Cruising for Cozumel
Though at times it seems the island may sink under the sheer weight of cruise-ship visitors, travelers to Cozumel can still find genuine Mexican charm along with some of the world's best diving.
Midafternoon of my first day in Cozumel finds me at the corner table of La Choza, a downtown San Miguel restaurant. Day of the Dead skeletons dance on wall murals under a thatched roof, and pedestrians on the narrow street outside the open windows pass within touching distance as they dodge the hurly-burly of traffic on a diminutive scale -- tiny trucks, rickshaw delivery bikes and teetering scooters burdened with families of three -- all negotiating the busy intersection by rules and logic unfathomable to an outsider. At the next table sits a mamasita in a colorful mumu, her Maya-black hair pulled back into a generous bun. She's slowly savoring a fishbowl-size red drink and a delicious-looking fried fish that must be 20 inches from nose to tail. "I'll have what she's having," I tell the waiter, "and I'll start with a margarita."
With the kitchen in no hurry and the taste of limey lime, salty salt and smoky tequila on my lips -- the simplest ingredients always taste so much more vivid in Mexico -- I have time to fully appreciate the passing street theater. Divers still wearing damp wetsuits pile out of vehicles in front of the shop across the street; storefront signs blare their come-ons in loud pastels; horns and revving engines compete with the brassy din of La Choza's stereo. Quiet it's not, but I'm loving the sensory overload of being in a bustling Mexican town at a joint where locals and gringos rub shoulders at the feasting table. As I dig deeply into that hefty fried snapper -- so crispy outside, so white and tender inside -- I feel like I've really arrived.
That satisfying feeling, though, is short-lived. After lunch, I stroll to the nearby plaza and suddenly feel like I'm in Pamplona during the running of the bulls. There's a herd of coupon-clutching cruise shippers funneling through a gauntlet of shops selling tacky T-shirts and cheapo tchotchkes. One of the storefront touts actually baits a passing prospect with a parody of the old south-of-the-border stereotype: "Hey meester, you want to meet my seester?"
With that, I realize I've crossed over into the turista barrio that San Miguel's waterfront district has become. I guess that's what happens to a place when it becomes the number-one cruise-ship port of call in the world. Some 3 million day-trippers arrive annually (an average of 8,200 a day), and each spends about $70 on the island. Two hundred million dollars goes a long way toward providing a nice standard of living for 75,000 Cozumeleños, but obviously, mass tourism on that scale is a mixed blessing. Nevertheless, it's been given the full blessing of the Mexican government, which OK'd the three massive cruise-ship docks despite the objections of environmentalists.
The sight of the giant ships, the tourist-crowded streets and the tawdry shops is almost enough to make me want to sequester myself at my resort hotel. But based on that great lunch at La Choza, I know there's got to be more to Cozumel than el centro's daytime cruise crush -- and my challenge will be to seek out its most appealing havens. A quick look at the map shows that outside San Miguel, most of the island is uninhabited, with a long beachy coastline on the east and a west side that's literally lined with world-famous coral reefs. What better way to escape the topside commotion than by exploring the silent world?
But first, a refresher course. As a diver, I'm a dabbler. And it'd be foolish to leap headfirst into Cozumel's notoriously swift currents without scraping the rust off my scuba skills. Fortunately, my hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Resort and Spa, is virtually a diving country club, one of those nice resorts where they rinse your gear and hang it for you overnight. The Scuba Du shop is just across the manicured lawn from my room, next to a neatly raked beach. A nice young man with a professional demeanor hooks me up with brand-new gear, goes over the fundamentals and takes me out on a decent little shore dive. After the tune-up, I know I'm still a dilettante, but I'm confident enough to sign on for a dive with Advanced Divers, a small operation that, as the name implies, caters mainly to very experienced bubbleheads.
"We're goin' to Barracuda, and anybody who survives that will dive San Juan Reef," says divemaster Tony Perez onboard the Careyitos during his pre-dive briefing. I know he's hyperbolizing to ensure everyone pays attention, but it helps lower my air consumption when he adds, "Of course, we've never lost anybody in 15 years."
Perez, a slim, gray-haired former Green Beret of 60 with a moist Louisiana delivery and a dry humor, explains that Cozumel's strong currents are the reason the reefs here are so pristine and fertile, but he notes that they're nothing to be trifled with. "If you're used to the Bahamas, Cayman, Bonaire, this is not that type of diving," he says. "This is current diving, not simply drift diving."
I ask Perez about the cruise pier construction and its effect on the underwater environment. He says that while some of the prime reefs were put out of commission, Cozumel's vaunted marine diversity -- 26 types of coral and some 500 species of fish -- has not only survived, it's thriving, with recent sightings of heretofore scarce species.
On submerging, I find myself flying sideways over an ancient, mountainous accumulation of corals, with sea fans bent over like palm trees in a hurricane. The downside of current diving is that it's hard to stop and observe all the colorful little individual creatures clustered with the corals. The reef becomes a blurry garden of delights -- the eagle rays, turtles and nurse sharks are characters in a passing show. The dividend, though, is the sensation of effortless motion through fantastical inner space. You get into a zone down there.
After burning our second tanks on San Juan -- a less dramatic reef with a more populous menagerie of seven-foot-wide eagle rays and hawksbill turtles of various sizes -- I ask Perez for the lowdown on exploring the island. He points me back into town to a couple of essential sights, and across the island to the undeveloped east coast.
He also recommends a couple of bars and restaurants favored by expats -- if I suffer a craving for pizza or an American-style sports bar, I know where to go. Cozumel might have been a significant pilgrimage site for the early Maya, but, he confides, it holds little of archeological interest to a sightseer. If I want to see spectacular Maya ruins, he says, I should day-trip by airplane over to Chichén Itzá on the mainland.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication