Posts Tagged With: ship

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So Long, Jim

I’m writing this blog post on February 16, two days later than I ought to, because Valentine’s Day was the 240th anniversary of the death of Captain James Cook, whose third exploration voyage on the HMS Resolution brought him to Hawaii in January of 1778 and made him the first European to see these islands.

Cook initially spent about a month around Kauai and then headed north to explore what is now northern California, Oregon, Vancouver, and southern Alaska. Astutely noticing that those places were cold, he eventually made his way back to Hawaii, cruising around the archipelago before making landfall on the west coast of the Big Island near the village of Kealakekua. (If you’ve ever heard the song “Little Grass Shack” you know how to pronounce it.) He stuck around for about a month, then set sail again, at which point things began to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Shortly after getting underway, the Resolution’s mast broke, and the ship was forced to return to  Kealakekua Bay. A quarrel broke out between the crew and the locals, however, and in the melee a number of men from the village stole one of the Resolution’s cutters, which were small auxiliary boats. Vowing not to negotiate with terrorists, Capt. Cook decided to overreact by attempting to kidnap the king, an effort that ended about as well as you’d expect. Cook was clubbed down, then stabbed to death along with four other crewman. It would be left to future generations to revisit the island and develop the first timeshare condos.

Now Kealakekua Bay is a beautiful marine reserve with crystal waters and abundant fish and coral, marked with a monument to Cook on the shoreline. Here was the scene today, captured by my trusty drone.

Kealakekua Bay 0950-Edit

You can see the monument at left. The boat at right is the Fair Wind II, a local tour operation that brings snorkelers to the otherwise nearly inaccessible bay.  (It’s quite a fun outing: I recommend it if you’re here.) Here are some closer shots of each.

Kealakekua Bay 0949

Kealakekua Bay 0943

The inscription at the base of the obelisk reads, “In memory of the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, R.N. who discovered these islands on the 18th of January, 1778, and fell near this spot on the 14th of February, 1779.” The Hawaiians, needless to say, take issue with the word “discovered” since, having lived here for several hundred years, they knew where it was all along.

(And as for the Fair Wind II, those two long skinny things at the front of the boat are exactly what they look like: water slides. I’ll post some video later showing them in action.)

One of the interesting sidelights to Kealakekua Bay is one that most tourists miss, since it is at the opposite side of the mile-wide bay (and, as it happens, exactly where I launched the drone from). Capt. Cook was brought here to a temple, known in Hawaiian as a heiau. The Hikiau heiau is a solid rectangular stone structure, originally nearly the size of a football field but smaller today. Here’s a view of it from the air:

Kealakekua Bay 0965

The smaller structure at the lower right end is believed to be the lele, the altar. This particular temple is called a luakini, which is a type used for human sacrifices. Sacrifice victims were usually war captives, though sometimes slaves were used. If this practice were followed today I suppose they could grab tourists, but it’s probably a gamble since I imagine that the gods have very mixed feelings about them.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Go, You Go, Tierra del Fuego (Oct 6)

“You are here”, quite precisely

I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)

The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights:  Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.

This is our southernmost picture, until the next one

Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.

The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:

Nature at its almost southernmost

There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.

The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”) 

Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)

La specialité de maison, medieval but quite delicious

We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.

The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…

After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.

De boat, boss, de boat!

It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.

Cape Horn, here we come

 

 

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