By Mike Coleman
COZUMEL, Mexico – It was almost a half-century ago when famed underwater oceanographer Jacques Cousteau happened upon this sleepy, sun-drenched oasis at the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, declaring it among the most spectacular dive locations in the world.
Much has changed since Cousteau’s first visit here – today the island and its unpretentious town of San Miguel welcome some three million cruise ship passengers annually. But this paradise and the busy tourism industry built around it was almost wiped off the map when Hurricane Wilma made landfall on October 21, 2005. Her 140-mph winds battered this 30-mile-long, 10-mile-wide haven, inflicting considerable damage.
That was then, this is now.
San Miguel’s cozy, downtown core has been revitalized and two of its three cruise ship piers have re-opened – International Pier welcomed vessels in May, 2006 and Punta Langosta Pier began hosting vessels in September 2006. Heavily-damaged Puerta Maya Pier, however, remains a work in progress and may take another year to complete.
Despite the pounding, Cousteau’s underwater assessment still holds true to this day. The dive and snorkel opportunities here remain among the finest in the world. Some 37-plus dive sites teem with tropical fish, marine life and multi-colored coral reefs, which often feature limestone caves and tunnels. Divers can explore the island’s most famous dive site, Palancar, face off with great grouper and moray eels at Tormentos, plunge 120 feet into the brilliant green abyss of San Francisco or make a day of it diving at Chankanaab Park, a prized national facility.
Many cruise ship shore excursions typically include snorkel equipment, beverages and snacks. Average tour length is about 2.5 hours and costs around $40 per adult and $25 for children. More than 30 reefs range in depth from 15 to 90 feet. Transparent waters in some locales provide divers with up to 200 feet of visibility. Contributing to the island’s allure are year-round water temperatures ranging from 77 to 82 degrees.
Punta Sur Park is an ecological reserve featuring tours, a beach, lighthouse, maritime museum, small Mayan ruin and a free catamaran trip through mangroves. A visit to El Cedral, once the largest settlement in Cozumel, features the oldest Mayan structure on the island. The eastern side boasts many secluded beaches and rustic bars.
Small archeological sights, surprisingly untouched by Wilma’s wrath, can be found here, including the restored Maya-Toltec ruins at San Gervasio, not far from San Miguel. Look for the region’s history to come alive at the Museum of the Island of Cozumel, located downtown.
Downtown – a hub of pastel-colored boutiques, open-air restaurants, souvenir shops and jewelry chains – has been revitalized since Wilma’s pounding. Popular haunts like Pancho’s Backyard, Carlos and Charlie’s, Hard Rock Cafe and SeÃƒÂ±or Frog chains are often packed with cruise ship passenger traffic.
Virtually every major cruise line sails here. Look for three new mega-liners – Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Freedom, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Pearl and Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas – to call later this year.