Cozumel, Mexico – May 2012
This was my tenth trip to Cozumel, and I thought, heck, I have never written this destination up for Awoosh. This trip (and write up) were spawned by a query from our good friend Steve W and his wife Valerie, who had not yet been to Cozumel. Being east coasters and well-traveled divers, this was almost sacrilege ;^) They were looking for information about where to stay and who to dive with, and in the course of the correspondence, asked us if we’d like to join them for their quickie to Coz. Knowing how great it is to have a six pack dive boat at our command, I suggested we invite Chris (aka D2D’s Rev) and his bride Wendy to fill the boat.
We’ve shared several adventures with both of these couples, but they had never met each other until Coz. The short story is Steve, Val, Mr G and I shared a rented El Cantil condo, and the Rev and his wife chose Blue Angel Dive Resort, a short walk away. We dove with Blue XT-Sea for five delicious days, chowed at some good restaurants on Cozumel, and quaffed muchas margaritas. The long story follows.
So, this is likely going to be a bit of a destination download, and I have lots of images and details to share from the most recent trip, so you might want to pour yourself a cuppa coffee or a glass of vino, or (in the immortal words of Jimmy Buffet) a cold draft beer, and settle in for a while.
If you are only interested in seeing the pictures, or just reading just about the recent trip, feel free to scroll past all the wordy bits that follow.
So har she blows – first up – a bit of a Cozumel Primer:
Cozumel, All-Inclusive Style
My first look at the gorgeous Cozumel reef system was on a two tank excursion out of a resort I was staying at on the mainland side way back (2002) - Club Robinson Tulum, using Tank Ha dive op. That brief glimpse (I recall we dove Santa Rosa Wall and Paso del Cedral) convinced me that Cozumel was worthy of a dedicated dive trip, despite the fact that I had been paired with a panicky insta-buddy, so the dives were less than poetic.
The first “real” Cozumel trips were circa 2003 and 2004. These first two trips staying on the island were at all-inclusives – first to Allegro, then to Iberostar. The Occidental Grand (just a bit up the beach) and the Cozumel Palace (just south of town) were not yet open for business.
At the time, as newer divers and less experienced travelers who were looking for a bit of a romantic getaway (ie sans kids) that included a couple of tanks a day, we tended to look for resort destinations at which scuba was available. Package deals (ie Apple Vacations kind of thing – in our case, Sell Off Vacations.com) was the travel source, and these were attractive deals with airfare, transfers, room, booze, and meals included. I still think these all-inclusives are a good way to go for families traveling with kids (especially non-diving kids, parents needing a kids camp), and for couples where one of the spouses is a non-diver. A beach is always a good thing (and they are not so much on Cozumel – but the southern all-inclusives do have pretty beaches), and having unlimited access to food for teens a must. Not having to deploy your wallet for the entire stay, with the exception of tips, is not a bad thing either. The added bonus, on Cozumel, is that Occidental Grand, Iberostar, and Allegro (rated best to less best, in my opinion) are all located quite far south of town. And, just so you know, it is at least a US$25 cab ride, each way to San Miguel, the only town on Cozumel. The positive is that these resorts are located very near to the southern dive sites - all of the gorgeous Palancar reef system, Punta Sur, Columbia, Santa Rosa, as well as the primo (in my opinion) second dive of the day sites – Paso del Cedral, La Franscesa and Dalila. This means short boat rides rather than the long sea voyages from town. Sleep in later, back for lunch after your two tanks sooner – it has its appeals.
Here’s the thing though – the Iberostar has been fickle about letting other ops pick up at their dock, on and off, over the years. I don’t know the current situation, but it would be something important to determine before you make a commitment. Iberostar has an onsite op – Dressel Divers – but by my observation this is pretty much a moo class outfit.
Allegro has an on-site op, Palancar Divers, that Mike Southard (aka Saudio in Scubadiving’s Diver to Diver community) says is totally acceptable – I believe he’s used them several times. They run morning and afternoon trips right out of the resort, and if Mikey (who is a pokey underwater photog, very well traveled, and is a bit picky, much like yours truly) says he’s happy, then I take that to mean it is a fine choice for those wanting to do the all-inclusive thing, who don’t want to book an op to pick them up. I think the last time he stayed at the Occidental Grand (which appears to be quite a bit nicer than Iberostar or Allegro), he dove with Palancar Divers, which is located a short walk down the beach away.
The Palace looks very nice (despite its small artificial beach), but heck, why would you stay at an all-inclusive when you are a stone’s throw from a great menu of restaurants in San Miguel, and there’s no shortage of nice accommodations?
And just so you know, many of the premier dive ops on the island will pick you up on the way to the dive sites, as long as the resort will allow them to use their dock. Just beware that if northern sites are on the menu (ie Villablanca, Cantarell, and the rippers at San Juan and Barracuda, etc) you are going to have to cab up to town to do them.
Cozumel, Hotel-In-Town Style
After the first couple of outings to Coz, it was several years before I made my way there again. When I went, I was traveling with a group of buds, and they wanted to stay in town.
There are several hotels right in the heart of San Miguel, with several more located just north and south of it. Someone somewhere recommended Casa Mexicana, so we gave that a whirl. And weren’t disappointed. Since then, I have stayed at Casa Mex on several occasions.
Staying in town is a very different experience than staying at a nice beachy resort way south of town. There is a lot of hustle and bustle (especially hustle ;^), and when the cruise ships are in port, the place is fairly bustling with balloon-hatted, mile-high margarita slurping (at 11 a.m. natch ;^), cattle class buffoons. But to escape this insanity, all you need to do is go up the escalator from the street to the lobby of the Casa Mexicana, and suddenly, obnoxious people are no more. The hotel truly is a nice oasis right in the town, with easy walk out to numerous bars, restaurants, massage, shopping, etc. It is clean, modern, reasonably secure and buffet breakfast and computer use are included. The Casa Mex offers very nice ocean-facing rooms, rooms that front into a large atrium, and “city view” rooms, which in fact look over some back alleys inhabited by raucous roosters that can’t tell time. Seriously, earplugs are an excellent idea. I’ve stayed in all three styles of rooms and favor the rooster rooms, as they have a covered balcony (great for drying gear), whereas the ocean facing rooms have uncovered balconies (which are very nice, especially on the top floor where they are huge, but no can dry gear if it is raining). The atrium rooms are fine too, but no view whatsoever, and in my experience, can be a bit noisy during breakfast, as the breakfast room is in the atrium itself. The negatives are that the pool/sunning areas are very small, and there is no beach (it is across the road from the water), nor nice beach access anywhere nearby. And, it is a couple of blocks of a walk to get to the town pier for pick up by dive ops. Not a biggie, except when schlepping a bigass camera ;^)
On one occasion, I also stayed at the Bahia Suites. This little hotel (a sister property to Casa Mexicana) is about one block closer to the town pier than Casa Mex, and slightly more budget-friendly. Personally, I’d rather pony up a few more bucks for the significantly nicer Casa Mex, but to each his/her own.
Cozumel, Diver Lodge Style
I really can’t speak with any authority about any of the several dive lodges on the island, but some of them have loyal followings and get good reviews, including Scuba Club Cozumel and Blue Angel Resort. They both look great from the water, and have the added bonus of offering unlimited shore diving. Chris (aka Rev on D2D) and his wife Wendy have stayed a couple of times at Blue Angel, and loved it. On a quick tour I recently made, it looked pretty skookum – casual, totally set up for divers – far enough from town to escape the cruise ship madness, but close enough to town to walk in (about 20 minutes), or a short cab ride. Scuba Club is about half way between Blue Angel and town, so maybe a ten minute walk.
Cozumel, Condo Style
Confused yet? ;^) In addition to the all-inclusives, numerous hotels, and many dive lodges, there is another option, and it is a good one, especially for families or small groups of friends. Renting a condo or villa. I can only speak of El Cantil condos, as I’ve stayed there on two occasions.
The real beauty of El Cantil is location. It is just south of town (easy walking distance), right on the waterfront, and within a block of Chedraui, a large grocery store. Each unit is designed to take in the gorgeous, sunset-facing views from a big west-facing balcony. The units are beautiful – full kitchen, ensuite baths, and many with hot tubs. An added bonus is that with Prima’s restaurant now on top of El Cantil Norte (there are two buildings on the property, Norte and Sur – ie North and South), breakfast is included in the deal, and a very nice breakfast it is, sitting looking out over the ocean, watching the boats whiz by. They’ve got a nice (artificial) beach out front (and a very rocky ocean access), a beautiful pool area, and most importantly, a small pier where your dive op of choice may pick you up and drop you off. There are large rinse tanks available to use, as well as gear lockers in the garage. It is set up quite nicely for divers, and I highly recommend El Cantil as a great option for a Cozumel stay.
Picking A Dive Op
Ideally, you should set up your dives before you arrive on the island. Dive boats of quality operators may be booked up months in advance, and, besides, the last thing you want to be doing on your holiday is to be hoofing it around town, trying to find the right operator for you. Most of the reputable dive ops have websites, through which you can glean information and make contact for reservations.
There are other options besides the big boats of operators like Dive Palancar. We favor the smaller, faster boats – typically known as “six packs” (meaning six divers and two crew). There are several dive ops on Cozumel (among what appear to be dozens hanging out their shingles) that offer this kind of “boutique diving”. The difference is notable for the relatively modest higher price tag. Your dive gear totally cared for and stored for you overnight (with the exception of wetsuits), you are in a small group, guided by a knowledgeable and attentive divemaster, versus a swarm of bicycle-finning, arm-waving, bubble-blowing newbies or cruise ship divers, being herded down the reef by a divemaster, most of them apparently looking to get the thing over with as quickly as possible and get back to the cantina. And if you can fill a boat, you pretty much get to decide where you want to dive (conditions permitting). This does not suck.
Nitrox is readily available on the island, at an extra charge. The fills we had on the recent trip were very consistent. There is a hyperbaric chamber on the island, and good medical care is available.
The six pack ops we’ve used on the island (least recent to most recent) are: Aldora, Living Underwater, Liquid Blue, and Blue XT~Sea (run by D2D’s own Christi Courtney). Edited to Update, March 2013: Liquid Blue has recently changed hands. A google should bring up a more current review than mine. Christi continues to run a fine operation with many dedicated customers. Aldora has been around the longest (I think), and still gets good reviews, and Living Underwater has morphed several times since we dove with them (way back in 2003), but I am no longer familiar with their operations.
Several dive ops will pick up in town, at one of the several piers. Blue XT~Sea for sure picks up in town and at various hotels and dive lodges all the way south of town. Liquid Blue departs from the caleta (harbor) - about a $6.00 cab ride each way south of town.
Christi, and her fine operation, have a big place in my heart. Christi certified P2 and P3 (our middle and youngest daughters) on a family trip to Cozumel several years back, and she did a fantastic job of cranking out two trimmed out, well-trained super-keeners. Her boat drivers and divemasters are consistently good. If you meet Christi, feel free to ask her the story of P3’s mask malfunction at 60 feet, on her first open water dive ;^) It is the stuff of Blue XT~Sea legend…
There are two ways to get to Cozumel – by plane, or by what is affectionately known as the bag drag.
The plane involves arriving direct into Coz from an international departure point, or from Cancun on a small commuter plane.
The bag drag involves arriving at Cancun airport, then commuting down to Playa del Carmen to catch the foot passenger ferry across to Cozumel.
Cozumel isn’t just a popular dive destination, it is also a popular destination for sun seekers looking for a laid back kind of place to take a holiday. Flying in non-stop from the US or Canada is always the best choice, but unfortunately for us, not currently available from Vancouver on the Star Alliance network.
There are many flights daily in and out of Cozumel – and some syndicate, er, authority has deemed that taxis can’t pick up at Cozumel’s airport. You can buy a shared van ride ticket at one of the kiosks in the airport, or you can hump your bags out the long airport driveway to the main drag (Melgar), where taxis lurk.
We once tried the commuter flights from Cancun to Cozumel and back. This involved a lot of waiting, and yet more security checks, and stress over baggage weight, and after doing it once, we figured we’d be better to take the ferry.
On this recent trip, we could have transited through Houston, which would have meant actually paying for a flight (Gasp! ;^) and an overnight in trigger happy Texas (not to mention having to clear US Customs and Immigration in Houston – historically a brutally long process as we get to line up with the Great Unwashed, apparently undistinguishable to our American friends from wannabe immigrants from Asia, or India, or South America, as examples). So, we chose to travel on Aeroplan points seats, and fly into Cancun on Air Canada, connecting in Toronto. It was going to be two flights either way, and one was free, and without TSA feel ups, so pretty much a no brainer…
Expect lengthy delays on arrival into Cancun airport – whoever is doing the flight arrival scheduling needs to have some sense knocked into them – and they x-ray every piece of baggage before it leaves the customs hall. With. Two. Machines. For at least 3 plane loads of simultaneously arriving passengers. Seriously amigos?
Once you exit the Customs area, you will be inundated with locals wanting to “help” you. I recommend having your transfer plan in place before arrival, and then running the gauntlet with “no gracias” at the ready. There is a bank ATM on the right, near the taxi/van desks, in the arrivals area in Cancun Airport, if you feel the need for some pesos, but most everywhere on the tourist path happily takes US bucks. ATMs and banks are readily available in most areas.
From Cancun Airport to Cozumel, the cheapest option is to take a bus to Playa del Carmen. The last time I did it (a few years ago), the bus fare was US$8.00. When you exit either Terminal 1 or Terminal 2 (which are adjacent), hang a right, and walk all the way to the end of Terminal 2. There you will see a bus stand, with big “tour type” buses, signed for Cancun or Playa del Carmen. You want the Playa bus. You buy the ticket from the ticket seller who mans his post there. They load your big bags into the hold of the bus, and then you wait. And wait. And wait some more. Because the ticket sellers are prone to prevarication and will tell you that the bus will leave in 10 minutes when you ask as you are buying your ticket. This is invariably not true. There is no apparent schedule. Instead, it appears that the bus leaves when they deem it adequately full to justify the expense of running it. That can be close to an hour, in my experience. The buses that run from Playa del Carmen back to the airport run on a schedule, and do leave on time, or at least did when I have taken them. The schedule is posted inside the Playa del Carmen bus station, and if you are taking the bus back to Cancun on your return, I highly recommend making note of it.
The buses are clean and comfortable, and drive non-stop to the bus station in Playa. With the recent highway improvements, and assuming no accidents or other slow downs, it is about a 50 minute commute.
Once arriving at the bus station in Playa, you unload your bags, head down to the waterfront, and then hook a right. It is a half dozen or so city blocks distance to the ferry pier from the bus station/taxi stand. This is why they call this the bag drag ;^) There are bicycle porters in Playa del Carmen. For about a buck a bag, they will tote your bags down to the ferry dock and hand them off to the ferry crew, while you walk close by. I would recommend negotiating the price before committing, so you don’t get a rude surprise at your destination. This goes for taxis too.
The second option for the commute is to take a van pool. This operates pretty much like the bus, except there are fewer passengers. They still intend to fill the thing up (and full of people and baggage, they are not as comfortable as the big bus) before they will go. On a recent trip, we languished at least 30 minutes before we finally hit the road. The cost is about US$30 per person, and there may be stops on the way to let people off at various resorts. You can buy a voucher in the arrivals area. Not sure if they have someone out on the curb who will take your money, but this is very likely. There is no vehicular traffic within several blocks of the ferry pier, so once again you will be dragging your bags, or hiring a bicycle porter, to make the commute.
The third option is private taxi. This works pretty much like the van pool, except they go when you get in the taxi. The rate at the airport kiosks (there are several companies to choose from) is US$90 one way to Playa, which is highway robbery, because you can buy a return taxi fare out of Playa as low as $40.00 - I once got a private van for $25, when I negotiated, as the driver was deadheading back to Cancun to pick up a pre-arranged fare. You can also buy a to/from package at the airport (they discount the return fare 50%) – which we tried out this trip – this means you have to contact the company to let them know what return ferry you are on, and they arrange a driver to meet you. It worked out well for us, but would have been just as easy to arrive in Playa from Cozumel and hire a taxi. There is no shortage of drivers trolling for customers at the exit from the pier.
With regards to the ferry, it is about a 45 minute crossing, and generally, a ferry leaves each side on the hour, from 6 a.m. til 11 p.m., with a few gaps in the day. Not much you can do on arrival in Playa except wait for the next boat (there are bars and restaurants near the ferry slip), but on leaving Cozumel to return to the airport, I highly recommend making sure that you have the complete ferry schedule (there are two companies that do the crossing, and they alternate sailings). I would recommend leaving two hours from the time the ferry leaves Cozumel to the time you need to be at the airport – more if the ferry and bus schedules don’t mesh (and I recall that they do).
You buy your ferry ticket at one of the kiosks on the beach promenade, just north of the ferry pier. Each company puts up a sign showing their next sailing time. Make sure you are buying the next available. There is no value in buying a return ticket – no discount, and you are then committed to coming back with the same company.
Baggage is taken into the hold of the ferry. Usually claim tags will be issued when you hand over your stuff, and you will need to produce them to pick up your bags on the other side. I am always nervous about letting any baggage monkeys handle my camera stuff, so when they try to take my carry-on rolling bag, I tell them – fotografica – and they let me take it on the boat with me. They will ask that you stay on the main level with your bags, and not take them up to the top (open air) deck.
Cost for the ferry is about US$18, at time of writing (2012). They take US currency or pesos. You can buy snacks, coffee, beer, highballs and snacks on the ferry.
When you arrive in Coz, if you are staying right in town, you can hire a bicycle porter to help you with your bags. There is also a taxi stand right at the end of the pier for commutes of more than a couple of blocks.
Wining and Dining on Cozumel
A general rule of thumb is the farther you get from the main square (where the pod people roam), the better the food is on Cozumel. In my experience, this is pretty much true. Cozumel currently boasts many good restaurants – truly a ton to choose from.
Here are my favorites. Check out Trip Advisor to see more reviews and find contact info.
La Kinta – two blocks north of the main square, on Avenida 5 Norte. A trendy, Mayan fusion kind of place. Beautiful outdoor courtyard in the back. Good Service.
Le Chef – Corner of Avenida 5 Sur and Calle 5. Doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the food is really great. Pastas, pizzas, chicken, fish, beef entrees. Good salads. Tables indoors or out on the sidewalk. Service a bit slow, but worth waiting for ;^) Recommend the Gorganzola Penne (pasta), and the Lobster Sandwich.
Guido’s – north of town, about 3 blocks from the main square, on Melgar. Large restaurant, so great for groups. Beautiful courtyard out back. Good food, not outrageously priced. Good service.
Sorrisi – Right in town, on Calle 3, near Melgar. Good Italian food, a bit pricey, no outdoor spaces. Haven’t been for a couple of years, so can’t comment on current service, but it was good on last visit.
Prima’s – Haven’t eaten dinner here since it moved to its new location atop El Cantil (on Melgar, a few blocks south of the cruise ship mall), but the menu looks good, if a bit pricey. Breakfast is very good, and reasonably priced. Beautiful views over the ocean and island. Indoor or outdoor seating available. Free home-baked cinnamon buns when you order breakfast on the weekend. Bonus!
La Terrazza – on Calle 3, near Avenida 5 Sur. La Terrazza has taken over the old Prima’s location. The scary stairs are still there. The menu was broad and reasonably priced. Our dinners were a bit hit and miss on the deliciousness scale, but all in all, it was a good experience with very good service. Outdoor eating space.
Argentinian (Steak House)
Del Sur – on Avenida 5 Sur, near Calle 5. This is a fairly new restaurant on Coz that specializes in empanadas and steaks. We went as a group, and everyone enjoyed their meal. Good service. Indoor seating only.
Something for Everyone
Rock ‘n Java - on Melgar, about one block south of the cruise ship mal (ie Carlos n Charlies, Starbucks, etc). Indoor seating only. This is a great little spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Casual menu – really good burgers, tacos and fajitas. Free WiFi. They’ve also got a small noodle restaurant downstairs from the Mega, and the Pad Thai noodles and the sushi we had were very good, but the atmosphere is pretty sucky. It is in the back of a little mall, next to the undercover parking. Might be awesome for take out.
La Choza – On Avenida 10, near Calle 3. It hasn’t been the same since the original one burned down, and they moved around the corner. The interior is very nice, but the food seems to lack a little something something these days. Still a Cozumel experience. Good for lunch. Recommend the chicken fajitas.
Otates – on Avenida 15, near Calle 3. Real Mexican food in a very basic restaurant. Great fish tacos. Cheap beer. Open for lunch and dinner.
El Pique – like Otates, but larger, on Avenida 30 near Avenida Juarez, across from the San Francisco store. Only open for dinner. Outdoor courtyard seating available. Haven’t been there for a couple of years, but always a stop on an EDG tour. Inexpensive and good Mexican food.
Now for the good part ;^) Since Steve and Valerie had not been to Cozumel before, and there was a request in our group for no tight or dark swim-throughs (so Devil’s Throat was out of the game early ;^), we tried to pick sites that showed them the best of the diving in the area, without anything too extreme. We started at the Palancar reef system - Caves, then Bricks, then Gardens - then did Columbia, and finally Santa Rosa Wall for our “first dives” of our five days of diving on Coz. The second dive choices were: Paso del Cedral, Dalila, La Francesa, back to Paso del Cedral, and just cuz we loved its fishiness so much, Paso del Cedral a third time. Just so you don’t think we are boring old farts, I will add that we did Paso del Cedral three ways – the first was enjoying a lot of time on the flats (south) that run up to the formation that is Paso del Cedral, with just a quick introduction to the many swim-throughs near the end of the dive, the second dive was all about spending the entire dive doing the swim-throughs and ogling the many schooling fish, and the third dive we landed right on the formation, did the swim-throughs again (and again), ogled the schooling fish once more, and then spent the second half of the dive futzing in the flats and ridges north of the Paso del Cedral formation.
There are many other memorable sites on Cozumel – I think I have done most of them over the years (except Maracaibo deep), but truly, the ones listed above are my favorites. For experienced divers comfortable with depth (120+), dark spaces, a brief overhead environment, and possible deco obligations, Devil’s Throat (aka Punta Sur) is a bragging right. It’s a short dive though – you get pretty loaded quickly when you spend time that deep, and the rest of the dive is spent flying over Columbia, in mid-water. I’ve done San Juan and Barracuda (way north of town) – they can be fun ripper dives, and when I did them, I did not even bother to take the camera down with me. There was far too much current to stop and take pix. I’ve also done the “eagle ray” dive (Cantarell), which is also north of town. This is another deep dive, usually with significant current, and the whole goal is to hope to see schooling eagle rays, when they are there. They are seasonal, with the peak being during the winter months.
What makes Cozumel extraordinary (to me) is the incredible terrain, and the often stellar visibility. There are huge pinnacles and outcroppings of reef structure, tons of cuts and swim-throughs, and some epic walls. Add to that very healthy and diverse fish and critter life, beautiful azure water, tons of tourist and diving infrastructure, and relatively easy accessibility from the US and Canada, and you get wildly popular Cozumel.
The island was seriously hit by two hurricanes in 2005, and the damage to the reefs was quite extensive. I have to admit my first trip back after the hurricanes (in 2006) made me very sad – the beautiful shallow coral gardens were pretty much in ruins, and even at the deeper sites, the damage was very evident. So it warms my heart to see that less than 10 years later, the reefs are springing back, bigtime. There is lots of new coral growth, new gorgonian sea fans a-sprouted, and the barrel sponges (which must grow quite quickly) are back, pretty much all their previous glory.
Cozumel is incredibly colorful – there are abundant encrusting sponges that provide a kaleidoscope of shapes and hues. It seems that every available square inch has something growing on it. Orange features big, as does red and purple. To really appreciate the beautiful colors, you need to carry a flashlight. Depth sucks the pigment out of anything, but most especially the reds and oranges.
The fish and critter life is lovely too. A good-sized chunk of the reef system off the west coast of Cozumel is a protected marine sanctuary, where no touching or taking is permitted (unless you happen to be a lion fish ;^). On every dive we saw at least a couple of turtles, nurse sharks and rays (although no eagle rays on this trip). There is a wide variety of fish – everything from teeny tiny secretary blennies to bigass Goliath groupers. While Palancar, Columbia and Santa Rosa are more about reef structure than abundant fish life, sites like Paso del Cedral more than make up for it. This place is seriously fishy. Schools of grunts, porkfish and schoolmasters are plentiful. The homegrown Splendid Toadfish can be found there, as well as yellow-headed jawfish, sleeping nurse sharks, swimming nurse sharks (on every dive we did!), eels, angelfish, queen triggers, trunkfish, filefish, and so many more. Like I wrote before, we loved it so much, we chose to dive this same site 3 times in 5 days.
Funny thing – there we were at Paso del Cedral, poking along and exploring the swiss cheese formations, and we would see a herd of divers careening down the reef towards us. Would they stop for a bit, admire the schools of fish, shine a light under a ledge to see who’s camped there, check out the gnarly swim-throughs? Not so much. They’d just keep on bubbling by, one diver apparently holding another down, two divers chasing a turtle with their cameras, another bicycle finning, reef whacking as he went. You get the picture.
It is the blight of Cozumel – the flotilla of dive boats dropping their bubble-spewing loads onto all the popular sites, continuously. I’ve learned to keep my head down when I see the crowds coming. Out of sight, out of mind.
Cozumel dive regulations dictate that all boat divers must be guided. This is not a terrible thing, as long as you don’t find yourself in one the speedy Gonzalez groups I’ve mentioned. The guides know the sites well, and will (hopefully) show you the best features. It can be frustrating when trying to take pictures, between the current and a motating divemaster, and for this reason I chose on this trip to forget about shooting Macro (which always takes a bit of time to set up a shot – nature of the beast and all that), and instead shoot wide angles and some fish portraits.
As soon as the first person in the group signals 1000 psi, the divemaster (or at least Blue XT~Sea’s divemasters) throws up a blob (an inflatable surface marker with a line on it that can be launched from depth) so the boat knows were the group is, and the diver(s) low on air head up under it to 15 feet to do a nice juicy 5 minute safety stop. Divers are sent up in pairs to surface when they become low on air – and it is an excellent idea to surface right beside your divemaster’s blob, as you are much less likely to be run over by a boat if you partake of this wise practice. Even better, buy a blob and practice deploying one yourself when you are on your safety stop. It looks easy, but takes quite a bit of practice to master those things. I’ve seen some funny sh*t when it is not done right ;^) While you are at it, you might want to purchase one of these – super easy to deploy once you are on the surface, and can be seen from a long distance away.
Becoming separated from your group is not a great idea in Cozumel, and it is especially perilous if you surface without a marker. Skulls and props are not a good combo, and there is enough boat traffic that this is a real concern. You also will stress out your divemaster, whose livelihood depends on bringing you back alive.
Day One – Palancar Caves & Paso del Cedral
Okay, so the weather is pretty sucky (and remains pretty much so for the duration of our stay, except for the last day) – overcast, and devolving into rain during the first dive. Still, the water is warm, and not as murky as you would think after days of biblical rain storms blowing through. The sea is unusually calm, and maybe the rainy weather has kept some of the fair weather divers away, because there aren’t so many boats hovering over the popular Palancar reef as usual. We drop down into the reef (for there are numerous swim-throughs and cut-throughs on this part of the reef). Within five minutes a turtle is spotted. Despite the lack of sunshine (and thus muted light) it does not suck.
On the second dive we are dropped somewhat southeast of Paso del Cedral, so much so that I am not quite sure where we are. It is a flat reef with coral outcroppings, and each coral head hosts its own little community. The current is as benign as I have ever experienced it on this site, just a gentle little breeze heading south to north. We are poking along so much that we arrive late at the actual big coral formation that hosts numerous swim-thrus and schooling fish and so we don’t have much time to explore it. A good excuse to revisit on another dive…
Day Two – Palancar Bricks & Delila
The weather is still pretty sucky, with ominous, rain-filled clouds lurking on the horizon. No worries though, the air temps remain reasonably warm, and the water is blue. Bricks does not disappoint – lots of color, a turtle or three, and some fun swim-throughs.
Dalila and La Francesa are adjacent to each other. It is such a long dive that we cover all of Dalila, and a bit of the French lady too. These sites feature a mini-wall, the top of which is about 40 feet, and the floor is at about 60, making this a perfect site for a nitrox, second dive. Lots of cool nooks and crannies, lotsa lobsters, a couple of swim-thrus, and some really nice fish sightings.
Goliath Grouper - Ephinphelus itajara
Gray Angelfish - Pomacanthus arcuatus
Peacock Flounder - Bothus lunatus
Day 3 – Palancar Gardens & La Francesa
I think I might have a new Palancar favorite. The colors and beautifully encrusted formations are pretty much stunning, and there are some protected areas that have a healthy population of mature sea fans that were not blown down in the hurricanes. There are more swim-throughs on this site too, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. The weather is beyond foul – heavy rain, low clouds and cold. On this day, Christi chartered a fast boat (she has two of her own boats in her fleet – one was out of commission for upgrades, and since there were 8 of us going out this day (adding D2D’s Grunt and RickyF), and as it was Pedro and Nevo’s day off, she arranged for us all to go out on the charter. The boat was very, very fast, but had no protection from the pummeling rain once underway. It was so cold on the surface interval that several in our group chose to spend it floating around in the water, just off the beach where we were moored. I was glad I brought along my rain jacket and a fleece pullover in a dry bag…
La Francesa did not disappoint. Very fishy, lots of colour, and more turtles. We were all so cold after the surface interval and boat ride out that dropping into an 80 degree ocean was a relief.
Splendid Toadfish - Sanopus splendidus
Schooling Bluestriped Grunts - Haemulon sciurus
Day 4 – Columbia & Paso del Cedral
Columbia is a perennial favorite for Coz divers. Again with the beautiful formations, swim-throughs, and deep canyons. And again with the turtles – they were everywhere on this dive. I had the pleasure of coming across one that was wedging itself between a rock and a hard place, doing a shimmy for several minutes, as it was apparently giving itself a body scrub. And we worry about damaging the reef… ;^)
Paso del Cedral - Pedro and Nivo nailed it this time, and dropped us right where we wanted to start our dive – at the south end of the formation. Lots of futzing around ensued as we all did our own thing – either roaming the gorgeous swim-throughs or checking out the schooling fish. Some of the group saw a couple of nurse sharks sleeping under a ledge, but I had my head in the grunts and missed the show.
Day 5 – Santa Rosa Wall & Paso del Cedral
It is my contention that you haven’t really dove Cozumel unless you’ve dove Santa Rosa Wall. The site has earned a reputation for gnarly currents (fairly earned as there have been several harrowing stories of divers being caught in down currents at this location), but the currents were so slight during our five days of diving that this was not a concern. In places, the wall is pretty much vertical, plummeting down to way deep, and in other parts, it slopes off into the abyss. The top of the wall, which is at about 60 feet, has all sorts of beautiful coral formations and swim throughs, with views up to the bright sand flats above.
Queen Triggerfish - Balistes vetula
Paso del Cedral – one more time. Again, dropped right on the site. Again, explored at our leisure, revisiting the gorgeous swim-throughs and those of us with cameras trying to capture the spirit of all the schooling fish. The second half of the dive was spent exploring the reef that extends north beyond the formation. Lots of little cut throughs and ledges and places for critters to hide (and gawd knows, the angelfish are brilliant at ducking into the reef as soon as I attempt to line up a shot). Black durgeons and barracuda were abundant. As we were hanging at 15 feet, in the gentle current, a big beauty of a patrolling nurse shark swam below us as if to say hasta luego amigos…
Pigfish - Orthopristis chrysoptera
Smooth Trunkfish - Lactophrys triqueter
Barred Hamlet - Hypoplectrus puella
Dusky Damselfish - Stegastes adustus
Schooling Porkfish - Anistotremus virginicus
Doc Vikingo’s Cozumel Survival Guide
Doc Vikingo's Things To Do on Cozumel Guide
Blue XT-Sea Diving
Liquid Blue Divers
El Cantil Condos
Trip Advisor Cozumel Restaurant Reviews
Awoosh Cozumel Galleries:
Awoosh Cozumel Slideshows (for PC and Mac):
Feelin' Alright (2010)
Cozumel Characters - For PC - (2008)
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