By Rick & Sandi Griffin & McKenna, on January 6, 2014

Lush paradise in Cozumel

Cozumel, off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the Caribbean’s most popular tourist destinations with an international airport offering daily flights from a number of major airlines and a host of accommodations to fit every budget and vacation style. We recently spent the day in Cozumel when it was one of the ports of call on our Holland America seven-day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the MS Nieuw Amsterdam. With three piers to receive international cruise ships, Cozumel has become a very popular destination for day visitors, and we’re here to tell you all about it. 

Getting around Cozumel is easy. The island is just about 10 miles wide and 28 miles long. You can rent a car, scooter, or bicycle to explore on your own, or take a charter or sail boat for a pre-arranged excursion. If you go for the latter, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and a brimmed hat are a must. It gets mighty hot here, especially in the late spring and summer months. Most importantly, stay hydrated. However, guzzling margaritas at every stop doesn’t count.

One of my favorite places to walk from the port is Los Cinch Soles, a.k.a. The Five Suns, a beautiful shop where you can buy authentic Mexican arts & crafts, silver jewelry, and over a dozen varieties of tequila. If you’re a baker, I suggest stocking up on their organically-grown vanilla that is very reasonably priced.

Wander out back to the lush tropical garden and you’ll find Poncho’s Patio, featuring live marimba music, killer margaritas, and authentic local Mexican dishes like veracruzana, guacamole with chips, and tamales. This is a great option if you want to get a taste of Mexico without venturing far from the port.

A short cab ride away you’ll find Mr. Sanchos Beach Club, a relaxed atmosphere with a full-service restaurant, featuring a white sandy beach with palm huts, swinging chairs, and tropical umbrellas, serving up exotic libations with an ocean view. If you want to do more than just take in the sun, Mr. Sanchos has plenty to keep you entertained. You can take an ATV tour, go horseback riding along the shore, play ping pong, or even get a beach massage. There is something here for everyone.

Back in the early 1960s, famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited Cozumel, which at that time was a well-kept secret. He discovered Palancar, a beautiful coral reef on the southwest side of the island and shared it with the world. This underwater paradise has since become a mecca for divers. The diving conditions in Cozumel are ideal for everyone, from novices to experts. Divers of all skill levels rave about the brilliant colors and plethora of underwater sea life.

If you’re not a diver but want to experience marine life, head to Chankanaab National Park, a conservation area for fauna, flora, and marine life. Snorkel (or dive) around the reef and you’ll see tropical fish, underwater sculptures, caverns, and colorful coral. If you have kids, they will love the Dolphin Discovery feature of the park. You can even swim with manatees, visit crocodiles, or if your not so touchy-feely, watch a sea lion show. Stroll through the botanical garden and you’ll see a replica of a Mayan settlement. Keep your eyes peeled for iguanas because they roam freely here. Oh, and did I mention there’s a tequila tasting?

If you like deep-sea fishing, Cozumel’s crystal-clear blue waters are a sport fishing wonderland, home to blue marlin, sailfish, wahoo, tuna, dorado (mahi mahi), barracuda, and grouper. Many local restaurants will even cook up your catch for you. Fish tacos anyone?

If you’re looking to go where all the tourists go for a rowdy, let-your-hair-down, tequila-shooting, bead-throwing, anything goes good time, don’t miss Carlo’s ‘N Charlie’s or Senor Frogs. They’re high energy fun for the young adult and young at heart.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be afraid to negotiate for your purchase. It’s all part of the experience.

If it’s a deal you’re after, then head off-the-beaten-path to a shop where Rick calls it, “haggling,” and I call it, “bickering.” It made my palms sweat and I was overcome by waves of nausea (though I’m not sure whether it was a result of all the negotiating or just the bean burrito I had for lunch).

There’s an art to shopping in Cozumel and few things are the price they are marked. They say that if a store has air conditioning then they aren’t likely to bargain. That’s the price you have to pay to stay cool in Cozumel. The farther you get away from the waterfront, the more likely you are to get a better deal. There is an art to bargaining and it should be a civilized discussion on the price. Start the negotiating by offering 50% of the asking price and let the game of cat and mouse begin. It’s a dance and a ballet of pesos, although U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Cozumel. When you reach your bottom line, be prepared to put forth your best award-winning performance. Remember to keep the conversation light and the negotiations fair and fun. There’s no need to go to war over a sombrero. After all, this is paradise!

What do you think would be your favorite activity to do in Cozumel?