiles before, this is the place because theirs were fantastic) and/or indulge in their custom waffle service (strawberries and cream, please!).
I was not necessarily a fan of being so close to the cruise ship terminal, but I guess this was the price of being at a seafront resort at the perfect distance between the centre of San Miguel and the dive sites.
Ocean view double room prices at El Cid La Ceiba start from 120€ a night with what they call the “European plan”, which means breakfast only, but they also have all-inclusive options. If you are looking for a more authentic address in town, I found this cosy vintage hotel a few blocks away from the main square, from 63€ a night for a private ensuite double room. Budget travellers can enjoy this cool hostel with a pool in the centre of San Miguel, from 15€ a night for a bed in a dorm.
For those who want to splurge with 5-star luxury, direct access to the sea and no view on the cruise ships, you can book at the Presidente Intercontinental Cozumel Resort & Spa. They are just a little bit further south, but not too much. Their private beach is also a great snorkelling spot to extend your underwater fun.
To learn more about travelling and scuba diving in Mexico, have a look at the following articles:
Is something still missing from this article? Do you have any questions?
Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to help!
This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Cozumel. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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