One Day in Cozumel… or More! Your Epic Island Exploration Guide
Cozumel may be just 48 kilometres long, but it sure packs a lot of punch! As Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, it’s a hotspot for travellers like you and I. Gorgeous beaches, beautiful waters and plenty of food and shopping await – sound appealing to you? Whether you’ll be spending one day in Cozumel or extending your stay in the Riviera Maya, I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the island’s charm!
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What is Cozumel Known For? Why Visit It?
Cozumel was first settled by the Maya people in the 1st millennium AD, dedicated to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess. As a result, you’ll find a number of Mayan ruins that are remnants of temples from pilgrimages. Since then, Cozumel has changed in a number of ways. Come 1518, the first Spanish expedition arrived on the island. While the Maya people received them peacefully, the arrival of the smallpox infection in 1520 decimated their population. In 50 years, just over 350 Maya people were left on Cozumel – compared to 10,000 originally. As years went on, Cozumel was often targeted by pirates and islanders were forcibly moved to the mainland in the mid to late 1600s. Come 1848, refugees fled the Caste War of Yucatán, settling in Cozumel, and a year later it was officially recognized by the Mexican government as the town of San Miguel de Cozumel.
More recently, Cozumel has become a diver’s paradise. Home to the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, this protected area is swimming with wildlife. Cozumel’s reef system is part of the second largest coral reef system in the world, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. The island is almost entirely surrounded by reefs, but most of the diving spots are on the south side of the island. As divers flocked to catch a glimpse of sea life like bull sharks and the iconic Splendid Toadfish, tourism on the island began to flourish. Today, you’ll find more dive shops than you can shake a stick at!
Nowadays, Cozumel – or rather, San Miguel de Cozumel is a popular port city and you’ll see huge cruise ships come into the island almost daily. One by one, they drop off passengers so they can get a taste of what the island has to offer. Trust me though, one day really isn’t enough for Cozumel. I was there for a week and still missed out on so much! With plenty of great eats, amazing shopping, beautiful beaches and incredible excursions… really, what more could you ask for?
How to Get to Cozumel
As it is an island, there are two ways you can get to Cozumel. You can either fly into the island’s airport (airport code: CZM) or you can get there by boat. Chances are if you’ve booked an all inclusive package at one of the Cozumel resorts, you’ll be landing here.
Upon landing, you’ll find a small arrival terminal with minimal facilities – and no wifi. Head through customs where you’ll receive your passport stamp along with part of your customs declaration form. Don’t lose that form! You’ll need it in order to leave the country. Outside the arrivals terminal, you’ll find a number of shuttle services along with a Margaritaville bar in case you can’t wait until you arrive at the resort to get your drink on. Snap a quick picture of the Cozumel wings too while you’re there! If you need to connect to wifi, walk down to the departures terminal for free internet access.
INSIDER TIP: When leaving Cozumel, there is a good chance that the food options will be mainly closed if your flight is in the evening. By this I mean they’ll have cold options but the kitchens will be closed. If possible, I highly suggest eating before you leave in order to avoid disappointment and hunger – especially if your flight is delayed!
Water transport is another option and as I mentioned earlier, cruises often stop in Cozumel. Ferries also leave Playa del Carmen bound for the island multiple times daily. If you’re looking for a day trip from Playa del Carmen, Cozumel is a great option! There are two ferry companies, Winjet and Ultramar which can take you across. Be sure to visit their sites for ferry schedules. I haven’t done this trip myself, but I’ve heard two things. First, while you can buy return tickets, it’s often better to buy a one way so you have the flexibility of choosing either ferry company for your return trip. Second, the trip between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen is notorious for being rough. If you get seasick, be sure to prepare yourself with anything you need to combat it!
Getting Around Cozumel
The island is small, meaning it’s quite easy to see a lot of the island in a short period of time. While there are taxis, they will often try to overcharge you. If you’re going to and from your resort, you’ll learn quickly what the price should be. Determine a price before entering the taxi to avoid this!
Another option is to rent a vehicle. If your resort is a little further from the city and you plan on going in a lot, it’s worth looking into. If you have a few people in your party, then I highly suggest it as you can split the cost and it’ll be worth your while.
Now there’s the question of car versus motorbike. While the motorbike will be cheaper and it is easier to find parking spots for it, motorbikes are extremely dangerous. If you’ve never driven one before, I highly suggest not renting a motorbike. They’re not very big, easy to miss by other drivers and you can be seriously injured. Nobody wants that on their holiday, right?
Plus if you have more than 2 people, you’ll need at least 2 motorbikes anyway! The price per day my friend got was $25 USD, but upon researching I found that you could rent a VW Beetle convertible for just $35 USD from Rentadora. That’s including the taxes and insurance! You can even save $5 a day and rent a hardtop instead. So $35 USD compared to $50 USD a day plus the safety of a car versus a motorbike? I’ll let you decide, but I think it’s a no-brainer! I didn’t use Rentadora myself but the reviews online all seem great and it will be my first choice for a car rental in Cozumel next time I’m on the island.
INSIDER TIP: Pay as much as you can in Mexican pesos. More often than not, if you try to pay in US dollars you will end up paying more. Sometimes it’s as little as a 30 cent difference but it can add up quickly.
One Day in Cozumel Itinerary
As I said, just one day in Cozumel isn’t nearly enough! However, I always say a little bit is better than none at all, so let’s make the most of your day! This is just one example of what you can do and I’m not kidding when I say the island has a lot to offer. If you’re staying in Cozumel or looking for additional suggestions of what to do in Cozumel then keep reading – there’s more below!
But First… Coffee
Chances are it’ll be an early start, so let’s grab some caffeine to power us! Look no further than the COZ Coffee Roasting Company just half a block from the main town square. This is seriously the best coffee on the island. Why? It’s some of the freshest coffee you’ll ever taste. Sourced from local farmers in Veracruz, the coffee you taste is still considered a Superfood. What does that mean? The beans are still ‘alive’ within 20 days of roasting, allowing you to benefit from the antioxidants and nutrients naturally present in coffee. And often the beans are roasted that same day! Roasting happens on-site and you can learn more about coffee, harvesting, the roasting process and more with one of their 30-minute coffee clinics. They run throughout the day starting at 10:00am with the last one at 3:00pm!
If you’d rather just pass on by and grab a cup of the good stuff, then be sure to try their peanut butter coffee. I’m still dreaming about this delicious peanut-y nectar! Even if you’re not a big coffee fan, you’ll love this if you enjoy peanut butter. They have plenty of other great options too, and their cold brew is the perfect way to cool down on a hot day.
Time to Explore on Foot!
If you’re anything like me, an early morning on a vacation means you’d probably rather use my own two feet to get around than worry about a car. Sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of having to figure out where I can park, what the street signs mean and the other fun tasks that accompany driving in a foreign country. If you’re nodding your head yes, then continue on! However, if you’re wanting to make the most of your time in Cozumel by grabbing some wheels, keep scrolling – I’ve got more details on that later!
Seriously though, don’t feel bad if you don’t want to drive. There’s plenty to see and do in Cozumel’s core area to fill your day. There’s also the option of joining a guided walking tour so you can learn more about the island as you go. Whether you choose this option or not, make sure you have some solid walking shoes on!
Maybe a Little Bit of Shopping?
Since you’re in the heart of town anyway, let’s enjoy what’s close! Take a walk around the pedestrian-only area of Parque Benito Juarez and enjoy the colours of Cozumel. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants and shops, great for souvenirs or if you’re just looking to window shop.
One thing to note however, is that haggling is a given. Don’t take the first price you’re given (unless you think it’s fair of course!) and give a counter offer. At the same time, don’t haggle so hard that you’re being disrespectful. While the price may be inflated, this is still someone’s livelihood. Never devalue what the good is worth and always be fair – we’re all human after all!
If you’re looking for less of the touristy items and more authentic stores, go a little further outside the square. You’ll still have storekeepers asking you to come inside, but you’ll find better items that make for a more memorable souvenir! Oh, but don’t forget to snag a photo with the Isla Cozumel sign before you venture away from the park!
Grab a Bite – Where to Eat in Cozumel
Stomach starting to rumble? No problem! Let me just say that there is no shortage of great restaurants in Cozumel. The question is how to choose?! I did some Google searching myself as well as got suggestions from locals and other travellers, and everywhere I ate I was not disappointed. I highly recommend each and every one of these restaurants!
Chardonnay – Map
An adorable restaurant where you feel as though you’re in the forest despite being in the middle of the city. They have a wide variety of dishes from traditional Mexican meals to pasta to plenty of seafood options. If you’re with a diverse group of eaters, this is a good option!
Crazy King Burrito – Map
Seriously, can you ever go wrong with a burrito? There isn’t much seating so this makes a great walk-and-eat meal if you don’t want to lose any time. Come hungry and only get the aptly named Crazy King Burrito if you’re absolutely starving! Beware: food coma is imminent after it!
Kondesa – Map
While I experienced this restaurant in the middle of a rainstorm, it didn’t take away from the fact it’s extremely delicious! Sit under huge trees as you sip on signature cocktails while indulging in their delicious eats. The majority of their menu focuses on fresh fish prepared in a number of Mexican styles.
Lobster Shack – Map
The name may say shack but it’s actually super adorable. This small little restaurant gets fresh lobster from local fisherman daily! Have it in a rice bowl, burrito, or the classic Lobster Roll. If Lobster isn’t your jam, that’s okay – there’s also shrimp and steak as options, too!
Or… a Foodie Tour?
If you’re not sure where to eat or are feeling overwhelmed at what restaurants in Cozumel to choose from, why not let someone else make the decisions for you? I mean, just reading about this food tour of the island has me 100% salivating. Empanadas, shrimp tacos, sweet Mexican pastries and more? Count me IN!
There’s Always a Cooking Class!
What better souvenir to take home with you than the knowledge of some Mexican cooking so you can have a taste of Cozumel whenever you want! With this cooking class, you’ll spend the day at Playa Mia Grand Beach Park and work up your appetite at their waterpark during the day. Afterwards, you’ll join a resort chef to prepare a three-course meal as well as an open bar. Be careful with the knives when preparing dinner! Round-trip transportation to your accommodation or the ferry terminal is included so you can enjoy the experience responsibly.
Go For a FREE Tequila Tasting
Now that you have a full stomach, head along Benito Juarez Avenue (the road that leads straight from the ferry pier) away from the ocean to Casa Mission. It’s about a 1km walk (20 minutes) or you can hail a cab. Here you can taste some of the best tequila on the island, Los Tres Toños, as well as learn about how it’s made.
While the tour itself is a bit of a whirlwind, it really is quite interesting! You’ll learn about the blue agave plant and how it’s the only one used to make tequila. After at least 6 years, the heart known as the keyote (pronounced key-oh-tay) is harvested and processed using traditional methods. If I told you all about them, you wouldn’t need to go on the tour! Once it has been distilled three times, it becomes a tequila Blanco or the white tequila. Afterwards, it’s aged in a barrel (the same ones as they use to age Jack Daniels!) for up to 5 years and the longer it stays in, the darker the colour. Why no longer than 5 years? It then loses too much of the tequila taste so 5 years is the maximum it will be aged for.
Now, it’s time to taste some tequila! You’ll get to try the tequila Blanco, Reposado (aged 6-11 months), Anejo (1-3 years) and the Extra Anejo (4-5 years). The tequila Blanco may taste familiar as it’s similar in taste to the tequila you would have at home. The Extra Anejo however, will blow you away as it’s so smooth and goes down way too easily! Afterwards, you’ll get to taste some sweet dessert tequilas flavoured with mango, pineapple, coffee and chocolate. All are super delicious and will leave you wanting more!
While you can buy a bottle as a souvenir, it isn’t mandatory so don’t feel obligated! It can make a great souvenir if you’re looking for something unique to Mexico. I was told it’s not possible to buy it outside of Mexico as it is not exported due to being produced in small quantities. Casa Mission is a family run business and creates tequila using traditional methods. As these are more labour intensive, there may be times when some of the products are unavailable during your tasting.
Also, it should be noted that you must be 18 to do the tastings. If you are travelling with someone who is underage, I don’t know if they will be allowed to go on the tour. I would contact Casa Mission prior to visiting to confirm!
UPDATE: As of August 2022, I’m unsure if the free tequila tour is still running. Casa Mission has redesigned their website with no mention of the tour so there’s a possibility they may not offer it anymore.
Hunt for Cozumel’s Street Art
Now that you’ve got a full belly, let’s walk off that food coma! One thing you’ve probably noticed by now (especially since there’s a huge mural right by the port) is that Cozumel is full of incredible street art! Even if you’re not a lover of the arts, you can’t deny the beauty of a huge mural – especially when they help bring to light the plights of Earth’s waters!
In 2015, Cozumel hosted a number of artists from around the world as they added 36 murals to the island. Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans, spearheaded by the PangeaSeed Foundation is a public art program that asks graffiti artists to spread the word of ocean conservation using their craft.
How does it work? Sea Walls asks the artists who volunteer their time. Each is given an environmental marine issue which they then become the ambassador for. Upon familiarizing themselves with it, they use their craft to share the message. It really is an incredible initiative – and the results are beautiful! You can easily spend a few hours hunting for them all, but I guarantee you’ll see some even if you’re not actively looking for them.
RELATED: If you want to make sure you see as many as possible, don’t miss my Cozumel street art guide which includes a map of where to find them!
Still Have Time? Check Out a Grocery Store!
Okay, this may sound silly but I absolutely love going to foreign groceries stores. You know all those friends that you want to bring souvenirs for but don’t have a whole lot of money to spend? Here’s the place to get those souvenirs because let’s be honest – we all love food.
The largest and most impressive grocery store in Cozumel is the MEGA, about a 10 minute walk southwest of the downtown core. Take some time to wander the aisles and see what fun treats you can find. There are plenty of tasty flavours of chips and candies to indulge in! Not sure what to try? I highly recommend the Obleas de Cajeta or cajeta wafers – two thin wafers sandwiching a tasty pool of caramel. Need I say more? There’s also the Bocadin wafter bar which is a wafer cookie dipped in chocolate. Both are solid choices that any sweets lover will adore!
Also, if you’ve forgotten anything that you need – this is where you can get it without paying an arm and a leg. Items like sunscreen may still be a little on the pricier side ($15 CAD per bottle versus $10 CAD at home) but it’s better than a terrible sunburn that ruins your vacation! And in case you were wondering… yes, that includes tequila too! You won’t find Los Tres Toños here, but there are still plenty of great options.
More Things to Do in Cozumel
There really is a lot to do on the island so if you’re planning on staying more than one day – take advantage of it! From exploring beneath the surface to roaming the island, you’ll still be wishing you had more time in Cozumel.
INSIDER TIP: If you’re planning an extended stay where you’ll be heading into town often, I suggest opting out of the all inclusive atmosphere and getting a hotel in town. While it is nice to have food and drinks prepared for you, I’m 90% sure the local restaurants will serve much better food than the resorts will. Also, groceries are inexpensive, so I would suggest cooking your own meals for breakfast and lunch before splurging a little on dinner out! However if you do opt for an all inclusive, don’t miss out on my travel tips and tricks!
Head Under the Sea For Some Scuba Diving
As I mentioned earlier, Cozumel is known for its scuba diving and is the perfect place to get a PADI certification. I can say this from experience because it’s where I officially became an open water diver! Whether you’re just starting like myself or are looking to do an advanced course, this is a fantastic place to do it as you’ll get to explore the beautiful coral reefs and incredible sea life found here.
If you go to Google this, you’re going to find an overwhelming number of dive shops. Some will be great, some will be horrible, but I guarantee you’ll have an amazing experience with Papa Hogs Scuba Emporium. This is where I finished my certification and Margaret, the owner, along with all her staff are amazing. They’re super attentive, easy going and extremely flexible. When a strong norte wind was predicted to come in sooner than anticipated, they worked with me to ensure I could get my certification done before it came. I’m forever thankful to them for making everything so easy, especially since I was nervous to dive in the first place! I can’t recommend them enough as a diving agency so go pay them a visit.
Already PADI certified? Fantastic! Book a boat (you’ll need at least 4 people so see if there’s a tour running if you need more people) and explore the underwater world. The majority of the dive sites are on the western side of the island as strong currents can cause havoc on the eastern side. No matter how many times you visit Cozumel, there will always be a new dive that awaits.
There are a number of popular dive sites around the island. Experienced divers can enjoy the Punta Sur Reef and enter one of the cavern systems. Follow a sand chute down where you’ll find coral tunnels and caverns brimming with wildlife. Another is the Palancar Garden, perfect for divers of all levels. Here you’ll find a current that carries you along beautiful finger coral formations. There are plenty of fish abound including angelfish, damselfish and more. There’s also Chakanaab where you may spot a Moray eel lurking in the shadows, and Paradise Reef whose drift current takes you for a beautiful ride as you enjoy the sights. No matter where you dive, keep an eye out for the Splendid Toadfish. They’re tough to spot as they like to hide in small, dark caverns, but I was lucky enough to see two in Paradise Reef!
Looking to dodge the crowds? A good rule of thumb is to book your trip between May and November. However, I went in January and didn’t find it to be too busy at all!
Rent a Vehicle and Explore the Island
The main road which takes you around the majority of Cozumel is only 65 km (~40 miles) and can easily be done in a day. While I only travelled as far as Chakanaab on the main road, this will definitely be a must-do for me upon my return to Cozumel! If you’re looking to do this, here are my suggestions (aka here is my future Cozumel road trip itinerary) for stops along the way.
Visit the Only Maya Ruins in Cozumel
Drive just 7 km east of San Miguel de Cozumel to visit the San Gervasio Archeological Zone. Now an iguana wildlife sanctuary, you can visit this prehispanic settlement. Originally founded close to 300 AD, the building remains found here date back to 1200 AD. To this day, a number of architectonic groups are actively excavating so some areas are closed to the public. Points of interest include Las Manitas (meaning little hands), Chi Chan Nah (small house), Ka’na Nah (tall house), El Arco (the arch), Nohoch Nah (big house), and Los Murcielagos (the bats). These are the most prominent ruins in Cozumel as others, like those found in the heart of San Miguel de Cozumel which worshipped the patron of medicine Ixchel, have been destroyed.
Discover the Origin of Chocolate
An interactive way to learn about where chocolate came from in the land of its creators? I’m in! Head to Mayan Cacao and immerse yourself in the world of chocolate. Here you can learn about the Mayan calendar and cultural practices. See how cacao is ground and learn the ancient art of turning cacao into a drink previously reserved for Chaman (shamans) only!
Enjoy Some Cozumel Tours
While wandering the island on your own is always an option, taking a tour can take your Cozumel trip to the next level! There are plenty of great options from guided tours around the island to beach clubs and bar hopping. I didn’t take a guided tour myself but these are the ones that caught my eye for the next time I’m visiting Cozumel!
Go For a Snorkel
While chances are you can snorkel at your resort, it’s always nice to get a change in scenery! I’ve heard The Money Bar has some of the best snorkeling on the island and offers some delicious eats as well. You can borrow snorkel gear here at no charge and they have showers and changing rooms so you can continue on your trip comfortably.
Stop For a Fresh Coconut
When there are coconut trees around, it’s a sin not to indulge! The Coconut Shack is said to be the best place for a fresh coconut on the island. I’ve seen that it may or may not be closed, but if you’re driving by as part of your Cozumel itinerary anyway – why not stop? There might not be any electricity but they have refreshing coconut water which is enough for me!
Grab a Drink and Enjoy the View
The last stop on my Cozumel road trip adventure would be Coconuts on the eastern side of the island. Not to be confused with the aforementioned Coconut Shack, this bar offers beautiful views and a fun, energetic vibe. Relax on a hammock and say hello to the owner’s dog as he/she wanders around welcoming guests. I’ve been warned the drinks are strong so enjoy responsibly!
INSIDER TIP: Travelling counter-clockwise around the island means you’ll be on the oceanside the whole time. This will offer the best views and the most scenic drive as you explore!
One Day in Cozumel Seriously Isn’t Enough!
Whether you’re here for a stopover on a cruise or spending 5 days in Cozumel, chances are you’ll want to extend your stay with all the adventures to be had! The island has a certain allure that will charm you. I stayed for a week and I’m already wishing I had a return trip booked! Whether you come for the food, the street art, or to scuba, Cozumel’s warm vibe will leave you wanting more.
What a great guide! There seems to be so much to do in Cozumel. Hopefully, I get to see it soon!
Thanks Juli! Cozumel really is an amazing spot, I highly recommend it!
Ooooooo bookmarking this for our day in Cozumel next week!!
YAY amazing! You’re going to have an incredible time. Cozumel has so much to offer!
This is awesome! We drove around the island in a car last year, and I’ve been diving there in years past. What a great place to get your open water certification! I think it’s one of the best places to dives.
It seriously blew me away! While I was nervous for the dives, having so much to look at really helped calm me down. Plus I’ll never forget seeing the incredible Splendid Toadfish!
I’m glad that I’m not the only one who loves foreign grocery stores! 😀 (recently discovered jaffa cakes covered in Milka chocolate in Prague… omg, so good!) I really need to bump Mexico further up my travel list, and this post is just more incentive to do so. Cozumel looks so beautiful, and I’d love to try the scuba diving!
YESSS! One of my favourite things to do when travelling is go to a grocery store haha! So many delicious things waiting to be discovered! I’m honestly a little mad at myself it took me so long to get to Mexico. Oh well, better late than never – right?!
Great guide! I’ve only had a few hours in Cozumel on a cruise day at port… it wasn’t enough! I did get to snorkel though, which was awesome!
Amazing! I actually didn’t do any snorkelling myself but I’ll definitely change that next time I visit!
Ahhh! I love that you went diving! I haven’t been to Mexico in years (or on a hot holiday in a long time) and am dying to get somewhere. Might just have to check it out this winter!
Haha it’s because we’ve been embracing the winter wonderland of Canada! Whenever you’ve had enough of the -30C, I highly recommend Cozumel 😉
Ryan K Biddulph
How awesome Lindz. I am automatically a sucker for anywhere in the tropics. Totally in. We need to see Mexico soon.
Haha I really don’t go to the tropics enough to be honest! If it wasn’t for needing to complete my scuba certification, I probably wouldn’t have went! I think I really need to visit south more often 😀
How long did it take you to get your PADI certification? I am looking at 4 or 5 day trip to Cozumel.
Hi Elizabeth – great question! I had already done the course at home in Ontario, Canada so the dives that I did were to complete the open water requirement and I did four dives in two days. It would be best to reach out to Papa Hogs to see what they say but my guess is the course would probably be three days so you might want to opt for a 5 day to ensure you have a little bit of a buffer in case of weather issues. Plus you cannot fly within 24 hours after a dive for safety reasons so that’s something to take into account as well!