Cozumel a place to dive for

Orlando Sentinel - - TRAVEL & ARTS - By Patti Nick­ell

On the ground, is­land boasts Mayan his­tory, va­ri­ety of ecosys­tems Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader

COZUMEL, Mex­ico — This lovely, laid-back is­land off the coast of Can­cun and Playa del Car­men, which pro­vides the easy­go­ing yin to those cities’ pul­sat­ing yang, holds a spe­cial place among my trav­els.

My first visit here came for the pur­pose of get­ting cer­ti­fied as a scuba diver. Af­ter a week of ex­plor­ing noth­ing more ex­cit­ing than the bot­tom of the YMCA pool in New Or­leans, I was at last get­ting ready for my check-out dive at Cozumel’s beau­ti­ful Palan­car Reef.

Grad­u­ally de­scend­ing to a depth of 75 feet, I would have gasped at the ma­rine life around me if I hadn’t had a reg­u­la­tor clamped in my mouth. Aside from mul­ti­col­ored corals, I ob­served sea life rang­ing from gor­geous — sun­fish, par­rot­fish and sea tur­tles — to grue­some — bar­racuda, moray eels and nurse sharks.

I was so en­tranced with this al­ter­nate uni­verse that I was saved from run­ning out of air only by the gen­tle tug of the dive master mo­tion­ing me to­ward the sur­face. I got my Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Div­ing In­struc­tors cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, but sadly, never re­turned to Palan­car, in­stead opt­ing for far-off reefs in Aus­tralia, Palau and the Red Sea.

I did re­turn to Cozumel twice, but only as day stops on cruise ships do­ing a western Caribbean route. Thus, I was thrilled when the chance came to spend a bit more time on the is­land — on the ground in­stead of un­der the wa­ter.

Cozumel is a great place to spend time on land, as 80 per­cent of it is fed­er­ally pro­tected. Sway­ing palms, sandy beaches and dense jun­gle­like thick­ets make the is­land seem far­ther away from the over­built tourist des­ti­na­tions of the Yu­catan than the 45-minute ferry ride from the main­land.

While the cruise ship ac­tiv­ity makes it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to re­main to­tally unspoiled, most of the day-trip­pers con­fine them­selves to the main street on the har­bor or to pre-booked ac­tiv­i­ties such as dol­phin- and whale­watch­ing, sub­ma­rine ex­cur­sions, te­quila tours and beach bar-hop­ping.

That leaves the leisurely ex­plo­ration to the rest of us. My friend and I booked a driver for a day to take us to two of Cozumel’s most in­ter­est­ing spots: Par­que Punta Sur and Pue­blo del Maiz (Mayan Vil­lage).

Par­que Punta Sur is on the un­de­vel­oped east side of the is­land and marks the south­ern­most point of Cozumel. It is the largest eco­log­i­cal re­serve on the is­land (247 acres) with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems — la­goons, forests and reefs, which are part of the Ar­recifes de Cozumel Na­tional Park. You can of­ten find your­self the only per­son on a stretch of beach that me­an­ders for seven miles.

The park it­self has given the barest of nods to tourism. There is a buzzy beach bar, Pel­i­cano’s Beach Club, where you can stake out a chair or a low-slung ham­mock and kick back over a Corona. There is snorkel equip­ment you can rent to ex­plore the shal­low reef and a lunch buf­fet to en­joy be­tween dips in turquoise wa­ters. You may even be tempted to share your taco with the op­por­tunis­tic rac­coon who serves as the bar’s masked mas­cot.

There is also a light­house with stun­ning views and a ma­rine mu­seum at its base, and a small mar­ket where you can pur­chase col­or­ful crafts. But the area’s big­gest draw — in more ways than one — is the La­guna Colom­bia, a trio of la­goons that weave in be­tween man­grove swamps where large croc­o­diles bask in the sun.

If Punta Sur is a good way to spend a morn­ing, then Pue­blo del Maiz makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing af­ter­noon. This re-cre­ation of a Mayan vil­lage is a bit of a find as it seems to be mostly ig­nored by the large cruise ships.

I was greeted at the en­trance by my guide, ap­pro­pri­ately be­jew­eled, be­feath­ered and be­decked, and sport­ing stripes of face paint in var­i­ous hues. While he looked as if he might have just come from a Mayan war coun­cil, he was most ami­able and told me he was study­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the hopes of be­com­ing a writer.

I got my own face painted in prepa­ra­tion for the jour­ney back through Mayan his­tory, where first up was a bless­ing by a shaman and an of­fer­ing to Hun Nal Ye, the god of corn.

The vil­lage con­sists of seven pala­pas — tra­di­tional thatched huts ded­i­cated to a spe­cific as­pect of Mayan life. In one I was shown how to make a corn tor­tilla us­ing a tra­di­tional oven; in another I tasted honey as a swarm of bees buzzed nearby. I eyed them war­ily but my guide, the fu­ture com­mu­ni­ca­tor, as­sured me I had noth­ing to worry about — the bees were stin­g­less.

There was an op­por­tu­nity to sam­ple choco­late (the Mayans are cred­ited with dis­cov­er­ing it), and test my skill play­ing a Mayan game sim­i­lar to bocce ball. The most pop­u­lar demon­stra­tion, how­ever, got no tak­ers. All of us were con­tent to let the fire dancer bust out his moves with­out as­sis­tance. A spe­cial is­land re­quires a spe­cial re­sort, and the Oc­ci­den­tal Cozumel more than fills the re­quire­ment. Col­or­ful vil­las with red-tiled roofs and hid­den court­yards are de­signed to mimic Mex­i­can ha­cien­das and are a far cry from the beach­side tow­ers found in many re­sorts. In fact, the beach wasn’t to be seen from my ac­com­mo­da­tion — be­ing a five-minute walk away, over a bridge and through a man­grove swamp.

In­stead, I was sur­rounded by lush veg­e­ta­tion and land­scap­ing com­plete with foun­tains, la­goons and trop­i­cal fo­liage. In­ter­spersed through­out are vivid pieces of pot­tery used as art. The en­tire set­ting was that of a tran­quil oa­sis.

The Oc­ci­den­tal Cozumel fea­tures 247 rooms, six restau­rants, three pools (one for adults only), and a full-ser­vice spa.

The re­sort’s staff can ar­range a num­ber of spe­cial ac­tiv­i­ties upon re­quest. My friend and I took a pri­vate cook­ing class with the ho­tel chef and a te­quila tast­ing. We ended the tast­ing with a Mex­i­can flag shooter, where the col­ors of the na­tional flag — red, white and green — were rep­re­sented re­spec­tively by grena­dine, white te­quila and creme de men­the.

Sip­ping the Mex­i­can flag brought me full cir­cle, as it was the same bev­er­age of­fered all those years ago when I suc­cess­fully com­pleted my scuba cer­ti­fi­ca­tion dive. This time, how­ever, I was salut­ing some­thing else — how spe­cial Cozumel is as a travel des­ti­na­tion.

PA­TRI­CIA HARRIS/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE PHO­TOS

A sculp­ture de­pict­ing scuba divers em­bod­ies the is­land’s im­por­tance as a div­ing des­ti­na­tion.

An of­fer­ing to the Mayan god of corn is the start­ing point for a tour of Pue­blo del Maiz, a re-cre­ation of a Mayan vil­lage.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.