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Cozumel: Still Alluring After All These Years
Lifeís never what you expect. Except for a brief blip of a press trip, I hadnít set foot on Cozumel for years, and I wasnít sure I wanted to. Visions of behemoth cruise ships danced in my head. In my waking nightmare, streams of undeserving tourists marched down main street in zombie-like formations before continuing to my beloved Chankanaab---the first place I ever snorkeled---to mash the coral reef beneath their flippered feet. I was absolutely positive that the years had replaced the lovable island from my earliest explorations of the Yucatan with something cold, hard, and unappealing.
The Cozumel I recently rediscovered, just offshore of the Riviera Maya, was as wonderful as I remembered it. We had a short visit only, so I didnít get much of a chance to explore downtown, where I surely would have been surprised by the number of jewelry shops and perfumeries geared toward cruise ship passengers. But when I went to snorkel at Chankanaab, there were only a sprinkling of guests ogling the offshore reef---not the flipper-to-flipper hordes Iíd expected.
Punta Sur was also sparsely populated with visitors. The fee to enter this marine sanctuary seems a bit steep: what you get for US$12 is basically beach entrance, a visit to the lighthouse museum (which is charming and interesting), and views from the lighthouse tower and the crocodile viewing station. Within the 100-hectare reserve are sugary beaches, sand dunes, low jungle, mangroves, and wide lagoons. For an additional cost you can take a guided kayak or catamaran tour up the coast, snorkel, or go bird-watching.
The windward side of the island is still practically undeveloped. The north end, accessed via a dirt-and-sand road only, has untrammeled beaches and a sprinkling of abandoned Maya ruins. A paved road cuts across the island from the leeward (populated) side before turning south for easy access to kilometers of lovely, white sand beaches, some with waves for surfers, others with good conditions for kiteboarders and windsurfers. Many of the more beautiful spots have wood-and-palm-thatch restaurant-bars, restrooms, lounge chairs on the sand, palapas for shade, and men and women selling souvenirs and cold drinks. These services actually add to their appeal, and there are plenty of solitary beaches if thatís what youíre looking for.
Some things, however, have changed since my first visit in the mid-1980s. There are three international cruise ship piers, and a maximum of eleven of the big boats may call on any one day. (There are no cruise ships on Sundays.) This number is what led me to expect a wall-to-wall horde of tourists, but despite the fact that five ships were in port when we explored the Land of the Swallows (as the island was named long ago by the Maya), none of the sites we visited was crowded. Some passengers stay on board, while others go to private enclaves like Isla de la Pasiůn, a self-contained peninsula offering visitors unlimited food and drink, sports activities, and a beautiful beach.
Cozumel first attracted visitors during the pre-Hispanic era, when Maya women from the mainland made pilgrimages to worship Ixchel, goddess of the hearth, agriculture, wisdom, the moon, and fertility; she was considered the protector of women in childbirth. The Spanish of course claimed the island for their own; it was one of the first places visited during their expeditions and subsequent conquest of Mesoamerica.
Imported diseases during the 17th and 18th centuries wiped out much of the local population, and the island was abandoned. (Several centuries of pirate raids hastened the civiliansí departure, no doubt.) About a dozen extended Maya families repopulated the 52-by14-kilometer island during the War of the Castes, fleeing the Spanish slaughter of entire communities in retaliation for a short-lived Maya uprising. Many of the islandís current 80,000 residents are descendants of those 19th-century settlers.
The land is bountiful and many crops flourished here, along with tropical fruits and fish from the sea. Today agriculture is an afterthought and tourism drives the economy, but a solid community of long-time residents still owns much of the land, which is perhaps one reason Cozumel has managed to maintain an affable, laid-back atmosphere despite the appearance of five-star hotels and several million cruise ship passengers each year. Locals celebrate Carnival with gusto, inviting visitors to share in their colorful parades and outdoor dances. La fiesta de la Santa Cruz, culminating May 3 in celebration of the Day of the Holy Cross, is more for locals and special guests; descendants of the 11 founding families are honored guests at feasts, bullfights, and dances, among the latter el baile del Cochino, when women in their finest embroidered dresses dance while holding aloft a roasted pigís head on a platter.
Jacques Cousteau really put Cozumel on the map with his televised diving expeditions in the 1950s, letting the world know about the mysterious beauty of the Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches from north of the island past Mexicoís border with Belize. Some three dozen dives sites lure enthusiasts underwater, from reefs just under the surface to deep and mysterious trenches. Although hurricanes and too many visitors have damaged some of its magnificent coral, Cozumel remains one of the worldís most attractive dive- and snorkel destinations.
Any time except the hurricane season (mid-September through mid-November) is appropriate for a diverís vacation. The summer rainy season might put a damper on a beach vacation, but most of the islandís 4,000 hotel rooms still fill up with families during school vacations, and rain showers rarely last all day. Besides the school vacation surge of July and August, Thanksgiving through Easter is high season, when snowbirds come to swim in the Caribbeanís aquamarine seas and snuggle into sandy beaches.
Carnival is an excellent time to visit if you like colorful street parties, dancing, photography, and all-around celebrations. Cozumel also has several fishing tournaments each year, and the Iron Man Triathlon takes place in late November, when the weather is less oppressively hot.
To say I was pleasantly surprised by Cozumelís continued allure is an understatement. I canít wait to return on an extended vacation.
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