Cozumel a place to dive for
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.
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.