Cozumel is a little island off the coast of Playa del Carmen, and we went there for one reason and one reason only – the diving. Some of the best dive sites in the Western Hemisphere can be found a stone’s throw off the Cozumel coast. The rest of Cozumel though, was not our typical kind of place. It is not a backpacker’s paradise. It is a stop off for cruise ships and a massive American holiday destination, so much so that everything is priced in US dollars. This renders things very expensive, especially on the seafront. That said, we managed to keep under our pretty meagre budget, and did some sweet diving in the process. Here’s how.
Pretty straightforward really. From the ferry terminal in Playa del Carmen there are multiple companies that run ferries to and from the island, on the hour every hour. The slower boat (by about 5 minutes…) costs MXP $135 per person one way, and takes about 40 minutes. The faster one costs MXP $163. A word of advice though – the Caribbean may look smooth as a mill pond in Playa, but once you are off shore it can be pretty choppy. We both felt very sea sick, VERY quickly, so pop some sea sickness pills in advance.
This part is somewhat trickier. The majority of hostels are all located in the town – San Miguel – along with the ferry port and a wide selection of restaurants, bars and dive shops. The town itself is infinitely walkable and has anything you could possible need and probably don’t want. However, if like us, you Googled ‘Cozumel’ and saw a ton of gorgeous, empty beaches, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed. The beaches are gorgeous, and indeed, very empty, namely because they are all on the opposite side of the island, with nary a bus or collectivo headed that way. If you do want to get your posterior to any beach, you’ll have to flag down one of the many taxi’s and part with a minimum of MXP $200 each way. Budget-friendly those buggers are not. You can rent bikes and scooters, the latter for approx MXP $300 a day, but we weren’t in the mood to content with Mexican drivers.
We stayed at 2Tank Dive Hostel, which is only a 2 minute walk from the ferry port. An A/C dorm bed costs $8pp, but we managed to wiggle a private 3 bed room for the same price. Overall I’d recommend it – the A/C is good, it is clean, cheap, well located and the staff are great. However, it is very basic, doesn’t have a proper kitchen, provide drinking water (something we have found invaluable) and the walls are paper thin. It also doesn’t have a door dividing the reception area/outside world from the dorms – letting mozzies and noise in unhindered. Ear plugs are a must as Woody’s, the bar across the street, provides live evening music until midnight every day.
Beach & Snorkelling
Sadly, even in the town, there are no public beaches and the only sea access is a rather unattractive empty lot where the locals go to hang out. Luckily, we discovered the “No Name bar” – a little beach bar in the Barracuda Hotel where the cruise ship staff go to unwind on their days off, away from the hordes of tourists (who inevitably make their way to the various resorts down the coast). We didn’t have to pay entry and if you do choose to indulge in a beer or three, the prices were reasonable-ish. The bar has a pool, makeshift beach area and access to the sea, with some fairly decent snorkelling. We spent a very content afternoon there.
As we said, diving was the reason we went to Cozumel. There are literally hundreds of companies on the island offering various dive packages. We eventually booked our guide with a tourist rep in the town square… this was an error. Firstly they promised us that Sadie would be able to complete her Advanced Open Water, which turned out to be a lie. Secondly, the company we went with (they called themselves “Cozumel Diving Pro” but they don’t appear to be on Google…) were a bit of a cowboy operation. Their boat was too small, equipment too big, they did no buddy checks and the group sizes inappropriately large for the dives we did. To top it off, they didn’t do a debrief after our dives so we were unable to log the dives properly. I can’t recommend a particular company – I would suggest doing some thorough research online before choosing one. We paid US $80 each for two dives, which was fairly reasonable for the island.
On the plus side, the dives themselves were beautiful. We dived Palancar Reef, which while it wasn’t full of life had some stunning coral formations that we swam in between, and Yucab Reef which was teeming with fish, turtles and sharks.
Food & Drink
Other than the diving, food was a highlight of Cozumel. There are a plethora of options in San Miguel to suit literally any budget. Our personal favourites were:
- Lobster Shack on Calle 3 Sur, where the staff were super friendly and full of advice for us, and the prices were pretty good too. A shrimp burrito was US $8, a lobster bowl US $11, and beers US $2.
- Crazy King Burrito on Calle 4 Norte, where we ate the eponymous Crazy King Burrito consisting of steak and shrimp for MXP $170, and it was (nearly) big enough for the two of us.
- Parripollo on Avenida Sur, where we got half a chicken, rice, tacos, salsa and pickled cabbage for MXP $55 in total, which to be honest was essentially theft.
- The Empanadas place on Décima Avenida Norte, which I don’t actually think has a name. Here we got 4 huge empanadas for breakfast for MXP $36, and the owner/chef was nice enough to help us out when we ran into trouble with our exchange rate. She does speak literally no English, mind.
- We were also recommended the Tamales stand on Avenida Licenciado Benito Juarez, near the church, by some friends, but we can’t speak from experience.
Cozumel basically has two economies, one in Mexican Pesos and one in US dollars. The vast majority of the time, it is cheaper to pay in Pesos. The dollar rate is there to mug lazy American cruise ship tourists who can’t be bothered to change their cash. The best thing to do though, is check out the dollar to Peso rate when you go and do the maths yourself, then you can pay in whatever is the cheapest currency. Winner.
Secondly, if you want to eat cheap, get away from the seafront. It sounds obvious but you would be surprised at how few tourists you see just a few blocks from the coast. You will find the locals’ places and the costs are a fraction of what you would pay to overlook the sea.