Cruising for Cozumel - Page 2

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The next afternoon, Sunday, I sneak into San Miguel and find a ghost town; the cruise ships have taken a day of rest. For the first time, the city's beautiful bones are apparent to me: The spacious plaza feels like a piece of old Mexico. At the compact Museum of the Island of Cozumel, where I am literally the only visitor, I take a leisurely tour of the informative displays on the island's natural history and the reef (a must for those who don't dive, to see what they're missing), and its political history from the Maya era to the Spanish conquest, the age of piracy, and the plantation era.

I discover a piece of Cozumel's living history at Casa Denis, which was the first restaurant on the island, established near the plaza in 1945. Photographs and mementos on the wall run like a movie montage spanning the decades, including a museum-quality photograph of Che and Fidel as a couple of young men in their primes, relaxing together on a post-revolution fishing trip in 1960. The kitchen still prepares the Yucatecan recipes perfected by the current proprietor's grandmother; the lime soup and Mayan pork are delicious. Casa Denis is a throwback, a bastion of tradition and authenticity right in the belly of the beast.

If it were a boat, Cozumel would tip over: Nearly all the population and development is on the west coast, while the east coast is all but deserted. Driving along the east, windward, coast is like visiting another place altogether, with completely different vegetation of sweetly fragrant low scrub, and miles and miles of uninhabited beaches. It's reminiscent of Baja, with surfers tangling with whitecaps under blue skies. And when the midday sun turns the temperature up high, it's a place where the elements conspire to sing the words "cerveza fria" in your ear, loudly and repeatedly, until you finally pull over at one of the handful of beach bars that serve as oases along the coast. The concierge back at the Presidente, a smoothie in his twenties, had told me that Coconuts is the one where he takes all his girlfriends -- and recommendations don't come much better than that.

Set on a hilltop 56 feet above the sea, Coconuts claims to be the highest spot on the island, and I immediately get the idea that just might be true in more ways than one. The classic thatched palapa is decorated by T-shirts and underthings, left behind, presumably, by the wildly happy and less-than-fully-clothed folks who populate the dozens of "family" photo albums stacked on the bar.

"This place was started by my girlfriend and her husband," says the affable boss Sergio "Cuco" Rojas, shouting over the classic rock he's pulling in off satellite radio. "He passed away, I kept the restaurant and the wife. "You gotta find a nice way to say that," he says. (Cuco, my friend, some quotes cannot be improved upon even by a professional.)

He orders me the house special, a Coco Loco, a surprisingly potable combination of tequila, gin, vodka, rum, coconut water, lime and sugar syrup, served inside a fresh coconut. Then he introduces the bar's pet parrot, Lorenzo, and Elvis the iguana, who chills next to me on the bar wearing a tiny purple sombrero while I work on some tasty shrimp tacos.

Surreal though the scene may seem, I'm struck once again with the feeling that I've really arrived in Cozumel. It'd be easy, oh so easy, to stay right where I am sucking down Coco Locos, but my instincts say I should split before I wind up posing for the family album wearing nothing but Elvis' little hat.

From Coconuts, it's not far down to the southern tip of the island and Punta Sur Ecological Park. The climb to the top of the lighthouse is worthwhile for the bird's-eye view of the convergence of east and west coasts. With nary a building in sight, the island's natural beauty is on full display.

Back on earth, I hop on a tour bus for the short ride to a three-and-a-half-mile-long beach on the calm side. Snorkeling offshore, I find little in the way of reef, but a friendly turtle lets me follow him around for 15 minutes. I then join a brief guided tour of the lagoon. Looking down from the boardwalk perched five feet above the shallow tea-colored water, I get as close as I ever need to be to a 10-foot-long saltwater crocodile.

The next day, my Cozumel affair ends as it began -- with a seafood orgy. Conchitas del Caribe is one of those places where simply and perfectly prepared fresh catch keeps arriving in waves that threaten to overtake the table. A medium order of ceviche is a platter-size medley of octopus, shrimp and conch, all of it cool and fresh, crisp but not tough, flavored with cilantro, ripe tomato, onion and lime. The conch, octopus and shrimp make another appearance on the Grilled Seafood Platter, joined now by lobster tail, calamari and grouper. My quest to find the best margarita in Cozumel is resolved here -- and the price is geared more to satisfying hardworking locals than soaking the extranjeros.

The restaurant is atmospheric, too. Ceiling fans hang from a high tin roof, a huge undersea mural sets a cool blue tone, and if the overwrought Mexican ballads sound corny at first, after a couple of those perfecto margaritas it's fiesta time. Conchitas del Caribe is several blocks deeper into San Miguel than most tourists ever venture. A guy who owns a condo on the island is so surprised to see another Norteamericano in here that he walks straight up to my table and says, "How did you find this place?"

"Amigo," I said. "I've been looking for this ever since I got here."

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Best Hotels in Cozumel

$372
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#1
Cozumel Palace - All Inclusive
$62
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#2
Casa Mexicana Cozumel
$160
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#4
Playa Azul Golf Inclusive

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