Isla Cozumel is a Caribbean island on the east side of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The island is part of what’s known as the Mayan Riviera, which includes Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Although Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island, it’s a rather small island steeped in history and packed with a ton of things to do and see. I’ve heard it said that Cozumel is a Mexican island with ancient Mayan history and a Caribbean vibe.
Cozumel is located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, or Great Mayan Reef — the second-largest coral reef system in the world — making Cozumel an incredible destination spot for world-class diving and snorkeling. There are many dive shops across the island as well as dive sites, and most hotels and beach clubs offer these water activities.
Although spectacular, there is more to Cozumel than its turquoise Caribbean waters and white-sand beaches. It’s easy to make each day in Cozumel a special experience. After spending a week in Cozumel, here are my favorite “hidden gem” activities that we enjoyed on the island.
1. San Gervasio Mayan Ruins
Deep in the northern jungle of Cozumel — about 40 minutes from San Miguel — lies an archaeological site called San Gervasio. This site has been considered the center of commerce and politics as well as the site of the Mayan people’s annual pilgrimage to worship the Goddess Ixchel (pronounced like Michelle without the M).
San Gervasio is an archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. The ruins consist of a central plaza, several temples, tombs, residences, and more. Visitors can walk the park on their own or pay a small fee for a tour guide (in addition to the small park entry fee). I suggest paying for the 45-minute (or so) tour. It is well worth it.
Pro Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and bring bug spray and water. There is a gift shop, snack bar, and restrooms on-site.
2. Mayan Bee Sanctuary
In keeping with the island’s Mayan history, just down the road from San Gervasio is the Mayan Bee Sanctuary. In this lush green tropical setting, you will discover the fascinating history of Mayan beekeeping while learning about the Melipona stingless bees and the importance of their honey. Our tour guide, Russell, told us that according to the Maya, “the honey from the Melipona bees has the healing power to restore the well-being (hun ol) and harmony of the heart to which the Maya assigned his vigor and strength (kinam).”
Throughout the sanctuary are stone replicas of Mayan statues and sacred symbols, all carved by hand by a local Cozumel artist. Along with conservation efforts, it’s the sanctuary’s goal to help visitors “see” the Mayan people — their story, their history — so they are not forgotten.
Pro Tip: The tour (about 45 minutes) is well worth the small entry fee and as a bonus, there is honey tasting at the end. See and taste the difference between Melipona bee honey and the “regular” honey we buy at the market.
3. Beach Clubs
Okay, okay — let’s get to the real reason visitors flock to Cozumel Island: sunshine, white-sand beaches, crystal-clear (multi-colored) turquoise waters, authentic Mexican food, and oh, endless margaritas!
Whether you are visiting for the day on a cruise ship stop or staying on the island for longer, all-inclusive beach clubs are the deal of the day. For one price, you can sit, sun, and sip all day — plus eat and swim. There are dozens of “dedicated” beach clubs up and down the island, like Buccanos (“best club food on the island”) and Mr. Sanchos (“high-energy, great fun for kids”). Some resort hotels offer “beach club” packages even if you aren’t staying there.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check the rates. Some may have an “entry fee” of $10, but the “all-inclusive” price that includes food and drinks is extra, as are “tours” such as snorkeling, a sea-side massage, and boat rides. Still, if you are going to spend the day eating and drinking, it seems to be worth the price.
4. Atlantis Submarine Expedition
Have you ever wanted to dive to the deepest depths of the ocean floor? Explore unknown waters just like Jacques Cousteau? The Atlantis Submarine Expedition is for you. Mexico’s only submarine designated for tourism, this incredible vessel gently glides down to depths of over 100 feet.
You may get a glimpse of the underwater world if you snorkel or dive, but to really experience the richness of the waters, you need to get deeper! You will see close-up the Chankanaab reef — the second largest in the world — filled with exotic fish, sea turtles, manta rays, and all the flora and fauna of the sea. Discover a sunken ship, the Felipe Xicotencatl. Finally, prepare yourself for “The Wall,” a sheer drop-off of the ocean floor that plunges 1,800 feet below.
Pro Tip: I am a bit claustrophobic, but the ride on the Atlantis did not bother me at all. The tour is 2 hours and there are no restrooms on board (use terminal restrooms).
Note: Guests must navigate backward down a 12-step ladder with handrails. Guests who use wheelchairs cannot be accommodated on this tour.
5. The Mayan Cacao Company
Known simply as “The Chocolate Factory,” this is a must-see stop. Journey through time as you learn about the origins of everyone’s favorite sweet — chocolate. Discover what cacao, “food of the Gods,” meant to the ancient Mayan people and how it was used. The mission of The Mayan Cacao Company is to be a place of discovery, to share the Mayan origins of chocolate, to preserve the Mayan culture, and to share that rich history with visitors.
There are several tours, all very fun and informative. They last anywhere from a 50-minute general tour to a 2-hour chocolate-making and margarita workshop. If you have the time, I highly recommend the hands-on chocolate-making and margarita tours. Visitors get to make their own chocolate from cacao beans, just as the Mayans did. Blend (and drink) chocolate margaritas with flavorful cacao and Mexican spirits. The gift shop is loaded with treats of all kinds, including chocolate bars that visitors can sample before purchasing.
Pro Tip: Located 15 minutes south of downtown and next to Playa Mia Beach Club, visitors may want to rent a car for the day and visit multiple attractions.
6. Cozumel Pearl Farm
When I first heard that Cozumel has a pearl farm — the only active pearl farm in the Caribbean — I knew I couldn’t miss it. It is hidden on a remote, secluded stretch of beach that can only be accessed by boat. Best day ever!
The Cozumel Pearl Farm is family-owned and operated, as are the tours. Visitors are met at the marina by the owners Isabel and Pancho. The tour begins the moment you step onto the boat that transports you to the farm — through the bluest turquoise waters ever seen. Once at the private beach, visitors learn about the farm’s history, the cultivation process, and what it takes to produce just one small pearl.
After, you are boated back out to snorkel through the underwater oyster hatchery. While snorkeling you will also see amazing reef formations, sea fans, fish of all colors, starfish, and a few surprises. After snorkeling and swimming in crystal-clear water, Jose serves up his famous pineapple cheeseburgers. The rest of your time is filled with relaxing under the palapas, strolling around the beach, or more swimming if you’d like. I believe the Cozumel Pearl Farm is probably the best hidden gem (pun intended) on the island.
Pro Tip: The Pearl Farm adventure is about 6 hours, so plan accordingly. Bring eco-friendly sunscreen and bug repellent, swimwear, a towel, a hat, sunglasses, and a light sweater. Everything else you’ll need is included. Keep in mind that visitors will be climbing in and out of a small boat. There is a restroom and changing room at the farm.
Bonus: If You Have Extra Time
Head to the southernmost tip of the island to Punta Sur Ecological Park. Climb to the top of the lighthouse to see amazing island views. On the way, you’ll find Chankanaab Adventure Park and the Mayan Cacao Company. Closer to San Miguel and just off the main road is the Cha’an Ka’an Planetarium. The small village of El Cedral is also worthy of a visit. While there, tour the Tequila History Museum and sample Regalo de Dios tequila, or check out more Mayan ruins or the Jade Cenote not too far away.
If walking is your preferred way to “tour,” you’ll be delighted as you stroll along the main street, past beachfront shops and restaurants. There are many photo opportunities in and around San Miguel. Two lighthouses stand tall at the Punta Langosta Pier. Right across the street is a shopping plaza of the same name with an iconic orange clock tower. Spend a bit of time in the Cozumel Museum on the main street. While there have lunch on the rooftop at Novena Ola (great breakfast) and enjoy lovely beach and ocean views. The city of San Miguel also offers a free walking tour.
Being one of the top cruise ship destinations in the world, there are activities for everyone in Cozumel. Visitors have many “tour” options available, from ATV jungle tours and sightseeing Jeep tours to boat tours of all kinds, including glass bottom boats and catamarans. If you are visiting for more than a day, I suggest renting a vehicle and touring the island at your own pace.