Cozumel: Island Beach Hopping and Self-Driving

We spent the month of February with Lori’s parents, traveling around Belize and then on to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. After staying in the colonial “Yellow City” of Izamal, taking in the UNESCO Mayan city of Chichen Itza, and sneaking our way on to Cancun’s finest beaches, we headed south to the Riviera Maya.

We spent four nights in Playa del Carmen, using it as a jumping off point for seeing the sights up and down the coast. One of those days was devoted to taking the ferry out to Isla de Cozumel for some snorkeling and road-tripping around the island.

Lori’s parents waiting to head to Cozumel at the Playa del Carmen ferry terminal.

Another beachy post from the fabulous Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Today, we’re hopping the Ultramar ferry for the island of Cozumel. Our ride took about 45 minutes on the high speed MV Yacatecutli and included a pretty good live band on the upper deck playing Mexican standards.

Nos vemos Playa del Carmen!

Onboard cover band entertaining guests on the short and comfortable passage.

We opted for the rental car route on Cozumel. Yeah, yeah, I know — we drove Big Red almost a thousand miles just to leave her at the hotel in Playa. But really it was for the best. The car ferry would have been exorbitant and the ferry wait time longer than we had the stomach for. Add to this the fact that compact rentals were quite reasonable on the island and it was a no-brainer for four people.

Map of Isla de Cozumel, with our stops. (

We drove south out of San Miguel (Cozumel’s main town — where the ferry from Playa drops you) in a counter-clockwise direction around the island. We stuck to the main highways for the most part, owing to time constraints and car rental policies. Equipped with only a rental car map and a thirst for crystaline waters and cold beverages, we scoured the coastline for good places to stop for a swim, snorkel or stroll around.

We lucked out on our first stop at Dzul-Ha Beach Club, which offered crystal clear water and phenomenal shore snorkeling…perhaps the best shore snorkeling we’ve ever experienced!

There’s no fee for this “Beach Club” or their amazing beach access. All you need is to grab a table at Money Bar, order something tasty and/or refreshing and have someone to hold down the fort. Lori’s dad was quick to volunteer for the job. Not a bad gig for a few hours, if you ask me.

The water was so clear, you didn’t even have to get wet to enjoy the sea life. In theory, one could see more from atop this sea wall than Lori and I usually see snorkeling most places. But half the fun of snorkeling on a hot day is getting wet!

Conditions were just about perfect for snorkeling on this particular day. Sunshine for vibrant colors — high air temperatures in the mid-80s (F) (~30C) — Water temps around low to mid-80s (F) — nearly unlimited water visibility — coral and rock bottom — abundant and colorful fish, especially around the sunken clay pots farther out — light winds, mild tide, light current and almost no surf — and only about 10-15 feet max depth out to about 200 meters.

We really could have spent all day at this one particular spot, alternating between snorkeling, eating great Mexican food and swaying on one of a number of palm-shaded hammocks. With an entire island to explore and a rental car to explore it with, we decide that after a couple of hours it was time to get a move on. However, if you happen to have multiple days to spend on Cozumel, I would highly suggest parking yourself here for an entire day. You won’t regret it!

We drove on south, trying to find some place equally suitable to park ourselves for a few hours and snorkel, but never found another place quite as nice. Many guidebooks and brochures suggested Chankanaab, which used to be the old go-to, apparently, but we kept hearing from locals and others that the place is over-run with tourists and akin to an overpriced water park and decided to skip that one.

We found that the best snorkeling by far was on the western shore, as the water was the calmest and conditions were best. We noticed a few other beach clubs along the coast as we drove, but were set on trying a few beaches on the south or eastern sides of the island.

Per the advice of our rental car map, we drove inland at this point to check out the Mayan ruins of El Cedral!. You’ll notice I have no photos posted here and for good reason. It was thoroughly disappointing and not much to see at all. The village isn’t charming or quaint and really if you have the chance, just skip it. Honestly, almost any other activity is a better use of what precious little time you may have on Cozumel (and on this planet, for that matter).

After El Cedral! we were anxious for some awesomeness and found it almost immediately after our turn up the “Wild Coast.” Within minutes, we happened upon this funky little place, The Coconut Cabana, claiming “the bar is open 25 hours!” Now how can you pass that up?

I really loved this little place. It was non-pretentious, kitchy, old-fashioned Mexico. Two guys running a cheap and funky thatched bar right up from the beach with straw palapas, hammocks, a full bar and sombreros for sale — two locals, yucking it up, heckling tourists and just enjoying life. I’d easily trade in a HUNDRED of Cancun’s top resorts for one of these little gems on the water.

Since arriving in the Yucatan, Lori and I had one goal in mind: To get our Corona beach shot! I would have preferred us to be in wooden beach chairs, but we improvised with what we had.

Paradise, plain and simple.

Ahem, Corona…if you’re casting for your next beer commercial, no need to look any further…

Lori’s ma and pa are thoroughly enjoying island life, as you can tell…

And then there was this guy… Think he may have missed the memo…

After another lovely and restful stop, we’re back on the road, continuing up the eastern shore.

One thing worth noting if you’re thinking of driving around Cozumel: the roads are a bit confusing. For much of the drive, there are seemingly two roads running parallel to each other, but diverging occasionally as well. The inside road is a wide, proper highway running close to the water half the time, but running farther inland the other half. The other road is much narrower and hugs the coastline, for the most part. In many areas, there are pictorial road signs (no words) which we interpreted as “no cars allowed” — in some areas they seem to indicate one-way traffic and in others, they really seem to mean “no cars!” Yet, the only way to access fine establishments (such as the Coconut Cabana) or the beach in many areas is via these roads. We saw several other cars driving on this outer road, but also saw many police pulling over said cars… We saw a lot of bicyclists as well. Maybe it’s really a bike path? But which parts? Or maybe not… who knows. All I can say is, you’ve been warned!

Our next stop was El Mirador! True to its name, El Mirador offers a beautiful view of the Caribbean, along with coral caves below — etched from eons of violent wave action.

A quick note about the wild eastern coast of Cozumel — I didn’t know what to expect driving around the island. Naively, I thought the island would be similar in look and feel on both sides, but the eastern side is drastically different. In addition to its dramatic geography and rougher seas, this side of the island is sparsely populated. Apparently, Hurricane Gilbert devastated this side of the island in 1988 and most communities have been slow to rebuild (if at all), owing largely to the fact that power was never restored on the eastern shore.

There do, however, remain pockets of resistance — families and entrepreneurs who have set up small restaurants and beach clubs. Playa Chen Rio was a public beach not too far from one of these restaurants. While not as insanely beautiful as Dzul-Ha, it offered what few beaches can on the eastern side: a calm tidal lagoon for swimming. Chen Rio is where we spent the waning hours of sunlight before –reluctantly– making the drive back to San Miguel, and subsequently the ferry ride in somewhat stormy seas back to rain-soaked Playa del Carmen.

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