Top 100: Cozumel
Scan any dive-center calendar and you’ll likely find a Cozumel trip planned. It’s almost a rite of passage, but also so much more: walls, currents and big animals. Those are just a few of the reasons the destination has mesmerized exploratory types like Guillermo Mendoza, co-founder of the on-island Aldora Divers. Mendoza discovered anchors and cannons from a Spanish galleon on the northeast coast, plus six caves lined with sleeping sharks. First-timers can target shore dives and shallower stretches along the wall, but if this isn’t your first logbook, ask Mendoza about the sharks, the veins of tunnels running through the walls and windward-side diving — then see if your appetite is anything but whetted.
Cozumel is known as a drift-diving fun house of wild rides and nonstop adrenaline rushes, but it’s the walls that scored big: Mexico’s east coast ranked in the top five for best wall diving in our 2015 Top 100 Readers Choice survey. These drop-offs owe their oversize gorgonians and corals in part to currents that never let sediment settle. And when fast water rushes in, it’s safe to expect bigger wildlife, such as green and loggerhead turtles, nurse sharks and green moray eels.
It’s an education that can happen quickly. The challenging combination of too-perfect visibility and walls that drop well below recreational limits can have you cruising along a site like Santa Rosa Wall, minding a depth gauge that reads 70 feet — until an eagle ray soars past.
Toggle off the sound feature on your dive computer and you might not notice how quickly you plummet. It’s moments like these — and the environs in general — that make a perfect classroom for sharpening skills such as buoyancy control, buddy awareness or simply diving deep. Add it up and you see why Cozumel took the No. 2 spot as the best destination for advanced diving in the Caribbean and Atlantic.
No Diver Left Behind
Cozumel remains a go-to group getaway for good reason, especially its value. If you’re traveling solo, this still benefits you. On any given day, there’s no shortage of buddies for shore diving or sharing a conversation over an after-scuba margarita.
“People who come by themselves have already made friends by the middle of the week,” says Henry Zapata, instructor at Scuba Club Cozumel. He adds that divers traveling solo need wait no more than five minutes to find a group to join for a dip.
It’s in part due to this ease of finding a buddy — and the access of house reefs — that pushed the island to score second place in its region for shore diving.
Every island has at least two sides, and you’ll likely find Mendoza on Cozumel’s windward one. It’s where he discovered that Spanish galleon, and where he regularly drops in to swim alongside massive sea fans and brain corals, overgrown like fields of waist-high grass.
Says Mendoza of the island’s northeast tip, “I love that reef because the density of brain corals and sea fans is so high.”
Small Island, Big Variety
It would be easy to pack a week with nothing but diving, sunning on beaches and sipping tequila with new amigos — but then you’d be missing the saltwater crocodiles, mangrove kayaking and the lighthouse of Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, the natural playground on the island’s southern tip.
Start with a climb up the Celarain Lighthouse to gain a bird’s-eye view of the area. Then play on the pristine white-sand beach, join a kayak tour and learn about the crocs, or take a boat ride across the lagoon. If you’re really feeling adventurous, rent a jeep and set your own pace heading north along the island’s wind-swept eastern coast.
NEED TO KNOW
When To Go Cozumel is a year-round dive destination, with summer offering the better deals on hotels and airfare.
Travel Tip If you can’t find a direct flight at a price you like, try landing in Cancún. The drive to Playa del Carmen takes less than an hour. From there, hop aboard one of two ferries, which depart every 90 minutes, seven days a week.
Dive Conditions Water temperatures in summer warm to 85 degrees, cooling to 75 in winter — but not without perks. The cooler waters bring in higher numbers of eagle rays.