70km (43 miles) S of Cancún; 19km (12 miles) SE of Playa del Carmen

If I moved to Mexico, I’d have no problem deciding where to go. Cozumel is my favorite place in the entire country. For one thing, the island is surrounded by clear, warm water and some of the finest reefs for diving and snorkeling in the world. More than that, however, is the terrific sense of community and tradition I feel every time I visit Cozumel. Family is important here—you won’t find children selling trinkets on the sidewalk or vendors hassling passers-by. Instead, families gather under feathery flamboyant trees at the plaza and wander along the waterfront malecón. Children are an integral part of every island celebration. In the back neighborhoods women dressed in traditional Maya huipiles (embroidered dresses) gossip on front porches as fishermen unload the catch of the day at humble restaurants serving extraordinary seafood creations.

Visitors are welcomed everywhere—I’ve never felt shunned or afraid here. In fact, safety is one of Cozumel’s selling points, as is the healthy lifestyle. Chain restaurants and shops are nearly non-existent, and family businesses thrive. Granted, the waterfront has been taken over by jewelry and souvenir shops catering to the thousands of cruise ship passengers descending on the town almost daily. But wander a few streets inland and you’re in the heart of a genuine Mexican community. Staying in the main town of San Miguel is fun and convenient, putting you in the center of everyday life. Alternatively, hotels and resorts line the western coast north and south of town. It’s possible to travel on a small budget here, and easy to vacation comfortably without spending a fortune. If you’re looking for a luxurious splurge, you’ll find that as well, though minus any pretensions.

The Coast -- Cozumel is 45km (28 miles) long and 18km (11 miles) wide, and lies just 19km (12 miles) from the mainland. Most of the terrain is flat and clothed in a low tropical forest. Tall reefs line the southwest coast, creating towering walls that offer divers a fairytale seascape to explore. The water on the protected side, the western shore, stays as calm as an aquarium, unless a front is blowing through. The rougher, wild eastern shore remains more lightly traveled for those preferring to wander off the beaten path. Chankanaab National Park, along the southwestern shore of the island, offers beautiful sightseeing and sunning spots.

Things to Do -- Come to Cozumel to sink your toes into the same dreamy white sand and turquoise waters that Cancún offers, but without its commercialism or party atmosphere. Put on a snorkel mask to peek underwater near the lighthouse, even if you don't dive here. Explore the crocodile-filled Faro Celerain ecological reserve and drive through the inland jungle on the way to the Maya ruins at San Gervasio.

Eating & Drinking -- Dining in Cozumel is not particularly sophisticated, with Italian and Mexican predominating. Caribbean-caught seafood fills restaurant menus (with lobster in abundance), while traditional Yucatán influences bring zest to chicken and pork by infusing them with mole, achiote, and garlic. For a more refined dining experience, the island's few resorts offer the best options.

Underwater -- Scuba diving in Cozumel is the finest in the Western Hemisphere, with a tremendous diversity of reefs, caves, and canyons teeming with tropical fish and coral. The colors of the underwater life here shimmer with resplendence and breathtaking biodiversity. Whether you are a novice toying with the idea of a beginner dive, or an expert seeking new underwater frontiers, don't leave Cozumel without submersing yourself below the surface.

-Maribeth Mellin