Chankanaab Lagoon: The Top Ticket on Mexico's Cozumel Island

One of my earliest travel memories, back in the early 1970s, Cozumel at that time was the Yucatan's biggest (hell, only) beach resort deal. Cancun was still but a glimmer in the eyes of Mexico's government tourism planners and the "Riviera Maya" was little more than miles of hot, buggy scrubland punctuated by a string of barefoot (not even electrified) villages with the seaside Maya site of Tulum stuck in there somewhere (suffice it to say, a whole lot more inaccessible in those days). 

My, oh Maya, but how times change, eh? Nonetheless, though for many years already Cozumel has been demoted to second - actually, probably third - vacation banana hereabouts, it's still held its own thanks to cruise ships, beaches that are still considered the Yucatan's best, and attractions like Chankanaab Lagoon – a five minute cab ride from the island’s town, San Miguel. Back in the day, Chankanaab was for a then-aspiring marine biologist (moi) the hands-down highlight of a vacation on this island. It sent my sense of wonder into overdrive as I snorkeled through crystalline water above a section of the world-famous Palancar Reef, surrounded by a riot of colorful marine life. I guess you could say I found Nemo (and a few thousand of his buddies) three decades before the movie came out. A poster of the lagoon's colorful finny denizens long held pride of place on my bedroom wall when I came back from that magical experience (yep, fish trumped pinups of Cheryl Tiegs and Farah Fawcett). 

Fast-forward…and obviously, things are, well, un poco diferente in 2013 than in 1973. More resorts on Cozumel, a bigger airport, and perhaps most of all, routine cruise-ship calls are among the major factors that’ve led to some changes in the landscape and seascape at Chankanaab (Mayan for “small sea,” declared a national park in 1980, and since 1995 part of the larger Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park). Development since my first visit has added to the menu organized snorkel/scuba tours; Snuba (scuba diving but tethered to a raft; no training required); Seatrek (strolling across the seabed with an oxygenated helmet; also no experience needed); statues in an underwater sculpture garden such as a dramatic Christ (pictured above); kayaking; and Dolphin Discovery, which lets folks get in the water with dolphins, sea lions, and manatees. On land, meanwhile, there are a couple of restaurants and reproductions of a traditional Maya village and ruins to tour. So yes, it’s much pricier now – $21 per adult and $14 for kids – but a lot is included, and the magia marina still there, undah da sea…

Photo: Jason T. Fowler

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