Sunset, West coast of Cozumel Island, Mexico
It's not another Cancún yet, but Cozumel's days as a rustic divers' hangout are history. Whether arriving by plane or at the island's gleaming ferry terminal, visitors soon realize there's nothing deserted about this island. That has its advantages. It's rare to find such stunning natural beauty, glass-clear aquamarine seas, and vast marine life combined with top-flight visitor services and accommodations, and as a result Cozumel's devotees are legion. Divers sharing stories of lionfish and sharks sit table-to-table with families tanned from a day at the beach club, while Mexican couples spin and step to salsa music in the central plaza. But the elephant in Cozumel's big and bountiful room are the throngs of cruise-ship passengers who take over the countless crafts and jewelry stores along the seaward boulevard downtown any day there are ships in port—which is to say, just about every day. But take just a few steps off the beaten path and this little island offers big rewards. Deserted, windswept beaches, wild and vibrant natural parks, and 600 miles of coral reef are still yours for the discovering. Just 19 km (12 miles) off the coast, Cozumel is 53 km (33 miles) long and 15 km (9 miles) wide, making it the country's third-largest island. Plaza Central, or just "la plaza," is the heart of San Miguel, directly across from the docks. Residents congregate here in the evening, especially on weekends, when free concerts begin at 8 pm. Heading inland (east) takes you away from the tourist zone and toward residential areas of town. Most of the island's restaurants, hotels, stores, and dive shops are concentrated downtown and along the two hotel zones that fan out along the leeward coast to the north and south of San Miguel. The most concentrated commercial district is between Calle 10 Norte and Calle 11 Sur to beyond Avenida Pedro Joaquin Coldwell. Cozumel's solitude-seeking windward side also has a few restaurants and one hotel. Unless you want to stick around your hotel or downtown San Miguel for your whole stay, you'll do well to rent a car or a scooter. Most worthwhile sites, such as the island's Mayan ruins and pristine windward beaches, are only readily accessible with wheels. Taxi fares are astronomical, and after just a few trips a rental car is clearly a better deal.