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Cozumel, Mexico's largest inhabited island is also one of the countries biggest paradoxes. Serene, laid back and somewhat undiscovered by Mexico's 20 million annual visitors, Cozumel rivals many Caribbean island destinations for visitor facilities, activities, and stunning beauty.

Yet until recently, the island has been best known as a cruise ship port-of-call and Mecca for hard-core scuba divers. Cozumel is now shedding some of its "Divers Only" reputation and making strides in attracting more mainstream international visitors. The majority of the islands 300,000 visitors are now families, ecotourists, honeymooners, and Yucatan bound visitors that find nearby Cancun a bit overwhelming.

Cozumel's appeal lies with its combination of the best of Mexico has to offer (friendly people, affordable prices, great dining/shopping and interesting cultural sightseeing. In the last five years the island has improved air services, a large increase in cruise ship visits and a large number of new resort developments.

Cozumel is about 53 km (33 mi) long and 15 km (9 mi) wide, but only a small percentage of its roads--primarily those in the southern half--are paved. You can explore dirt roads with care, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Beware of flash flooding during the rainy season: A number of the dirt roads can become difficult to navigate in minutes.

Aside from the 3% of the island that has been developed, Cozumel is made up of expanses of sandy or rocky beaches, quiet little coves, palm groves, scrubby jungles, lagoons and swamps, and a few low hills (the maximum elevation is 45 ft). Brilliantly feathered tropical birds, lizards, armadillos, coati, deer, and small foxes populate the undergrowth and the marshes. Several minor Maya ruins dot the eastern coast of the island. One of them, Tumba del Caracol, may have served as a lighthouse. There are also a couple of minuscule ruins, El Mirador and the Throne, identified by roadside markers.

San Miguel, Cozumel's hub, is simply laid out in characteristically Mexican grid fashion. Avenida Benito Juárez stretches east from the pier for 16 km (10 mi) across the island, dividing north from south. Running perpendicular is Avenida Rafael Melgar, the coastal road on the island's leeward side (the walkway across the street, on the ocean side, is known as the malecón). .....more about Cozumel

Avenues, which are labeled "norte" or "sur" depending on where they fall in relation to Juárez, parallel Melgar and are numbered in multiples of five. This means that the avenue after Avenida 5a Sur is Avenida 10a Sur, but if you were to cross Juárez on Avenida 5a Sur it would turn into Avenida 5a Norte. The side streets are even-numbered north of Avenida Juárez (2, 4, 6, etc.) and odd south of the avenue (3, 5, 7, etc.). This is less confusing than it sounds; it will be clear once you've walked around town.

The main strip of shops and restaurants is Avenida Rafael Melgar, along the waterfront. The Plaza del Sol is the main square, most often simply called la plaza or el parque. Directly across from the docks, it's hard to miss. A number of government buildings are here, including the large and modern convention center (used more for local functions than for formal conferences) and the state tourist office. The square is the heart of the town, where everyone congregates in the evenings. Heading inland (east) from the malecón takes you away from the tourist zone and toward the residential sections.

The commercial district is concentrated in the 10 blocks between Calle 10 Norte and Calle 7 Sur. North of that point, you find almost no development until you reach the stretch of hotels beyond the airport. South of town, development continues almost uninterrupted to La Ceiba, one of a second cluster of hotels and shops and adjacent to the international passenger terminal for cruise ships.

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