Cozumel 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 nondivers, it has the beautiful water of the Caribbean with all the accompanying watersports and seaside activities. The island gets a lot more visitors from North America than Europe for reasons that probably have to do with the limited flights. It is in many ways more cozy and mellow than the mainland -- no big highways, no big construction projects. It's dependable. And one of my favorite things about this island is that the water on the protected side (western shore) is as calm as an aquarium, unless a front is blowing through. The island is 45km (28 miles) long and 18km (11 miles) wide, and lies 19km (12 miles) from the mainland. Most of the terrain is flat and clothed in a low tropical forest.
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 smalltown. It's not a stunningly beautiful town, but it and its inhabitants are agreeable -- life moves along at a slow pace, and every Sunday evening, residents congregate around the plaza to enjoy live music and see their friends. 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 holds wall-to-wall jewelry stores and duty-free and souvenir shops. When Hurricane Wilma hit the island in October 2005, this section, including the attractive shoreline boulevard Avenida Rafael Melgar, was severely damaged. But so extreme was the effort of the town's merchants and the local and federal government that by early 2006 all signs of the destruction were gone, and a casual visitor would never have guessed how serious the devastation from the hurricane was. This and the area around the town's main square are about as far as most cruise-ship passengers venture into town.
Should you come down with a case of island fever, Playa del Carmen and the mainland are a 40-minute ferry ride away. Some travel agencies on the island can set you up with a tour of the major ruins on the mainland, such as Tulum or Chichén Itzá, 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 sites of the mainland. During pre-Hispanic times, Maya women would cross over to the island to make offerings to the goddess of fertility, Ixchel. More than 40 sites containing shrines remain around the island, and archaeologists still uncover the small dolls that were customarily part of those offerings.