Burt Wingfield  /  AP file
A diver swims by coral reefs off the island of Cozumel, Mexico. Even inexperienced scuba divers can tell they're drifting along something special when exploring the reefs of the island just off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan Coral Reef is the world's second-longest, trailing only the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast.
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updated 8/23/2005 1:43:02 PM ET 2005-08-23T17:43:02

Though at times it seems the island may sink under the sheer weight of cruise-ship visitors, travelers to Cozumel can still find genuine Mexican charm along with some of the world’s best diving.

Midafternoon of my first day in Cozumel finds me at the corner table of La Choza, a downtown San Miguel restaurant. Day of the Dead skeletons dance on wall murals under a thatched roof, and pedestrians on the narrow street outside the open windows pass within touching distance as they dodge the hurly-burly of traffic on a diminutive scale — tiny trucks, rickshaw delivery bikes and teetering scooters burdened with families of three — all negotiating the busy intersection by rules and logic unfathomable to an outsider. At the next table sits a mamasita in a colorful mumu, her Maya-black hair pulled back into a generous bun. She’s slowly savoring a fishbowl-size red drink and a delicious-looking fried fish that must be 20 inches from nose to tail. “I’ll have what she’s having,” I tell the waiter, “and I’ll start with a margarita.”

With the kitchen in no hurry and the taste of limey lime, salty salt and smoky tequila on my lips — the simplest ingredients always taste so much more vivid in Mexico — I have time to fully appreciate the passing street theater. Divers still wearing damp wetsuits pile out of vehicles in front of the shop across the street; storefront signs blare their come-ons in loud pastels; horns and revving engines compete with the brassy din of La Choza’s stereo. Quiet it’s not, but I’m loving the sensory overload of being in a bustling Mexican town at a joint where locals and gringos rub shoulders at the feasting table. As I dig deeply into that hefty fried snapper — so crispy outside, so white and tender inside — I feel like I’ve really arrived.

That satisfying feeling, though, is short-lived. After lunch, I stroll to the nearby plaza and suddenly feel like I’m in Pamplona during the running of the bulls. There’s a herd of coupon-clutching cruise shippers funneling through a gauntlet of shops selling tacky T-shirts and cheapo tchotchkes. One of the storefront touts actually baits a passing prospect with a parody of the old south-of-the-border stereotype: “Hey meester, you want to meet my seester?”

With that, I realize I’ve crossed over into the turista barrio that San Miguel’s waterfront district has become. I guess that’s what happens to a place when it becomes the number-one cruise-ship port of call in the world. Some 3 million day-trippers arrive annually (an average of 8,200 a day), and each spends about $70 on the island. Two hundred million dollars goes a long way toward providing a nice standard of living for 75,000 Cozumeleños, but obviously, mass tourism on that scale is a mixed blessing. Nevertheless, it’s been given the full blessing of the Mexican government, which OK’d the three massive cruise-ship docks despite the objections of environmentalists.

The sight of the giant ships, the tourist-crowded streets and the tawdry shops is almost enough to make me to sequester myself at my resort hotel. But based on that great lunch at La Choza, I know there’s got to be more to Cozumel than el centro’s daytime cruise crush — and my challenge will be to seek out its most appealing havens. A quick look at the map shows that outside San Miguel, most of the island is uninhabited, with a long beachy coastline on the east and a west side that’s literally lined with world-famous coral reefs. What better way to escape the topside commotion than by exploring the silent world?

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life But first, a refresher course. As a diver, I’m a dabbler. And it’d be foolish to leap headfirst into Cozumel’s notoriously swift currents without scraping the rust off my scuba skills. Fortunately, my hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Resort & Spa, is virtually a diving country club, one of those nice resorts where they rinse your gear and hang it for you overnight. The Scuba Du shop is just across the manicured lawn from my room, next to a neatly raked beach. A nice young man with a professional demeanor hooks me up with brand-new gear, goes over the fundamentals and takes me out on a decent little shore dive. After the tune-up, I know I’m still a dilettante, but I’m confident enough to sign on for a dive with Advanced Divers, a small operation that, as the name implies, caters mainly to very experienced bubbleheads.

“We’re goin’ to Barracuda, and anybody who survives that will dive San Juan Reef,” says divemaster Tony Perez onboard the Careyitos during his pre-dive briefing. I know he’s hyperbolizing to ensure everyone pays attention, but it helps lower my air consumption when he adds, “Of course, we’ve never lost anybody in 15 years.”

Perez, a slim, gray-haired former Green Beret of 60 with a moist Louisiana delivery and a dry humor, explains that Cozumel’s strong currents are the reason the reefs here are so pristine and fertile, but he notes that they’re nothing to be trifled with. “If you’re used to the Bahamas, Cayman, Bonaire, this is not that type of diving,” he says. “This is current diving, not simply drift diving.”

I ask Perez about the cruise pier construction and its effect on the underwater environment. He says that while some of the prime reefs were put out of commission, Cozumel’s vaunted marine diversity — 26 types of coral and some 500 species of fish — has not only survived, it’s thriving, with recent sightings of heretofore scarce species.

On submerging, I find myself flying sideways over an ancient, mountainous accumulation of corals, with sea fans bent over like palm trees in a hurricane. The downside of current diving is that it’s hard to stop and observe all the colorful little individual creatures clustered with the corals. The reef becomes a blurry garden of delights — the eagle rays, turtles and nurse sharks are characters in a passing show. The dividend, though, is the sensation of effortless motion through fantastical inner space. You get into a zone down there.

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After burning our second tanks on San Juan — a less dramatic reef with a more populous menagerie of seven-foot-wide eagle rays and hawksbill turtles of various sizes — I ask Perez for the lowdown on exploring the island. He points me back into town to a couple of essential sights, and across the island to the undeveloped east coast.

He also recommends a couple of bars and restaurants favored by expats — if I suffer a craving for pizza or an American-style sports bar, I know where to go. Cozumel might have been a significant pilgrimage site for the early Maya, but, he confides, it holds little of archeological interest to a sightseer. If I want to see spectacular Maya ruins, he says, I should day-trip by airplane over to Chichén Itzá on the mainland.

The next afternoon, Sunday, I sneak into San Miguel and find a ghost town; the cruise ships have taken a day of rest. For the first time, the city’s beautiful bones are apparent to me: The spacious plaza feels like a piece of old Mexico. At the compact Museum of the Island of Cozumel, where I am literally the only visitor, I take a leisurely tour of the informative displays on the island’s natural history and the reef (a must for those who don’t dive, to see what they’re missing), and its political history from the Maya era to the Spanish conquest, the age of piracy and the plantation era.

I discover a piece of Cozumel’s living history at Casa Denis, which was the first restaurant on the island, established near the plaza in 1945. Photographs and mementos on the wall run like a movie montage spanning the decades, including a museum-quality photograph of Che and Fidel as a couple of young men in their primes, relaxing together on a post-revolution fishing trip in 1960. The kitchen still prepares the Yucatecan recipes perfected by the current proprietor’s grandmother; the lime soup and Mayan pork are

delicious. Casa Denis is a throwback, a bastion of tradition and authenticity right in the belly of the beast.

If it were a boat, Cozumel would tip over: Nearly all the population and development is on the west coast, while the east coast is all but deserted. Driving along the east, windward, coast is like visiting another place altogether, with completely different vegetation of sweetly fragrant low scrub, and miles and miles of uninhabited beaches. It’s reminiscent of Baja, with surfers tangling with whitecaps under blue skies. And when the midday sun turns the temperature up high, it’s a place where the elements conspire to sing the words “cerveza fria” in your ear, loudly and repeatedly, until you finally pull over at one of the handful of beach bars that serve as oases along the coast. The concierge back at the Presidente, a smoothie in his twenties, had told me that Coconuts is the one where he takes all his girlfriends — and recommendations don’t come much better than that.

Set on a hilltop 56 feet above the sea, Coconuts claims to be the highest spot on the island, and I immediately get the idea that just might be true in more ways than one. The classic thatched palapa is decorated by T-shirts and underthings, left behind, presumably,

by the wildly happy and less-than-fully-clothed folks who populate the dozens of “family” photo albums stacked on the bar.

“This place was started by my girlfriend and her husband,” says the affable boss Sergio “Cuco” Rojas, shouting over the classic rock he’s pulling in off satellite radio. “He passed away, I kept the restaurant and the wife.

“You gotta find a nice way to say that,” he says. (Cuco, my friend, some quotes cannot be improved upon even by a professional.)

He orders me the house special, a Coco Loco, a surprisingly potable combination of tequila, gin, vodka, rum, coconut water, lime and sugar syrup, served inside a fresh coconut. Then he introduces the bar’s pet parrot, Lorenzo, and Elvis the iguana, who chills next to me on the bar wearing a tiny purple sombrero while I work on some tasty shrimp tacos.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground Surreal though the scene may seem, I’m struck once again with the feeling that I’ve really arrived in Cozumel. It’d be easy, oh so easy, to stay right where I am sucking down Coco Locos, but my instincts say I should split before I wind up posing for the family album wearing nothing but Elvis’ little hat.

From Coconuts, it’s not far down to the southern tip of the island and Punta Sur Ecological Park. The climb to the top of the lighthouse is worthwhile for the bird’s-eye view of the convergence of east and west coasts. With nary a building in sight, the island’s natural beauty is on full display.

Back on earth, I hop on a tour bus for the short ride to a three-and-a-half-mile-long beach on the calm side. Snorkeling offshore, I find little in the way of reef, but a friendly turtle lets me follow him around for 15 minutes. I then join a brief guided tour of the lagoon. Looking down from the boardwalk perched five feet above the shallow tea-colored water, I get as close as I ever need to be to a 10-foot-long saltwater crocodile.

The next day, my Cozumel affair ends as it began — with a seafood orgy. Conchitas del Caribe is one of those places where simply and perfectly prepared fresh catch keeps arriving in waves that threaten to overtake the table. A medium order of ceviche is a platter-size medley of octopus, shrimp and conch, all of it cool and fresh, crisp but not tough, flavored with cilantro, ripe tomato, onion and lime. The conch, octopus and shrimp make another appearance on the Grilled Seafood Platter, joined now by lobster tail, calamari and grouper. My quest to find the best margarita in Cozumel is resolved here — and the price is geared more to satisfying hardworking locals than soaking the extranjeros.

The restaurant is atmospheric, too. Ceiling fans hang from a high tin roof, a huge undersea mural sets a cool blue tone, and if the overwrought Mexican ballads sound corny at first, after a couple of those perfecto margaritas it’s fiesta time. Conchitas del Caribe is several blocks deeper into San Miguel than most tourists ever venture. A guy who owns a condo on the island is so surprised to see another Norteamericano in here that he walks straight up to my table and says, “How did you find this place?”

“Amigo,” I said. “I’ve been looking for this ever since I got here.”

Dave Herndon is the executive editor of Caribbean Travel & Life.

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.   

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