Most people visit Mexico's Isla Cozumel for one of two reasons: to scuba dive, or to kill time with food and drink before their cruise ship takes off again. Every day, up to ten cruise ships – each with several thousand passengers – will dock on the island and unleash a barrage of crowds to its beaches and streets.

But Isla Cozumel is still Mexico's Caribbean jewel, perched just a few miles off the coast of the Quintana Roo mainland, and there’s so much more to this island than day-trippers can explore. Stay a little longer, and you’ll discover a little piece of paradise of the Mexican coast – here’s how to spend your time there.

Explore its underwater wonders

There’s no doubt the scuba diving here is stunning. Beautiful coral reefs all along the western coast of the island teem with a variety of marine species, from loggerhead turtles and seahorses to eagle rays and barracuda.

You can explore with experienced dive teams, or if you’re not qualified, you can try SNUBA – a no-experience-required alternative to scuba diving that allows you to explore the ocean’s depths with an oxygen supply that floats on the surface.

There’s also the Atlantis Submarine, an underwater ship that will take you among many species of fish and other sea creatures as well as a sunken ship.

snorkelling in Isla Cozumel MexicoPixabay / CC0

Take in the scenery with a day’s drive

Though the ocean is Cozumel's main attraction, you can see just as much natural beauty on land. Rent a vehicle in San Miguel and drive out of the city onto the main road that loops around the southern end of the island. The drive is gorgeous from start to finish, lined with palms, enormous Ceiba trees, and flowering shrubs.

With your own vehicle there is ample opportunity to stop and relax on one of the long white-sand beaches on the wild, eastern side of the island. They can be busy on Sundays, but you'll find them virtually deserted midweek.

Wild beaches on Isla Cozumel, MexicoPixabay / CC0

See little-visited Maya ruins

Isla Cozumel was inhabited entirely by the Maya for thousands of years before the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed here and began his conquest of Mexico. After Cortés and his troops left in 1519, the isle remained was deserted and many of the Maya sites in ruins. Today, some of these ruins can still be visited.

The most impressive is San Gervasio, located in the northern area of the island. Amid the thick jungle environment, local archaeologists have done an amazing job of uncovering what was once the capital city of Mayan Cozumel.

Cozumel Maya ruins. Mexico, Maya ruinsImage by The Donotron on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Gorge on seriously good Mexican food

Today’s mixed population of Maya, Chilangos from Mexico City, and many Veracruzians, mean Cozumel is the happy home to a wide range of Mexican cooking styles. Though the main street – the Melgar – is studded with the bright lights of American chains and tourist-focused restaurants and bars, local favourites are just a few blocks away.

Try Los Nopales, where the menu offers cuisine from Puebla, namely tacos al pastor (marinated spit-grilled pork with pineapple, onions, coriander and spicy salsa). Vegetarians will love the vegetariano, a huge plate of nopales (a cactus), pineapples, tomatoes and mushrooms with a stack of tortillas and bowls of delicious sauces.

Otates is another favourite, open til late with offerings of frijoles charros, tacos de pastor and quesadillas.

Street vendors are no rare sight in the calles, selling tasty chicken or vegetarian tamales and esquites – hot kernel corn mixed with cayenne pepper, mayonnaise and butter.

Chicken and cheese quesadillas with guacamole and tomato salsa

Explore more of Mexico with the Rough Guide to MexicoCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0. 

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