This lovely, laid-back island off the coast of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, which provides the easy-going yin to those cities’ pulsating yang, holds a special place among my travels.
My first visit here some years back came for the express purpose of getting certified as a scuba diver. After an entire week of exploring nothing more exciting than the bottom of the YMCA pool in New Orleans, I was at last getting ready for my check-out dive at Cozumel’s beautiful Palancar Reef.
Gradually descending to a depth of 75 feet, I would have gasped at the marine life around me if I hadn’t had a regulator clamped firmly in my mouth. Aside from multi-colored corals, I observed sea life ranging from gorgeous — sunfish, parrotfish and sea turtles — to gruesome — barracuda, moray eels and nurse sharks.
I was so entranced with this alternate universe that I was saved from running out of air only by the gentle tug of the dive master motioning me toward the surface. I got my PADI certification, but sadly, never returned to Palancar, instead opting for far-off reefs in Australia, Palau and the Red Sea.
I did return to Cozumel twice, but only as day stops on cruise ships doing a western Caribbean route. Thus, I was thrilled when the chance came to spend a bit more time on the island — this time on the ground instead of under the water.
Cozumel is a great place to spend time on land as 80 percent of it is federally protected. Swaying palms, sandy beaches and dense jungle-like thickets make the island seem farther away from the over-built tourist destinations of the Yucatan than the 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland.
While the cruise ship activity makes it virtually impossible to remain totally unspoiled, most of the day-trippers confine themselves to the main street on the harbor or to pre-booked activities such as dolphin and whale watching, submarine excursions, tequila tours and beach bar-hopping.
That leaves the leisurely exploration to the rest of us. My friend and I booked a driver for a day to take us to two of Cozumel’s most interesting spots — Parque Punta Sur and Pueblo del Maiz (Mayan Village).
Parque Punta Sur is on the undeveloped east side of the island, and marks the southernmost point of Cozumel. It is the largest ecological reserve on the island (247 acres) with a number of different ecosystems — lagoons, forests and reefs, which are part of the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. You can often find yourself the only person on a stretch of beach that meanders for seven miles.
The park itself has given the barest of nods to tourism. There is a buzzy beach bar, Pelicano’s Beach Club, where you can stake out a chair or a low-slung hammock and kick back over a Corona. There is snorkel equipment you can rent to explore the shallow reef, and a lunch buffet to enjoy between dips in turquoise waters. You may even be tempted to share your taco with the opportunistic racoon who serves as the bar’s masked mascot.
There is also a lighthouse with stunning views and a marine museum at its base, and a small market where you can purchase colorful crafts. But the area’s biggest draw — in more ways than one — is the Laguna de Colombia, a trio of lagoons that weave in between mangrove swamps where astonishingly large crocodiles bask in the sun.
If Punta Sur is a good way to spend a morning, then Pueblo del Maiz makes for a fascinating afternoon. This re-creation of a Mayan village is a bit of a find as it seems to be mostly ignored by the large cruise ships.
I was greeted at the entrance by my guide, appropriately bejeweled, befeathered and bedecked, and sporting stripes of face paint in various hues. While he may have looked as if he had just come from a Mayan war council, he was most amiable and told me he was studying communications in the hopes of becoming a writer.
I got my own face painted in preparation for the journey back through Mayan history, where first up was a blessing by a shaman and an offering to Hunal-ye, the God of Corn.
The village consists of seven palapas — traditional thatched huts dedicated to a specific aspect of Mayan life. In one, I was shown how to make a corn tortilla using a traditional oven; in another I tasted honey as a swarm of bees buzzed nearby. I eyed them warily but my guide, the future communicator, assured me I had nothing to worry about — the bees were stingless.
There was an opportunity to sample chocolate (the Mayans are credited with discovering it), and test my skill playing a Mayan game similar to bocce ball. The most popular demonstration, however, got no takers. All of us were content to let the fire dancer bust out his moves without assistance.
Occidental Cozumel - a Regal Resort
A special island requires a special resort, and the Occidental Cozumel more than fills the requirement. Colorful villas with red-tiled roofs and hidden courtyards are designed to mimic Mexican haciendas, and are a far cry from the beachside towers found in many resorts. In fact, the beach wasn’t to be seen from my accommodation — being a 5-minute walk away, over a bridge and through a mangrove swamp.
Instead, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and landscaping complete with tinkling fountains, lagoons and tropical foliage. Interspersed throughout are vivid pieces of pottery used as art. The entire setting was that of a tranquil oasis.
That sense of tranquility continued over the next few days when I often felt as if I had a little corner of the resort all to myself. While this may have had something to do with an unexpected cool snap and higher than average winds that kept many off the beaches, I think it was also the result of the spread-out grounds where finding a secluded nook is easy to do.
The Occidental Cozumel is an all-inclusive property featuring 247 rooms, six restaurants, three pools (one for adults only), and a full-service spa.
Restaurant options range from La Carreta, specializing in Mexican dishes, to Los Olivos for Mediterranean fare to Coral, a seafood restaurant with outdoor dining overlooking the beach. If you are one of those who craves a late-night snack, you can get a made-to-order pizza at La Piazza which is open nightly from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
The resort’s engaging staff can arrange a number of special activities upon request. My friend and I experienced two of them – a private cooking class with the hotel chef and a tequila tasting.
At the cooking class, I watched my friend whip up a ceviche, while I offered encouragement, sipping on a couple of margaritas with somewhat unusual ingredients — one with cucumber and habanero peppers and the other with lettuce. While you won’t see those on many stateside cocktail menus, they were surprisingly good.
The cooking class was followed by a full-blown tequila tasting in the lobby bar, where we had a chance to try many of the resort’s specially infused tequilas — strawberry, cherry, pineapple and habanero.
We ended the tasting with a Mexican flag shooter, where the colors of the national flag — red, white and green — were represented respectively by grenadine, white tequila and crème de menthe.
Sipping the Mexican flag brought me full circle as it was the very same beverage offered all those years ago when I successfully completed my scuba certification dive. This time, however, I was saluting how special Cozumel is as a travel destination.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.