Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cozumel - an island of crystal waters and happy people

This photo was taken on  Christmas eve, but I expect that it would look pretty much the same most months of the year. The water is so clear that one can walk out as deep as your tippy-toes will hold you and still gaze down to the bottom of the sea as if separated only by glass. No snorkels necessary as the fish dart around your legs, in plain view. Snorkels are of course a plus, because you can swim out deep and gaze at the many different wonders of  fish and  reef, as well as spotting large conch and the intricate etchings of their trails in the sand. 

A family reunion brought us together from distant geographies  under one roof, in a lovely 5 bedroom/5 bathroom villa I am happy to recommend. We were in a residential area of Cozumel, in walking distance to town and  shopping, but a world away from the crowds and 'cruseros' who disembark virtually daily (everyday but Sunday) from the 4 to 5 large cruise ships that dock in Cozumel. The villa has 2 kitchens and 2 living rooms, which makes it ideal for large groups.

One the many highlights of the trip was a day trip on a boat arranged by our friendly cab driver Kelly (thank-you Kelly!). The captain normally does dive trips, and is a master diver, but his boat was available and we were able to book it for just the 8 of us. The plan was multiple stops for snorkeling and fishing. 

We zipped out of the port, past the large slumbering cruise ships who had already disgorged their crowds. It felt good to be headed out for quite waters and private beaches that can be reached only by boat. The sun was warm on our faces, the breeze just enough to keep us cool, and we had a cooler full of cold drinks and fresh fruit. 

Our first stop was on a sand bank all the way at the south end of the island. The beach was not reachable by car, and it looked wonderfully deserted and inviting. Because we dropped anchor on the sand bank, we were able to jump off the boat into water that was only waist deep and crystalline. While there was not much to see from a snorkeling point of view, we horsed around in the shallow warm waters, posing for many a family shot in the water, and keeping our drinks cool.

Of the 3 snorkeling spots we went to, everyone's favorite was the Columbia Shallows. This area is used for novice divers (only a 35 foot dive) and the diversity of marine life was incredible. We saw a turtle, a snake, a HUGE parrot fish, and thousands of fish of many more species than I could possibly remember.

On Christmas day we booked Kelly for an island tour(seriously, if you are looking a friendly, trustworthy driver, with a van that fits 7 and who speaks wonderful english call him at 52 (987) 116 8603. Tell him that crazy american family from Christmas recommended him), since we wanted to spend some quality time on the windward side of the island. No surprise that the beach resorts and major town are on the leeward side, which is almost always calm and sheltered, except when the wind blows from the north. My boys had their heart set on golf, so they headed off to the golf course at the Cozumel Country Club (which they said was terrific - complete with crocodiles who wander around at several of the holes) while we piled into the van for the tour. 

The windward side is wild and windy. Yet with the blazing sun the wind only feels energizing, although I can imagine that the constant blowing would get tiring quickly. There is little there. We saw one hotel, and only a few restaurants. The first place we stopped at was closed - most likely because it was Christmas day. While it seemed to be set up for lounging on the beach (complete with a sign for 'Naked Beach' ... not sure what that was about), it would not have been possible to swim given the waves that pounded into the rocky shore.

Certainly there were a couple of places where it was sandy and possible to swim. In several inlet areas we saw local families, who contented themselves with wading in to knee depth, but most of the beaches had large signs - in english - warning of strong currents and cautioning against swimming. We opted to save our swimming for when the single road looped around the end of the island and back up the leeward side. 

Kelly steered us to Playa Bonita for lunch. They had the benefit of being open :-) and as it turns out, serve terrific food! The server gave us what he called the 'basic menu' because he joked that the cook was still sleeping (sleeping it off most likely - there was a lot of whooping it up in town into the wee hours of the morning on christmas eve). As promised, it had the basics, and we ordered simple tacos and fajitas, which all came with incredibly fresh and delightful seafood. The best dish we got was a ceviche - made with fresh tuna that the server had caught that morning off the northern shore. Even the gringo dish, nachos, was terrific. I highly recommend this restaurant. 

Santa makes a delivery at Playa Bonita
Our favorite place for swimming, after trying many of the swim clubs on the leeward side, is Playa Palancar. There is no entry fee, and they do not make arrangements with the cruise ships to truck in vast quantities of day-trippers. This also means there are no jet-skis, and no wild party atmosphere - which is what we liked about it. There is the usual setup that to use the chairs and tables on the beach, one has to order something, but that is definitely not a hardship. It's never a wrong time for a cold beer. 

There is a mellow atmosphere to this beach club, and you can get a massage under a palapa for the going rate, which is $30 for 30 minutes. I've found that in general, if you ask for the price in pesos, you get a better price. The locals seem to use a simple rule of thumb to multiply by 10. So something that costs $100, if you ask to pay in pesos, you will likely be told it is 1,000 pesos - which of course at the exchange rate, works out to only $78. 
If you can tear yourself away for one minute from the crystal waters and stunning sunsets, say hello to the pets at palancar beach from me when you visit. It is undoubtedly the only time you will find peacocks wandering around the beach, eating treats from your hand (p.s. they like the nachos).

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