Jane’s latest book, Brule River Forest and Lake Superior, was just successfully published in paperback, digital and large print additions.
All our ducks were in a row and we slipped out of town dodging the unrelenting tropical waves and September low pressure troughs at the absolute peak of hurricane season. On again, off again black rain clouds mercilessly traversed the Yucatan.
Traveling light included our German bicycle rain capes, [the same type used by British police.] and plastic covers for our packs. Folding bicycles and space age 6 ounce hammocks gave us freedom of movement and unparallel comfort.
After a five hour bus trip from Merida, we arrived a 1 p.m. at Playa del Carmen, which is on Yucatan’s tropical Caribbean coast.
Twenty-five years ago the sleepy little fishing village of Playa del Carmen had but one claim to fame. It was the ferry landing for San Miguel on the island of Cozumel, 19 km. away in the Caribbean.
Today Playa has become a significant shopping and tourist destination with all varieties of accommodations ranging from five-star all inclusive to budget. A first time visitor may easily get the impression that they are on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
Rain squalls did us a favor; as luck would have it the bus terminal had a covered bench on the walking street just waiting for us and Jane had the fixings for a picnic lunch.
As we finished our lunch, the rain quit and we rolled away.
We rode north to check out some accommodation leads…we were not thrilled.
Another rain squall blackened the northern sky and we quickened our pace to the Cozumel ferryboat landing.
The squall tied with our convergence at the ferry pavilion waiting area and we were still dry.
We boarded the 3 p. m. ferryboat. It was nearly full and this is off season.
Our last visit to Cozumel was nearly ten years ago. The population is now over 100, 000.
In 1958 when Michel Peissel, ethnologist, explorer, and author, landed at Cozumel it was a different world. In his book, the Lost World of Quintana Roo, he wrote:
“The Cuban revolution had also affected the coast, for in closing Cuba to American tourists Castro had opened up a boom on Cozumel Island. Three years earlier Cozumel had no hotel, and now I learned that four were in operation and two giant hostelries were under construction. There was a daily flight from Mérida to Cozumel, which had become but another name in the world of Caribbean resorts. The invasion of Cozumel by tourists was, I felt, the end of the Quintana Roo I had known.”
When Jane and I first explored the Caribbean coast of Yucatan in the mid 1980s Playa del Carmen had about a dozen single story thatched roof structures along the beach, and it was jungle all the way to the newly built road where there was a Pemex gasoline station…the only one between Cancun and Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Today Playa del Carmen is a major tourist and shopping destination on an eight lane super highway with urban sprawl.
The island of Cozumel has its appeal; crystal clear Caribbean waters, tropical temperatures, gentle trade winds, and fresh air.
If a hurricane does not blow you away in September or October, this is paradise.
After crossing to Cozumel on the ferry, we followed a lead to Hostelito on 10th Avenue. We took their best room, the suite. It had been a long day. We could check out other places later.
In the following days, we checked out the good, bad and ugly; upscale and economy. We couldn’t find better.
With few exceptions the rental accommodations all have air conditioning and hot water. If there is one place on the planet you do NOT need these things, it is here in this balmy salubrious tropical climate where even rain storms are warm.*
Our Mérida friend Tere Castro’s mother is from Cozumel. Tere told us we just had to try the market (Mercado Municipal Benito Juarez) food court located between Av. 20 and Av. 25 on Calle Adolfo R. Salas.
We found it extremely high-quality with a wide range of authentic Mexican food. Again we never found better. Their huge selection of salsas were tops.
Taqueria Molina is one of many market food court restaurants that open at 5 a. m. with a steady clientele of eager eaters who love the very best.
The people of Cozumel are an international jumble and no stereotype fits. They tend to be friendly, not pushy or high pressure, and generally eager to make a profit. An example; Jane bought coffee for $14 pesos and I went for a refill fifteen minutes later and they wanted to charge $17 pesos…same cup same place. Tourists tend to be an easy mark.
Shopping is one of Cozumel’s attractions. Diamond, gold and silver plus tourist trinket shops abound and have a propensity to be upscale near the ferry landing.
Traffic is light and the drivers are mostly easy going. However, visitors in rentals think they own the roads and rules do not apply. Note: Your auto insurance is voided if you are drunk, breaking the law or drive off the pavement. The rental outfits hold your signed credit card voucher and all infractions and fines will be paid by you. Improperly parked vehicles may have their license plates removed or the car towed and impounded where the owner pays more charges.
Public transport makes life in Mexico pleasanter.
Your options for rentals range from bicycles, motor scooters, jeeps, cars, and horse carriages. We travel by bicycle and bus using folding bikes.
Snorkel and scuba diving are the main draws of Cozumel. Sailboats, jet skis, paragliding, and glass bottomed boats are all there and more. The options are far too many to list here.
May and June are wonderful here with few tourists. Do not linger too long because when the June rains begin the mosquitoes can be unmerciful.
Summer is high season on all Mexican beaches.
September until mid-December is also a low tourist season. If you do not mind dodging rain squalls and the occasional hurricane then September until mid-November offers off-season advantages.
Cozumel web links:
*Note: Visitors from northern latitudes with painfully white skin never exposed to the sunlight and totally unaccustomed to the comfort of natural tropical living insist on air conditioning and hot water showers.
Mexicans do not tend to fix anything that is working and that includes air conditioners. As a consequence, the filters become lush breeding grounds for broadcasting pathogens that can be a serious health risk. A little paranoia can save your life. Drink bottled water, take care of your personal hygiene, and wash your hands.
Take the time to learn all of the uses of hammocks. You will be richly rewarded with a lifetime of convenient, comfortable and contented repose.
Numerous monuments that commutate the history of Cozumel and Mexico are scattered throughout the island.
This fascinating story actually begins with the birth of Gonzalo Guerrero back in the early 1470’s at Palos, Andalusia, Spain.
Trained as a military combatant he fought to drive the last of the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula by 1492 ending eight centuries of Islamic occupation. Then he took up his next position of soldier/sailor on Columbus’s first ocean crossing expedition aboard the small open carvel vessel Niña.
In 1511 Gonzalo set sail in good weather from the Gulf of Darien on the Colombian coast of South America north bound with looted treasure and slaves.
What happened next is one of the worst nightmare stories that could happen to anyone.
Forty year old Gonzalo’s ship floundered and he was plummeted into the sea. Aboard a makeshift raft with no food or water, Gonzalo and the seventeen men and two women that survived the wrath of a hurricane that dismasted and sunk their ship drifted to the Yucatan Peninsula. Gonzalo and his shipmates were taken as slaves by the local Maya.
Gonzalo gained his freedom from slavery through an act of bravery. He killed an alligator that was attacking his Mayan master.
Gonzalo Guerrero left a lasting legacy with his newly adopted countrymen.
Gonzalo took a Mayan princess named Zazil Ha as his wife and was given the temples of Ichpaatún north of Chetumal, presently designated on maps as Oxtankah. He then engaged in ritual mutilation and tattooing that included piercing his ears and cheeks. These acts assimilated him into the Mayan way of life.
For centuries Gonzalo Guerrero was despised by the Spanish for being a traitor, defector, and renegade. He was a man who had fought against his countrymen, turned his back on his land of birth, society, renounced his faith and denied Christ.
After the independence of Mexico from Spain, a change took place. Some Mexicans descended from the conquerors now began to feel a real passion for the Mayan culture. For the Maya, one name that symbolizes the struggle in opposition to colonial imperialist power and a struggle for freedom was Gonzalo Guerrero.
Monument commemorating the arrival of the Spanish.
Replica of a Mayan temple on Cozumel’s waterfront commemorates the arrival of Spaniards Juan de Grijalva and Hernán Cortés.
The first Spanish expedition to visit Cozumel was led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518. In 1519, Hernán Cortés stopped by the island on his way to Veracruz.
The Spanish commandeered the salt trade plus gold and gems. Next pirates looted the Spanish treasure fleets and the Spanish fortified their settlements for protection of their pillaged loot.
Juan Bautista Vega was born in Cozumel in 1884. In 1896 Dr. Fábregas an adventurer and treasure hunter arrived in Cozumel with the intention of crossing to Tulum on the mainland of Quintana Roo. The Chan Santa Cruz Mayas were in control in the area of Tulum. They had been at war with the Mexicans since the Caste War that began in 1847. Their “talking cross” had dictated that no whites should be allowed to enter their area. With money as the lure, Dr. Fábregas succeeded in finding a boat and crew to make the crossing. Eleven year old Juan Bautista Vega was one of the crew along with his stepfather and one other “white” from Cozumel. The Chan Santa Cruz Maya, known as the Cruzoob, were on hand to welcome the visitors. All were killed by the Cruzoob except young Juan who was taken prisoner. When the Maya discovered that Juan could read Spanish, they decided he could be useful to them in negotiations with the Mexican government. Juan was taught Maya and endeared himself to the Maya. He lived among the Cruzoob, became a general in their militia, married a Mayan woman, and became a tribal chief.
The mainland of Quintana Roo remained an isolated and unexplored land because of the presence of the Cruzoob Maya. For over four hundred years the Mayas of Quintana Roo successfully repelled the Spanish and Mexican conquistadores until the last shots of the Caste War of 1847 rang out at Dzula in 1935.
Juan Bautista Vega was instrumental in brokering a lasting peace between the Mexican government and the Cruzoob Maya. In 1926 Juan visited his “white” family in Cozumel but then returned to his Mayan home on the mainland and lived the rest of his life among the Maya. Gen. Juan Bautista Vega died in 1969.
Notable visitors to Cozumel
In 1842, explorer, author and anthropologist John L. Stephens arrived in Cozumel in a small coastal sailing vessel from Yucatan shortly after Mexican independence and before the protracted Caste War. He became the first to chronicle Cozumel, Tulum, the Mayan temples, and wild jungle in the days of pirates in his 1843 two-volume publication Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. This excellent book is still in print and also available in digital addition free from Gutenberg Press.
In 1958, Michel Peissel wrote of Cozumel:
But the smuggling is now very much reduced, and as an islander told me sadly, “One hardly lives on smuggling today.” Occasionally a few small boats dump whisky and perfumes from British Honduras on the islands. In the old days Isla Mujeres and Cozumel had been thriving pirate stations; here the buccaneers would wait in ambush as slowly the Spanish galleons, weighted down with Peruvian gold, would beat their way up along the coast and through the Yucatan Straits on their way to Cuba and Spain from Panama.
Michel Peissel first arrived at Cozumel on a 45 foot sailing schooner. He wrote:
Judging from the rough weather that is characteristic of the straits between Cozumel and the coast, the dugout canoes of the Mayas must have been seaworthy craft and the oarsmen good sailors. From the summit of the waves I could catch a glimpse of the island which now appeared as a low gray streak on the horizon … At three o’clock we were up against the flat coastline of Cozumel and the small village of San Miguel came into sight. I was quite disappointed, for the village looked ugly, composed of an odd assortment of stone, cement, and wooden houses of various styles that were stretched along the waterfront.