Cozumel offers excellent local treats and eats. // © 2014 Isla Cozume
Feature image (above): Mornings are the best time to hit the uncrowded beaches. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Friends are often surprised when I say that Cozumel is one of my favorite destinations in Mexico. Most have only seen the island on daytrips from cruise ships or short hops from the mainland. Visitors who delve deeper into neighborhoods and deserted beaches will quickly realize that Cozumel is a real Mexico and Maya community where ladies dress in embroidered huipiles (blouses) and travel with dignity onboard triciclos (three-wheel bicycle cabs). Tranquil aquamarine coves draw solitary snorkelers while long white beaches provide idyllic settings for picnics and sunset strolls. It’s easy to go off on your own and experience Cozumel’s genuine Mexican hospitality and untrammeled scenery.
Dine With the Locals
You need not wander far to find local flavor. At the Mercado Municipal, students in school uniforms and workers of all types grab quick tacos and tortas at lunch counters, while those with more time settle at tables in Mexican, Honduran and Philippine and Indonesian cafes. Market stands display fresh bananas, papayas, mangoes, avocados and other safe, peel-able fruit at produce stands. Clients with a sense of adventure will be rewarded with authentic, inexpensive meals and picnic supplies.
Many of Cozumel’s best restaurants are located far from the waterfront in residential neighborhoods worth exploring. Fishermen drop their daily catch off at La Perlita, a personal favorite for simple ceviche or octopus sauteed with garlic and chilies. Waiters greet customers with hugs and smiles at El Moro, where meals begin with a basket of fresh chips, spicy salsa and garlic bread — hard to resist even when generous portions of carne asada, grilled shrimp and Cuban sandwiches appear. Both family-run restaurants are popular with locals, especially on Sunday afternoons when Yucatecan dishes such as cochinita pibil (marinated pork) and pescado tikin-xic (fish baked with achiote) appear on special menus.
Go to the Wild Side
Cozumel’s windward coast, completely undeveloped except for a few modest restaurants and one small solar-powered hotel, offers a blissful escape from busy beach clubs. Granted, the water is rough in some spots and facilities are scarce, but that’s a small price to pay for a day spent cruising from beach to cove, clambering over rocky shorelines to lookout points and lolling about on the sand with a good book. Several palapa-shaded seafood restaurants serve outstanding lunches — memories are made from whiling away an afternoon sharing a whole fried snapper, chilled cervezas and limonada with friends. Feeling energetic? Get a bike from a rental shop in San Miguel and pedal along the new ciclopista (bike path) along the windward coast.
Visit popular attractions, such as Chankanaab National Park, early or late in the day, when more fish than humans swim in the crystalline waters and hammocks are readily available. The same tactic works in San Miguel, Cozumel’s waterfront town.
In the early morning, joggers and cyclists have streets and beaches to themselves and early risers linger over coffee and pan dulce at outdoor cafes. Around sunset, as cruise ships depart, local families wander toward the plaza and waterfront and friends catch up on gossip while watching kids race about the plaza’s gazebo.
Sundays are best for experiencing the town Cozumeleno style. The cruise ports are usually empty, traffic decreases and locals wander around after attending services at the quaint Iglesia de San Miguel.
For a full immersion in local life, check out the Mega Centro Commercial during the weekend. Families pack the aisles in this one-stop superstore that offers a bakery, deli, meat and cheese counters, hot and cold takeout meals and regional chocolate, coffee and spices for souvenirs.