Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content featuring destinations outside of Canada. This winter, our editor Adrian Brijbassi ventures to Cozumel to profile an island experience in Mexico.
Nature hikes, bicycle tours, and kayak outings are not what Canadians usually think of when they imagine a vacation to Mexico. Cozumel challenges perceptions, however, thanks to a culture that reveres its environment, including the Mayan Riviera’s spectacular coral reef.
As Canadians from coast to coast endure one of the harshest winters in recent memory, escaping to sunshine is all the more alluring. The chance to be active and close to nature is particularly enticing for those travellers interested in more than lying on a beach for days at a time. And Cozumel is all about activity.
Its delights begin with the underwater beauty of the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A 20-minute boat ride takes you into the aquatic wonder that includes 26 species of coral and more than 500 varieties of fish. Turtles, lobster, and crab may also be spotted during a swim in waters that are decadently warm — averaging about 24 Celsius degrees (75 Fahrenheit) in winter.
Opportunities to dive into the Caribbean Sea and the Mesoamerican Reef are a primary selling point of Explorean Cozumel, an all-inclusive luxury resort with 56 rooms large enough to be called casitas. They are all the same size (400 square feet) and layout, with large bathrooms, balconies, and plush beds. The resort is amid a jungle-like setting of trees and reeds. The 12 two-storey buildings built into nature make it feel like you’re in a Costa Rican eco-resort but you’re only about 80 feet from a Caribbean beach.
The room rate at Explorean Cozumel includes daily excursions, such as a 90-minute sunset kayak trip, which finishes at a beachside restaurant several kilometres from the resorts. (Diners are shuttled back in a van while the staff collects the kayaks.) Another option is a Jeep tour that circles the island in less than four hours. Guests can drive their own vehicle, which is a plus for families, and follow the lead car to the tour stops. Among them are a tequila-making seminar, notable Mayan ruins related to the goddess Ix Chel, an eerie cave filled with bats that was created by a meteorite strike millions of years ago, and El Cedral, the oldest settlement on the island and home to one of Mexico’s most fascinating events. The Holy Cross festival honours the island’s Catholic heritage and attracts thousands of Mexicans every May. In 1848, 20 families fed up with Mexico’s bitter “Mixed Blood War” (a violent feud between Mayans and the population of citizens with Spanish ancestry) migrated to Cozumel, which had been largely abandoned following the outbreak of sickness that drove away both the Mayans and Spaniards. The families established a Catholic society and the festival, called simply El Cedral, is a week-long celebration of concerts, midway rides, bull fights, and food in copious amounts.
Dive Into the Mesoamerican Reef’s Wonders
By far, though, the best experiences offered at Explorean Cozumel are the ones that get you into the water. It’s while drifting through the waves that you start to comprehend why Cozumel is beloved by so many who visit. Ecologists, scuba divers, and snorkellers from around the world cherish the marine world that is at the heart of Cozumel’s culture. The beach breaks on the snorkel trips include impromptu volleyball games with resort staff and guests in casual competition. When you’ve had enough of the physical activity, find a spot on the beach, or in the shallow water, and sip on a beer while your skin tingles from the warmth and your eyes stare unblinkingly at the exquisite horizon where blue meets blue as if earth and sky had made a pact to hypnotize you into relaxed bliss.
Although Explorean Cozumel is focused on off-site activities and nature-immersive stays, it does have a unique situation that also rewards guests with the chance to have a Mexican beach holiday too. Explorean Cozumel is partnered with Fiesta Americana Cozumel, an adjoining property with twice as many rooms and direct access to the beach. Both resorts are owned by the Posadas Corporation, which completed a full renovation of the property in 2014, re-opening as two distinct hotels. Explorean Cozumel is more exclusive. It has one restaurant, Lolk’an, which specializes in regional flavours. Meals are made to order, including eggs and morning smoothies with several healthy ingredients. The bartenders are outstanding but guests have the opportunity to mix their own drinks (and serve others too) because the resort has a self-serve bar (with a good selection of tequilas and resposadas, and whiskey, gin, and bourbon staples, among other choices).
Guests who want more variety have full use of the Fiesta Americana amenities, which includes seven restaurants with choices such as Asian, Italian, and sushi options. Plus, there’s La Ceviceria for fish and seafood lovers, and a buffet spot. The Fiesta American pool features a swim-up bar, and nightly ice-breaker events that encourage camaraderie.
Sunshine and Marine Magic in Cozumel
Both Posadas resorts embrace the marine lifestyle and deliver impressive experiences because of it. Every guide and server you encounter swims, and expresses concern for the coral reef. They all want to maintain its health. And why wouldn’t they? The water is Jacuzzi warm, so comfortable you could slip into a daze and flap on endlessly through the water with your fins and snorkel mask on gazing at the silvery baramuda fish in your eyes and the other startling life waving beneath you.
By my last night, I knew I would come back to the island for another escape. The more you travel, the more you realize the best places are those that manage to tempt you from venturing somewhere else. By that measure, Cozumel is easily among the western hemisphere’s most satisfying locations to sink into for days — or longer, if you’re lucky.
More About Explorean Cozumel
Room Rates: The resort currently has a 30 percent discount on its rooms, with one weekend night in February costing $405 USD ($530 CAD). This all-inclusive rate is for two adults and includes meals, drinks, daily excursions, and more. There are no TVs at Explorean (even in common areas; guests can walk to the lobby of the Fiesta Americana if they want to watch sports). Neither is there room service (though a basket is delivered each morning with coffee, orange juice, and thin slices of cake to get your day started before breakfast). Through those characteristics, the resort sets its intention to compel guests outside to be amid nature and other travellers.
You Should Stay Here If You Want: To explore Cozumel daily beyond the resort, a quiet holiday in a nature setting, regional cuisine, a large bathroom with a rain-shower head, the chance to play bartender.
More About Fiesta Americana
Room Rates: The resort currently has a 30 percent discount on its rooms, with one weekend night in February starting at $381 USD ($500 CAD). This all-inclusive rate is for two adults and includes meals, drinks, and more.
You Should Stay Here If You Want: An ocean-view room (all rooms face the Caribbean Sea), a TV in your room, to mingle in a lively atmosphere, to stay put during your vacation, to save some money.
More About Visiting Cozumel
Getting There: Most travellers reach Cozumel via a 30-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. A one-way ticket costs less than $20 USD ($27 CAD). Ferries run at least once per hour from 7 am until 11 pm each day. Playa del Carmen is 45 minutes by car away from Cancun, the gateway city to the Mayan Riviera. If flying into Cancun, shuttle buses and taxis are available to take passengers to Playa del Carmen. Another option is a 20-minute flight from Cancun International Airport to Cozumel’s tiny airport. But be aware the terminal from which flights to Cozumel depart is a 20-minute drive from Cancun International’s main terminals. There is a free shuttle but it doesn’t run as frequently as it should. A taxi ride to the terminal is a pricey flat rate of $30 USD ($40 CAD, although you might be able to haggle it down). If you intend to fly to Cozumel from Cancun, plan plenty of extra time to ensure you make your connecting flight.
Exchange Rate: $1 CAD equals approximately 14.25 Mexican pesos (MXN)
Vacay.ca Manging Editor Adrian Brijbassi was a visiting journalist of Explorean Cozumel and Fiesta American Cozumel.