I would like to introduce Sarah, our guest blogger of today. Sarah is a guest of El Taj Oceanfront Condo Hotel, and I met her at Indigo Beach Club. While we spoke, she mentioned she was a writer for the Harvard Gazette. Today she tells us about how she fell in love with Cozumel island and why… Read on if you are planning to visit this beautiful island, easily reachable by ferry from Playa!
Mexicans like to say qué rico when something is incredibly delicious, sumptuous, and otherwise irresistible. You’ll hear it on the beach, over fresh ceviche; while twisting open the first beer of a hot day; and it’s the common reply from the long-worked taxista, asking you how long you’re in town for. Vacation. This is the life. Qué rico, indeed.
My qué rico moment came last year, when I landed on the island of Cozumel for the first time, and fell in love hard with the small-town charm of Mexico’s largest island. I’ve since returned three times, with never a shortage of fun and food to keep me wanting more.
The Mayans dubbed Cozumel the Island of the Swallows after Ixchel, their goddess of fertility and marriage, who sent swallows to the isle in appreciation of the Mayans’ devoted worship. Today’s denizens are likewise as hospitable, and impressions of swallows dot the walkways down Avenida Rafael Melgar, Cozumel’s main drag.
Besides being home to world-class reefs — Cozumel’s premier attraction — the island is just a short jaunt away from the mainland, a mere 30-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. Though it’s the busiest cruise ship destination in the world, the island is unabashedly laid-back — think Laguna Beach without the proximity to Los Angeles pretentiousness (and the garish mansions).
True relaxation awaits on the island — whether it’s an unforgettable afternoon of snorkeling or diving, a remote beach on Cozumel’s rugged eastern side, or a dreamy dinner overlooking a melted sherbet sunset.
So grab your pesos and sunscreen — we’re leaving El Taj in our rear view and hitching a ride to Cozumel!
From the ferry, head south along Av. Melgar to Prima Trattoria for a quick breakfast. Too many margaritas the night before? Prima’s chilaquiles are a legendary cure-all ‘round these parts, and soon you’ll know why. If you’re cautious when it comes to chile, choose the salsa roja — it’s decidedly milder. But for stomach’s of steel, the salsa verde is ripe with the bright, crisp flavor of tomatillos. Shredded chicken couched in tortillas, smothered with cheese can’t be wrong. Sit outside on the patio overlooking crystalline turquoise water and watch the boats go by while savoring a michelada — beer with tomato and lime juice — or just a coffee. A glimmer of the mainland can be seen on the horizon on the clearest of days.
Stomachs full, let’s work up a sweat. Grab one of the idling taxis waiting and careen to the oceanfront Money Bar, planted in the middle of the famous Dzul-Ha reef. You can rent snorkel gear from the on-site dive shop, or guided excursion from the dock for roughly $35-40 USD. Not too shabby for a three hour tour and unlimited ice cold Coronas — once the snorkeling is out of the way, of course. Safety first! Check in with Chac-Choc Tours — they’ll take you to the famous El Cielo, Cozumel’s white-sand beach of waist-high water. Not a lot of marine life here, save for the gigantic starfish, and they’re everywhere. Afterward, you’ll check out two of Cozumel’s most majestic reefs: Palancar and Colombia. A sea turtle is almost always guaranteed, as well as barracuda, parrotfish, and grouper. If you’re lucky, a spotted eagle ray will make a guest appearance, too.
Back on land it’s high time to veer off the beaten path. Cozumel has no shortage of amazing restaurants, but for a bit of local flavor, try a cocina economica. Cocinas economicas are restaurants run out of someone’s house, and there are some delicious, one-of-a-kind meals to be had here. Il Giardino, situated in Cozumel’s central Corpus Christi neighborhood, is run by Maria, who offers everything from jerk chicken to pasta to Sunday’s comfort food du jour — classic lasagna. Sit al fresco in her lush but shady garden. The bread with chimichurri salsa is a meal in and of itself, but don’t skimp on a main course — Maria’s love comes through in every bite.
For a classic Mexican lunch, tacos are boss. Los Otates is a local favorite, and they make a mean al pastor — pork roasted on a spit, replete with a slice of pineapple. But I prefer the suadero, tender chunks of beef, garnished with onion and cilantro and a spoonful of the house salsa. Perfection. And you can’t beat the price — around $3 USD per person for three tacos.
To let things digest — and why not throw in a mild siesta? — head to the east side of the island. You’ll need a rental car (advertised all over downtown or easily available from the ferry pier) or if you’ve got pesos to spare, taxis will gladly chauffer you and wait for a negotiated flat rate. Cozumel’s undeveloped side has no hotels or houses, but is home to thatched roof, open-air bars, like Mezcalito’s. Plop yourself down in a one of their beachfront hammocks with a bucket of beer and forget everything. The current on this side is stronger, but the water is worth it.
To round out the day, and save some time to catch the return ferry to Playa, Casa Mission is a classic Cozumel must-do for dinner. The punchy décor is a nod to early 20th-century Mexico, Frida Kahlo style. Pepto-pink sofas, white enameled chairs, chandeliers of fruit, wooden crosses on the wall, and rounded archways leading into the restaurant’s famously maintained gardens. Did I mention there are caged parrots in almost every corner? They talk too, and they’re quite nosy, so do be careful. Order anything from fajitas to fish to steak — Casa Mission has a bit of it all and they’re reliably good at everything. Just don’t forget to take up the free tequila tour in the garden. The tequila is the smoothest I’ve had in a long while, and won back-to-back tasting contests in Chicago and San Francisco. Can’t you taste it now?
Qué rico, you’re probably muttering to yourself. But it’s time to head back to the ferry. But don’t worry — you’ll be back for more. It wouldn’t surprise me. This is Cozumel. That kind of thing happens all the time.