I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.
It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.
The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.
Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.
Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.
The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”. The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar. And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.
But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).
Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.
That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)
Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.
The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.
Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.
But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.
We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.
Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.