Posts Tagged With: restaurants

Cozumel

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.

Cozumel Playa Sur-6211

Cozumel Playa Sur-6186

Cozumel Playa Sur-6210

Cozumel Playa Sur-6220

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.

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Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Déšť, Déšť, Go Away

That would be “rain”, which is what is falling from the sky in Prague today. It didn’t really slow us down because in the wake of yesterday’s ambitious touring, we decided to take it easy today. Our first stop was the National Museum of Decorative Arts for the purpose of seeing the photography exhibition of Josef Koudelka, an outstanding and near-legendary Czech photographer whose name you may never have heard but whose work you have seen. He’s the guy who took all those famous street photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It was an enormous exhibit displaying hundreds of works — all in black and white — from over Koudelka’s 60+ year career. He’s currently 80 and still working… and collecting awards by the bushel.

 

Prague 2018-364

(I don’t know who the visitor is in this picture; Alice was in another room at the moment.) If you have any interest in photography at all you owe it to yourself to learn more about Koudelka and look up his work. He’s amazing.

Our second and final stop was a return to the Franz Kafka Head, which frustrated us a couple of days ago by stubbornly sitting there inert instead of doing its metamorphic act. But today we got lucky, and I filmed this:

Alice correctly observed that it was a lot cooler in motion than standing still.

And that’s about it for today, which was our last full day here. We return for a stopover overnight in Reykjavik late tomorrow evening, then return home Tuesday afternoon. For our penultimate dinner in Prague tonight, we went to…. a Thai restaurant. Czech food is fine but is heavy on things like lamb and venison and wild boar and such, accompanied by five different kinds of bread and potato dishes. We were getting a little dumpling’ed out so went to a Mexican restaurant last night, one run by actual Mexicans, which was excellent. If you’re wondering how and why Mexicans came to Prague to open a restaurant as opposed to, say, San Diego or Omaha, the answer is complicated. Some of the owners and staff came as students and stayed; others skipped over the US (I can’t imagine why) and emigrated to Canada, then came to Prague from there. Restaurant prices, by the way, are about 20% cheaper here than they are at home in the DC area. So Prague generally seems like a bargain.

Some final random notes about the city that I was too tired to include in yesterday’s entry:

  • St. Vitus Chapel at Prague Castle contains the sepulchers of both Saint/Sorta King Wenceslas and Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ve never heard of Nepomuk but he’s got a good story: in the late 14th century he was said to be the confessor for the queen of Bohemia. (This is unlikely to be true for reasons that I will not bore you with.) The king was the jealous sort and demanded that John reveal the queen’s secrets. But unlike Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, John of Nepomuk refused to dish to the authorities. So the king had him drowned. Three centuries later, his body was exhumed and his apparently intact tongue — the one that he held, so to speak — was found in his skull. Wow! Miracle! Canonize this guy right now! So they did. Three centuries after that, the Catholic Church — who should have known better — allowed a forensic analysis of the tissue and it was discovered not to be a tongue at all, but rather a mummified glob of brain tissue. But hey, once you’re a saint, you’re a saint. No take-backs.
  • Speaking of Catholics, there aren’t enough of them here to fill the churches. Nearly 80% of the Czech population either identifies as “no religion” or refuses to answer the official survey questions about it. 30% declare themselves full-on atheists. The Catholic population, nearly 40% of the population as recently as 25 years ago, is now down to 10%. So this translates into a lot of empty churches: one that we visited had been donated by the local diocese to their Greek Orthodox counterparts, who were apparently able to make better use of it.
  • I mentioned earlier that Prague is a popular movie filming location: Amadeus, a couple of  Mission Impossibles, Yentl, The Bourne Identity, the Vin Diesel action movie “xXx”, and a number of others. Our wanderings happened to bring us to a number of the sites, including the courtyard of Prague Castle, which played the role of the Kremlin courtyard in Mission Impossible IV. Or III. Or some other number. Here’s a street corner that shows up in Amadeus:

Prague 2018-252

  • Prague loves to claim Mozart as a sort of adopted favorite son, even though he never really lived here. He did visit several times for extended stays of a month or two. But interestingly, Prague contains one of the very few harpsichords that is known for certain to have been played by Mozart. It’s a “George Washington Slept Here” sort of thing.

Weather permitting, probably the last thing we will do tomorrow is visit the highest point in Prague: the Petřín Tower. At 63.5 meters (208 ft) tall this would not seem to be a strong candidate for the designation, but the trick is that it sits on top of a 318 meter (1043 ft) hill overlooking the city, so its observation deck is actually 382 meters (1252 ft) above the river. That’s taller than the Eiffel Tower… which is not a coincidence, because the Petřín Tower is a nearly exact model of the uppermost 64 meters of the Eiffel Tower! This bit of architectural weirdness gives the Czechs an opportunity to thumb their collective nose at the French.

Since we are flying out tomorrow evening, I expect that this will be my last blog post from this trip, which began nearly three weeks ago. It’s been another great trip. Next up is a visit to our friends in Arizona in about 6 weeks, followed by our return to Hawaii in February. Life is good!

 

 

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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