On my last night in Cozumel, a member of the group sitting across the table from me said words with which I instantly agreed.
“We don’t like all-inclusive resorts, but this one is different. They make it work so well,” she said, while also speaking for her husband.
We were dining at an off-site restaurant following a stunning 90-minute kayak ride to observe the sunset over the Caribbean Sea. The three-course meal on the shores of the gentle island in the Mayan Riviera was a surprise. And it punctuated my dining companions’ opinion, and mine, of our stay.
The ease of how operations and expectations are managed impressed me throughout a visit to a pair of sister hotels who share the same property and staff but manage to remain distinct on their own. Fiesta Americana is a well-established brand with 20 resorts in Mexico while Explorean is a newer name also owned by the Posadas Corporation. In 2013, the corporation took the bold step of shuttering Cozumel’s Fiesta Americana for a massive renovation project. It also made the unusual decision to re-open as two hotels with differing identities.
Fiesta Americana Cozumel retains the classic Mexico experience. All its rooms face the ocean, the pool features a swim-up bar, nightly ice-breaker events keep guests entertained and encourage camaraderie. And the food and drink consumption is bacchanalian. Among the seven restaurants are Asian, Italian, and sushi options. Plus, there’s La Ceviceria for fish and seafood lovers, and a buffet spot (of course).
Explorean Cozumel, meanwhile, has one fantastic restaurant— Lolk’an— that specializes in regional flavors created by executive chef Danny Poot, who hails from the region. Meals are made to order, including eggs and morning smoothies with several healthy ingredients. The bartenders are outstanding but guests have the opportunity to mix their own drinks (and serve other guests too) because the resort has a self-serve bar (with a good selection of tequilas and resposadas, and whiskey, gin, and bourbon staples, among other choices).
It’s a fantastic amenity — just don’t get too comfortable, or else you risk missing out. Once you explore beyond the confines of the resorts, you start to comprehend why Cozumel is beloved by so many who visit. The marine world and the culture built around it is why Cozumel flourishes as a destination. Guests at the resorts have plenty of chances to learn the reasons ecologists, scuba divers, and snorkelers from around the world cherish the island. You can hit the water directly from the beach at Fiesta Americana, or you can take a tour organized by Explorean Cozumel to observe more of the sea and shoreline.
Dive Into the Mesoamerican Reef’s Wonders
The room rate at Explorean Cozumel includes daily excursions, such as that sunset kayak trip, which finishes at the beachside Sky Reef restaurant several miles from the resorts. (Diners are shuttled back in a van while the staff collects the kayaks.) Another option is a Jeep tour that circles the island in less than four hours. Guests can drive their own vehicle, which is a plus for families, and follow the lead car to the tour stops. Among them are a tequila-making seminar, notable Mayan ruins related to the goddess Ix Chel, an eerie cave filled with bats that was created by a meteorite strike millions of years ago, and El Cedral, the oldest settlement on the island and home to one of Mexico’s most fascinating events. The Holy Cross festival honors the island’s Catholic heritage and attracts thousands of Mexicans every May. In 1848, 20 families fed up with Mexico’s bitter “Mixed Blood War” (a violent feud between Mayans and the population of citizens with Spanish ancestry) migrated to Cozumel, which had been largely abandoned following the outbreak of sickness that drove away both the Mayans and Spaniards. The families established a Catholic society and the festival, called simply El Cedral, is a week-long celebration of concerts, midway rides, bull fights, and food in copious amounts.
By far, though, the best experiences at Explorean Cozumel are the ones that give you the opportunity to see the underwater beauty of the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In Cozumel, a 20-minute boat ride takes you into the aquatic wonder that includes 26 species of coral and more than 500 varieties of fish. Turtles, lobster, and crab may also be spotted during a swim.
The beach breaks include impromptu volleyball games with resort staff and guests in casual competition. When you’ve had enough of the physical activity, find a spot on the beach, or in the shallow water, and sip on a beer while your skin tingles from the warmth and your eyes remain dazed from the exquisite horizon where blue meets blue as if earth and sky had made a pact to hypnotize you into relaxed bliss. Your ears will soon enough latch onto the many forms of laughter coming from the people engaged in one sun activity or another while they exist care free on this paradise island.
Dynamic Duo of Cozumel Resorts
The Explorean Cozumel and Fiesta Americana Cozumel exist in both harmony and contrast.
Explorean Cozumel has 56 rooms large enough to be called casitas. They are all the same size (400 square feet) and layout, with large bathrooms, balconies, and plush beds. The resort is tucked in the rear of Fiesta Americana amid a jungle-like setting of trees and reeds. The 12 two-story buildings built into nature make it feel like you’re in a Costa Rican eco-resort but you’re only about 80 feet from a beach on the Caribbean Sea. There are no TVs at Explorean (even in common areas; guests can walk to the lobby of Fiesta Americana if they want to watch sports). Neither is there room service (though a basket is delivered each morning with coffee, orange juice, and thin slices of cake to get your day started before breakfast). Through those characteristics, the resort sets its intention to compel guests outside to be amid nature and other travelers.
Guests of Explorean Cozumel have access to all of the Fiesta Americana Cozumel amenities, including the seven restaurants, but Fiesta Americana guests must pay if they want to be part of the off-site excursions. Explorean Cozumel guests can come and go throughout both properties but Fiesta Americana guests are not allowed in the bar, restaurant, or pool at Explorean Cozumel.
It’s an interesting challenge that Posadas Corporation has introduced for itself but it manages to create a balance that works exceptionally well, as my fellow diners, who hailed from Connecticut, pointed out.
I usually avoid all-inclusive resorts (I’ve only written about one of them prior to this article) and not only because they have a reputation for poor quality in food and amenities but mostly because they disincentivize exploring a destination. With many all-inclusives guests don’t leave the resort because they have pre-paid for the place they chose and visiting elsewhere would seem like a redundant cost. But in Cozumel, the all-inclusive experience works because the island is extremely small and the main town is touristy, with souvenir shops, bars boasting famous brand names familiar to anyone who has traveled to Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, a Hard Rock Cafe (of course), and a casino (of course, of course). You’re not losing by skipping out on that stuff. If you want to experience the culture of Cozumel, the two Posadas resorts deliver impressively thanks to how deeply they embrace the marine lifestyle.
Every guide, server, or local you encounter swims, and expresses concern for the coral reef. They all want to maintain its health. And why wouldn’t they? The water is Jacuzzi warm, so comfortable you could slip into a daze and flap on endlessly through the water with your fins and mask on gazing at the silvery baramuda fish in your eyes and the other startling life waving beneath you.
I have the swimming ability of a 175-pound stone but with some coaching I got the hang of it and on my first day in Cozumel enjoyed the best snorkeling experience I’ve ever had. By my last night, I knew I would come back to the island for another escape. The more you travel, the more you realize the best places are those that manage to tempt you from venturing somewhere else. By that measure, Cozumel is easily among the western hemisphere’s most satisfying locations to sink into for days — or longer, if you’re lucky.
More About Explorean Cozumel
Room Rates: The resort currently has a 30 percent discount on its rooms, with one weekend night in February costing $405 USD. This all-inclusive rate is for two adults and includes meals, drinks, daily excursions, and more.
You Should Stay Here If You Want: To explore Cozumel daily beyond the resort, a quiet holiday in a nature setting, regional cuisine, a large bathroom with a rain-shower head, the chance to play bartender.
More About Fiesta Americana
Room Rates: The resort currently has a 30 percent discount on its rooms, with one weekend night in February starting at $381 USD. This all-inclusive rate is for two adults and includes meals, drinks, and more.
You Should Stay Here If You Want: An ocean-view room, a TV in your room, to mingle in a lively atmosphere, to stay put during your vacation, to save some money.
More About Visiting Cozumel
Getting There: Most travelers reach Cozumel via a 30-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. A one-way ticket costs less than $20 USD. Ferries run at least once per hour from 7 am until 11 pm each day. Playa del Carmen is 45 minutes by car away from Cancun, the gateway city to the Mayan Riviera. If flying into Cancun, shuttle buses and taxis are available to take passengers to Playa del Carmen. Another option is a 20-minute flight from Cancun International Airport to Cozumel’s tiny airport. But be aware the terminal from which flights to Cozumel depart is a 20-minute drive from Cancun International’s main terminals. There is a free shuttle but it doesn’t run as frequently as it should. A taxi ride to the terminal is a pricey flat rate of $30 USD (although you might be able to haggle it down). If you intend to fly to Cozumel from Cancun, plan plenty of extra time to ensure you make your connecting flight.
Exchange Rate: $1 USD equals approximately 18.50 Mexican pesos (MXN)