Set sail from Playa del Carmen and a short boat ride across the turquoise and indigo waters of the Caribbean takes you to Cozumel, Mexico’s largest inhabited island. In ancient times it was the sacred island of the Maya but nowadays it is world-famous for the beauty of its spectacular reefs. Spend a day or two here and you’ll find colorful marine life and coral formations, beautiful beaches, rich history and island traditions.

In ancient times, Cozumel or Cuzamil, “land of the swallows,” as the Maya knew it, was the site of a shrine to Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Temples still dot the flat, jungle landscape and there are lighthouses and lookout posts on the coast, testimony to the days of Mayan seafarers when the island was an important center on the Caribbean maritime trade route.

San Gervasio is the largest of Cozumel’s 25 archaeological sites. In addition to receiving Mayan merchants, it was also visited by pilgrims who would travel hundreds of miles from all over the Yucatan and then make the perilous sea crossing from Xaman-Há (Playa del Carmen) and Pole (Xcaret) to worship at the shrine of Ixchel.

In 1519, the world of the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures changed forever when a Spanish expeditionary force led by Hernán Cortés landed on the island. From Cozumel, Cortes and his band of soldiers sailed into the west, across the the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall on the coast of Veracruz. Lured by tales of gold and a legendary lake city beyond the mountains, they continued on their journey into the unknown. They made the arduous trek through the highlands and reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now the site of Mexico City. By 1521, this ruthless band had defeated the Aztec army and overthrown a mighty empire, seizing its land and treasures.

During the Colonial period of Mexican history, Cozumel was largely forgotten and its deserted shores became a haven for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Miguel Molas. In the 1850s, refugees fleeing the Caste War on the Yucatecan mainland settled the island.

Located in the island capital San Miguel, the Cozumel Museum has interesting exhibits on the ancient Maya, the coming of the Spaniards, pirates and the 19th-century colonization of the island. Other displays showcase local festivals such as the Carnival and the El Cedral Fair held at the beginning of May. Visitors also learn about the formation of the coral reefs and the island’s flora and fauna. The tropical forest and wetlands are rich in wildlife, including endemic creatures such as pygmy raccoons and coatimundis and the Cozumel emerald hummingbird.

Reef paradise
Most visitors to Cozumel are drawn by its spectacular coral kingdom, a chain of reefs off the west coast that was made famous by Jacques Cousteau and Mexican diver Rene Cardona. Magnificent coral buttresses and walls festooned by huge red, yellow and orange sponges and delicate sea fans are honeycombed with caves and canyons and inhabited by 300 species of fish and other colorful marine life of all shapes and sizes.

The water visibility around Cozumel is as high as 200 feet and the current enables divers to practice drift diving and literally fly past coral walls and drop-offs, keeping pace with sea turtles, huge groupers and schools of eagle rays.

Divers can spend a lifetime exploring reefs like Paraíso, Chankanaab, La Herradura, San Francisco, Yucab, Santa Rosa, Colombia, Maracaibo and the largest of them all, Palancar, famous for its immense coral pillars, caves and walls.

Some shallower reefs such as Chankanaab and Paraíso are also popular snorkeling spots and swimmers have their own encounters with queen angelfish, parrot fish, blue tangs, sergeant majors and jacks. For visitors who would prefer to see the underwater world without getting wet, there are glass-bottomed boats and an unforgettable immersion on the Atlantis submarine, which dives to a depth of 100 feet.

Take a tour of the island
As a break from scuba, snorkeling or fishing sign up for an island tour or rent a car, moped or a taxi and explore at your own pace. The island’s sheltered, palm-lined swimming beaches are all on the west coast. The rugged windswept east coast has some beautiful, deserted stretches of sand you can stroll along but most of them are not recommended for swimming. Strong currents and undertow make swimming dangerous on the windward coast.

Chankanaab Park is one of the most popular spots on the west coast of the island. The crystal-clear lagoon and reef are ideal for snorkeling. In the jungle there is a cenote or sinkhole that is connected to the Caribbean by an underground river. Other attractions include a botanical garden and dolphin swims.

Nature lovers and bird watchers should head to Punta Sur nature reserve on the southern tip of the island and Isla de la Pasión in the north for a glimpse of water birds such as herons, roseate spoonbills, ibis and even flamingos. Cozumel is also a haven for migratory birds in the winter and has an annual Bird Festival in October.

Arrange a boat trip to El Cielo, a shallow reef and calm stretch of crystal-clear water off the north coast where the seabed is covered with starfish. Take photos but don’t disturb these living treasures.

Thomas More Travel offers trips to Cozumel for diving or sightseeing or you can make your own way there at your own pace using the ferry from Playa del Carmen.