The island of Cozumel beckons with sparkling turquoise waters, hotels, eateries and beach clubs in abundance, plus the world’s second largest barrier reef system. And did we mention a fascinating set of ancient Mayan ruins tucked into the jungle?
Cozumel Travel Guide: Best Things to Do in Mexico’s Idyllic Island Paradise
Last updated: May 2023
Located in the sparkling Caribbean Sea about 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the mainland of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the island of Cozumel beckons with calm turquoise waters, fascinating Mayan ruins set in the jungle, hotels and beach clubs in abundance, and the world’s second largest barrier reef system waiting to be explored by snorkelers and divers alike.
Stretching just 48 kilometers (30 miles) long and 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) wide, the island may seem small enough to explore in just one day – though we’d argue at least an overnight is the best way to explore this island paradise.
Here, we give you our top picks of the best things to do on Cozumel Island, Mexico, paired with some practical intel making your visit all the more seamless.
But first: travel insurance to the rescue.
Wherever, and whenever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. I personally use and recommend Faye Travel Insurance for their thorough, easy to understand and fair-priced coverage options. Think: emergency medical and sickness benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, compensation for lost luggage and personal effects, and trip protection covering things like unforeseen cancellation, interruption or missed connections.
You can even add optional coverage for your traveling pets, that sweet ride you’ll be renting, extreme sports and accidental vacation rental damage (oops). Plus! A game-changing travel benefit you can add on to your policy: the ability to cancel for any reason. Did I mention a seamless in-app claims process and rapid, on-the-go reimbursements to your digital Faye Wallet? Check pricing here.
Pro Tip: it’s best to buy your travel insurance policy within 14 days of making your initial trip deposit (like when you buy your flights or book your hotel).
And – a little history lesson:
The name Cozumel comes from the Maya name “Ah Cuzamil Peten,” which means “the island of the swallows.” (Spanish: Isla de las Golondrinas)
Settled by the Maya in the 1st millennium AD, the island was sacred to Ix Chel – the Maya Moon Goddess – and resulting temples were a place of pilgrimage especially for women desiring fertility. The first Spanish expeditions to Cozumel were led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518 and Hernán Cortés in 1519, which were received surprisingly peacefully by the Maya inhabitants (unlike their mainland counterparts). In 1520 however, the Pánfilo Narváez expedition brought smallpox to the island and nearly wiped out the entire population over the next 50 years. A thriving population of approx 10,000 Maya in 1520 plummeted to barely 400 by 1570.
By the mid to late 1600s, most of the remaining population was forced to relocate inland to avoid repeated pirate attacks. In the mid-1800s the population finally began to rebuild, when the tumultuous Caste War of Yucatán saw refugees escaping to Cozumel from the mainland. In 1849, the town of San Miguel de Cozumel was born. More on Cozumel’s history here.
The island began emerging on the tourist radar in the late 1950s, and grew into a full-fledged vacation destination by the 1970s. The rest of course, is history! For a fascinating look into the rise of tourism on Cozumel, click here.
Now let’s start with a few practical Q’s you probably have.
How is wifi/cell reception on Cozumel?
You’ll be happy to know wifi and cell reception are abundant – on the west side of Cozumel, at least. Once you arrive to the more wild and undeveloped east side, as well as the southern tip of the island, don’t expect much. I’m on a U.S. SIM card (Verizon) while my husband, Alberto, is on a Mexican SIM card, and neither of us had even one bar for most of the journey down the east coast. Our advice? Have your itinerary and stops pre-planned so you’re not having to route on-the-go.
How is the cash/credit card/ATM situation on Cozumel?
In our experience it’s about 50/50 with businesses accepting cash, cards or both. In the case of cash, all tourist-driven businesses on the island accept both pesos and USD. Many businesses do accept credit cards as well, but not all. As far as ATMs – there are quite a few banks in San Miguel de Cozumel (many within walking distance of the ferry dock) so withdrawing cash here is not a problem.
Can I wear sunscreen on Cozumel?
If you’re planning to get into the water at all anywhere in Cozumel’s vast Marine Park (see a map of the region here), whether for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving or other water activity, only biodegradable sunscreen is allowed. This is an enforced, federal regulation aimed at preserving the coral reef system and surrounding marine life – otherwise damaged by the chemicals used in non-biodegradable sunscreen.
In some areas of Cozumel’s Marine Park, such as Playa Mia Beach Park, no sunscreen of any kind is allowed at all. Given policies vary, it’s best to check ahead of time with your tour or destination for updated sunscreen policies.
Our advice? In addition to biodegradable sunscreen, be sure to bring sun-protective clothing like a long-sleeve UPF swim shirt, hat and sunglasses to be fully covered (literally and figuratively) while on Cozumel.
How to get to Cozumel.
How to Get to Cozumel: Passenger Ferry
Most visitors to Cozumel will be taking a 40 minute ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen. Hopefully you’ll be privy to beautiful weather and can enjoy the views along the way! The ferry dock is located at the beginning of famous 5th (Quinta) Avenue, right next to Fundadores Park. (If using Google Maps, type “Muelle Playa Del Carmen” – this is the dock and the correct location.)
There are currently two ferry operators to choose from: WinJet and UltraMar. Both charge approximately $30.00 USD for a roundtrip ticket, with slight discounts for children and locals. Ferries leave on the hour every hour, the first departing Playa Del Carmen at 8am and the last returning from Cozumel at 10pm. (Pricing and timetables are subject to change, so please be sure to consult the websites above prior to your trip!)
Which ferry to take? We’ve taken both and you really can’t go wrong with either. Both essentially offer the same service, with an indoor, air-conditioned lower deck and an open-air top deck, plus on-board bathrooms and a snack bar/coffee shop. The top deck on WinJet is partially covered however, so if you really want to feel the wind in your hair during your ride over, you’ll have better luck snagging a fully open-air seat on UltraMar.
UltraMar is also the newer ferry operator of the two, branding themselves as a “luxury” option with the fastest dock-to-dock service. (They are technically faster than WinJet, but only by 5 or so minutes in our experience.) Feeling fancy? UltraMar also offers a first-class ticket at roughly $38.00 USD, including priority boarding, an exclusive on-board lounge and reclinable leather seats.
You can buy your tickets online (where you’ll sometimes find online-only discounts) or you can purchase from any of the many ticket booths you’ll see upon arriving to the ferry terminal. Head’s up there are a LOT of kiosks and people will be flagging you down to purchase tickets. We’ve always purchased in-person and personally, prefer the official ticket booths closest to or inside the terminal. All of the ticket booths accept both USD and pesos, and most also accept credit cards.
How to Get to Cozumel: Bicycles on the Passenger Ferry
You are allowed to bring bicycles on either ferry as well. WinJet charges approx $1 USD extra; there is no additional fee on UltraMar.
But while we’re on the subject – a note on bicycles. Cozumel is big enough that you absolutely need a car or motorbike to see the entire island. Unless you are a pro cyclist heading to Cozumel to log some serious miles, a recreational bicyclist will only get so far on Cozumel. On our first trip to the island, we brought our bikes and only made it as far as The Money Bar on the west coast. A few kilometers here, a few kilometers there turn into LONG stretches in the midday heat – especially in June. If you want to stick close to town and hit one or two beach clubs within relative proximity, you can do it on a bike. If you want to head to the east coast or all the way south to Palancar Beach or El Cielo however, you’re better off skipping the bike and renting a car or motorbike.
How to Get to Cozumel: Car Ferry
Do you already have a car or motorbike and want to bring it to Cozumel? There IS a car ferry that departs from Punta Venado (Calica) – a separate dock about 20 minutes south of the passenger ferry dock – operated by Transcaribe. The ferry runs to/from Cozumel 2-3 times per day with a journey time of around 1 hour and 45 minutes. One-way pricing starts at roughly $16.00 USD for a motorbike or $45.00 USD for a compact car (including vehicle + up to 5 passengers). TIP: it’s a good idea to arrive to the dock at least 1 hour ahead of departure time to ensure your spot on the ferry.
How to Get to Cozumel: Plane
Several international airlines including American Airlines, Aeromexico and Air Canada currently operate direct flights into Cozumel’s own international airport. Alternatively from Cancun, you can reach the island’s tiny landing strip aboard a shared, 25 minute shuttle flight from MAYAir, starting at approximately $65.00 USD per person. Note the only way to book the flight is by contacting MAYAir directly via email. From Cozumel, you can take a scenic flight right into Cancun International Airport aboard this private Cessna charter flight starting at $199.00 USD per person.
Car / Jeep / Scooter Rental on Cozumel Island
You’ve made it to Cozumel! Next step? Finding a set of wheels. Whether you’re looking for a car with A/C, an open-air jeep, scooter, or even a dune buggy, you will be met by numerous vendors selling all of the above (& more!) the second you step off the ferry.
Expect prices to hover around $30.00 USD per day for a motorbike; around $60.00+ USD per day for a car, jeep or dune buggy. Pricing is generally lower for open-air vehicles with manual transmissions; higher for automatics with A/C.
You can take your chances pricing out vendors at the ferry dock, or go straight to our pick, HTL Rentals. They are just a few blocks from the ferry dock, have an impressive fleet of vehicle options, and we love that all of their rentals come with both collision insurance AND Mexico’s required 3rd party liability insurance already included in the price. TIP: Reserve ahead of time to not only guarantee your rental, but get a better rate! Rates are slightly if you try to rent day of, in-person.
If for some reason HTL doesn’t have vehicles available, try Rentadora ISIS on the same block. While their vehicles are on the older side (don’t expect anything fancy here), they’ll get you where you need to go and the shop is run by good, honest people. Plus, they typically have quite a few “Mexican Ferraris” available (a.k.a. old school VW bugs) that are a fun ride on the island!
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island: Snorkeling, Jeep Tours and ATVs
Want to take advantage of Cozumel’s worldwide-famed snorkeling? Once on the island, you can embark on this guided sailing excursion combining a snorkel stop at Palancar Reef with swimming with starfish in the stunning, crystal clear waters of El Cielo – plus open bar and fresh ceviche. Or, you can hop on this glass bottom boat tour including 3 snorkel stops.
Alternatively, you can easily snorkel DIY-style at many spots on Cozumel’s west coast, including our fave: The Money Bar Beach Club. Situated on a rocky coastline, there isn’t really a true beach here – but no matter. You’re not here for sand, you’re here for the sparkling turquoise water!
One of the things we really love about The Money Bar is there is NO entry fee or minimum to utilize their oceanfront loungers or tables. Friendly servers offer great service, with delicious food and drinks to match. After you’ve settled in, grab your snorkel gear and head to the water! (If you don’t have your own snorkel gear you can rent from a nearby shop.) There are two access points into the water on either end of the beach club, but head’s up – both are a wee bit slippery so be extra careful upon entry and exit. Expect to see plenty of schools of fish just a few feet out into the water, and of course even more marine life the further out towards the reef you go.
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island: Explore Ancient Maya Ruins
That’s right – there is a fascinating set of ancient Maya ruins located on Cozumel! A 20-minute drive inland tucked into the jungle, you’ll find the island’s San Gervasio Archaeological Site. While the site may not be as impressive as its Tulum or Yucatán neighbors in scale or views, San Gervasio is still filled with captivating history. Remember Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess (as mentioned above)? This is where Maya women seeking fertility went to pay tribute. Especially if you’ve never explored a Maya archaeological site before, San Gervasio easily earns its rightful stop during your visit to Cozumel.
The ruins are open 7 days a week from 8am – 4pm. Entrance fee is $12.50 USD per person, split into two payments. You’ll pay part of the fee at the initial entry point (via cash or credit card), followed by the rest at a second entry point (this one is cash only). Here you will also have the opportunity to hire a tour guide for an additional fee.
Expect to spend around 1-2 hours exploring the site, which is relatively spread out. You’ll be doing quite a bit of walking (across rocky, uneven surfaces at that) so we recommend wearing sneakers here vs. flip-flips.
It does get HOT here in the midday sun, so do yourself a favor and arrive early to beat the heat! On our recent visit we arrived at 9:30 and left by 11am. Just in time to avoid the strong sun..and the van loads of just-docked tour groups arriving from the island’s cruise pier.
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island: Visit Cozumel’s East Coast
You can pull over and stop for scenic photos just about anywhere on Cozumel’s wild, windy and undeveloped east coast, but you’ll definitely want to stop at El Mirador. A natural lookout point, this popular spot is marked by a sea-carved, arched rock formation creating a “bridge” over the water. Climb on top for views and epic photos, and soak in the sea spray as you gaze out at the crashing waves.
The site has a few on-site vendors as well, so if climbing isn’t your thing, you can also grab a coco frío (cold coconut drink) and relax on the adjacent beach.
Note it’s not recommended to swim here since the east side of the island is typically very windy, resulting in very strong waves. Better to save your swimming and snorkeling for the much calmer west coast!
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island: Treat Your Tastebuds at Mayan Cacao Company
As you start heading back up the west coast, consider a stop at Mayan Cacao Company. For $20.00 USD per person you can take an approx 1-hour tour where you’ll learn all about how the ancient Maya prepared chocolate. The best part? The tasting! Expect to sample a range of chocolate ranging from traditional to honey to chile-infused. Admission further includes additional cultural activities such as experiencing a Maya purification ritual, visiting a traditional Maya hut, and sampling handmade corn tortillas.
On your way out (or in) swing by the on-site bar for a chocolate-infused cocktail, and don’t forget to stop by the souvenir shop on your way out to pick up some artisanal chocolate to-go.
Tours are available in both English and Spanish, offered Monday – Saturday at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Please note drinks from the bar and items from the shop are not included in the admission price.
Best Things to Do on Cozumel Island: Explore Punta Sur Eco Park
Located at the southernmost point of Cozumel is Punta Sur Eco Park: a 247-acre ecological reserve featuring mini-ruins, mangrove lagoons, beaches and reefs, plus the historic Celarain Lighthouse. For those willing to climb to the top, stunning panoramic views await! On a clear day, you may even be able to spot the coast of Cuba a mere 90 miles away.
The beaches here are stunning (we think possibly the most beautiful in all of Cozumel), and could be worth paying the entrance fee alone. Wide stretches of white, pristine sand lead to sparkling turquoise water that’s as smooth as glass. The water is absolutely swimmable and even boasts a beautiful reef for snorkeling. There are a handful of beach clubs/restaurants in Punta Sur, one of which, Anémona de Mar Beach Club, charges an entry minimum that goes towards consumption. It’s a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours if you have the time, making the minimum worth it in our opinion. If you’re tight on time however or just don’t want to commit to a minimum, try any of the others. They’re a little more casual and don’t charge any kind of entry fee.
Beach lounging, swimming and snorkeling aside, you can also explore (very small) Mayan ruins, or take a boat tour into the lagoon with a professional guide. Here, you’ll be able to spot crocodiles, colorful birds and more wildlife unique to the island. Tour times are currently 12noon, 1pm and 2pm, although you’ll want to double check with the park upon arrival in case this has changed.
The park is open Monday through Saturday (closed Sundays) 9am – 4pm. Admission cost is $19.00 USD for adults and $13.00 USD for children (ages 4 to 12). Your entry ticket includes access to the lighthouse, the ruins, lagoon boat tours, and access to the beautiful beaches (with the exception of Anémona de Mar Beach Club as mentioned above, which charges a minimum consumption). Food & drinks will cost extra, as will snorkel equipment – available for rent from any beachfront establishment for $15.00 USD per person.
TIP: Because of the entry fee and with so much to do in Punta Sur, we recommend setting aside at least a half day here. Our perfect Punta Sur itinerary? Go right at 9am and first check out the mini-ruins, then climb the lighthouse. You’ll likely have both all to yourself. Next, head to the beach where you’ll have your pick of the perfect spot. Take the 1 or 2pm boat tour, after which you can head back to the beach or out of Punta Sur. Additional tip: on a crowded day the boat tours can fill up, leaving some not being able to get on. Best to arrive to the departure dock 30 minutes ahead of time, and not waiting until the last tour.
Best Restaurants & Bars on Cozumel Island
Best Restaurants on Cozumel: Breakfast
There are a quite a few breakfast options in and around San Miguel De Cozumel, the pueblo (town) located adjacent to the ferry dock. For stunning ocean views just north of town, head to La Monina. Views aside, this waterfront spot serves up delicious chilaquiles and enchiladas (pictured below, left), the best fresh juice and excellent service.
We also love COZ Coffee Roasting Company right in town. This casual spot is just steps from the ferry dock and a few more steps from the above mentioned car rental companies. Expect an excellent, inexpensive breakfast and amazing coffee. (TIP: try the Spiced-Iced Coffee or the Peanut Butter Coffee!) These guys do run on Mexico time though, so best to not to be in a rush.
Best Restaurants on Cozumel: Lunch
One of our favorite lunch spots on Cozumel also doubles as a lazy, oceanfront day hang: Hemingway. Located on the island’s idyllic west coast, this instagrammable spot boasts calm, crystal clear water perfect for swimming or snorkeling, table seating spread across two floors, and an outdoor deck area with comfy couch configurations, private covered cabanas and in-sand loungers.
Or, you can head to Coconuts (pictured above, right) on the island’s rugged, undeveloped east coast. This fun and quirky bar has everything you need: a fun vibe, ice cold beer, great food (get the beef fajitas) and a stunning cliffside view. TIP: These guys tend to get packed midday, so if you want to make sure you get a table (not to mention a parking spot), we recommend arriving by 11:30am/12noon latest for lunch.
Best Bars on Cozumel: Keep it Casual
At the south end of Cozumel’s east coast, keep your eyes peeled for an unassuming palapa stand called Bar Miami (also known as The Liquor Box). Here, grab a well-earned beer, cocktail (get the mojito!) or coconut and pull up an oceanfront seat to soak in the view.
We loved this low-key spot for its chill vibe, relaxing hammocks and stunning views – not to mention cheap prices! Drinks here are easily half what you’ll spend at other beachfront spots on Cozumel.
Best Restaurants & Bars on Cozumel: Sunset Drinks & Dinner
Cozumel happens to have spectacular sunsets and one of our favorite spots to catch it is the aptly named Sunset Bar. Located just south of San Miguel de Cozumel, this fun bar and restaurant offers a laid-back vibe with seating on an upper terrace as well as beachfront. The water here is great for swimming, and if you come earlier in the day you can take advantage of their 2×1 happy hour (1pm – 3pm). And did we mention the views? Equally stunning during the day, and of course – at sunset.
If you prefer to start heading back into San Miguel de Cozumel, we also love catching sunset at El Palomar (pictured below). Located in a colonial home built in 1903, the historic house today is considered a cultural heritage site on Cozumel Island. Beautifully refurbished, rustic interiors feature paintings by local artists, further complemented by a charming outdoor patio. Whether you’re stopping here for an inventive mezcal cocktail as you take in the sunset, or you stay for dinner by way of delicious island cuisine, El Palomar easily deserves a spot on your Cozumel itinerary.
Looking for true cocktail culture? Head to Agave Cocktail Bar in town. The intimate space with a sprinkling of outdoor seating serves up the best craft cocktails on the island. Don’t miss their expertly selected mezcal flight, or the “Ride to Mexico,” a five-spirit flight of interesting agave distillates from across the country (think unusual finds like bacanora, raicilla and comiteco).
Other excellent dinner picks include Fuego by Riviera Kosher for in-town international fare with a malecón view, or Buccanos on the island’s northwest coast. Here, contemporary island cuisine including seafood risotto, sushi rolls and filet mignon (not to mention lobster nachos) pair with atmospheric sunsets and starry night skies alike – all set to the gently lapping sounds of the Mexican Caribbean sea.