For my birthday, Katy booked us five nights in Cozumel, a large island off the coast near Playa Del Carmen.
While not completely dominated by tourism – it has a large local population and it is relatively easy to get off the tourist trail, anything for visitors to Cozumel is aimed at the cruise ship crowd, making it a difficult island to explore on a budget.
Overpriced shopping malls and bars line the shorefront. We’ve got nothing against cruises, but the passengers tend to be more affluent and so popular port towns and islands take advantage by racking up the prices.
The other group that visit are divers – but it’s not a cheap place to dive even if you are certified.
That said, we still had a really good time on the island and for the sake of the short ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen, it is worth a look.
We were staying far away from the cruise ship area, at a wonderful little oasis called Tu Casa B&B, which Katy had booked especially for my birthday. With a private room, air con and a pool, it was a nice indulgence for a few days.
Being located well inside the town meant it was easy for us to explore the real Cozumel. There were very few tourists around, but some lovely local restaurants and buildings.
Our best discovery was an incredible street side restaurant called El Billy Asados Al Carbon – as you may guess from the name, it was a barbecue place. We didn’t need to see the name, we guessed it from the huge plumes of smoke and the tantalising smell several streets over.
Following our noses, we found the place and were presented with a sample of the poc chuc (pork) and chicken – both were amazing so we instantly sat down. For 160 pesos (less than £7) we received a giant platter of various grilled meats, so much we could barely finish it (but we did). There were sides of baked potato, salad, rice and various delicious salsas. It was incredible and probably the best meal we had in Mexico, for a fraction of the price of the tourist places. We went back a few days later for a whole takeout chicken.
Another thing we hadn’t realised about Cozumel was that there aren’t any beaches within walking distance from the town, and public transport is more or less non existent. This meant we had to bite the bullet and rent a car if we were going to see anything on the island.
In a town full of dishonest car rental shops, we went to the only universally recommended one, Isis Car Rental. Here, for $35 US we got a very well used Chevy Aveo with a shocking manual gearbox (first time I’d driven manual in a long, long time). We had hoped for an old Beetle convertible but they were sold out – when we saw the state of them this was probably a blessing in disguise.
We drove straight out of the town and went on a search for a beach – we quickly found a beach with attached bar and restaurant but the weather was miserable, very grey and it even started to rain.
So we drove on and at the southern tip of the island found a slightly better beach, complete with reggae bar. It was a rather expensive reggae bar lacking any real atmosphere but it was about the only choice we had for lunch. Like many places on the island the prices were primarily in dollars, when you finally found the Spanish menu in pesos the prices were about 25% less – they obviously bank on cruise passengers having nothing but USD and not caring or checking.
By now we were running out of island – the road only actually runs around half of it, after which you have to cut back inland towards San Miguel. So we had little potential beach left. Luckily with the last stop we struck gold.
We stumbled upon a calm, clean beach with crystal clear water and for the first time the sun was actually out! It was no hidden treasure, as with most beaches in Cozumel it was owned by a bar/restaurant but any beach has to open to the public in Mexico so we were fine just chilling on the sand.
After some swimming and poor man’s snorkelling with our goggles, we had to head back as the car had to be returned by 6. We had one more stop, the San Gervasio ruins. However after driving 4km up a private road to get to them, we were told we would have to pay around 200 pesos each to enter, and only had 20 minutes before they closed.
With the prospect of Chichen Itza the following week, and many other ruins in the coming months, we decided to swerve this and drove back out. It was probably for the best, since on the way back to the town it started hammering down with rain.
Our last day was the most important day – my birthday! Sadly it didn’t go as planned. Katy had a great plan for the whole day, starting off with coffee and cakes at a bakery in the morning, then wandering over to ‘Wet Wendy’s’ bar for a pre lunch margarita. I’d been very generously given some birthday spending money from my friends at home, Chris and Mahnie, so the drinks were gonna flow!
That is why we ended up with a GIANT frozen margarita each. Like the size of our heads (jokes – our heads are massive). I had a classic one and Katy had a frozen mojito. Halfway through we were already feeling a bit tipsy, it was going to be a good day. However when Katy got to the end of hers, there were strange stones at the bottom of it. The waitress didn’t know what they were, and nervously gave us the drink free. Bargain we thought…not so much.
We next went for a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant. I enjoyed mine, but Katy started feeling ill after her starter and could barely touch her main course. We quickly left and she felt so ill she could barely walk. We sat on a quiet street, and then she was sick..very sick. It was one of those ‘Really?’ moments when the whole population of Cozumel seemed to descend on that street during that embarrassing moment…isn’t it always the way?
Eventually I got her back to the B&B in a taxi and she spent the rest of the day in bed. And me the rest of my birthday looking after her. So yeah, that sucked a bit. Of course our prime suspect is the kitty litter like substance in her cocktail. Not that it matters, we couldn’t prove anything. Just a case of bad luck!
And so the next day, with Katy feeling better, we left. Cozumel wasn’t what we expected, but it was memorable…sadly not all for the right reasons!
We’d really recommend Tu Casa B&B. The location can be a bit of a slog if you want to get right into town, but apart from that it’s a beautiful little place with Sara, the friendly Turkish owner, looking after your every need. We paid $50USD per night, more than we usually do but it was a treat, and for Cozumel it was a bargain.
The ferries to Cozumel leave pretty much every hour. Two companies run the route and they more or less alternate between hours, but confusingly they swap hours each day – eg 10am one day then 11am the next day. You can buy tickets in advance but they aren’t for any specific time, just check the timetable the night before.
Return tickets are no cheaper and it would make more sense to just buy a second single to get back, in case the company isn’t running at the time you want to return. Each ticket is around 156 pesos (£6.60).