The spell of Cozumel
When you step ashore in the watersport capital of the Caribbean, itsí hard to think of anything but getting wet

By Michael DeFreitas


Cozumel
© Michael DeFreitas

As s soon as I hit the water off Punta Sur, I felt the tug of Cozumelís famous current. I descended quickly and hugged the bottom until the rest of our group assembled. After a flurry of OK signals, we glided off to tackle the islandís premier drift dive, the Devilís Throat.

Cozumel rises up out of the azure Caribbean Sea only 12 miles off the coast of Mexicoís Yucatan Peninsula. Here, the Caribbean Current gathers speed as it forces its way through the narrow gap between the island and the mainland. This strong nutrient-rich flow nurtures a thriving marine ecosystem and provides the propulsion for some of the worldís best drift diving.

Over time, these strong currents have carved a series of long, narrow, winding tunnels through Cozumelís fringing reefs. The largest of these, the Devilís Throat, is a dark, twisting, 200-foot-long tube considered a rite of passage for advanced drift divers.

We checked our depth gauges frequently as we flew in formation along a coral wall teeming with massive bright orange elephant ear and barrel sponges, and a large school of red bar squirrelfish. A curious four-foot-wide eagle ray joined our squadron for a few minutes before we spotted the dark outline of the Devilís Throat entrance at about 90 feet. Its jagged coral-encrusted opening resembled the gaping mouth of some prehistoric beast.

The Devil swallowed us one by one and we rode the current down through the dark passageway. I felt a bit claustrophobic, but focused my dive light on the yellow fins of the diver in front, using all my swimming skills to avoid colliding with the coral walls. For 15 heart-pounding minutes, I slid down the Devilís Throat until it spat me out into the sunlit water at 130 feet, on the outer edge of the wall overlooking the blue abyss.

Cozumelís healthy reefs have lured divers since the late 1960s, when Jacques-Yves Cousteauís films brought the islandís lush underwater world into our homes. My dual with the Devil is not for everyone, but donít worry. Cozumel has a wide array of dive sites suitable for all skill levels and more than 100 dive operators. Itís truly a diverís paradise.

But diving isnít Cozumelís only wet and wild adventure. The island is also famous for its spectacular snorkeling, miles of fabulous white sand beaches and exciting sportfishing.

Snorkeling

Many of the islandís most popular dive and snorkeling sites are contained within Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. The park encompasses a large swath of coastline and fringing reefs stretching from the cruise ship terminal on the west coast, around the islandís southern tip to Punta Chiqueros on the east coast.

You can join a snorkel boat tour to some of the shallow offshore reefs within the park, but some of the best snorkeling spots are only a few fin kicks from shore between the capital, San Miguel, and Punta Sur at the islandís southern tip.

Youíll find snorkeling hot spots at San Francisco, Palancar and Columbia reefs, where jagged limestone outcroppings punctuate the coastline. These outcroppings run from shore to a depth of about 25 feet and provide ideal habitat for brightly colored corals and a wide variety of marine life such as star anemones, spotted eels, spiny lobsters and about 50 species of tropical fish.

Situated on the west coast about six miles south of town, Parque Natural Chankanaab offers wonderful snorkeling reefs, see-through kayaks, lots of white sand and a chance to swim or snorkel with dolphins and Caribbean manatees. The $35 park fee covers most watersports as well as admission to the nearby Discover Mexico theme park. Dolphin and manatee swims are extra.

If you want to explore deeper reefs, but youíre not keen on learning to scuba dive, the park also has snubaóa scuba/snorkel hybrid with many of the benefits of diving, but without all the certification and equipment. Itís great fun for snorkelers who would rather explore underwater for 30 minutes at a time instead of short 60-second bursts.

To experience the underwater world without even getting wet, there is always the Atlantis submarine. On our 40-minute trip aboard this tourist sub, we explored the reef off Chankanaab Park at a depth of about 100 feet. Besides a array of tropical reef fish, we saw a school of snapper huddled around a swaying gorgonian fan, two large barracuda, stingrays lying in the sand and spiny lobsters tucked into coral crannies.

Sand ahoy!

Cozumel has few rivals when it comes to the soft white sand beaches that fringe most of its 80-mile coastline. The west coast features calm, narrow strands suitable for families and snorkelers, while the rougher windswept east coast with its wide sensuous arcs attract couples, wind surfers and kite boarders.

Some of the more popular west coast playas (beaches) like Dzul-Ha, Uvas, Paradise and Mia provide watersport equipment rentals, beach chairs, umbrellas, kidsí programs, showers and toilets, beach bars and entertainment. They all charge an entrance fee, but itís great value given the amenities. More intimate playas like Palancar, Azul, Albertoís, San Francisco and Mr. Sanchos have fewer amenities, but less crowds, great snorkeling and no entrance fees.

Miles of luxurious uncrowded strands of white sand line Cozumelís east coast from Santa Cecilia south to Punta Sur. Here, secluded playas like Bonita, San Martin, Box, El Mirador and Chen Rio have limited amenities and fabulous sand only a few steps from the main road. Between Punta Chiqueros and Playa Chen Rio youíll find a few natural sheltered saltwater pools great for soaking.

Parque Punta Sur is an ecological reserve with beautiful sand dunes and wide quiet beaches. On the west side of the point is a secluded calm beach, while the windswept east beach is a favorite nesting site for loggerhead and green turtles (you can view them nesting from May to October). The parkís small Columbia Lagoon is one of the islandís prime birding sites and a good place to spot caiman crocodiles and iguanas. Other park attractions include the Punta Celerain Lighthouse Museum and a shell-shaped Mayan ruin.

No visit to Cozumel would be complete without spending a day at Isla Pasion. Located off the sheltered north shore in Laguna Ciega, this private islet is basically one big beach covered with whistling pines and palm trees. Your entrance fee includes roundtrip boat transfer, a Mexican buffet luncheon, open bar, an assortment of water-sport activities and dozens of inviting beach hammocks.

Set a hook

The deep, nutrient-rich waters that bathe the coast of Cozumel support some of the Caribbeanís best sportfishing. The best time for blue and white marlin, sailfish and mahi mahi is March through July. Barracuda, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, king mackerel, red snapper and grouper run year round. Most companies offer half- and full-day bottom and deep-sea (trolling) charters.

The islandís annual Mexican Boat Rodeo, held in May, is a big game fishing tournament that attracts more than 500 anglers from around the world. They compete for $100,000 in prizes in various categories.

Lining the northern tip of the island are three quiet lagoons, with shallow, emerald colored waters ideal for fly and light tackle enthusiasts. These large lagoons teem with hungry bonefish, tarpon and permit. Bonies average 4 lbs, while permit and tarpon regularly tip the scales at 20 lbs. Although bonies are plentiful year round, your best chance for a grand slam (all three) is March to August.

Cozumelís convenient locationĖĖabout a six-hour flight from DenverĖĖmakes it the ideal quick getaway destination. So next time you get the urge to strap on your scuba gear or bury your toes in some soft tropical white sand, why not take the plunge in Cozumel. If anyone asks why Cozumel, just say the devil made you do it.

Michael DeFreitas (www.iwritetravel.com) is a freelance writer and photographer who specializes in Central American and Caribbean adventure travel.

Must-see/must-do in Cozumel

For more information on Cozumel, including currently available packages, talk to your travel agent.

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