COZUMEL PRELIMINARY NOTES
Cozumel (Land of the Swallow in the Mayan language) is an island about 10 miles off the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, 56 miles south of the resort town of Cancun. Roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide with only one main road, it’s easy to navigate by car, but its major claim to fame is its extensive coral reef which is a protected underwater national park. Despite its small size, Cozumel has a rich history. Settled by the Maya early in the first millennium AD, Cozumel was dedicated to the Mayan Moon Goddess Ixchel, a Goddess of childbirth and medicine. The temples on Cozumel were important pilgrimage sites, especially for women hoping to assure fertility. The Spanish Conquistador Cortes came to Cozumel in 1519, which resulted in destruction of temples and devastation of the population from smallpox. In 1847 the War of the Castes was initiated by the Mayans against the Spanish settlers in the Yucatan and eventually resulted in the repopulation of Cozumel.
Unlike Cancun, which is a huge, overdeveloped tourist town crammed with high-end shopping malls, Cozumel still retains a peaceful, small town atmosphere, in spite of the gargantuan cruise ships that regularly disgorge their payloads of party-goers and shoppers upon the island. The main town, San Miguel, is harmoniously designed in classic Mexican style with a beautiful town square that is the focus of local festivities as well as tourist attractions. Every Sunday night families come to the square to dance and eat homemade dishes from makeshift food stands while performers enthrall bystanders with demonstrations of skill. Seafood is understandably the specialty here, but there is a wide variety of restaurants for all tastes, and if you like Tequila, you will not be disappointed. We visited during the off-season and it was blissfully uncrowded, but I imagine that it’s not quite as quiet and laid-back during the high season.
We flew non-stop to Cancun and took a 20-minute puddle-hopper to Cozumel on Mayair, though there is also regular ferry service between Playa dell Carmen (about 55 miles south of Cancun) and Cozumel. It may seem silly to mention, but I was impressed with the airport at Cancun, which was clean and comfortable with spotlessly clean bathrooms. There are many types of accommodations on Cozumel but we really wanted to stay on the beach and we chose the Intercontinental El Presidente, which is a few miles from town, but makes up for it in being very attractive and peaceful. Although it’s not a small hotel, the way that it’s laid out makes it feel like you’re in a much smaller resort since there are different sections. They have an upscale spa (that we didn’t use) and a well-equipped gym as well as two pools, one for families and another quieter one for adults only. With gorgeous accommodations, excellent amenities and truly friendly, helpful staff, we were extremely pleased with our choice. One thing I really liked were the fresh flowers in our room every day and they also left us a tropical fruit platter the day that we arrived.
The first afternoon after settling into our room, we took a dip in the sea, relaxed and had dinner at the Italian restaurant in the hotel. The food and service were very good, but the best features were the sunset view and an extremely talented live guitarist. The next morning we took a taxi to town to explore and pick up an item we’d neglected to bring, returning to the hotel for an afternoon check out dive off the hotel beach with the local dive operation, Scuba Du. It was an easy and pleasurable dive and we saw several moray eels, a huge hermit crab, a live conch larger than we’d ever seen, a sea snake and the usual tropical Caribbean fish assortment. Stu didn’t bring his camera on this dive but there are photos from the others.
We chose to dive with an independent dive operation, Mestizo Divers. The owner, Freddy Contreras, is one of the most experienced instructors in the area and he owns a very comfortable boat that accommodates a maximum of 6 divers. We were fortunate to join one other couple from Louisville, KY who have known Freddy for many years and regularly dive in Cozumel. For the next 7 days we arose early to have breakfast and meet the Mestizo at one of the hotel docks for 2 morning dives, mostly on the southern reefs. All diving in Cozumel is drift diving due to the currents, but while we were there the currents were unusually mild. The reefs are still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Wilma in 2006 but there was still plenty of coral and the color and variety of sponges and many swim-throughs enhanced the beauty of the reef. We expected to see greater numbers of fish, but we still had many enjoyable dives and spotted hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, green and spotted moray eels, humongous lobsters, shrimp, crabs, conchs, a nurse shark, barracuda, small sting rays, very large groupers including the aptly named Goliath Grouper, and many varieties of tropical fish. The most exciting fish we saw while diving was the splendid toadfish, endemic to the waters around Cozumel, it’s a magnificent specimen with a striped, flat body and bright yellow dorsal fin and pectoral fins. They hide in holes so it’s hard to see all of them, but we did see one out of its hole, though he moved too quickly to get a good photo. Lionfish, though beautiful, are a destructive species introduced to these waters with no natural predators and there is a program to eradicate them. Freddy often speared them when he found any and would feed them to anemones, groupers and eels. It was fascinating watching an anemone wrap its tentacles around the Lionfish flesh and eels venturing out of their safe holes to tear the carcasses to pieces in a feeding frenzy. Our favorite dives were at two sites in the north that are not much visited, Paradise and Mestizo (or Freddy’s) Reef. There were larger schools of fish up at Paradise, though we saw no large pelagic species, and good macro diving at the shallow reef named for Freddy’s operation since none of the other dive shops seem to go there. Freddy and his friends were good sources of restaurant recommendations and we greatly enjoyed their company.
After lunch we spent the afternoons relaxing, swimming, reading, strolling. On the day that we dove in the north, we took a taxi to San Miguel to meet the boat at a dock in town and after the diving had lunch at a wonderful lunch only place in town called Sabores which is in the home of the owners. Soup and tortilla chips with salsa are included and we greatly enjoyed delicious grilled chicken. Our hotel had excellent food and we had breakfast and lunch there most days, though the restaurants are much pricier than those in town. Of all the places we tried in San Miguel, we most enjoyed Kinta with it’s pretty garden and nouvelle Mexican cuisine and Pancho’s Backyard. Pancho’s is more touristy, but the setting is handsome and the almond and amaranth crusted mahi-mahi is scrumptious! I also had a spinach salad with hibiscus dressing that I’m still thinking about and the Quesillo en Salsa Verde (melted Chihuahua cheese with green sauce) is the best we tried. I don’t drink alcohol during the period that I’m diving, but after we stopped diving, I enjoyed a margarita here on our last night in Cozumel. However, the best place that we ate was a casual joint on the beach at Chen Rio on the East side of the island. We started with wonderful garlic shrimp and had the freshest, most tender, moist, flavorful grilled fish of the trip. The margarita here was so huge I could barely lift the glass and though I tried valiantly to finish, I left nearly half.
The day before we left we rented a car and drove around the island. We were very disappointed that Punta Sur was closed, it’s open 7 days a week in high season but closes on Sundays at other times. There’s a stately lighthouse and a variety of attractions, such as an alligator farm, that you can visit there and the coastline is very scenic. We found a lovely small chapel on the cliff above the beach. We continued around the coast enjoying the spectacular views of the sea on our way to San Gervasio, site of the largest Mayan ruins on the island, dedicated to Ixchel. While not as impressive as some of the sites on the mainland, it’s still worth visiting with a variety of interesting structures used for ceremonial purposes. Mosquitoes are vicious and plentiful in this area, so you need good insect repellent.
On the way back to the coast we took a Tequila tour which included samples of the different varieties. They don’t produce the tequila here, there is a museum that illustrates the process and of course sales of the finished product. Like Champagne, true tequila can only be produced around the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant via a painstaking process that used to be wholly manual and is now largely automated. I tasted Blanco, which is unaged, the kind you will usually find in your margaritas, Reposado, which is aged for a minimum of 2 months, but less than a year and Añejo, which is aged a minimum of a year in oak barrels and is meant to be drunk unmixed.
From there we headed back to the shoreline. We went up to Coconuts restaurant which is propped on a hill overlooking the shore, and though the view is lovely from up there, there was a brisk wind so if we wanted a table with a view, we would have had to be seated in the sun without an umbrella for shade, so we left and headed south to Chen Rio. We’re glad we did because we still had a view of the sea and the food was excellent. We thought we might stop to swim but the water is a bit rougher on this side of the island and we decided to just head back to the comfort of our hotel beach to cool off until dinner time.
We had a brief stay in Cancun on our way home and were glad that we didn’t spend any more time there, though if you love nightlife and boisterous crowds, you would love Cancun. We got an excellent rate for the night at JW Marriott and it’s a handsome hotel on the beach with all of the amenities you would expect, not too far from the airport. We had an excellent view from our balcony and they serve a good buffet breakfast, but we didn’t take advantage of most of the hotel features. We dined at an attractive but disappointing restaurant off property that we won’t bother to name. The owners were muy simpatico but the food did not live up to expectations.