Take Me to the Other Side: Cozumel’s Real Wild Side
A worthwhile excursion to make while you’re on Isla Cozumel is to get some sort of transport (bikes for rent, scooters for $30/day, cars for about $40/day) and head for the island’s "other side." Moving from west to east, you’ll experience an amazing transformation from the blasé, tourist-hungry Diamond Shops and Pizza Huts of the west side into the virtually uninhabited natural wonderland of the east. Leaving the cruise ships behind, you quickly pop into the rough, wild, deserted ocean landscape previously home only to pirates and explorers. It is unfortunately only a matter of time before the Donald Trumps of the world will want to transform this beauty into the "Beachland: Deluxe Casino and Resort." So go now before it’s too late, or at least within the next five years, ok?
Where to Stay
Hotel beach chairs
A circuit of the island, along with as many stops as you like, is easily do-able in one day, but if you decide to stay overnight, the choice is easy as there’s only one place to stay. An unnamed "hotel" is located at Punta Morena with 4-6 rooms available for approximately $14 US a night (also a restaurant for lunch here, look for the mannequin with the straw hat). Very basic, double bed, cold showers, towels, but no electricity (candles usually provided, but bring your own if you’re planning on staying up late and there’s no moon). The location is right ON the beach. At sunset, when the next-door restaurant closes, only you and the other guests (if there are any) are left to share the miles of private, uninhabited beach. I recommend stargazing naked in one of the many beach chairs for at least ONE HOUR before bedtime. Be advised: There are literally NO SHOPS here or within walking distance, so you MUST bring all your food and water and supplies (like bug-spray, sunscreen, beer and munchies) with you. Unnamed Hotel is great for honeymooners who like to rough it in paradise or for friends who want to go on a private bender.
Where to Go, What to Do, and Where to Eat and Drink
Start your journey as early as possible in town Centro and buy some beers, fish empanadas and a big bottle of water to celebrate your arrival when you arrive at the other side. Then begin your circuit by heading due east. Take the only road to the east, a continuation of Avenida Juarez. Don’t forget to GAS UP before going anywhere, as there are only two gas stations on the island, both in town. You’ll know you’re going the right way when the street lights end and the jungle begins. Just keep going (about 15 minutes in you’ll pass by a tourist stop called "Pee Stop Blankets Toilets") and trust your instincts. Even better, get a map of the island before you leave.
About 7km outside of town, you’ll run into a turnoff for San Gervasio Mayan Ruins. Open 8am-4pm daily (check hours in town to make sure) with a fee of $5 per person. No stunning pyramids or anything here, but pleasant to explore and often deserted, which allows animal and bird life to be encountered easily. Local kids will be happy to help show you around and practice their English for a small propina or tip. Be nice.
After the ruins comes an equally straight stretch of jungle road. Follow this and suddenly you’ll be thrust almost headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean. The paved road takes a sharp right turn to the south here, but before you go, enjoy your first view of the hard ocean surf and beautiful beaches. There’s a restaurant here called Mescalito’s for excellent seafood or just a cold beer. You can buy handicrafts at the little tiendas here, offering blankets and souvenirs. Lucky for you they’ll all be having their "Grand Openings" on the day you arrive, I guarantee it!
There is also a road that goes north from here, but you can only access this area on foot or by ATV. The way is just too sandy and rough for regular vehicles. Disappointed? Well more luck for you then, as "Wild Tours" is here and ready to serve you. They will take you for a self-driven tour of Cozumel’s northeast side on their Honda ATVs. A guide, goggles, helmets, and instruction for beginners provided. Rates and times of departure vary from one season to the next. Usually trips leave at 8am, 11am, 2pm, and 5pm. Sometimes they even offer a twilight tour in the evening to explore the after dark. Trip lasts from two and a half to three hours. Call 987-872-5876 for reservations and information.
Assuming you take the paved road south, after a few miles you’ll run into Punta Morena, the only place to stay on this side of the island (see: Where To Stay). There is also a seafood restaurant here serving only lunch. The clean white beach here is beautiful to gaze at and popular with surfers. Be careful though, the water is very rough and unpredictable. Swimming here beyond a moderate wade is not advised. There are also sharks.
Coconuts Bar is next on down the road, with a lovely view from up on top of the highest cliffs on the island. This makes a good "east side" alternative for a cold beer and some overpriced food. Just think of it as paying for atmosphere and a view. You won’t be alone here though, as this is gringo central and the large wooden menus are in English. Try to come for a two-for-one happy hour (HUGE cocktails) or catch one of the infamous full moon or not-so-full moon parties.
The only safe place to snorkel and swim on this side is at Chen Rio, also a restaurant. Don’t be disappointed though, as it’s nothing compared to the quality snorkeling found on the developed side of the island. Instead of dragging your equipment here, considering doing some naked sunbathing on a beach nearby. Simply go a little further down the road to Playa Bonita, a long deserted stretch of beach, and set up camp. See if you can find some treasures among the seaweed washed up on the beach, and don’t forget the sunscreen. If you bought cold beers this morning, and still have some left at this point, you should really drink them soon as they’re getting warm and skunky.
Passing by a series of small beach bars and restaurants, still always accompanied by the wild sandy beaches just to your side, you’ll come to El Mirador, a great place to stop and take some pictures to make people at work jealous. There are several natural arches here, punctuated by splashing ocean waves and seaspray, a truly rugged and tense place. Climb up the "tower" first for a better view and then explore the natural arches on foot. Sometimes there’s an impromptu place to buy drinks here, (basically a guy with a big blue cooler), but don’t count on it. Take extreme care walking on the rocks here, as waves often crash suddenly nearby and things can get slippery and chaotic.
The last place to stop and have a beer or a snack on the east side of the island is at Paradise Cove, home to a pair of lively competing Rasta bars. The bar directly on the beach, Bob Marley’s, is less consistent with playing good music, which is strange because if they played all Bob Marley, as the name suggests, it would be a fitting end to the day. It does however, have a good view and nice beach. You can sit and watch every single rental car, VW Beetle and scooter rented that day collect here. Gringo central by three or four in the afternoon. The other Rasta bar, appropriately named Rasta’s is across the street in the brightly painted house on stilts. Here you’ll find excellent music and atmosphere, with good food and only slightly less people. Bring a big permanent marker and write your masterpiece of a message on any of the walls or furniture. Some even leave a piece of themselves behind, like a T-shirt, with an inscription for the ages. It’s touristy and the menus are in English, but it’s a good place to stop and have, yep, you guessed it, a beer before heading back to the other side.
There is a gravel road leading to Punta Sur National Park just south from Paradise Cove. The admission price is $15 per vehicle or per car, maybe more depending on the season. Check locally in town before leaving. The park is open from 9am to 4pm daily and is home to a nice lagoon, an old lighthouse, and some Mayan ruins. There is tons of bird life and animal life here, including some crocodiles. The tour basically shuttles you from one sight to the next in a seriously strange and wonderful group of transport vehicles that allow for bird watching and sunbathing. Hop-on and Hop-off service allows you to explore every sight piece by piece at your leisure.
Punta Sur lighthouse
There is a Museum of Navigation in the base of the old lighthouse at Punta Sur, where you can also climb the lighthouse’s hundred or so steps to get a stunning view of the island. Another included admission is a guided (usually in English) pontoon-boat tour of the freshwater lagoon. The mangrove islands here are home to thousands of types of birds and animals, and this is crocodile territory. Mayan ruins at El Caracol are also accessible and interesting, but lack shade from the sun. There are safe places to swim and snorkel along the beach, and scattered all along the journey there are places to buy water and rest rooms. Due to it’s relative size and distance from the rest of the tourist spots on the island, Punta Sur is a good choice if you want to lose yourself for a little while.
The main road turns sharply inland now, heading back to the west side of the Isla Cozumel. Be sure not to have vehicle trouble here, as there’s not much else besides five straight miles of greenery and lots and lots of mosquitoes.
You break back into civilization when you see the southern hotel zone start to appear. About every half mile or so another diving resort entrance, heavily guarded by security to keep lowlife like us out, appears on your left. Eventually though, some nice beach bars with open access are available. The prices for drinks are crazy, but the views and beaches are superb. If you want the best and most expensive pina colada in the world, stop at San Francisco Beach.