Snorkeling in Cozumel really is a bucket-list activity. It’s one of the top things to do on this reef-ringed island in the midst of the Caribbean Sea. In fact, we’d go one further and say that Cozumel is up there with the very best snorkeling and diving destinations in Mexico – now that’s saying something!
But, where to go? Cue this guide. It offers insights into seven of the finest places to go snorkeling in Cozumel. They include sections of the iconic Mesoamerican Reef (the second-largest coral system on Earth next to the Great Barrier Reef in Oz), along with hidden coves where you can harness the power of the natural currents to see more underwater creatures.
Remember that the best time to go snorkeling in Cozumel is usually between January and June. That’s before the hurricane systems add a little roughness to the water, and the H2O is still a very pleasant 70-80 F. It’s also outside of the seaweed season, which can reduce visibility on the Riviera Maya significantly.
The Palancar Reef is snorkeling spot numero uno on any list of the top places to go snorkeling in Cozumel. The piece de resistance of the Arrecifes de Cozumel Marine Park, it dashes through the Caribbean Sea on the southwestern side of the island. There are two ways to get there: Either drive yourself and then swim to the edge of the reef from the beach or take one of the organized boat tours that cost about $45 per person for the day.
Palancar is a dazzling display of all the coral species and multicolored fish you’d expect of this tropical corner of Quintana Roo. It’s part of a reef system that’s the second largest on planet Earth (the Mesoamerican Reef) and hosts all sorts of intriguing creatures. They include rare endemic species like the Cozumel toadfish, blazing fire coral, and even hawksbill turtles.
The Palancar Reef is actually the overarching name for a group of about five or six individual dive and snorkel sites. They’re all pretty awesome, but the highlights have to be the Palancar Gardens, which drop to 10 meters under and offer submerged rocks topped by brain sponges, and the Palancar Caves, a deeper part of the system that’s mainly for scuba folk.
The Chankanaab Park is an organized family attraction that offers all sorts of draws, from sea trek tours to swimming with dolphins. It also sits right on one of the most stunning and accessible sections of the Arrecifes de Cozumel Marine Park. That makes it a doozy for family visitors looking for somewhere where the whole crew can pull on the goggles and the bubble pipe.
Yep, the coral gardens at Chankanaab start just a short swim from the shore. Depths rarely exceed seven meters, and even the deepest part of the water here hits just 12 meters. On top of that, the currents are cut by protecting sandbanks and headlands, so you won’t have to constantly swim to maintain your position while snorkeling.
The viewing is also pretty good. Potential encounters with rays, moray eels, urchins, and a kaleidoscope of smaller fish are all on the menu in these parts. Remember, though, access to Chankanaab Park isn’t free – you’re looking at about $21 per person for access to these clear seas.
Villa Blanca Reef
If you’re keen to discover some of the best snorkeling in Cozumel but don’t want to venture too far from the all-new ferry pier in the main town, the Villa Blanca Reef could be just what you’re after. It hides under the Caribbean just a stone’s throw from where its namesake hotel stands on the shoreline, a mere two miles or so from the port.
Accessibility aside, we also love the Villa Blanca Reef for how shallow it is. The shelf here sits at just a few meters below the surface and extends quite far into the water before going down to about 10 meters at the drop. The upshot? Ducking under to catch glimpses of the corals and the sea life is made pretty darn easy.
You can expect to see lobsters and hermit crabs, scorpionfish and angelfish, along with even bigger species like the black grouper and rays. The one downside is the current. It’s a touch stronger up on this northwestern side of the island, mainly because there’s so much boat traffic coming in and out of the nearby port.
There was a time when Dzul Ha was virtually unknown to divers and snorkelers heading to Cozumel. However, more and more people have become aware of the pristine reef system that awaits just off the coast of this ramshackle beach bar in the last couple of years. So many, in fact, that it’s even been renamed to the Dzul Ha Snorkel Beach.
You only need to take the steps that cut through the rocks to hop in the water and viola, you’ll be immersed in a world of sponges, sea slugs, and antler corals. The patch of reef is by no means the biggest on the isle, but it does host some lovely fish specimens, not least of all the elegant French angelfish and loads of zebrafish.
Dzul Ha is considered very beginner friendly. The initial paddle is a little against the current to reach the main snorkeling point and the location is rarely too busy. What’s more, there’s a lovely little thatched palapa bar on the shoreline for that post-snorkel beer once you’re done. You can either catch a bus here for about $10 or go for a snorkel boat tour that costs about $45.
You’ll need to pay about $14 per person to get access to the Punta Sur Eco Park. It’s on the far south side of Cozumel, offering a long strand of pristine white powder before a pure turquoise ocean. Behind are clusters of brackish lagoons and sand dunes, where you can go to see crocodiles in the wild – if you dare!
Anyway…back to the snorkeling. This is another jump-off point for certain sections of the famous Chankanaab Reef in the confines of the Arrecifes de Cozumel Marine Park. However, it’s a little different from the other coral-filled options on this list in that it’s fringed by eerie sea fan meadows that sway gently in the currents under the water.
They’re a top place to view grazing sea turtles and spot moray eels. If you can swim further out, you can also expect to see larger schools of silver fish, Mayan octopi, and even ultra-rare hawksbill sea turtles. Back on land, there’s a restaurant, a few shops, and sunbeds for rent courtesy of the park’s facilities.
The Columbia Reef is one of the top places for snorkeling in Cozumel, no question about it! It’s best suited to intermediate and expert swimmers, because it’s all about the drift dive (a sort of snorkeling where you rely on the power of the natural sea current to take you through the reef). The best way to get here is to book onto an organized tour, since Columbia Reef starts relatively far off the west coast of the island.
The trip is worth it, though. The seabed lies little more than three or five meters below the surface. The water is super-clear, with visibilities of between 25-30 meters the norm. On top of that, the local inhabitants include big grouper fish, finger corals, brain corals, sea turtles, barracuda, and – get this! – even the occasional shark!
Because the Columbia Shallows (another name for the snorkeling part of the reef) is so far from the hotel-dotted coastline of Cozumel, you’re likely to find that it’s never as busy as the other popular spots on this list. On top of that, it can often be joined by Palancar Reef on a day trip because the two are so close together, which means you get to visit two of the top snorkel locations in the region in one session. Cool, eh?
Prepare to be dazzled by the sheer turquoise blue of the El Cielo swimming spot. It’s unlike anywhere else on the island, taking the meaning of tropical seas to all new and dizzying heights. But it’s not only for those who want to splash around in a glistening part of the Caribbean Sea. There’s also very good snorkeling on offer…
Yep, dive under with the goggles on and you’ll be able to see a speckling of ochre-colored starfish punctuating the sandy seabed. There are also occasional dashes of coral reefs where parrotfish and scorpionfish drift in and out of the rocks. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled at all times for hiding stingrays, which often like to settle here for a rest.
The only way to get to El Cielo is by boat or on a rough country road that’s best done with a 4X4. We recommend the former, as they take you straight to the best snorkeling spots and offer all the equipment as part of the package. Expect to pay around $45 per person for the full tour.
Snorkeling in Cozumel – a conclusion
This guide offers tips on just seven of the best locations for snorkeling in Cozumel. There are oodles, oodles more besides, with both drift dives and reefs that are accessible from the beach, catering to all levels of swimmer and snorkeler. We think the best way to go about discovering the spot that’s best for you is to ask a local outfitter. They can usually recommend something that suits, and will have more intimate knowledge of the different seasons and currents.