Cozumel is a Caribbean island just off the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. It has great diving, nice people, safe streets, and prices comparable to other Mexican tourist destinations. The diving is the main draw to Cozumel; if you prefer white sandy beaches then other nearby destinations would be a better bet (e.g., Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Isla Mujeres.) It was badly battered in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, but, with few exceptions, has been completely repaired.
Cozumel's clear turquoise waters and powdery sands coax travelers from cold winter climates to this roughly 185-square-mile island off the Yucatán Peninsula. Cruise ships are a constant feature of Cozumel's coastal views, and the atmosphere on this charming island is often interrupted by tourist chatter. In fact, Cozumel's charms are so effective that the shopping plazas along the waterfront stay congested much of the year.
But crowds shouldn't deter you from discovering what this tiny Yucatán island has to offer, especially as Cozumel's real allure is far away from the downtown area. You can hire a fishing or diving charter boat to discover the shallow reefs along the coast (this is arguably one of the best diving destinations in the world), take a glass-bottom boat on a tour around the island or simply find a quiet beach where you can relax and do nothing. Once the cruise ships clear out, you should head down to a local bar for some live music and the real skinny on this little island.
The island is located in the Caribbean Sea along the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula about 82 km (51 mi) south of Cancún and 19 km (12 mi) from the mainland. The island is about 48 km (30 mi) long and 16 km (9.9 mi) wide. With a total area of 477.961 km2 (184.542 sq mi), it is Mexico's largest Caribbean island, largest permanently inhabited island, and Mexico's third-largest island, following Tiburón Island and Isla Ángel de la Guarda.
The majority of the island's population lives in the town of San Miguel (pop. 77,236 in 2010), which is on the island's western shore. The municipality, which includes two small areas on the mainland enclaved within the Municipality of Solidaridad with a land area of 10.423 km2 (4.024 sq mi), has a total land area of 647.33 km2 (249.93 sq mi).
Large parts of the island are covered with mangrove forest which has many endemic animal species. Cozumel is a flat island based on limestone, resulting in a karst topography. The highest natural point on the island is less than 15 m (49 ft) above sea level. The cenotes are deep water-filled sinkholes formed by water percolating through the soft limestone soil for thousands of years. Cozumel's cenotes are restricted to qualified cave divers with appropriate credentials.
Diverse coral reefs surround Cozumel, which are particularly developed on the western edge of the island. These reefs experience strong currents so divers should exercise caution. Cozumel's deeper coral reefs were historically famed for their black corals, yet black coral populations declined from the 1960s to the mid-1990s because of overharvesting and by 2016 had not recovered.
The Maya is believed to have first settled Cozumel by the early part of the 1st millennium AD, and older Preclassic Olmec artifacts have been found on the island as well. The island was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess, and the temples here were a place of pilgrimage, especially by women desiring fertility. There are a number of ruins on the island, most from the Post-Classic period. The largest Maya ruins on the island were near the downtown area and have now been destroyed. Today, the largest remaining ruins are at San Gervasio, located approximately at the center of the island.
The first Spanish expedition to visit Cozumel was led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518. In the following year Hernán Cortés stopped by the island on his way to Veracruz. The Grijalva and Cortés expeditions were both received peacefully by the Maya of Cozumel, unlike the expeditions’ experiences on other parts of the mainland. Even after Cortés destroyed some of the Maya idols on Cozumel and replaced them with an image of the Virgin Mary, the native inhabitants of the island continued to help the Spanish re-supply their ships with food and water so they could continue their voyages. Gerónimo de Aguilar was rescued at this time.
As many as 10,000 Maya lived on the island then, but in 1520, infected crew members of the Pánfilo Narváez expedition brought the smallpox contagion to the island and by 1570 only 186 men and 172 women were left alive on Cozumel. In the ensuing years Cozumel was often the target of attacks by pirates, and in 1650 many of the islanders were forcibly relocated to the mainland town of Xcan Boloná to avoid the Buccaneers’ predation. Later, in 1688, most of the rest of the island's population, as well as many of the settlements along the Quintana Roo coast, were evacuated inland to towns such as Chemax.
In 1848, refugees escaping the tumult of the Caste War of Yucatán settled on the island and in 1849 the town of San Miguel de Cozumel was officially recognized by the Mexican government.
In 1861, American President Abraham Lincoln ordered his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, to meet with the Mexican chargé d'affaires Matias Romero to explore the possibility of purchasing the island of Cozumel for the purpose of relocating freed American slaves offshore. The idea was summarily dismissed by Mexican President Benito Juarez, but in 1862 Lincoln did manage to establish a short-lived colony of ex-slaves on Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti.
Although the original airport was a World War II relic and was able to handle jet aircraft and international flights, a much larger airport was built in the late 1970s.
Scuba diving is still one of Cozumel's primary attractions, mainly due to the coral reef on the western shore of Cozumel. These coral reefs are protected from the open ocean by the island's natural geography. In 1996, the government of Mexico also established the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, forbidding anyone from touching or removing any marine life within the park boundaries. Despite the importance of healthy reefs to Cozumel's tourist trade, a deepwater pier was built in the 1990s for cruise ships to dock, causing damage to the reefs, and it is now a regular stop on cruises in the Caribbean. Over the past few decades, coral reef health has significantly declined in Cozumel, with much lower coral cover now present than was historically recorded.
The island was struck directly by two Category 4 hurricanes during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. In July, Hurricane Emily passed just south of Cozumel, exposing the island to the storm's intense inner core. Despite Emily being a powerful storm, it was the larger, stronger, slower-moving Hurricane Wilma that caused the most destruction when it hit the island in October. Wilma's eye passed directly over Cozumel.
There was some damage to the underwater marine habitat. This included the coral reefs, which suffered particularly at the shallower dive sites, and the fish that inhabit the reefs.
Tourism, diving and charter fishing comprise the majority of the island's economy. There are more than 300 restaurants on the island and many hotels, some of which run dive operations, have swimming pools, private docks, and multiple dining facilities.
Other water activities include para-sailing, kitesurfing, and a tourist submarine. There are also two dolphinariums. At the cruise ship docks, there are several square blocks of stores selling Cuban cigars, jewellery, T-shirts, tequila, and a large variety of inexpensive souvenirs. Also, the only working pearl farm in the Caribbean is located on the North edge of the island.
San Miguel is home to many restaurants with a huge variety of different cuisines, along with several discothèques, bars, cinemas, and outdoor stages. The main plaza is surrounded by shops; in the middle of the plaza is a fixed stage where Cozumeleños and tourists celebrate every Sunday evening with music and dancing.
All food and manufactured supplies are shipped to the island. Water is provided by three different desalination facilities located on the island.