Cozumel is a jungle wrapped in a tropical coast surrounded by one of the underwater wonders of the world. Its reefs are part of the second largest reef system on earth, stretching southward from the Yucatan past Belize and Honduras to Panama. Coconut palms and resort hotels flourish on the coastline. The interior is impenetrable except for a few roads and paths, and there are no streams or rivers. Rainfall penetrates directly to the water table through the sandy soil or collects in brackish lagoons popular with crocodiles and other wildlife. This is paradise.
But paradise is getting crowded. Fifteen years ago, 8,000 people lived on this island; now there are 80,000. And it can seem like twice that number if you're near the docks when the cruise ships arrive. The effect is like a tidal wave, filling all taxis, jamming nearby beaches, dispatching buses to selected Mayan ruins, and lifting prices in the tourist stalls.
Fortunately, the damage is temporary, geographically confined, and easy to avoid. When you see those big vessels gliding down the coast, head north, east, or farther south. Cozumel is a small island, just 9 miles wide and 33 miles long, but cabs are expensive. So if you want to visit the nether regions for the best beaches, grilled fish, and snorkeling, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
To the north are the wilds, accessible only by a terrible dirt road pocked with holes and sand pits. It takes two hours to cover the 10 miles to the lighthouse at Punta Molas (fill your gas tank and be forewarned, your rental insurance doesn't cover this route), but your bone-rattled patience will be rewarded. Remote beaches off the road offer great snorkeling. Iguanas are everywhere. And you'll find the El Castillo ruins, a little-visited Mayan site, along the route. At this ancient place, only the wind and the birds break the silence.
For those who prefer tamer routes, Cozumel offers more than enough to do. At the south point, there is Punta Sur, a 247-acre "ecological park." That means you have to ride in the park's slow, bouncy vehicles and visit only selected sites, but you'll also see the crocodiles. The protected beach just west of Celarain Lighthouse offers the best shoreline snorkeling in Cozumel. About 150 yards offshore at the fringe reef, coral heads and shoals, only 5 to 8 feet below the surface, teem with marine life.
Snorkel boats are widely available, some with glass bottoms or sails and twin hulls and others with platforms the size of small dance floors. It is fun to chat up fellow snorkelers during the short trip out to the reef. The concession at Playa Palancar offers trips for four to six people out to the famous Palancar Reef, extolled by the late Jacques Cousteau as one of the great dive spots. The price is $30 per person, but if business is slack you can bargain.
Better still, you could just scuba dive. The Cozumel directory lists 75 dive shops. Surrounding the island are 25 dive locales, and at least one of them -- the Palancar -- is so extensive that you could dive for 40 days and 40 nights and not see it all. Underwater visibility is typically 80 to 100 feet and can reach an astounding 200 feet. The stingrays are 6 feet across. Moray eels emerge at the tap of a flashlight. Scuba diving becomes paradisical on Cozumel. For the certified diver, one-tank dives start at $30. Resort courses -- which provide enough training with a qualified personal instructor to allow any good swimmer to dive at 35 feet or so -- start at $60, equipment included. My 12-year-old daughter declared the diving "awesome."
On dry land, there are three Mayan sites, excellent shopping for handicrafts and jewelry, and fabulous food. Chankanaab Park offers sea lion shows and a dolphin encounter that compares favorably to those in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, according to aficionados. Chankanaab also has good snorkeling before the crowds descend, flippers fly, and fish flee. For those who would rather see the reef without getting wet, a submarine named Nautilus will take you down for $89.
Of course, all this activity gives you an appetite, one that Cozumel is happy to satisfy. The taquerias just a few blocks off the central square are cheap and excellent, and the restaurants take advantage of fresh local ingredients. The tortillas taste intensely of corn, the refried beans are smoky, and the fish were caught this morning.
Dean Crawford is the author of "The Lay of the Land." He teaches English at Vassar College.