Thursday, March 7, 2013


The Navigator of the Seas docked in Cozumel at about 6 as a hazy sun rose over the eastern horizon on yet another cool and windy day. There were 4 cruise ships in port, protected by a Mexican warship that slowly patrolled the harbor like a sleek grey shark.

The shoreline was jammed with a tropical hodgepodge of resorts, many crowned with thatched roofs in the shape of pyramids, each clinging to the water’s edge atop stone breakfronts. The beaches went from tiny to non-existent. And therein lies a lesson about the nature of beaches. Underwater plants cling to rock, making it prime habitat for fish. So, that’s where you find the best snorkeling. White sandy beaches are cloudy with sediment and there’s no place for plankton to grow. Show me a powdery white sand beach and I’ll show you a dead zone for fish.

We were there for the snorkeling.

Cozumel is an island in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The name comes from the Mayan word Kùutsmil which means Island of the Swallows. I saw quite a few magnificant frigate birds, but no swallows.

The main town on the island is San Miguel de Cozumel. It’s a seven minute taxi ride from the dock.

Cozumel is a very popular stop for most of the cruise ship companies, including: Royal Caribbean International, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Pullmantur.
Cozumel has been a trading stop for at least 2,000 years. It was also a sacred shrine and Mayan women used to paddle their dugout canoes out to the island from their Yucatan villages to worship Ix Chel, the goddess of Fertility. The ceremonial center can still be seen at the San Gervasio ruins in the center of the island.

Most visitors come to the Yucatan region to see the Mayan archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Uxmal, all of which are located on the mainland.

As the story goes, when the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes stumbled onto Isla Cozumel in 1519, he quickly destroyed the Mayan temples and left smallpox in his wake. By 1570, the island’s population had gone from 40,000 to 30. And by 1600, the island was virtually uninhabited.

Then came the Pirates. Infamous cutthroat Henry Morgan used it for debauching in between raids in the 1600s. And in the 1800s, another Caribbean pirate, Jean Lafitte, used it as a safe harbor. But no one really called Cozumel home. It was always more of a refuge, especially in 1847, during the Maya uprising known as the War of the Castes, when 51 families fled the Yucatan city of Valladolid, along with 86 mestizo servants and 350 indigent Mayans. These refugees became the island’s founding fathers and mothers.

Nothing much happened on Cozumel until the 1970s, when tourism started spreading its intoxicating tentacles along the beaches of the Yucatan. And the population skyrocketed from 10,000 to the current population of 85,000.

The perfect metaphor for Cozumel can be found in this humorous anecdote. Supposedly, when Cortes the Killer, asked the local Indians what this place was called, they answered “Yucatec.” Yucatec wasn’t the name of their home, but rather, their way of saying, “What?”

Cozumel is a curious place. As I walked along the jogging track on Deck 12 and took in the colorful coast line around the boat dock I could see many familiar businesses adorning the beach, like the Hard Rock Café and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. The Americanization of the world is a very powerful force indeed.

As our giant ship slowly approached the International Pier a swarm of bright boats of all shapes and sizes descended from every direction like buzzing bees in search of rich honey – scuba dive boats, catamarans, white and yellow submarines, fishing boats, open cockpit guide boats, hydrofoils, jet skis, and sailboats. Who wants a ride?

Royal Caribbean offers a wide assortment of excursions at every stop and you book them through Guest Services. They are a tad pricey, but they guarantee two things: the guide is reputable, and they will get you back to the ship before it leaves. For many, the fear of missing the ship is a powerful incentive for booking through Royal Caribbean. As well it should be. The ship waits for no man. Personally, I like going ashore and seeing all that is being offered, and then negotiating the best price. Others prefer the security of Royal Caribbean blanket. The bottom line is that pretty much  everything they offer on the boat can be found ashore, but it takes time to find it.

And time is precious at each stop. At Cozumel, we had from 7 until 3:30. And the possibilities for fun were virtually limitless. We could go shopping or dine at an authentic Mexican restaurant, play golf, go to the ruins at Coba or Tulum, take a jeep ride around the island, go fishing, parasailing, hike or zip line through the jungle, swim with dolphins, rent bikes or segways, bounce around on ATV’s, scuba dive into an underwater cavern or shipwreck, go for a deep sea ride in the Atlantis submarine or join a treasure hunt on a pirate ship, visit all kinds of beaches, go sailing or jet boating, take a horseback ride, or snorkel to our heart’s content.

After an early breakfast we went back up to Deck 12 and watched the first wave hit the beach. Those were the folks who had booked excursions.
Everything had calmed down a bit by 9, so we left the ship and strolled along the buff-colored stone pier toward the orange stucco terminal where duty free stores competed with native craftsman selling everything from jewelry to NFL wrestling masks.

Wherever the cruise ships dock, you will always find a shopping village conveniently located well within the passenger comfort zone. Many folks don’t want to venture too far from the ship for a variety of reasons and you never have to. You want diamonds? Gold? Silver? Tanzanite? Watches? Rum? Perfumes? Cosmetics? Fine art? They’re all there for your shopping pleasure. And many of the shops sport the 30 Day – Cruise Line Guarantee decal in their windows.

The plan was to catch a cab to a place called Paradise Beach where they charged $12 for the day and you had the run of all their water sports toys. It had gotten pretty good reviews in Trip Advisor, a wonderful source for scoping out potential fun spots at each island.

As we were checking out the various local crafts and looking for a taxi stand, TC started chatting it up with a young man who ran a snorkel boat from a nearby dock. They were asking $45 per person for a two hour tour. We had our own snorkeling equipment, so we talked him down to $35. And fifteen minutes later we were boarding a 20' open motorboat with a bunch or other folks from our cruise ship. Tequila and Corona shorties were making the rounds as we motored out of the harbor into the jaws of a stiff breeze and banged a hard left along the coast. Barely a stone’s throw from the Navigator was Chanakaab National Park, a protected underwater reserve. We started swimming in a shallow water area near shore and the variety of bright little fishies was amazing – especially given the fact that we were only about a mile from our cruise ship. If we had known what we were doing, we could have just walked off the boat and down the beach, jumped in the water, and had the same experience.
As were snorkeling around the reef a young kid appeared with an underwater camera and cheese. He swam up and sprinkled cheese whiz in our path. Suddenly the area all around us was a dazzling maelstrom of swirling fish. The camera guy dove beneath us and snapped a photo, waved, and was gone.

After about a half hour of swimming above the reef in about thirty feet of emerald water, we were hauled back on board and headed for a nearby reef in slightly deeper water where we jumped back in and were treated to a whole different variety of fish, including some red snapper.

It was cloudy and there was a strong wind blowing from the north. When we got out of the boat it was freezing cold. We had laughed when Inna first broke out her down jacket, but she turned out to be the smart one. But once we were back in the water, the temperature was very comfortable and the snorkeling around the rocky coral reef was spectacular.

By noon, we returned to shore where we were greeted by a smiling lad who sold us an excellent photo for $10 of Inna and I surrounded by cheese-crazed fish.

At this point we were in a quandary. There really wasn’t enough time to embark on another adventure, but we didn’t feel like returning to the ship. The sun had finally come out and for the first time since we had left Baltimore, it was finally hot – probably in the low 80's.

Right next to the cruise ship was an elevated white sand beach with free chaise lounges and grass thatch umbrellas snuggled right next to the Sand Dollar Dive Shop and Señor Frogs.

The night before at dinner, we asked our head waiter Alexander where a good beach in Cozumel was and he said, “Right next to the pier.”

At the time, we thought he was nuts. But this must have been the place he was talking about. There was a tall fence separating the beach from the International Pier and all the passengers either didn’t notice it, or couldn’t figure out how to get there. We only found it because it was where the snorkel boat had dropped us off.
We set up shop at the water’s edge and then headed over to Señor  Frogs where there appeared to be a drunken race in progress. Waiters were walking around with large squirt bottles of some vile alcoholic concoction and waving it in people’s faces yelling, “DRINK!” When a patron – usually a fat guy – complied, the laughing waiter would pour a shot and blow a whistle while the dumbass downed the shot. This curious game was repeated until the drunken fool hollered, “NO MAS!”

And we wonder why most folks think Americans are nuts.

I bought four Sol beers for $20, the most I had ever spent for a Mexican beer in Mexico, and then walked back along the stone wall along the water to our hideaway beach.
Before long, I was feeling the tropical heat and I grabbed my swim mask. There was a great snorkeling reef right there next to the boat – blue water and many colorful fish bottom feeding on a concrete reef.
By 2, the hot sun and beer had baked our brains and Larry, TC and Inna returned to the ship. I didn’t want to stop swimming so I hung out alone until around 3, when the mass Exodus back to the ship began in earnest. Within 15 minutes, Señor  Frogs was empty and the staff was busily dismantling the place. Down came the sun umbrellas on the seaside porch. The plastic tables and chairs were neatly stacked. And within minutes, it was like a ghost bar.

By 3:30, everyone was back on board and the Navigator gingerly backed out of its parking spot and began its long-drawn-out turnaround in the now desolate harbor. The natives had completely vanished.

I turned in my towel and sat down at the pool bar as a hot Cuban band called the Tumbao Trio were cranking out the calypso tunes while sunburned cruisers like myself pounded boat drinks and overwhelmed the pools.

It was amazing to see the transformation of the passengers after the stop in Cozumel. Everyone was frolicking and dancing in the tropical sun with wild abandon. Psychological studies have shown that colors and weather can completely change the way we experience life. Praise the lord and pass the tequila!

I soon reached my saturation point with the sun and headed for the quiet shade of the Solarium. And as we sailed away from Cozumel, which sits an elevation of about three or feet feet above sea level, the same nagging question that had hit me as were leaving New Orleans surfaced: What will climate change do to Cozumel?

There were many empty places at dinner after a tough day of drinking in the sun. But the La Scala theater dining room show continued in all of its charming glory. At the end of the meal, all of the staff paraded around the dining room and then lined up on the steps where they sang a rousing rendition of "O Sole Mio". It was hokey as hell, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
After dinner we walked around the top deck. The boat was rocking as we sailed into a 40 knot easterly gale but now it was finally warm. Warm is good.
The refreshing sea breeze was like a sleeping pill and we drank our wine and considered checking out the 70's Disco Inferno Dance Party on the Royal Promenade. I'm not sure why, but there were 70's parties all over the ship that night, even on the ice rink. But in the end, we opted for bed.

To play or to sleep is perhaps the biggest cruising dilemma. If you're committed to the up with the sun, walk the deck, grab an early breakfast, go ashore, program, it's hard to stay up late and catch the evening acts at the many different bars around the ship. You really can't do both – especially if you're a geezer.

We never solved this riddle.

Tip of the Day: You should NEVER pay more than $2 for a beer in Cozumel. If someone asks you to pay more, then find another watering hole. They are all over the place.

No comments :

Post a Comment