Tono Balaguer/Shutterstock

This laid-back Caribbean isle has something for every traveler, from couples to families to cruise passengers in port for the day.

By Emma Sloley

The idyllic island of Cozumel, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, is a popular cruise ship destination that offers a relaxing break from the clamor of nearby Playa del Carmen. Known for its pristine beaches, wild landscapes, and a lively town center, this laid-back isle has something for every traveler, from couples to families to cruise passengers in port for the day.

Top Things to Do in Cozumel

1. Visit the Magical Jade Cavern
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is famous for its cenotes, natural limestone pools that form part of a vast underground river system, and Cozumel’s Jade Cavern—called “Chempita” in Mayan—is a stunning example. Take a half-day tour to see this natural wonder, with its beautiful deep blue-green clear water and cave roof hung with stalactites—daredevils can opt to jump into the pool from a 20-foot cliff.

pasujoba/Flickr

2. Take a Wild Ride Around the Island
Buckle up for a fun-filled day trip in a brightly-colored dune buggy (each of the sporty vehicles holds four people) that traverses the island, taking in all the coolest sights. The tour includes a bilingual guide, a traditional Mexican lunch and snorkel gear—at the end of the drive passengers are invited to immerse themselves in the ocean and check out the kaleidoscopic marine life beneath the waves.

Nenad Basic/Shutterstock

3. Soak up History at a Mayan Ruin
The San Gervasio Ruins are located in the island’s north and offer a great primer on the sophisticated pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Mayan women would make pilgrimages to the shrine to pay tribute to the goddess of love and fertility, Ixchel. Entry fee is around $5 USD, and visitors can either tour on their own or enlist a local guide to explain the site’s history and architectural significance. Don’t miss the building called “Las Manitas,” whose remaining interior walls are decorated with red hand prints.

Related: Perfect Weekend in Tulum, Mexico

4. Enjoy Cocktails and Snacks with a Side of Ocean View
Situated about halfway up Cozumel’s east coast, Coconuts Bar and Grill exemplifies the laid-back, al fresco fun vibe of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Situated on a cliff with magnificent ocean views, this thatched-roof restaurant and bar is decorated with tongue-in-cheek signs and wacky ephemera, and serves margaritas, beer, and Mexican staples like tacos, ceviche, and nachos.

Free Things to Do in Cozumel

Palancar Beach
LUNAMARINA/Getty

5. Spend a Relaxing Day on the Beach
Palancar Beach, located on the southwestern side of the island, is considered one of Cozumel’s finest strips of sand, and it’s the perfect place for a thrifty seaside jaunt (some of the island’s beaches and national parks charge entry fees.) Palancar is known for its water sports, including kayaking and sailing, and it’s also a hit with snorkelers and divers thanks to the just-offshore reef. When you’re ready to retire to the shade, there are plenty of cheap-and-cheerful restaurants nearby. 15 miles south of San Miguel, Cozumel

Related: The Best Beaches in Cozumel

Clock tower in San Miguel
LUNAMARINA/Getty

6. Explore the Town of San Miguel
Cozumel’s main town is one of the island’s liveliest spots, especially when cruise ships are in port. Window-shop at the many craft and souvenir stores that line the waterfront¸ then duck into the back streets for a more authentic Mexican village experience. At the zocalo, or main plaza, located near the downtown ferry pier, there’s a gazebo, shady trees, and plenty of good people watching. For more of the latter, head to the traditional Mercado, located on Avenida 25 in downtown San Miguel, where locals go to shop for food.

Playa San de Martin
Shutterstock

7. Chill Out on Playa San de Martin
Another free beach experience on the east side of the island, this sandy gem is close to the cruise piers, so tends to be overlooked by cruise passengers, who spend their day further afield. As a result, you’ll easily find a spot on the sand, looking out over the gorgeous crystal-clear blue water. There’s also a little beach bar selling various refreshments.

8. Take a Fascinating Museum Tour
So it’s not technically free, but with a low entry fee of around $4 USD, the Museum of Cozumel offers a fun and informative diversion. Set in downtown San Miguel, the museum is housed in a former luxury hotel and showcases a host of exhibits, including ones highlighting the island's ecosystems and conservation issues, along with ancient Mayan and Spanish colonial artifacts. There’s even a section dedicated to the island’s 20th-century history. There’s a restaurant on the museum's second floor that comes highly recommended. Av. Rafael E. Melgar 321, Centro, San Miguel, Cozumel

Things to Do in Cozumel Port While on a Cruise

9. Get a Primer on Mexican Culture
Curious about Mexico but don’t have time to explore the whole country? Head to Discover Mexico Park, situated along the coast just south of San Miguel, a theme park in a jungle setting displaying scale models of some of the country's most popular attractions, including the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Mexico City’s grand cathedral. Kids will love the tortilla-making demonstrations and chocolate workshops, while grown-ups are sure to appreciate the popular tequila tasting exhibit. Carr. Costera Sur Km 5.5, Cozumel

Mexican pottery
ivanastar/Getty

10. Stock up on Stylish Keepsakes
The selection at waterfront emporium Los Cinco Soles is considered one of the best in town. Even if you’re not in the mood for buying, just wandering the vast boutique is a fun way to check out popular Mexican arts and crafts like talavera pottery, beautiful handcrafted silver jewelry, and pata negra black ceramics. You can also stock up on locally-produced vanilla, and of course, tequila. The onsite restaurant, Pancho’s Backyard, is a hit with visitors. Av. Rafael E. Melgar x Calle, Calle 8 Nte, Cozumel

11. Visit a Breathtaking Eco-Reserve
Faro Celerain Eco Park, also known as Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, is a 2,500-acre natural wonderland located at the southern tip of Cozumel. The park is home to many indigenous species, including crocodiles, sea turtles, and abundant bird life. Explore the El Caracol Mayan ruins and the Faro Celerain Lighthouse, (which hosts a small maritime museum), then head for the calm waters of Laguna Colombia. Catamaran and kayak tours are a great way to see Laguna Colombia up close. The park is located about 21 miles south of San Miguel.

12. Dine in Spanish Colonial Splendor
Feted as one of the fanciest tables in town, Casa Mission restaurant is set in a restored hacienda surrounded by lush gardens and fountains. The menu offers upscale takes on Mexican classics like fajitas and ceviche. Don’t miss the fish fillet served Veracruz style with peppers and olives. The restaurant also offers various tequila tastings, including a free tequila tour for passengers on certain cruise ship lines. Ave 55, Centro, Cozumel