All photos in this post courtesy of your favorite pair of @travelinglamas.
Located in the sparkling Caribbean Sea about 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the mainland of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the island of Cozumel beckons with sparkling turquoise waters, fascinating Mayan ruins set in the jungle, hotels & beach clubs in abundance, and the world’s second largest barrier reef system waiting to be explored by snorkelers and divers alike.
Stretching just 48 kilometers (30 miles) long and 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) wide, the island can be easily covered in just 1 day – making Cozumel the perfect day trip during your stay in the Riviera Maya.
Don’t get us wrong. Cozumel is undoubtedly destination-worthy in and of itself and time permitting, a multi-day stay is absolutely warranted! But for those staying in nearby Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum or anywhere in between, a day trip to Cozumel is easily a must on your Riviera Maya itinerary.
Without further ado, we give you our tried & true guide to your ultimate day trip to Cozumel, Mexico!
BUT FIRST – A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON:
The name Cozumel comes from the Mayan name “Ah Cuzamil Peten,” which means “the island of the swallows.” (Spanish: Isla de las Golondrinas)
Settled by the Mayans in the 1st millennium AD, the island was sacred to Ix Chel – the Mayan Moon Goddess – and resulting temples were a place of pilgrimage especially for women desiring fertility. The first Spanish expeditions to Cozumel were led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518 and Hernán Cortés in 1519, which were received surprisingly peacefully by the Mayan inhabitants (unlike their mainland counterparts). In 1520 however, the Pánfilo Narváez expedition brought smallpox to the island and nearly wiped out the entire population over the next 50 years. A thriving population of approx 10,000 Mayans in 1520 plummeted to barely 400 by 1570. By the mid to late 1600s, most of the remaining population was forced to relocate inland to avoid repeated pirate attacks. In the mid-1800s the population finally began to rebuild, when the tumultuous Caste War of Yucatán saw refugees escaping to Cozumel from the mainland. In 1849, the town of San Miguel de Cozumel was born. More on Cozumel’s history here.
The island began emerging on the tourist radar in the late 1950s, and grew into a full-fledged vacation destination by the 1970s. The rest of course, is history! For a fascinating piece on the beginnings and rise of tourism on Cozumel, click here.
AND A FEW PRACTICAL Q’s YOU PROBABLY HAVE
How is wifi/cell reception on Cozumel?
You’ll be happy to know wifi and cell reception are abundant – on the west side of Cozumel, at least. Once you arrive to the more wild and undeveloped east side, as well as the southern tip of the island, don’t expect much. I’m on a U.S. SIM card (Verizon) while Alberto is on a Mexican SIM card, and neither of us had even one bar for most of the journey down the east coast. Our advice? Have your itinerary and stops pre-planned so you’re not having to route on-the-go.
How is the cash/credit card/ATM situation on Cozumel?
In our experience it’s about 50/50 with businesses accepting cash, cards or both. In the case of cash, all tourist-driven businesses on the island accept both pesos and USD. Many businesses do accept credit cards as well, but not all. As far as ATMs – there are quite a few banks in San Miguel de Cozumel (many within walking distance of the ferry dock) so withdrawing cash here is not a problem.
Can I wear sunscreen on Cozumel?
If you’re planning to get into the water at all anywhere in Cozumel’s vast Marine Park (see a map of the region here), whether for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving or other water activity, only biodegradable sunscreen is allowed. This is an enforced, federal regulation aimed at preserving the coral reef system and surrounding marine life – otherwise damaged by the chemicals used in non-biodegradable sunscreen.
In some areas of Cozumel’s Marine Park, such as Playa Mia Beach Park, no sunscreen of any kind is allowed at all. Given policies vary, it’s best to check ahead of time with your tour or destination for updated sunscreen policies.
Our advice? In addition to biodegradable sunscreen, be sure to bring sun-protective clothing like a long-sleeve UPF swim shirt, hat and sunglasses to be fully covered (literally and figuratively) while on Cozumel.
HOW TO GET TO COZUMEL
If you’re coming to Cozumel for a day trip, you’ll be taking an approx 30-minute ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen. Hopefully you’ll be privy to beautiful weather and can enjoy the views along the ride! The ferry dock is located at the beginning of famous 5th (Quinta) Avenue, right next to Fundadores Park. (If using Google Maps, type “Muelle Playa Del Carmen” – this is the dock and the correct location.)
We recommend getting up early and taking the 7 or 8am ferry so you can beat the crowds in the morning, and fully enjoy the day.
There are currently two ferry operators to choose from: WinJet and UltraMar. Both charge approx $20.00 USD for a roundtrip ticket, with slight discounts for children and locals. Ferries leave on the hour every hour, the first departing Playa Del Carmen at 7pm and the last returning from Cozumel at 10pm. (Pricing and timetables are subject to change, so please be sure to consult the websites above prior to your trip!)
Which ferry to take? We’ve taken both and you really can’t go wrong with either. Both essentially offer the same service, with an indoor, air-conditioned lower deck and an open-air top deck, plus on-board bathrooms and a snack bar/coffee shop. The top deck on WinJet is partially covered however, so if you really want to feel the wind in your hair during your ride over, you’ll have better luck snagging a fully open-air seat on UltraMar.
UltraMar is also the newer ferry operator of the two, branding themselves as a “luxury” option with the fastest dock-to-dock service. (They are technically faster than WinJet, but only by 5 or so minutes in our experience.) Feeling fancy? UltraMar also offers a first-class ticket at approx $25.00 USD, including priority boarding, an exclusive lounge and reclinable leather seats.
You can buy your tickets online (where you’ll sometimes find online-only discounts) or you can purchase from any of the many ticket booths you’ll see upon arriving to the ferry terminal. Head’s up there are a LOT of kiosks and people will be flagging you down to purchase tickets. We’ve always purchased in-person and personally, prefer the ticket booths closest to or inside the terminal. All of the ticket booths accept both USD and pesos, and most also accept credit cards.
Bicycles on the Passenger Ferry
You are allowed to bring bicycles on either ferry as well. WinJet charges approx $1 USD extra; there is no additional fee on UltraMar.
But while we’re on the subject – a note on bicycles. Cozumel is big enough that you absolutely need a car or motorbike to see the entire island (especially in a single day). Unless you are a pro cyclist heading to Cozumel to log some serious miles, a recreational bicyclist will only get so far on Cozumel. On our first trip to the island, Alberto & I brought our bikes and made it as far as The Money Bar on the west coast. A few kilometers here, a few kilometers there turn into LONG stretches in the midday heat – especially in June! If you want to stick close to town and hit one or two beach clubs within relative proximity, you can definitely do it on a bike. But if you want to head to the east coast or all the way south to Palancar Beach or El Cielo, you’re better off skipping the bike and renting a car or motorbike.
Do you already have a car or motorbike and want to bring it to Cozumel? There IS a car ferry that departs from a separate dock about 20 minutes south of the passenger ferry dock, operated by Transcaribe. The ferry runs to/from Cozumel 5 times per day Monday – Saturday; 3 times on Sunday. (TIP: arrive at least 1 hour hourly to ensure your place on the boat!) Pricing is approx $25.00 USD for a regular-sized car; approx $10.00 USD for a motorbike. Pricing includes vehicle + passengers so if you’ve already rented a car (and especially if you have a few passengers with you), this can indeed be a more cost-effective option vs. purchasing multiple passenger ferry tickets and then renting a different car on Cozumel.
If coming from Cancun and if you’re planning to stay at least overnight (if not a few nights!), you may want to consider taking a flight to/from Cozumel. Currently, MAYAir offers 6 shuttle flights daily out of Cancun International Airport direct to Cozumel International Airport. Pricing ranges from approx $50.00 – $100.00 USD each way, although TIP: if you happen to have a Mexican credit or debit card, the fare is reduced by almost half. The flight is only 20 minutes and offers incredible views, so if this is an option for you – we say take it!
CAR / JEEP / SCOOTER RENTAL ON COZUMEL
You’ve made it to Cozumel! Next step? Finding a set of wheels for the day. Whether you’re looking for a car with A/C, an open-air jeep, scooter, or even a dune buggy, you will be met by numerous vendors selling all of the above (& more!) the second you step off the ferry.
Expect prices to hover around $20.00 USD per day for a motorbike; anywhere from $30.00 – $50.00+ USD per day for cars, jeeps and dune buggys. Pricing is generally lower for open-air vehicles with manual transmissions; higher for automatics with A/C.
You can take your chances pricing out vendors at the ferry dock, or go straight to our pick, HTL Rentals. (Even better – reserve online ahead of time!) They are just a few blocks from the ferry dock, have an impressive fleet of vehicle options, and we love that all of their rentals come with both collision insurance AND Mexico’s required 3rd party liability insurance already included in the price.
If for some reason HTL doesn’t have vehicles available, try Rentadora ISIS on the same block. While their vehicles are on the older side (don’t expect anything fancy here!), they’ll get you where you need to go and the shop is run by good, honest people. Plus, they typically have quite a few “Mexican Ferraris” available – old-school VW bugs. 😉 – that are a fun ride on the island.
Most rental companies open at 8 or 9am, and especially if you haven’t reserved online ahead of time, we recommend arriving close to opening time to get your best pick of the vehicles. (Remember we mentioned to take the 7 or 8am ferry? This is one of the reasons why!)
FUEL UP! BREAKFAST IN SAN MIGUEL DE COZUMEL
Before or after picking up your ride, fuel up with breakfast! You’re going to need it for the long day ahead.
There are a quite a few breakfast options in San Miguel De Cozumel, the pueblo (town) located adjacent to the ferry dock. Most open between 7am & 8am.
We love COZ Coffee Roasting Company, just steps from the ferry dock and a few more steps from the above mentioned car rental companies. Expect an excellent, inexpensive breakfast and amazing coffee. (TIP: try the Spiced-Iced Coffee or the Peanut Butter Coffee!) These guys do run on Mexico time though, so best to not to be in a rush. 😉
EXPLORE MAYAN RUINS
That’s right – there are ruins on Cozumel! A 20-minute drive inland tucked into the jungle, you’ll find the island’s San Gervasio Mayan Ruins. While the site may not be as impressive as its Tulum or Yucatán neighbors in scale or views, San Gervasio is still filled with fascinating history. Remember Ix Chel, the Mayan Moon Goddess (as mentioned above)? This is where Mayan women seeking fertility went to pay tribute. Especially if you’ve never visited Mayan ruins before, this site easily earns its rightful stop during your day trip to Cozumel.
The ruins are open 7 days a week from 8am – 3:45pm. Entrance fee is $10.00 USD per person, split into two payments. You’ll pay part of the fee at the initial entry point (via cash or credit card), followed by the rest at a second entry point (this one is cash only). Here you will also have the opportunity to hire a tour guide for an additional fee.
Expect to spend around 1-2 hours exploring the site, which is relatively spread out. You’ll be doing quite a bit of walking (across rocky, uneven surfaces at that) so we recommend wearing sneakers here vs. flip-flips.
It does get HOT here in the midday sun, so do yourself a favor and arrive early to beat the heat! If you’ve heeded our advice and taken the 7 or 8am ferry, this means you can make it here by around 9 or 10am. We arrived at 9:30 and left by 11am. Just in time to avoid the strong sun – and the van-loads of tour groups arriving in droves.
REFUEL! LUNCH ON COZUMEL’S EAST COAST
After all that walking around the ruins, it’s time to eat! Head to Cozumel’s rugged, undeveloped east coast for lunch (with a view!) at Coconuts. This fun and quirky bar has everything you need. A fun vibe, cold beer, great food (we LOVED the beef fajitas) and a stunning cliffside view.
TIP: These guys tend to get packed midday, so if you want to make sure you get a table (not to mention a parking spot), we recommend arriving by 11:30am/12noon latest for lunch.
PHOTO STOP: EL MIRADOR
You can pull over and stop for photos just about anywhere on Cozumel’s east coast, but you’ll definitely want to stop at El Mirador! A natural lookout point, this popular spot is marked by a sea-carved, arched rock formation creating a “bridge” over the water. Climb on top for views and epic photos, and soak in the sea spray as you gaze out at the crashing waves.
The site has a few on-site vendors as well, so if climbing isn’t your thing, you can also grab a coco frío (cold coconut drink) and relax on the adjacent beach.
Note it’s not recommended to swim here since the east side of the island is typically very windy, resulting in very strong waves. Better to save your swimming and snorkeling for the much calmer west coast!
CHEERS! GRAB A DRINK-WITH-A-VIEW
After all of the day’s action, it’s time for a drink! At the south end of Cozumel’s east coast, keep your eyes peeled for an unassuming palapa stand called Bar Miami (also known as The Liquor Box). Here, grab a well-earned beer, cocktail (get the mojito!) or coconut and pull up an oceanfront seat to soak in the view.
We loved this low-key spot for its chill vibe, relaxing hammocks and stunning views – not to mention cheap prices! Drinks here are easily half what you’ll spend at other beachfront spots on Cozumel.
No need to book a snorkel excursion during your day trip to Cozumel. You can easily snorkel DIY-style at many spots on Cozumel’s west coast, including our fave: The Money Bar Beach Club. Situated on a rocky coastline, there isn’t really a true beach here – but no matter. You’re not here for sand, you’re here for the sparkling turquoise water!
One of the things we really love about The Money Bar is there is NO entry fee or minimum to utilize their oceanfront loungers or tables. Friendly servers offer great service, with delicious food and drinks to match. After you’ve settled in, grab your snorkel gear and head to the water! (If you don’t have your own snorkel gear you can also rent from a nearby shop.) There are two access points into the water on either end of the beach club, but head’s up – both are a wee bit slippery so be extra careful upon entry & exit. Expect to see plenty of schools of fish just a few feet out into the water, and of course even more marine life the further out towards the reef you go.
After you’ve snorkeled to your heart’s content and caught up on a proper case of R&R, time to start heading up the west coast! By now it’s late afternoon and sunset’s on the horizon.
Cozumel happens to have spectacular sunsets and one of our favorite spots to catch it is the aptly named Sunset Bar. Located just south of San Miguel de Cozumel, this fun bar & restaurant offers a laid-back vibe with seating on an upper terrace as well as beachfront. The water here is great for swimming, and if you come earlier in the day you can take advantage of their 2×1 happy hour (1pm – 3pm). And did we mention the views? Equally stunning during the day, and of course – at sunset!
If you prefer to start heading back into San Miguel de Cozumel, we also love catching sunset at El Palomar. After you’ve returned your car rental, head to this spot just 5 blocks north of the ferry dock.
Located in a colonial home built in 1903, the historic house today is considered a cultural heritage site on Cozumel Island. Beautifully refurbished, rustic interiors feature paintings by local artists, further complemented by a charming outdoor patio. Whether you’re stopping here for an inventive mezcal cocktail as you take in the sunset, or you stay for dinner by way of delicious island cuisine, El Palomar easily deserves a spot (if not the final one!) on your day trip itinerary to Cozumel.
THAT’S A WRAP!
Depending on how long you want to stretch out your evening on Cozumel, consider hitting another bar or two in town, then head back to the ferry dock to catch your ride to Playa Del Carmen. The last ferries depart at 9pm (WinJet) or 10pm (UltraMar), so be sure to watch the time! Otherwise, you’ll be searching for last-minute accommodations until the next ferries begin departing in the morning.
During the 30-45 minute ride back to the mainland you can reminisce about your day in paradise, plus start plotting your return trip. 😉
ADDITIONAL ACTIVITIES YOU CAN ALSO DO ON COZUMEL
While we didn’t have time to do these on our day trip, you can easily adjust your own itinerary to accommodate either of the following popular activities:
Explore Punta Sur Eco Park
Located at the southernmost point of Cozumel is Punta Sur Eco Park: a 247-acre ecological reserve featuring lagoons, beaches and reefs, plus the historic Celarain Lighthouse. For those willing to climb to the top, stunning panoramic views await! On a clear day, you may even be able to spot the coast of Cuba a mere 90 miles away.
You can lounge on the sandy beach, head out into the water for swimming or snorkeling, hike a nature trail, explore mini Mayan ruins, or take a boat tour into the lagoon with a professional guide. Here, you’ll be able to spot crocodiles, colorful birds and more wildlife unique to the island.
The park is open Monday through Saturday 9am – 4pm. Admission cost is $16 for adults and $10 for children (ages 4 to 12), with use of beach loungers and umbrellas included. Guided boat tours will cost extra, as will food & drinks.
Treat your tastebuds at Mayan Cacao Company
As you start heading back up the west coast, consider a stop at the Mayan Cacao Company. For $15.00 USD per person you can take an approx 1-hour tour where you’ll learn all about how the ancient Mayans prepared chocolate. The best part? The tasting! Expect to sample a range of chocolate ranging from traditional to honey to chile-infused. Admission further includes additional cultural activities such as experiencing a Mayan purification ritual, visiting a traditional Mayan hut, and sampling handmade corn tortillas.
On your way out (or in) swing by the on-site bar for a chocolate-infused cocktail, and don’t forget to stop by the souvenir shop on your way out to pick up some artisanal chocolate to-go.
Tours are available in both English and Spanish, offered Monday – Saturday at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Please note drinks from the bar and items from the shop are not included in the admission price.