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Review: The Wyndham Resort/Sand Dollar Sports, Cozumel, Mexico

by Conrad Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton

Above is an aerial view of the Wyndham resort area on the southwestern side of the Mexican island of Cozumel. The resort actually consists of several related resorts (the Wyndham, the Sabor and the Regency Club). It's all a tropical community with pools, cabanas, recreational facilities, restaurants, bars and, of course, the beach.

Location: Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Overall: The Wyndham Resort and Spa is an all-inclusive resort that caters to all kinds of vacationers as opposed to just scuba divers. It is a sizable complex/community of common buildings, guest buildings and extensive recreational facilities about eight miles south of San Miguel. It is a 3-1/2-Star resort in a tropical, albeit somewhat crowded and bustling setting with plenty of pools, bars, restaurants and 2,000 feet of beach front.

The Wyndham has about 400 comfortable mid-size guest rooms in three-story buildings with small patios or terraces. Dozens of Cozumel's best coral reef and wall dive sites are reachable via dive boat within minutes.

We stayed at the central Wyndham part of the resort, which was somewhat loud and a bit crowded. The (more expensive) Sabor part is quieter and more luxurious. While not as spacious or luscious as the Occidental Grand nearby, the all-inclusive Wyndham offers very good value. We can recommend it both to divers and non-divers alike.

Getting there: Getting to Cozumel is easy. It may be an island off the east coast of the Mexican Yucatan and part of the Caribbean, but all it took us in February of 2010 was a three and a half hour Continental flight from Sacramento to Houston, and then another two and a half hour flight on Continental from Houston to Cozumel. And not in a small propeller plane, but in a real Boeing 737.

Arrival/customs: On your flight you fill out customs documents. Upon arrival, immigration officials are friendly and efficient and process even large crowds very quickly. You pick up your luggage after passport control, run it through another X-ray machine, and then get ground transportation. We had our transfers booked through Travelocity and a rep from Olympus Tours was waiting for us. Don't get sidetracked by time-share salesmen and others who'll try to get your attention!

When you leave, get to the airport at least two hours ahead of time. We were lucky and could walk up right to the very friendly folks at the Continental counter. There is no departure tax on Cozumel, and when you go through security, you don't even have to take your shoes off or your computer out of your carry-on! Cozumel airport is nicely air-conditioned and has spacious, modern facilities with plenty of shopping. When boarding, everyone's carry-ons will be examined again.

Getting to the resort: The ride from the airport to the Wyndham Resort is about 20 minutes in a cab or van (again, book your transfer ahead of time!). You drive through San Miguel where you see a colorful mix of local stores and homes, bars, restaurants, dive shops and the like. Once out of town, it's a bit like driving through tropical rain forest.

Once at the Wyndham Resort's security entrance, the ride ends at the giant Tiki-covered open lobby/reception building. No champagne here (there was self-serve juice, though) and there can be lengthy lines. Check-in was fairly quick but we'd liked to have been given a bit more of an intro to the sprawling resort and what was and was not open to us.

General: The Wyndham Resort is pretty much a "self-contained" beach resort with stores, spas, restaurants, bars, rec facilities, etc. Unless you schedule a trip via taxi or rent a vehicle (they are available at the Wyndham), there is no need to leave the resort. Even partying types and those who need a lot of variety and stimulation will hardly be bored here. Between the two main restaurants available to regular Wyndham guests, the fairly extensive grounds, the two pools, the beach, the bars, the theater, the sports facilities and numerous activities, there's always something to do (I was usually busy uploading my underwater pictures and just generally being too pooped from diving to party). The resort also has something special going on every night: fire dancers, shows, games, a market place, and special theme nights. Below is a look at the main pool in the center of the Wyndham resort and a look at the Wyndham's beach area. Yes, it was a cloudy week where the weather changed from minute to minute.

Room: There are about 400 mostly similar rooms in a number of unexceptional but decently maintained three-story buildings. There are no elevators, so if you don't like climbing stairs, ask for a ground-floor room. We stayed in a room on the ground floor of Building 11, which was located next to the "quiet" (not!) adult pool just a short walk from the lobby/restaurants and the beach (the resort is nowhere near as expansive as, say, the Occidental Grand, so as far as getting around goes, it doesn't really matter what part you're in.

The room was mid-size, had two rather hard but comfortable double beds (we had reserved a room with a king-size bed, but none were available when we got there), a big ceiling fan, but just a few US-type 110 Volt electrical outlets. There aren't many lights, the furniture is fairly Spartan, and the floor in both the main room and the bathroom was all tile. That's great for divers with all their wet gear. The water pressure in the bathtub shower was good and there was plenty of hot water. The drain in the bathtub was very slow, no doubt due to divers soaking their sandy gear in there. The toilet flushing was very weak, and a label on the toilet actually asked you not to flush toilet paper but put it in the garbage! There were no warnings not to drink the tapwater, but several bottles of water were on the small table. There was no minibar.

There was an adequate number of towels (don't use them as beach towels; those you check out at the pool). There was a hair dryer, shampoo, conditioner, soap, an iron, but not many of the little convenience items you except from a good resort. The room had no coffee maker. All rooms have either a small balcony or a small patio. Our standard room did not have much of a view.

The room had an A/C unit mounted on an interior wall up by the ceiling. It had a remote control and was extremely efficient in keeping the room as cool as we wanted, and it was almost silent as well. You don't find that often in hotels! At times we used it in conjunction with the ceiling fan in a (futile) attempt at keeping the humidity at bay. The room had a smallish CRT TV with cable programming. Selection and picture quality were marginal.

Each room has a sophisticated electrically operated safe with a numeric keypad. We felt safe and secure at the Wyndham, but it's still good to have a place for valuables, and those safes were terrific as they did not require carrying around a key.

Housekeeping was friendly and efficient, but we never knew when they'd show up to make the room. No flower petals or other artistic arrangements on our beds as the promo materials showed. I wish housekeeping did not leave the doors open while doing the rooms, as this is where insects get in. The one problem we had (an A/C unit that leaked condensing water onto the floor) could not be fixed. About the only complaint we had with the room were the hard beds and the very thin, hard pillows.

Restaurants: The Wyndham is an "all-inclusive" resort, and they really mean it. All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, as are the drinks you have with them (and before or after). It's a bit difficult to figure out at first where to eat as there are several restaurants. In essence, the choice for regular Wyndham Resort guests is limited to a buffet restaurant, a snack bar, and the a la carte (but also included) Roberto's Italian restaurant. While we were there, breakfast was always at the often very crowded buffet, lunch at the buffet or snack bar, and dinner either at the buffet or the Italian restaurant that required reservations. Making a reservation is annoying and cumbersome as you have to stand in line at the buffet at 8AM and reservations can only be made for the same day. There did not appear to be a limit as to how many reservations you could make. Service in all restaurants is reasonably friendly and efficient. No tipping is expected at the table, though we did tip at the very excellent Roberto's (see below).

Food: The food in the buffet-style and rather cafeteria-like restaurant is varied and better than we expected (and actually also better than at the 4-star Occidental). There is always a decent, but not great, variety of items, so there's something for everyone. There is both Mexican-style and international food, pasta is made to order, there is a large salad bar, a large dessert bar, and generally there is enough variety to never get bored. A soda fountain would have been nice, but you can order whatever you want, including beer and wine (yes, no charge again). Sometimes you are seated, other times not. The generally friendly staff accommodates special requests (they beautifully cooked and prepared a large fish a guest couple had caught). Acoustics are decent but the atmosphere is definitely cafeteria-style. After hours you can always get snacks at the buffet.

The snack bar is close by the beach and next to a bar. You can get hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, etc., there. It's all greasy and not very tasty, and the service is indifferent.

The one specialty restaurant open to standard Wyndham guests, Roberto's, is elegant and very nicely decorated. It looks quite formal, like an upscale restaurant in the US. In addition to having a reservation, you need to wear long pants, closed-toed shoes and just generally be a bit dressy. The ambiance is elegant but the acoustics are poor. Wait staff is meticulously dressed and mostly very professional. Food is a la carte insofar as you have your choice of one of four to six items for each of the four or five courses. Drinks, again, are included although you can also ask for a wine list and order a bottle. This is one of the very few items that costs extra at the Wyndham. The extra-cost wine selection is good, but the wines are expensive. If you stick with the house wine, there is no cost at all, though we usually left a tip for their excellent service. Ask for Mayan Coffee, which is prepared table-side in a wonderful, fiery procedure.

Bars: Regular Wyndham guests have access to three bars. One is by the beach, one in one of the pools, and opposite the reception area is a very nice night club type of bar and dance place. You can get just about any drink you want, all free, always. Most (but not all) bartenders were friendly, attentive, prompt and knew their stuff.

Architecture and ambiance are mixed. The guest room buildings are unexceptional, the buffet restaurant has a decidedly cafeteria look, the Italian restaurant is very elegant, the lobby area is large and impressive, and many buildings are under architecturally interesting massive tropical Tikihut roofs.

Pools and recreational facilities: The Wyndham Resort has two nicely-sized pools. Both are within the main grounds and centrally located and you don't have constant policing by life guards as we have in the US. There are plenty of chairs and Tiki-style umbrellas, and you get beach towels when you need them. One pool is supposed to be quiet and just for adults, but since that pool has a bar, it is hardly ever quiet. You can order (free) drinks, and there is an entire schedule of activities you can participate in if you want to. While we were there, the poolwater was sparkly clean and just the right temperature.

The Wyndham also has tennis courts and just about any activity you want to engage in. If you want to order special services, like a jeep safari or other sight seeing, there are representatives from several tour companies close to the lobby area. They are actually very helpful and give you lots of insider tips.

The Wyndham's grounds are a bit cramped and parts are in need of maintenance. Don't expect the luscious, tropical setting you'd find, for example, at the Occidental Grand. The grounds are just large and nice enough to want to stay and hang around, but just barely. What baffled me was why the hotel tolerates third party tour operator reps who constantly try to get you to switch from the hotel's services to theirs.

Electricity: No problem here. The Wyndham's electricity is solid. However, there are only very few outlets in guest rooms, so if you have a lot of electronic gear, bring a power strips or some such.

Reception: The reception area faces a large open lobby with large sofas and tables. The reception desk is not terribly well staffed and not everyone spoke serviceable English.

Computers/Internet: The resort does not have wireless Internet access in the guest buildings. The only way to get online is to hang out close to the reception area which has an open and free Internet Access Point. Access was slow and unreliable. We consider this unacceptable for a modern resort.

Cellphones: Once I arrived on Cozumel, I got a text from AT&T saying calls would cost me US$1.99/minute, and data was something absurd like $20/megabyte. When I tried calling the US, the calls did not go through.

Security: The resort is gated and has decent security. There is good lighting and there are inconspicuous security patrols. It is, and feels, safe at all times.

Vendors: Vendors came and set up their stands at the Wyndham twice during our weeklong stay to exhibit their arts and crafts either outside the bar area or on the central plaza. Most of it is jewelry and smaller items made by local artisans including black and red coral items, decorated and painted wooden boxes, embroidery, etc. Most speak passable English. Payment is in dollars and some accept credit cards. Prices are generally reasonable, but it pays to negotiate a deal. Keep a degree of skepticism so as not to overpay.

Dive shop: I am not sure what percentage of Wyndham guests are divers, but given Cozumel's reputation as a diver's paradise, probably quite a few. This is why it's puzzling that diving almost seems an afterthought at the Wyndham.

Diving and snorkeling services are provided not by the Wyndham, but by Sand Dollar Sports, which has three facilities on the larger Wyndham grounds. One is centrally located, and there is one each at the resort's two piers. Do not, however, expect a US-style dive shop; the three facilities are more like counters where you can sign up for diving and rent equipment if you don't bring your own. There is no place for divers to change, there are no lockers, and getting on dive boats is a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Weights are provided on the boats and sometimes they run out and may have to hunt down another boat to get more weights.

Below is a look at one of the three Sand Dollar locations, this one by one of the resort's two piers.

You don't have to dive with the Sand Dollar Sports operation that runs the shops at the Wyndham resort. In fact, our friendly tour operator guy repeatedly tried to get us to book another dive operator through him. He claimed the operator would pick us up at the dock, bring weights or whatever else we needed. However, it makes no sense to me to have a dive shop on the premises and then get the dives through someone else. And there is a US$3 "pier fee" for divers who are picked up by operators other than the local Sand Dollar Sports.

Below is the second Sand Dollar location, the one in the center of the Wyndham resort.

As is, diving was not included in our Wyndham package. You're supposed to book directly through the dive shop, which we did via email and phone, but to little concrete avail. Eventually we found that you might as well just show up and buy the dives as you go. Sand Dollar is quite expensive. The smallest increment you can buy is a two-tank boat ride, and that is, I believe almost US$80 per person. Even if you sign up for an entire week, it's still US$32 per tank, and if you dive Nitrox, that's another US$10 per tank.

Unlike other Cozumel dive operators where the dive site is often decided on the boat, Sand Dollar Sports has a published schedule that lists the two morning dive sites for each day. If you sign up for the afternoon as well, you repeat those dive sites. Be warned, though, that weather, current or any number of other variables may change the schedule. This can be quite frustrating when you plan on shooting pictures or video at a certain site with a certain camera or set of equipment just to find that the plans have changed. You also never know which dive boat you'll get, and buying a trip to the wreck of the Felipe Chicotencatl (also known as "Wreck 53") was like pulling teeth, and we were charged twice the rate, though the dive site was close.

Dive boats: If you go through the local Sand Dollar Sports dive shop, you'll have a different boat and a different dive master almost every time you dive, though sometimes a dive master will attempt to make an effort to book good customers (i.e. those who aren't a nuisance above and under water, and who also tip well). Boats come in many different sizes. Before this trip I thought Cozumel dive boats were either big, sluggish "cattle boats" or speedy little boats, each with its inherent pros and cons. In fact, you see the whole gamut from massive catamarans to standard boats with room for 16 divers or so, to smaller pontoon boats for eight or so, to really small boats where you have to enter the water via back-roll. In Sand Dollar's fleet of eight dive vessels, some boats are fairly new, others are pretty beat up. We were in everything from a fairly decent 40+ foot or so boat that was nice enough, but had no windshield in the front, to some sort of pontoon boats and much smaller boats. Never knowing which boat you'd get meant never knowing whether to bring sun screen, sun glasses (which you need if the boat does not have a roof) or if there was room for extra stuff. None of the smaller boats had camera rinse tanks or tables.

Air: Tanks are on the boat; you don't have to pick them up or carry them anywhere. They are all standard 80 cubic-foot aluminum tanks with US standard Yoke valves. Larger tanks are available upon special request. The boats do not have compressors, and our dive shop/hut at the Wyndham apparently did not fill tanks either, so they all had to be brought in from some other Sand Dollar or other location.

Nitrox is available upon request. It's US$10 extra per tank, which is very expensive. Nitrox may or may not be available, so be prepared for anything. Sand Dollar, however, does offer both 32% and 36% Nitrox, and sometimes when they run out of tanks, they'll pick one up especially for you. Disconcertingly, there was no oxygen analyzer, so if you use Nitrox, bring your own.

Weights: Sand Dollar Sports does not have weights in the shops/huts; you get the weights on board of the dive boats. Make sure you know what you need beforehand. Weights only come in one-pound increments and are not always clearly marked. If you go into the water and don't have enough weight, the dive master usually carries some extra and helps you out right in the water.

Diving: Cozumel is not a large island and there really are only a few reefs and dive sites. It is, however, still large enough so that where you stay pretty much determines where dive boats will likely take you. Since most boats return to the docks after each and every dive, but certainly at noon time, they don't like to go to remote dive sites. This means that if you stay in San Miguel, you'll likely be diving the sites that are fairly close to town. If you stay in a hotel or resort farther south on the island, such as the Wyndham, you'll be closer to some of Cozumel's most famous reefs, such as the Santa Rosa wall and the several Palancar reefs and walls.

Cozumel is famous for drift diving, with the current varying from barely noticeable in some locations to quite strong in others. Unlike the surge you might experience on some islands close to the beach, the current off Cozumel is constant and steady. You're not getting buffeted around at all. It's more like being on a conveyor belt or escalator. You just go along for the ride.

This means that divers need to stay together in groups with their dive master, or at least stay within viewing distance. You get in together, go down together, then follow the dive master as only he will know where he'll be going and when he'll be going back up. When the dive master decides to go up, he'll inflate a safety sausage on a line that signifies to the boat where the divers will come up. If you miss the dive master here, you may end up surfacing a distance away from the dive boat. They'll likely find you, but it's not a good idea to take a chance. It can also be confusing because some of the more popular dive sites can have dozens of dive boats in close proximity and it can be difficult to figure out which one is yours, or for the boat captain to figure out which surfacing divers belongs on his boat.

The disadvantage of this system is that you can't just stay down a bit longer if you still have enough air. It's frowned upon even if there is almost no current, and if there is current, you'll drift away from the boat. Our dive masters usually started going up at about 35-40 minutes, and most dives were a total of about 45-50 minutes.

As for the dive sites, some are truly spectacular. Be aware, though, that you may not see the same scenery someone else will see on the same dive. That's because those reefs are fairly large and unlike other places where boats moor, the boat never seems to drop divers off twice in the same location. So depending on your drop-off, you may be treated to spectacular sights or to unexceptional sand chutes and plains and not much else. The Sand Dollar boats generally did a good job in dropping us off in the right spots.

The diving can be spectacular. The strong current along the island means the water is constantly moving and so visibility is better than in most places. 150 to 200 feet is not uncommon. In some places it's like swimming in an aquarium, it's so clear. Those accustomed to vertical walls (like in Roatan or other Caribbean islands) will find the Cozumel reefs quite different. The reefs are composed of huge heads and formations that have numerous cuts, gullies, tunnels and swimthroughs. That makes for a dramatic, interesting and very attractive diving experience. As of February 2010, the reefs were in splendid health and condition. We saw a little coral bleaching here and there, but almost everything is in full bloom and without damage or silting or wear.

In terms of critters, some of them are plentiful, others less so. There's the usual Caribbean variety of parrot fish, damsel fish, angel fish, groupers, spiny lobsters, giant crabs, moray eels, French grunts, Southern stingray and spotted rays, etc. You also see the occasional splendid toad fish peeking out from under a rock, quite a few turtles, and we also saw several nurse sharks. We didn't see any other sharks, though some divers claim they've seen some.

Cost: Anytime you go a week's worth of vacation it adds up, but I feel the trip was well worth it. Staying at a double room in Building 11 from Saturday to Saturday cost us an amazingly affordable US$1,600 including tax and including the flights from Sacramento, or about US$800 per person, booked via Travelocity. That included the passable room and all meals and drinks. We did 15 dives each and that added US$960 plus another US$150 for the nitrox we had used. We also spent about US$120 to rent a 4-door Jeep on the last day (recommended), US$74 for the transfers to and from the hotel, plus whatever tips we left (mostly for the dive masters and dive boat crew).

Tips: There are no hard recommendations and it's pretty hard to figure out who is supposed to get a tip and how much. The dive boats generally expect a tip after every trip, with some having a tip box while others do not. The bars have a tip jar. Everything else is pretty much up the individual guest to decide.

Bottom Line: The Wyndham Resort and Spa on the Mexican island of Cozumel is a very affordable 3-1/2 star resort in a nice, albeit a bit loud and cramped setting about eight miles south of San Miguel. The Wyndham is separated into the Wyndham Resort (where we stayed), the more expensive Sabor, and the time-share Regency Club.

There are about 400 guest rooms in three-story buildings. Architecture and facilities are nice although things appear a bit worn in places. There are two very nice and centrally located pools, one with a bar built right into the pool. The Wyndham is "all-inclusive," meaning all meals are included and all drinks as well.

The restaurants offer good to very good food and decent variety. The buffet-style main restaurant can get crowded and has a cafeteria look and feel. Roberto's Italian restaurant is excellent, but has a cumbersome reservation requirement.

What is not included is diving (or other extras like wind surfing, massages, etc.). Guests can buy dive packages through the somewhat expensive Sand Dollar Sports operation on the premise, or contract with any other dive operator (they'd pick you up at the dock). The on-premise dive shops and facilities are rudimentary, without actual shops or even changing facilities or lockers. Overall, the Wyndham offers excellent value and a nice setting and we'd probably go back for the great value alone, even though we wish the Sand Dollar Sports dive operation were better organized and offered more amenities.

Wyndham websites
Wyndham Resort & Spa
Sand Dollar Sports dive shop
Generally, whenever I check the weather on Cozumel island on my iPhone, it will likely show the thunderstorm or cloudy symbol. That is quite misleading. As on many islands, yes, you can often see clouds in the distance, and there's the tropical weather pattern with frequent showers and rapidly changing weather. We stayed there January 30 to February 6, 2010, and the weather ranged from cloudy to rainy to sunny, with things changing from hour to hour. During our early February stay it was generally 80-83 degrees during the day and about 65 degrees at night every day.
Water Temperature
During our trip in early February, the water temperature on the surface and at the bottom was an almost constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I used my 5-mil wetsuit and that was perfect for me. Other divers used dive skins or just bathing suits and I saw some shivering.
After having battled the dreaded "no-see-ums" in other Caribbean locations, I was glad that there did not seem to be any on Cozumel. And the large and very aggressive black mosquitoes that were such a big problem in November were gone. However, something still got to us with dozens of bites, despite plenty of bug spray. Check the room for biting insects each night before you go to sleep. And don't even think of going on a safari trip without bringing bug spray along!
Wyndham Spa
The female contingent of our group made liberal use of the Wyndham's elaborate spa/massage facilities. It's not inexpensive but there are coupons and discounts to ease the pain, and the ladies loved it.
History of Cozumel
Archaelogical records indicate that Mayans were living on Cozumel island as early as 300 AD or before. Mayan civilization prospered on the island throughout the classic and post-classic Mayan periods between 300 and 1500, with the island being both a trade and ceremonial center.

Spaniards reached the island soon after Columbus, and the arrival of Conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1519 began a period during which the Mayan population shrunk from 40,000 to just a few hundred. The island became essentially abandoned and Cozumel became an operation base for pirates. In the mid-1800s, indigenous people resettled the island and Cozumel slowly built a modest economy in maritime transportation and trade.

During World War II, the US had bases on Cozumel, but those were later abandoned. In 1961, Jacques Cousteau put Cozumel on the map as a diving paradise in one of his famous documentaries.

While Cozumel is a Mexican island and the official language is Spanish, this being a tourist island, almost everyone speaks at least a bit of English.
Cozumel diving
More Cozumel diving