28 March 2010


As I return from vacation to hundreds of Emails, I realize how temporary and fleeting everything is and how quickly obsolescence sets in. Nothing fades like yesterday’s news. I usually don’t write about travel, but since Cozumel is a place I have revisited many times I feel as though I ought to give it a mention here. I go there often because it has some of the best scuba diving in the world, since Jacques Cousteau first discovered it in the 1950’s. I’ve never had a bad dive there. The only problem nowadays is packing dive gear given the way airlines are all scrimping. I put it all in a suitcase and put all my clothes in a carry-on.

Cozumel is an island off of Mexico in the Caribbean, just off the mainland and Cancun. However, unlike Cancun it is not overdeveloped and overrun with drunken American students. To be sure there has been some change since I started going there in the early 90s. Back then it was frequented mainly by divers and dive shops outnumbered restaurants. Now many of the diving establishments and other shops have been pushed a few blocks further in from the main road along the shore in San Miguel, the only real town. They have been replaced by large jewelry stores catering to the duty-free cruise ship crowd, since it has become a frequent stop on the Caribbean cruise routes. I noticed as many as seven cruise ships docked during the day, which is not a particularly good time to be in town. But the cruise passengers are taken to town or public beaches south of it so they don’t really inconvenience longer-term visitors.

I recommend visiting the island for a spell rather than a cruise stop to really enjoy its laid back atmosphere. It provides the best of the Caribbean as well as Mexico. Virtually the entire side of the island facing the mainland is a marine park full of gorgeous reefs and 100+ feet of visibility. This is where most of the hotels face, but there are no huge edifices and most are of moderate size. If you don’t dive there are plenty of offshore snorkeling opportunities, particularly at a park called Chakanaab.
Away from the shoreline most of the island is undeveloped jungle. We went horseback riding for nearly three hours through the jungle to some Mayan ruins, which left me quite sore. We also took a drive across the island to the “wild side” facing the ocean, which remains virtually undeveloped due to rough water and strong currents, although it does seem to be attracting a few surfers now. At the south end of the island is a national park where you are taken on a ride in an elevated vehicle past alligator swamps to a lighthouse at the end. That’s basically all there is to do, so you can have a perfectly good time lounging at the pool at a resort or on the beach. It is also only a short ferry ride to the mainland where you can visit ruins at Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum.

There are many good hotels that cater to divers, but for a general vacation I highly recommend the Melia Maya at the north end of the island where we have a timeshare. It has an excellent beach, nicely appointed facilities and impeccable service. There are many good dive operators on the island, where safety is a priority and generally the best thing to do is pick one that has been in business for a good number of years. I’m not going to recommend any particular dives because they are all good, and wherever your dive boat takes you, you are sure to enjoy it.

I don’t recommend doing an all-inclusive resort deal, at least not for a whole week as there are too many good restaurants in town. Among them are Pepe’s, which is a world class restaurant serving great meals like our favorite, Chateaubriand for two followed by Crepe Suzettes prepared at the table, at less than half the price you’d pay in New York. For Mexican fare, including local specialties we always go to La Choza, Casa Mission, CafĂ© Denis, Ernesto’s Fajita Factory, and Pancho’s Back Yard at Cinco Soles, a wonderful store that is always full of surprises and original material. All of these places are quite inexpensive and serve excellent food. In most places there are troubadors making the rounds in song and worth tipping. They all tend to be older, so it may something you won’t see forever.

It was unusually cool when we arrived but quickly warmed up. The climate is almost always mild, but don’t be fooled by occasional cloud cover, because you can still wind up with a sunburn. Be sure to go to the town square Sunday evening, when there is live music and dancing and the locals congregate with the tourists. Although others have now appeared, the best guide to the island is still a little Blue Book that is widely available for free. English is widely spoken and American money is the de facto currency. Finally, Cozumel is one of the safest places on the planet and crime-free. I highly recommend you pay a visit one day.

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