Cozumel has been a well-known diving spot for decades, and it has ranked for years among the top five dive destinations in the world. Tall reefs lining the southwest coast create towering walls that offer divers a breathtaking landscape to explore. It also has the beautiful water of the Caribbean with all the accompanying water sports and seaside activities.
70km (44 miles) S of Cancun; 19km (12 miles) SE of Playa del Carmen. Cozumel was a well-known diving spot before Cancun ever existed, and it has ranked for years among the top five dive destinations in the world. Tall reefs line the southwest coast, creating towering walls that offer divers a fairy-tale landscape to explore. For no divers, it has the beautiful water of the Caribbean with all the accompanying water sports and seaside activities.
What's more, Cozumel has the feel of a small island--short roads that don't go very far, lots of mopeds, few buses and trucks, and a sense of isolation. The island is 45km (28 miles) long and 18km (11 miles) wide, and is 19km (12 miles) from the mainland. Most of the terrain is flat, undisturbed scrubland. The name comes from the Maya word Cuzamil, meaning "land of the swallows." Today, it remains the home of two species of birds found nowhere else: the Cozumel vireo and the Cozumel thrasher.
The only town on the island is San Miguel, which, despite the growth of the last 20 years, can't be called anything more than a small town. It's not particularly attractive, but the place and its inhabitants are agreeable--on Sunday evenings, everybody congregates around the plaza to be sociable and have a good time. Staying in town can be fun and convenient. You get a choice of a number of restaurants and nightspots. Because Cozumel enjoys such popularity with the cruise ships, the waterfront section of town is wall-to-wall jewelry stores (many more than you would think demand could support) and souvenir shops. This and the area around the town's main square are as far as most cruise ship passengers venture into town. Elsewhere you find mainly offices, restaurants, small hotels, and dive shops.
Should you come down with a case of island fever, Playa del Carmen and the mainland are a convenient 25-to-45-minute ferry ride away, weather permitting. Some travel agencies on the island can set you up with a tour of the major ruins on the mainland, such as Tulum or Chichen-Itza, or a visit to a nature park such as Xel-Ha or Xcaret.
The island has its own ruins, but they cannot compare with the major cities of the mainland. During pre-Hispanic times, Maya women traveled by boat to the island to worship the goddess of fertility, Ixchel. More than 40 sites containing shrines remain around the island, and archaeologists still uncover the small dolls customarily offered in the fertility ceremony. Hernan Cortez landed here in 1519 on his way to conquering Mexico. Before his own boat docked, Cortez's men sacked the town. Cortez went on to convert the Indians and replace their idols with a cross and a statue of Mary in the main temple at Cozumel. From then until modern times, the island remained little more than a backwater outpost of little concern to the governing elite in Merida and Mexico City.
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