This Gorgeous Mexican Island Should Be on Every Scuba Diver's Bucket List

Cozumel is much more than just a stop on your cruise. Here's how to stay awhile — and spend your time like a local.

Cozumel, Mexico
Photo: Stacey Leasca

Each and every year, 3.5 million people visit the Mexican island of Cozumel via cruise ships.

The ships dock for the day, shuffle their passengers off, and likely pass them off to local tours that show travelers around destinations packed with fellow tourists for a few hours before returning them to port.

Sure, this can make for a great vacation, and you'll certainly get enough photos to fill a Facebook album. But Cozumel has way, way more to offer than just the few blocks lining the ferry port, making it a destination worth spending more time in than most cruises allow. Here's how to see Cozumel for all its glory over a few days, rather than a few hours.

Cozumel, Mexico
Stacey Leasca

How to Get to Cozumel

There are two ways to get to Cozumel beyond taking a cruise: flying and ferrying.

You can fly right into Cozumel International Airport, however, the cheapest and easiest move from most U.S. destinations is to fly into Cancun and take a ferry from there.

Sure, you have to snake through the hustle and bustle of the ferry port, but it's actually all pretty fun. The bright colors, the cervezas, and the mariachi bands make it a welcoming and festive environment.

Once you board the ferry, which costs just a few bucks and takes about 45 minutes from point A to point B, find space on one of the outside decks. That way you can take in the gorgeous crystal-blue water views the entire way. Also get ready for a bit of a party atmosphere onboard as a band will be playing and drinks will be served.

Where to Stay in Cozumel

There is a multitude ofexcellent hotels to choose from in Cozumel, but since you're interested in getting off the beaten path a bit, try booking a stay at the Occidental Cozumel, located about 15 minutes from the main strip. The hotel is a world all its own, encompassing several acres of land, including lush mangroves filled with iguanas and a stretch of private white sand beach with one of the island's best reefs just offshore. The hotel's "Royal Level" comes with its own concierge check-in and includes room service, turndown service, a private pool area, and more.

If you're traveling with young children, their sister resort, The Allegro, is located just next door. The Allegro has all the same amenities as the Occidental, but also comes with an oversized pool and play area.

Cozumel, Mexico
Diana Castellanos

What to Do in Cozumel

If you get to do just one thing in Cozumel, make it scuba diving.

And luckily for you, if you're staying at a place like the Occidental Cozumel, Cozumel Palace, or the InterContinental Presidente Cozumel, you have access to some of the best reefs and can get certified to dive right on the spot.

These hotels, along with a few others on the island, offer a variety of dive programs. At the Occidental, you can take a course in the morning in their pool with a certified instructor and head out for the real thing by the afternoon.

And not only will you get to learn, but you'll get to learn in peace, as these dives are for small groups only, unlike the massive 20-50 person boats that take cruisers around snorkeling. This way you'll have the personal attention you need as a new diver, and you'll get to experience something truly magical under the sea. (Hey, Jacques Cousteau didn't fall in love with this place for nothing.)

If you can't or don't want to dive, you can always tag along for a snorkel. While you won't be able to travel as deep into the ocean, it will still be just as memorable of an experience. And, if you're lucky and the winds are right, the guides at the hotels will take you to a place known as El Cielo, or "Heaven." Here, people can snorkel around the sandy bottom beach that is home to thousands of giant starfish. (But remember, as a responsible tourist it's your job to simply look, not touch, the wildlife.)

Cozumel, Mexico
Stacey Leasca

Where to Eat in Cozumel

This is where getting "off the beaten path" really, really matters. Yes, the food in the tourist zone is yummy, but it's not necessarily authentic. Instead, rent a car, drive along the quieter east coast, and stop in at any one of the fresh coconut and fruit stands along the way. There, watch as an attendant cuts open a fresh coconut for you to sip on as you look out into the ocean.

For a lively, but still local, experience, keep going until you hit Coconuts Bar & Grill. There, walk up the winding steps and be greeted with the highest, and perhaps most stunning, vista on the island. Swing around the corner and sit along the edge of the cliff. Order up some fresh margaritas and fajitas (get the shrimp, you'll thank us later), and stay until the sun goes down below the sea.

While any trip to Cozumel is well worth it, getting a bit more of the local flavor will let you go home and share a few memories that are all your own — memories of a true island experience that will last forever.

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