Cozumel How to be More than Just a Tourist

If you’ve ever traveled outside your home country, you probably have your own collection of “Ugly American” (or Canadian or French or German or Japanese) stories to bring back home. The harridan who loudly insists on cottage cheese in an Argentinian restaurant and makes a nasty scene when it’s politely explained to her that it’s not a popular–or available–item in that country. The jerk who races his rental car through little towns scattering children and chickens in his wake. The lout who shouts louder because he figures maybe the natives will understand English better that way.

The unfortunate truth is that, when visiting a foreign country, some people display behavior they’d never dream of letting all hang out in their own hometown. But even the more sensitive souls among us can make cultural mistakes without even realizing it. These little social boo-boos might not relegate you to the Ugly category. But they encourage the locals to dismiss you as “Just Another Tourist.”

Cozumel is a safe, friendly place to visit. And because tourism is such a big industry on the island, you’ll more than likely be treated with politeness and decent service no matter how awfully you chose to act while you’re here.

But if you want to fit in on Cozumel; that is, if you want to be seen locally as a “real” person, a minsch, a nice, honorable guy or gal by the local folks, here’s some tips that will earn you good service, respect and who know? If you’re lucky, maybe even the start of a friendship or two.

Um..About That Outfit (or Would Granny Approve?)

Mexico is a conservative, Catholic-dominated country. And although the majority of the tourist-area wait staff and shop help have actually migrated to the island from larger, more sophisticated cities like Vera Cruz and Mexico City, local Cozumeleno’s still have more traditional small-town attitudes about how people should dress.

For men, there aren’t many rules to appearing “respectable” in town. Anything from a tee-shirt and shorts on up is acceptable. But don’t whip off the tee-shirt until you get to the beach. Bare chests in town are a no-no.

For females, unfortunately, the rules of respectability are a little stiffer. Although women and girls will be perfectly safe venturing into town bra-less breasts a-jiggling and sporting skintight short shorts, you should realize that, unless you are “in the protection” of a male, you will be considered fair game to local Lotharios ranging in age from teen to way too old not to know better. (Or so one would think.)

If you’re a woman on your own and don’t wish to be endlessly hit-upon, you’d do wise to emulate the local women. Save that bikini top for the beach. For the grocery or for walking around in San Miguel, bring a simple little mid-thigh or longer dress or skirt or a pair of walking shorts and a non-form-fitting shirt. At the beach, anything short of topless goes. Also bikini bathing suit tops in town are frowned upon. Save it for the beach!

Practice Graciousness

My mother has a saying: Treat servants, shop girls and other people that you may consider to be “beneath you” exactly the same as you would a millionaire business man or movie star–and vice versa. This advice holds especially true in a Mayan/Spanish culture like Cozumel. Here people are judged not by what they do for a living, how much money they make–but by the kind of person they are. Is a man good to his family? A woman loyal to her friends? A child polite, respectful and with a sense of humor that lets her roll with the punches? Qualities like these are considered far more important to Cozumelenos than the fact that you own a 40 ft motor launch or a million-dollar house on the beach.

So if you wish to score high in the all important Personality Department, dust off your nicest smile and your Sunday drawing room manners before you hop the plane. You’ll find they’ll be greatly appreciated by everyone in Cozumel from the lowliest housekeeper at your hotel to the well-dressed Mexican couple at the table next to you in a swank restaurant.

Specifically, smile and look people in the eye wherever you meet them. And sprinkle your interchanges liberally with thank you (gracias), please (por favor) and excuse me (permite). Always greet store help and wait staff with an Hola or Buenos Dias. (See later in the article for other easy-to-acquire Spanish words and phrases that can make all the difference in how you’re treated.) And if you want to be really nice, when you leave the store, call out “Gracias. Muy Amable” or Thank you, Very nice. (GRAH-see-us MOO-ee ah-MAHB-leh)

Along these same lines, consider using your Cozumel trip to practice the art of Patience and Forbearance. Latin Americans are generally not in a hurry because they’re taking the time to enjoy the moment instead of worrying about what’s going to happen next. This may not be an attitude you’d adopt back home with 3 kids to get ready for school or a boss breathing hot air down your neck over a deadline. But remember, you’re on vacation now. Work on mellowing out, relaxing. Let the little things go by while you watch the fountain trickle or the wind blow through the orange petals of a Flamboyan tree.

Learn a Tad of Spanish

Although almost everyone in the downtown tourist district and at the larger hotels and resorts speaks enough English that you can communicate with them, making an effort to learn even a few phrases of Spanish can make all the difference.

Take just a little time prior to your trip to bone up on a few Spanish words and phrases and make yourself practice them while you’re on the island. Although many people in the downtown tourist district and at the resorts speak fairly good English, they are universally flattered if you make an attempt to communicate with them in their language. And you’ll find, once you’ve gotten over the feeling that you’re making a fool of yourself, that Mexicans are patient, kind teachers.

They might possibly laugh at some of your earliest attempts. But remember, they’re laughing with you–not at you. Almost everyone on the island wants to learn English–for that’s where the best-paying jobs are. So they already know how tough it is to master a second language and will enjoy–and appreciate your efforts to learn theirs.

Some good words and phrases to practice ahead of time? Gracias (GRAH-see-us) and Por Favor (Pour Fa-BOR), are always much appreciated, of course, and you’ll have plenty of chance to use them.

For service people as well as folks whose paths you cross in your rambles around town, try greeting them cordially as you pass. Before noon, it’s Buenos Dias–(BOY-nohs DEE-ahs), from noon until the sun starts to set it’s Buenas Tardes (BOY-nahs TARD-ehs) and after dark: Buenas Noches (NO-chase). And don’t forget to roll all the “r’s” a little.

Another handy phrase that also tends to discourage overcharging: Ask how much something is in Spanish. Point at whatever it is and ask Cuánto es? (QWAN-toh Es?). Or, in the case of a taxi fare (ask this before you get in the cab) Cuánto á…and then the name of your destination. As in QWAN-toh ah Hotel Presidente?–how much to the Hotel Presidente.

Unless you’ve taken quite a bit of Spanish, don’t expect to understand much of anything that’s said back to you. But if you’re interested in having the barest conversation with, say, the checkout girl at the grocery or the little boy that comes up to you on Sunday night in the Plaza, here’s a simple formula.

Teach yourself to say “How do you say this in Spanish?” after which you point to a melon in the market, a fork on your restaurant table or aspirin at the drug store. Como se dice en español?. (COH-moh say DEE-say En Es-pahn-YOLE). 10 times out of 10 you’ll see the other person’s face light up with delight and then they’ll tell you the word in Spanish which you can then repeat back until you’ve pronounced it correctly.

See? You’ve had a two-way conversation! And if you want to go it one further, after you’ve heard the Spanish word for fork, tell them what it is in English: “En Inglis es ‘fork'” (En een-GLAYS es ‘fork’.)

Observe the Local Customs

There are several restaurant customs, that will be unfamiliar to you if you’ve never traveled in Latin America. Here are the rules so you can fit in:

Mexicans like other Latin Americans consider meals to be a time for relaxation and sometimes long-drawn out visits with friends. For this reason, the waiter is not going to automatically bring you your check just because he sees you’re finishing up your meal. To do so would be considered the height of rudeness.

Instead it’s up to you. If you’re ready to leave, you ask for the check which you may do by calling Por Favor or with a brief hand-writing gesture–never with a whistle or finger snap! If you’re on a tight schedule, call for la cuenta (QUIN-tah) about 10 minutes before you’re actually ready to leave.

Another difference between wait staff in Mexico and other countries like the United States: Waiters in Mexico are ready, willing and able to be asked for something–so don’t be shy in making requests for anything you need. On the other hand, don’t expect them to anticipate what it is you want. They are waiting to be told what to do which they will then accomplish–swiftly and efficiently.

If you frequent any of the smaller restaurants where local folks eat their big afternoon meal (and we heartily recommend you try this), you’ll usually see a hand-washing sink in one corner of the room. The normal procedure is to wash your hands before sitting down to your meal. It’s considered good manners. And it’s just a good idea in general, right?

When you leave the restaurant–and if you liked your meal a lot which chances are you will as there are so very many good places to eat in Cozumel–what cook in the world doesn’t appreciate a compliment! Try out “Muy rico!” (very rich and good) (MOO-eh RREE-coh) or “Delicioso! (Day-lee-si-OH-soh) and watch the grins spread.

On a side-note re leaving a restaurant or bar–don’t try to take a glass beer bottle with you. There are return deposits on these and the waiter will come running after you with a plastic cup if you try to take the bottle away. If you want to drink on the move, just point at your beer and ask for a glass “un vaso (BAH-soh), por favor?”

Stay Clear of the “Machos”

In his absolutely wonderful and recently up-dated 20 year old book The People’s Guide to Mexico, Carl Franz discusses how not to become involved with “Machos”. Thanks in part to the very strong Mayan influence on Cozumel, you won’t see nearly as many aggressive, preening macho-style men here as can be found mostly (but by no means exclusively) among the lower classes of other Mexican cities and towns. However, here’s a few rules of thumb from Carl on avoiding problems should you inadvertently run into one.

Primary among these is to avoid confrontations. Never allow yourself to become angry as this will only accelerate any altercation you might find yourself involved in. When out on the road, do not in any way provoke another driver by actions or gestures–this could be a scary way to die. Carl Franz also suggests never offering or accepting a drink in a bar unless you want to become involved with that person–and if he’s a macho type guy–or one that turns macho when he’s had a few, watch your step to avoid inadvertently offending his peacock sense of masculine pride.

For solo women who find themselves dealing with a macho type who, typically pretends not to understand the word “NO” coming from a woman, politely ignoring them is a good policy. And to avoid attracting more than your share of particularly aggressive types in the first place, adopt the protective coloration of the local women discussed in the Appearance section above. When in doubt it’s a good rule for women to make friends with other women first until you get the lay of the land and discover which guys are cool–and which ones just annoying ticks that won’t go away given any encouragement whatsoever

Get off the Beaten Path

Despite the fact that Cozumel is now a major tourist destination, the island and its small city of San Miguel have somehow managed to hang on to a strong social structure and vibrant Mayan/Spanish cultural identity. Better yet, unlike other major Mexican resorts, Cozumel is an extremely safe place to visit. The combination of rich culture and a safe, welcoming environment make the island an ideal place for diving in and exploring another–and in some ways very different–way of life. You will find this to be particularly true if you take to heart the rules laid out above about learning a word or two of the language, smiling a lot and just generally mellowing out and keeping an open mind.

Here are some suggestions for getting off the beaten path and becoming–well–more than “Just another tourist.”

#1. Shopping–Although waterfront stores like Cinco Soles are great for seeing the variety of items that are available for sale on the island and for getting a feel for top retail prices, you’ll get your best deals–as well as a chance to see another side of Cozumel–if you wander the side streets and backstreets one to 4 blocks in from the waterfront tourist district. Try your hand at bartering. Friendly, easy-going bargaining can be more than just the best way to get a good deal. It’s also a great way to meet and interact with locals. For our recommendations on a few stores to try and tips for bargaining, check out our Shopping page.

#2. Eating Out: The same holds true of restaurants. There are lots of great restaurants back in the neighborhoods and a little off the beaten path where you’ll eat like a king or queen–and save a bundle doing it! Rule of Thumb: watch for places where you see a lot of local folks eating. Locals pick up bugs just like you or me. So word gets around fast if a place isn’t practicing good hygiene and it doesn’t stay open long. For tips on some of our favorite out of the way places plus some interesting reviews, check out our Restaurants section.

#3. Consider staying in town. The best way we know to fully experience the local culture and take advantage of all the people-watching, great restaurants and sights San Miguel has to offer, is to actually stay in the downtown area. If you’re on your own or there’s just the two of you, consider staying at one of the in-town hotels or B & B’s recommended in our Accommodations section.

If you’re a family or small to medium-sized group, renting one of the now-numerous American or Canadian-owned future retirement homes you’ll find located around the town is an ideal scenario.

Renting an in-town home is a great way to blend in and become an automatic member of the community. Just coming out your front gate on the way to the market you’ll cross paths with mothers pushing baby strollers, business people hurrying about their errands, or the ice cream man pushing his cart down the street towards you. And this is a perfect opportunity to try out a big smile and those Spanish greetings you’ve been practicing. (Now, haven’t you?)

Another good way to start immersing yourself in the local culture is to join the Sunday “Paseo” in San Miguel’s downtown Plaza del Sol where families and groups of single boys and girls gather most Sunday nights to flirt, listen to music or a speech, show off the kids and catch up on the gossip. (The church ladies sell some very tasty snacks, too!)

Or stroll the 15 block waterfront malecon as the sun is setting and exchange pleasantries with the white-shirted, black-pants taxi drivers sitting on the seawall taking a break and the occasional Mayan family come down to enjoy the sea breezes–and watch the cruise ship tourists.

Other fun ways to get to know the community: rent a bike and tour the back streets of San Miguel. The town is flat as the proverbial pancake so biking is easy. Back in the neighborhoods is an ideal place for riding as there are very few cars–and a whole lot of bicycles, this being the major mode of transportation for a large percentage of Cozumelenos.

Attending a basketball or baseball game is another great way to get involved with the local community. Cozumel has a pro basketball team and several amateur baseball teams that are good enough to deserve a Triple A rating. Watch for hand-painted signs announcing the games along the walls on Avenida 30. Or ask your local property manager (if you’re renting a home) or your concierge to find out the schedules for you.
Almost everyone’s off work on Sunday in Cozumel and that makes it Family Day for most people. If you want to mingle with merry Cozumeleno families having their glorious Sunday outing at the beach, try Playa Azul Beach Club just north of town, Chen Rio on the wild side of the island or Mister Sanchos half way down the southern coast. Get there by 10ish on Sunday, though to snag a table under a palapa shade.

Whether it’s at a ballgame, a Sunday outing at the beach–or coming out the front door of your rental home, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with the friendly Cozumeleno people and become something more than just another tourist. All it takes is opening your mind–and your heart–to the wealth of new experiences that await you on Cozumel island.

Other pages you may be interested in reading:
Cozumel Things to Do
Shopping
Restaurants