Regarded as one of the best snorkeling destinations in the world, Cozumel, Mexico is located on the Eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, just a stone’s throw away from Playa Del Carmen and guarantees a holiday to remember.
Cozumel is roughly translated to the ‘Island of the Shallows’ and its crystal clear waters and stunning marine life offers a premier snorkeling experience which rivals some of its more exclusive competitors.
Cozumel Reef National Park covers 67,133 acres and is home to some of the biggest and most diverse coral reefs of anywhere on the planet, allowing tourists to get up close and personal with an array of tropical fish and sea life, for the perfect snorkeling holiday.
San Miguel is the largest city in the Cozumel principality, situated on the western side of the island and provides a good base if you are looking for a more authentic Mexican experience away from the resorts. Stunning wildlife trails can also be found in Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, where you can even take a boat trip to see the crocodiles, or take in the landscape on horseback.
However, this article focuses on the best places to go snorkeling in the region which we have narrowed down to a ‘top five’.
El Cielo is a thin stretch of sandy beach which can be found half a mile off the Cozumel coast and is a world-renowned snorkeling hot spot, attracting people from far and wide. El Cielo (The Sky) got its name because of how the clear waters reflect the blue sky like a mirror, making it one of the first ports of call for snorkelers in the area.
The shallow waters range between 0.9 to 1.2 meters, or three to four feet, allowing for easy waist-deep wading across its shoreline if you don’t want to get your hair wet just yet.
El Cielo is also famous for its starfish, which are in abundance.
5-armed Echinoderms, as they are officially known, are from the same family as the Sea Urchin and Stone Lilies and are a colourful addition for any coastline – more are found here than anywhere else in Cozumel. You can also explore these popular starfish gardens on foot due to its shallow waters as a warm up before the real snorkeling begins. This allows people who are physically unable to swim to enjoy the local marine life in a leisurely manner.
The El Cielo sandbar is home to a wider range of marine life which can be explored in its deeper waters which are still only six-to-eight feet deep, here you can see a number of String Rays. However, it is important to remember that the touching of Sting Rays is not allowed.
As a great destination for sun seekers, the strip also features a number of popular beach bars and restaurants for when it is time to take a break from the water.
Highest rated hotel near El Cielo – Barcelo Maya Caribe is rated as one of the top resorts on El Cielo for its beach access, sports, lunch bars and cleanliness.
Located just a few kilometres south of San Miguel de Cozumel is the popular snorkeling reef of Dzul-Ha. The reef is one the easiest to access in the region, situated just a few metres from the beach.
Warning – Foot protection is highly advised in this area and it is recommended to hire some reef boots/ socks before venturing into the waters as it is very rocky and some areas can be slippery or sharp. Equipment can be hired from beach vendors for an affordable price, with lockers provided to keep your clothes dry and free of sand.
Dzul-Ha is highly recommended for its fantastic visibility which stretches to around 20 metres on average due to the clarity of the waters. Looking down into the reef you will see a diverse and untouched habitat for tropical species such as: Angelfish, parrot fish and wrasse.
As well as fish, this spot is also one of the few locations in Cozumel to spot crustaceans like crab and Lobster. Searching under the loose rocks, you will find resident Blue Crabs taking a breather but be careful not to get nipped!
The shoreline of Dzul-Ha caters for both people looking to relax on the beach and for more adventurous types who want to explore the local marine life. Its excellent reefs are accompanied by a great selection of bars and restaurants, offering local seafood and cold beers.
Highest rated hotel near Dzul-Ha – Casa Mexicana Cozumel is highly rated thanks to its restaurants, bars and professional service.
Palancar Reef is regarded as the best snorkeling experience in Cozumel and one of the best scuba spots in the Americas. It is one of the leading locations in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system which spans over 700 miles from the north of Yucatan to the islands in the Honduran Bay. 3.5 miles of this system belongs to Palancar which is a combination of different coral formations, with depths between 15 and 35 metres, making it a popular scuba diving location.
As is common throughout Cozumel, the waters here are crystal clear and offer visibility up to 60 metres, providing feeding grounds for sea turtles, a host of tropical fish and a variety of Rays. This incredible eco-system is home to huge Moray Eels, Goliath Groupers, the shimmering, Splendid Toadfish and the endangered Hawksbill Turtle.
Touching the marine life and coral is prohibited, as breaking even the smallest piece of coral can have a significant impact on the habitat.
Did you Know – Aquatic adventurer, Jacques Cousteau visited this reef in 1961 and described it as a ‘marvel’ and a ‘paradise’. As a well known celebrity and avid promoter of Palancar Reef, the area grew in popularity to become of the world’s top scuba and snorkeling spots, for both beginners and experienced divers.
Palancar and Cozumel in general provide a year-round snorkeling experience but some seasons are of course better than others. Cozumel has a sub tropical climate, resulting in warm waters throughout the year, between 24° Celsius (75° Fahrenheit) in winter and 30° Celsius (80° Fahrenheit) in summer, with August being the hottest month.
Great visibility is promised all year-round, with some areas even recording visibility of up to 100 metres.
Popular dive sites in the area include:
Palancar Gardens – A novice-to-intermediate snorkeling area which features mesmerising caverns.
The Little Caves – Covered in multicoloured coral and sea fans. This area is a maze of canyons and tunnels for you to explore and is recommended as one of the best places to snorkel.
Deep Palancar – A spot for experienced divers with depths of almost 40 metres and a wide variety of tropical fish.
Santa Rosa Reef – Covered with overhanging coral, striking sponges and friendly grouper fish, Santa Rosa is a very popular spot in the area.
Columbia Reef – Columbia Reef caters more for scuba than snorkeling but it would be a crime not to talk about this incredible location, with monstrous coral pinnacles which can reach around 90 feet in height.
Highest rated hotel near Palancar Reef – Iberostar Cozumel is located just 1.3 miles from Palancar Reef and is recommended for families.
Chankanaab Adventure Marine Park is a must-see in Cozumel and regularly nears the top of lists relating to things to do in the area, for its multitude of activities, most notably, it’s unique snorkeling experience.
Just south of San Miguel, the park is easily accessible by car or taxi and usually just a short five minutes drive, just follow the old ocean road, or the new purpose built road. Chankanaab is close to Money Bar Beach Club, the Dolphin Discovery Centre and Fly High Adventures Zip Line Park, meaning it is easily to fill your days with activities in this custom built resort.
The marine park features green, relaxing tropical gardens, a fresh water lagoon and a pristine, man-made beach to while away the hours and catch some sun, while enjoying fresh tortillas and an exotic cocktail. The Living Museum also gives tourists an insight into the Mayan way of life, while the Palapa Museum features an exhibit of the island’s flora and fauna.
Chankanaab makes this list because of its fantastic facilities for beginners, providing excellent safety, qualified instructors and practice areas that provide little challenge even for first timers. All snorkel gear which is available to rent is affordable and the calm waters allow you start things at a slow pace, close to land.
The only downside to this area is that it doesn’t actually have any coral reefs as it is totally man-made, instead, snorkelers can find a bunch of cool statues which attract parrot and damsel fish. Statues include; Chaak Mool (a particular form a Mesoamerican sculpture, depicting a reclining figure), the Rain God and The Virgin & The Christ.
Unfortunately, the synthetic nature of this location means the marine life is much more limited than Cozumel’s reefs and you will not find creatures such as Octopus, Blue Crabs, Sea Fans and Urchins.
Highest rated hotel near Chankanaab – Hotel Mary Carmen is 0.1 miles from the Adventure Park and has a peaceful atmosphere despite its popular location.
One of the busiest snorkeling areas on the island of Cozumel as it is close to the cruise ship port and a convenient opportunity for people who only have a short stay on Cozumel to see its underwater gems. Paradise Reef is located Southwest of San Miguel de Cozumel and the area also has a popular beach which allows people to gear up and wade into the water for a hassle-free snorkeling session.
Snorkelers will be able to explore three difference reefs once they reach the deeper section of the waters which are in close proximity of each other, parallel to the beach. Experienced snorkelers may find it possible to fully explore all three reefs in a single dive. Though this may sound ambitious, divers are helped the gentle current which allows reef-hoppers to drift with ease from spot to spot.
Due to the more advanced nature of this snorkeling spot, beginners are advised to explore this area by boat on an organised tour, especially if they do not consider themselves to be a strong swimmer. Swimming back to the shore for first timers may result in some difficulty so don’t take the risk, being able to hop back on the boat and enjoy a cold beer is also a nice bonus!
Paradise Reef arguably has the most diverse selection of aquatic residents on Cozumel, making it hard to keep track of all the different species you will spot when snorkeling. Within these coral formations you can find the following; Spotted Moray Eels, Trunk Fish, Spiny Lobsters, Damsel Fish, Snappers, Angelfish and Emperors.
A famous spot amongst these reefs is also a hotbed for sea anemones, providing a safe haven for lovable Clown Fish.
Highest rated hotel near Paradise Reef – Villas Las Anclas has an impressive 5* rating on Trip Advisor and this boutique hotel is just 0.2 miles from Paradise Beach.
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Is there good snorkeling in Cozumel?
Cozumel offers good snorkeling opportunities for beginners and experts alike, with shallow reef in abundance, crystal clear waters and a wide selection of affordable snorkeling tours. Cozumel snorkeling can rival that of Tahiti, the Virgin Islands and the like and has people coming back year on year.
With numerous places to snorkel, it is extremely difficult to get bored on the island of Cozumel and Chankanaab for example, caters for families with a host of fun options on land and in the ocean. Cozumel is also popular for its year round sun, so if snorkeling isn’t your thing, you can relax at the island’s numerous beach bars and top up your tan in a more relaxed environment than Cancun, for example.
Cozumel is also very popular with scuba divers, however, deep water diving can be quite challenging and might not be accessible for everyone.
Can you snorkel on your own in Cozumel?
In short, yes, you can snorkel by yourself in Cozumel without having to book a guide or an expensive boat trip. It is likely the boats will take you to the exact same places you could find yourself and the best spots are all accessible by taxi, or better yet, you could rent a car yourself, giving you ultimate freedom.
The main advantage to booking a private tour, is having a local expert on hand who can provide information regarding the reefs and its inhabitants. However, creating your own snorkeling trip allows you to go at your own pace, so no rushing to stick to a schedule. You can also relax in a bar and wait for the numbers in the water to decrease for a more secluded experience.
For the most part, Cozumel snorkeling is very safe due to its shallow waters and the close proximity of the reefs to the beach, meaning it is uncommon for people to run into any difficulties and any cuts or scrapes can be treated quickly onshore.
Waters can get murky close to sandy shorelines so snorkeling in rocky areas can guarantee better visibility, while the best locations are mainly reachable by boat.
The northern end of the island is recommended for advanced swimmers due to its strong and unpredictable currents, with some deep entry points which can come as a surprise. The south end of the island is advised for beginners and intermediate snorkelers as the currents are much weaker and push you back towards the shore, rather than out to sea.
Remember, if you are planning a solo trip, always let somebody know where you are going before you partake in any water activities or adventure sports.
Which Reef is the best to snorkel in Cozumel?
Playa Palancar (Palancar Reef) is considered to be the best reef to snorkel in Cozumel and has gained a reputation across the world for its diversity, visibility and ease of access. Many celebrities and social media influencers choose to visit this amazing reef and if you decide to join them then investing in a good underwater camera could be a good idea.
Why is Playa Palancar the best place to snorkel in Cozumel?
- It is home to the widest range of tropical fish on Cozumel. Here you can find everything from Moray Eeels, to Lobster, to Eagle Rays.
- It is also a popular feeding ground for sea turtles.
- Huge coral gardens to navigate, displaying a breath taking spectrum of colours.
- The Visibility here is also excellent, reaching up to 60 metres in some places.
- The waters are warm here all year-round thanks to the subtropical temperatures of Cozumel.
- Playa Palancar has superb hotels and resorts to make your stay as luxurious as possible.
If you are planning your next snorkeling trip then Palancar Reef should be high on your list of considerations and stands out from an impressive selection of locations on the beautiful island of Cozumel.