This article is from the May 2002 The Mexico File
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Diving into the Romance of Cozumel
by Maribeth Mellin The author of more than a half-dozen books on Mexico, Maribeth Mellin has been exploring the secrets and sights of the country for over two decades. She’s currently concentrating on the coast for her latest book, The Unofficial Guide to Mexico’s Beach Resorts. Her Traveler’s Mexico Companion was awarded the prestigious Pluma de Plata for exceptional writing about Mexico. Her articles appear in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, China Skies, and other publications.
I might never have married my husband if we hadn’t gone to Cozumel three years into our courtship. I needed to see my man in my favorite romantic setting. I decided he was the right guy as we glided and grinned underwater along the Palancar Reef in the Mexican Caribbean. Edie Gorme and Los Panchos sang “Amor” in my mind. Gary and I were married less than a year later, and spent two weeks on the island on our first anniversary. Several friends have since followed my recipe for Cozumel romance.
It begins with passion for simplicity. Cozumel is the antithesis of its more famous neighbor, Cancún – that ever-expanding monument to excessive consumerism. Until recently, chain restaurants and hotels were nearly nonexistent on the 24-mile-long island, which sits twelve miles off the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Less than ten percent of the island is developed. From the air, it looks like a floating green seashell with a collar of coral reefs.
The single town, San Miguel, sits by the ferry pier where boats depart for the half-hour trip to Playa del Carmen on the mainland. Locals gather at the plaza principal, littered with orange flamboyant blossoms, for Sunday concerts at the bandstand. Worshipers pass by the sidewalk cafes on Avenida Juárez to reach the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where the sounds of songs and prayers drift out to the street.
At its heart, Cozumel remains a traditional Mexican community. I first visited the island with a girlfriend in the early 1980s, when we stashed our backpacks in a rented Volkswagen bug and camped on a deserted beach. In the mid-80s, I upped my lodgings considerably by booking a room at the Hotel Presidente (now the Presidente – Intercontinental). My mother and I were at the end of a two-week ramble through the Maya ruins and beach resorts of the Yucatán Peninsula.
I chose Cozumel as our last stop for a bit of R&R before heading home. I immediately recognized the hotel’s potential for romance when we entered our waterfront suite with a private terrace by the sand. We stayed in our bathing suits for the better part of three days, snorkeling amid swarms of striped sergeant majors by the beach, writing postcards under our private palapa, donning cover-ups to lunch at the poolside restaurant. We dressed up one night and walked down the hall to El Arrecife restaurant, where candlelight competed with the fire from flambé carts.
Much as I loved my mom, I yearned to return with a more romantic partner. My fantasies proved true when Gary and I checked in for our first visit in 1991. Shortly after we arrived, a tropical storm lashed the island with fury. When the electricity went out, we lit candles beside the bed, opened our terrace door, and watched lightning flash over the sea. The next morning, after a breakfast of sliced papaya and pan dulce (Mexican sweet breads) we boarded a dive boat at the hotel’s pier.
The Underwater Realm
Cozumel’s greatest attractions lie underwater, where a 13-mile-long chain of coral reefs harbors more than 230 species of tropical fish. Yellow, purple, orange and white sponges and corals grow in fantastic formations, creating canyons, mountains, and plateaus. Gary, who had convinced me to become a diver, had never seen such a spectacle. We floated with the current past regal queen angelfish, violet and jade parrotfish, and thousands of neon-pink and yellow wrasses in a phenomenon I call drive-by diving. The water was so clear that even from 60 feet below the sea’s surface we could see puffy white clouds in the sky.
The chain of reefs that begins off Cozumel is the second longest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Collectively called Palancar Reef, the tiny reefs and massive coral walls run all the way south to Belize. This abundance of coral, combined with excellent weather conditions, causes professional organizations to regularly list Cozumel among the top five dive spots in the world.
The virtually transparent Caribbean ranges from 77 to 82 degrees year-round, and visibility can reach a depth of 200 feet. Many of Cozumel’s visitors arrive bearing wetsuit, fins, regulators and neon-colored buoyancy vests. Sports shops and tour companies around the world specialize in dive trips to Cozumel, and many of the island’s hotels have excellent dive shops on the property. Dive operators abound on Cozumel. Most offer equipment rentals, so you needn’t worry about hauling around costly gear (unless you're a dedicated diver who has invested big bucks in the latest computerized equipment). Snorkelers are as happy as divers on Cozumel.
They congregate at Parque Chankanaab, an underwater reserve where graceful French angelfish and neon blue chromis dart among pink and gold corals and sponges. It’s not unusual for timid swimmers to eagerly sign up for dive classes after snorkeling at Chankanaab for an hour or two. Many of the island’s dive shops offer resort courses, teaching novices to breathe underwater before taking them to shallow dive sites.
Dive operators offer nearly every type of diving imaginable, and classes in almost every level of dive certification. Cozumel is ringed by 37 dive sites teeming with tropical fish and coral formations – there’s something to suit every level of underwater comfort. Gardens of orange and purple sea fans sway in coral gardens near shore, sheltering triggerfish, grunts, and enormous lobster. These sites are ideal for beginning divers, since the currents are mild and spectacular sights lie just 20 or 30 feet under the surface.
The currents are stronger at Paso del Cedral, a shallow site where grouper, morays, and nurse sharks drift over, under, and through mounds of brain coral and iridescent sponges. Santa Rosa Wall is the ultimate rush for experienced divers who drift over colorful corals before facing an awesome blue abyss where giant grouper and sea turtles glide just out of reach. The currents are strong and divers float past the scenery as if watching a movie. There’s little effort involved, except for breathing slow and easy while feeling as though you’re swirling in a dizzying eddy.
Unfortunately, Gary and I dove together only once during our way-too-short stay on the island. But we remedied the situation a couple of years later by devoting two weeks to celebrating our first wedding anniversary on Cozumel. We checked into a one-bedroom suite at a small condo complex called Condumel where bougainvillea petals spelled out bienvenidos on our king-sized bed.
A blue hammock hung in the living room beside glass doors leading to a limestone terrace above shallow water. Bubble bath sat beside the deep marble tub. We stocked the refrigerator with steaks we’d brought along from San Diego, along with fresh tortillas, bolillos, papayas and pineapples from Cozumel’s markets. We never left the island the entire time unless in a dive or fishing boat. One day we caught and releasedthree white marlin and two sailfish, and brought home enough dorado for several dinners.
We carried our catch of the day to the Sonora Grill, where the cook prepared dorado mojo de ajo style, grilled with oil and charred bits of garlic. There was more than enough to share with our fellow diners, who were suitably impressed with our catch. As the days went by, we developed a routine. We learned to keep an eye out for cruise ships on the horizon and stick close to home when town was filled with day-trippers flooding the shops and bars.
Breakfast became our favorite meal out and we developed an instant friendship with the folks at Jeanie's Waffle House, where crisp waffles are served all day long. We spent a few hours in the Museo de Cozumel learning about pirates and coral formations, and wandered the back streets where hammock makers worked on their looms on front porches in the coolness of the mornings.
Midday was reserved for swimming, snorkeling, and the essential siesta. An occasional stroll around San Miguel’s excellent shops in the evening was sufficiently stimulating. We walked along the waterfront malecón with local families, watching the sky shift from blue to lavender to pink as it darkened until the lights from the mainland were visible across the water.
There were plenty of dining options. Wood-oven baked pizzas in the back patio at Rolandi's (now called Guido's), where we grew addicted to the homemade coconut ice cream. Beef tenderloin with chipotle chiles were served in the courtyard at Pancho's Backyard, conveniently located behind Los Cinco Soles, our favorite folk art shop. Cochinita pibil, a yucatecan specialty of tender marinated pork baked in banana leaves, was served in tiny inexpensive restaurants like Casa Denis, a landmark near the main plaza.
A Casual Tour
We could have chosen from a score of tours from Cozumel to the mainland, including a short flight to the magical Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá. Most Cozumel visitors take the half-hour ferry ride across the water to Playa del Carmen and explore the nearby temples of Tulum, which rise like gray sentries over the aquamarine sea. Been there, done that, said I, while swinging in my hammock and reading a mystery.
Wanderlust did kick in occasionally. One early morning we rented a car and drove through short, scrubby jungle to the humble Maya ruins at San Gervasio. Cozumel lacks the majestic temples and observatories seen on the mainland, but it is littered with shrines and small structures said to have been built by childlike fairies called aluxes.
At the height of the Maya civilization, from A.D. 300 to A.D. 1500, women made pilgrimages across the water to the island’s shrine of Ixchel. The goddess, a ghastly crone with a slithering snake headdress and jaguar-claw fingernails, promised assistance with fertility and childbirth in exchange for jade and a bit of blood. Some of San Gervasio’s modest temples are believed to have been dedicated to Ixchel.
One, called Las Manitas, is covered with small red handprints. We drove along the wild windward side of the island, where waves crash against low, sculpted cliffs and turtles build nests in the sand in summer. Passing the beach were I camped on my first Cozumel visit, we turned down a rutted sand and dirt road through mangrove lagoons to Punta Celarain, where Primo, the lighthouse keeper, let us climb to the top of an old lighthouse.
After trudging up the steep spiral staircase we faced a 360-degree view of the scruffy green jungle, languid ochre-colored lagoons, and an endless expanse of the sea striped in shades of blue from turquoise to cobalt. It took what little breath we had left away. Primo’s family served us fresh ceviche and fried fish on their front porch, where we partied with families celebrating a lazy Sunday afternoon.
We changed hotels midway through our stay, moving to a timeshare week at the Melia Hotel, now an all-inclusive called the Melia Paradisus. The hotel sits at the far north end of the island’s leeward side, near lagoons and Isla de la Pasión, a private nature reserve. Back then, this part of the island was so remote and quiet that the hotel was a favorite of visiting dignitaries (including President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Fidel Castro), who could set up their security forces with ease. Today, the new Cozumel Country Club and 18-hole Nicklaus-design golf course sit just across the street from the Meliá, which is bound to become the headquarters for upscale travelers.
Gary and I ended our two-week idyll with a sunset dinner at the Presidente, where the waiters all seemed familiar and the Mexican sense of hospitality remained strong. We vowed to repeat our languorous style of travel frequently. But we haven’t been back to Cozumel together for nine years.
The New Cozumel
I’ve been to the island several times since on my own while writing articles and books on Mexico. I’m eager to show Gary the new Cozumel. Fortunately, there’s enough of the old spirit to guarantee a romantic holiday. But it now takes a bit of finesse to feel like you've found the ultimate escape. Cozumel has become Mexico’s most popular cruise-ship port. Over 1.9 million passengers are expected to hit the streets in 2002. It’s a rare day when there isn’t a ship or two looming on the horizon.
International environmental groups vociferously protested the construction of cruise ship piers near the reefs, but there are now three long piers jutting into the sea. A new two-story cruise-ship terminal opened just south of San Miguel in 2001. An enclosed walkway leads over the street to Punta Langosta, a flashy new mall that’s bound to change the scene in town. In some ways, the mall is a blessing. It’s packed with enough brand-name shops and party-theme restaurants, including TGI Fridays and Carlos & Charlie’s, to keep the passengers happy.
But even less income from this invasive brand of tourism will trickle down to local businesses. Most of our favorite haunts are still around, though some have changed significantly. Primo and his family no longer live at Punta Celarain, which is has become part of an ecological reserve called Parque Punta Sur. Primo’s house is a fascinating navigational museum covering the history of seamanship in the area. You can still climb the 134 steps to the top of the lighthouse if you wish; it’s a steamy effort, but the views are incredible. The beaches here are deserted and wide, and there’s great snorkeling offshore. Snorkeling equipment is available for rent, as are kayaks.
The park also has an excellent restaurant, information center, small souvenir shop, and restrooms. Naturally, there’s a fee to enter the park, but it’s worth a half-day excursion. At Parque Chankanaab, where tropical fish have been protected for decades, snorkelers still float facedown over spectacular natural aquariums. They can also swim with dolphins (for a steep fee) or wander through an archeological garden with replicas of Mexico’s most famous pyramids and artifacts set amid 450 species of plants from the region.
Although Chankanaab is part of the Cozumel’s protected marine reserve, the diving here isn’t nearly as spectacular as the snorkeling. I enjoy walking through the botanical gardens, where tree ferns and palms have been tended to with care for several decades. There is an entry fee, along with restaurants, gear rentals, showers, lockers, and – of course – a souvenir shop. I’m not sure where we’ll stay during our next anniversary trip. The choices have expanded considerably. And we'll be dining out more. I’ve grown fond of the squid in butter sauce at Azul Cobalto, where you can sit outside and watch the tourists mingle along the pedestrian-only street.
We must have a leisurely dinner at La Cocay, where the chef prepares sophisticated, innovative twists on regional cuisine. But I imagine we'll spend most of our time in the water. I want us to dive hand in hand in the moonlight, watching iridescent blue octopus float over white sand. I’ve become addicted to night diving – yet another reason to return to Cozumel. I know where we’ll be spending our tenth anniversary.
If You Go
To call Cozumel from the U.S., dial the international and national area codes first, then the local number. Begin all calls with 011-52-9, then the local number.
Cozumel’s international airport receives non-stop U.S. flights to and from Houston, Texas, Newark, New Jersey and Charlotte, North Carolina. Several airlines (especially Continental, U.S. Airways, Mexicana) provide easy connections to the island. AeroCaribe, the regional airline, offers connections from Cancún.
Where to Stay
Cozumel is blessed with an abundance of small one-of-a-kind hotels and B&Bs. Many are members of the Cozumel Hotel Association, 872-5646. www.islacozumel.com.mx Bill Horn, the owner of the excellent Aqua Safari dive shop, is the force behind Condumel 987-872-0101, www.aquasafari.com . The Maya-style condominium complex sits right beside the water just north of San Miguel and the marina. The ten condos are thoughtfully designed with archways between the rooms and hammocks by the patio, comfortable, and equipped with the right accoutrements (fridge, stove, blender, coffee maker, outdoor grill) for an extended stay. Packages including accommodations and dives are available. Divers are delighted with the facilities at the Fiesta Americana Dive Resort 872-2622, (800) 343-7821. Though the 172 rooms are across the street from the beach, a walkway over the road leads to a great beach club and pier where boats depart for the nearby reefs. Accommodation includes several bungalows designed for divers with outside sinks and lockers for their gear. One of the oldest small hotels on the north side of the island has been transformed into a lovely boutique hotel filled with artistic touches. At Playa Azul 872-0199 www.playa-azul.com , the bright, airy rooms face the ocean or tropical gardens and have wicker furnishings and sun-filled terraces. Master suites have private hot tubs. Small palapas shade lounge chairs on the perfect beach. The food is great and the ambience perfect for a romantic getaway. I’m still a fan of the Presidente Inter-Continental 872-9500, (800) 327-0200, www.cozumelinterconti.com . The best rooms are at the south side of the property and have terraces by the sand. The food is excellent – even if you’re not staying here, have lunch at El Caribeño, the palapa-covered restaurant between the pool and the sea. There’s a good dive shop, and the hotel is located close to prime dive sites. Paradisus Cozumel Resort 872-0411, (800) 336-3542, e-mail email@example.com is headed for change in 2002. The hotel now has the distinction of being the closest property to the new golf course. It’s already a full-scale resort with several swimming pools and restaurants and a fabulous long white sand beach. The hotel’s all-inclusive plan makes sense for those who don’t want to rent a car or take cabs for visits to town. The hotel’s name and amenities may change this year.
The Oficina de Turismo 872-0972 is located on the second floor of the Plaza del Sol on Avenida 5 facing the main plaza. There are also information booths at the ferry pier and in the airport. The Asociación de Hoteles 872-5646, Calle 2N 299, also distributes brochures and has a helpful staff. The website www.islacozumel.com.mx is a good resource for planning your trip.
The Diving Scene
Jacques Cousteau may well have been the island’s most pivotal visitor. He arrived in the 1960s, and devoted considerable time and attention to the Palancar Reef. His underwater films inspired thousands of divers to find their way across the sea from the mainland, usually on ferryboats and small planes. “Cozumel was actually the first tourist destination in the Mexican Caribbean,” says Javier Aranda, managing director of the Hotel Association.
Divers and explorers were finding their way to the homey La Playa Hotel (now Cozumel’s museum building) long before Cancún became a blip on the tourism screen. This early attention to the island’s natural attributes has been its salvation. Over the past 40 years, various types of developments have endangered the reefs. They are now protected in the Parque Marino Arrecifes de Cozumel (Cozumel Reef Marine Park), a 30,000-acre national area created in 1996 that covers 85 percent of the island’s dive sites, embracing the southern section of Cozumel.
Of particular concern to environmentalists and marine biologists are the many large all-inclusive hotels that have risen on the south side of the island. Divers have nearly immediate access to several great reefs from these properties, which tend to have reasonable rates that include meals, drinks, and dives. The proliferation of cruise ship and ferry piers and the huge number of ships streaming over the reefs are huge concerns as well. Some say the arrival of golf courses (rumors have two more on the planning boards) impact the island’s fragile ecosystems.
Crocodiles, egrets, and herons seem to have adapted by using the new course’s water features as feeding grounds. But it’s possible that silt and dirt no longer blocked by mangroves and other plants will ooze into the sea during the rainy season and damage the reefs. Fortunately, the new Cozumel Country Club’s course is located at the far north end of the island, away from prime diving grounds.
There are dozens of dive shops and operations on Cozumel. The Aquatic Sports Operators Association (ANOAAT), 872-5955, www.anoaat.com , has listings of affiliated dive operations that meet certain safety criteria. The island has a recompression chamber and doctors familiar with the aftereffects of diving. I once broke out in a horrid rash caused by swimming through a patch of thimble jellyfish. The doctor at the recompression chamber instantly knew what was wrong and prescribed the perfect ointments to sooth the burning itch.
The best dive spots are located south of San Miguel and extend south past Punt a Celarain. Dive boats swarm over the most popular reefs, coral peaks, and walls during daylight. Divers are strongly advised to stick with their divemasters and remember their boat’s name and appearance. Although you sometimes feel as though you’re swimming with huge schools of humans, the dive experiences are still awesome. I’ve never been disappointed. Just pack your swimsuit – better yet, pack two. One suit is never enough when you’re submerged from dawn till after dark.