Cozumel with an Open Mind

Surprise, surprise! We were convinced that 15,000 cruise ship passengers a day descending on tiny Cozumel would make it a very un-Mexican, tourist trap. We were coming here for the fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, but didn’t expect much more. Yes, San Miguel de Cozumel (the only town on the island) does have its fair share of tacky souvenir shops, loud over-priced bars and restaurants playing American golden oldies, and street hustlers touting rental cars, scooters, jewelry, t-shirts, tequila tastings, and dirt bike tours. But walk five blocks from the town square and cruise ship docks, wait until 5 pm when the big boats start to depart, or spend a Sunday here when there are no cruise ships in port—you are in a different world. Mexican, local, real.

And despite our prejudices, mass tourism has its upsides. The cruise ship dollars make this island wealthier than most Mexican places we’ve visited—more opportunity for decent paying jobs, better infrastructure, less crime and poverty. And we benefitted as tourists too. We found a wide range of excellent, excellent restaurants—from the local, hole-in-the-wall taqueria to fancy seaside establishments with stunning views. Accommodations ranged from $18 a night rooms, backpacker hostels to all-inclusive resorts and beautiful villas on perfect beaches. There were three giant, modern supermarkets, but there were also mom and pop bodegas on every block and a large central market with stalls of fresh fish, live poultry and dozens small food stands.

But we did come for the drop dead gorgeous beaches and beautiful coral reefs that Cozumel is known for, and we weren’t disappointed.

You do need to know that the island has two very distinct sides. The eastern shore facing the Caribbean is wild, virtually uninhabited with only a couple of small hotels and restaurants. The surf is high, the winds strong, and the shore is rocky. Great for kitesurfing, or sunbathing if the wind isn’t too bad, terrible for swimming or snorkeling. The western side, facing the Yucatan, is usually calm with crystal clear waters, barrier reefs and many idyllic sand beaches. The shore is dotted with beach clubs, restaurants, hotels, a mega resort or two, but also public beaches and small coves. This is one of the few places we’ve been where swimming is good almost in the town center! Cozumel is heaven for swimming, snorkeling and diving.

In our search for underwater adventure we stuck to the western shore and were given this bit of advice: sandy beaches typically mean terrible snorkeling and diving—little to see and often poor visibility; rocky beaches mean clear water, lots of fish, and often great coral formations. There are many places to snorkel from the beach—some very close to the San Miguel itself—but the best snorkeling is definitely from a boat. The reefs are well off shore and it would be very dangerous to swim out to them. We booked a four hour tour for $65 per person with a guide that took us to three reefs—Columbia, Palancar, Cielo. It was money well spent. And a bonus: it was Sunday when there wasn’t a cruise ship in town—no other snorkelers in sight and only two others on our boat—a dad and his 15 year old son. We saw rays, barracuda, jacks, and spectacular schools of colorful tropical fish. The water was crystal clear, warm, and ranged from brilliant aqua to deep blue—travel brochure quality.

Our meals in Cozumel, particularly dinner, ranged from simple tacos at a locals’ hangout to fine dining in luxurious patio gardens or beautiful seaside palapas. The price for dinner with drinks for three was never more $20 each, and usually much less. And we had to be careful of snap judgements—a seaside restaurant around the corner from us that during the week seemed like a classic tourist trap filled with bus loads of gringos caused us to walk on by. On Sunday, when many places were closed for lunch, we stopped in desperation and discovered the place packed almost exclusively with locals and their children enjoying a meal after church. We now know why—the food was excellent and prices very good.

So Cozumel maybe Mexico’s number one cruise ship destination, but please don’t let that keep you away.

Tale of Two Ancient Cities: Coba and Tulum

For many people hopping on a bike is a frequent occurrence. For us, not so much. But the size of the Coba Archaeological Zone almost requires riding a two wheeler. You could walk it, but the distances between sights can be several kilometers. A third option are the pedicabs, but those pedicab drivers were almost as scary as the crazy taxi drivers in Tulum. So for the first time in probably 30 years, we climbed on bikes. Word to the wise: check out your bike rental. Many are in sad states of disrepair. Make sure to get one that fits.

We peddled madly, if a little unsteadily, along the gravel and hard-packed path for a well over a kilometer. Parts of the path follow roads more than a thousand years old. Our goal was to get to the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, Nohoch Mul, or the Big Mound in English, before the tour buses arrived and before the heat of the day. It is one of the only remaining pyramids you can still climb and we were told that will end this year.

Hard to imagine as you wander in and around Tulum that the Yucatán Peninsula was once home to millions of Mayans living in a collection of cities where the jungle now grows. Nearly two thousand years ago, Coba had been one of the largest cities and the center of trade with a network of roads going out for miles to all directions.

Our first sight of Nohoch Mul was intimidating. It was big. Tall. Steep. Almost immediately we realized two of us were wearing flops, not the best decision since we had hiking shoes back at our vacation condo.

But the crowds were still sparse and a thick rope had been attached to the pyramid to aid our ascent. We knew going up would be the easy part. Coming down, another matter. When we reached the top, a stranger high-fived us in celebration. We understood why.

From the top, you could see places where the tree tops sat higher, almost like they grew out of small hills. In reality, each bump was another temple or pyramid that had been absorbed by the jungle.

All three of us made it back down safely with no misadventures. We over heard a guide explain the technique — go down backwards as you would on a ladder or side step your way down, or use your bum. Do not, she said, walk down, facing straight ahead as you would handle most stairs. We followed her advice, often with using the heavy rope for safety.

Mission accomplished!

We stood for a while at the base, watching the hordes arrive, feeling smug that by 9:40 am we had completed our primary goal. Now we could take a more leisurely tour of ancient Coba.

The site includes two ball courts for a Mayan game vaguely like basketball. Without using hands or feet, but instead using your hips, the object of the game is to get a large rubber ball through the hoops on either side of the court.

Outside of the archaeological zone, we found four men actually playing the game on the school courtyard.

We read that when the Mayans played, it was for very serious stakes–human sacrifice of the team members. It wasn’t clear to historians whether it was the winners or losers who died.

Coba is also known for two other main structures. A rare round, cone shaped structure, Xaibe, which may have been a watchtower or served a grander purpose, an observatory. Archeologists are unsure.

And the second tallest structure, La Iglesias (the church), where archeologists discovered jade figurines, ceramic vase and even pearls.

In several places, signs next to stellaes gave us an idea of what the carvings looked like a thousand years ago. Even so, it was hard to appreciate the carving.

The Tulum Archaeological Site offers a very different experience. A walled city built on the edge of the Caribbean, with well groomed open spaces and a park-like feel. And it is substantially newer, only 800 or so years old.

Few archaeological sites anywhere can complete with the setting and the views.

Tulum is a happening place — highly commercialized and packed with tourists. There aren’t too many other archeological sites where you can go for a swim, buy lunch and a beer and take in some history. Even with the views, the degree of commercialization can be a little disconcerting.

A couple of warnings for would-be visitors. For either site, arrive early. Crowds can be overwhelming.

While there are plenty of places to buy water at Tulum, Coba is a little more rustic. Bring water, and insect repellant. And keep your eyes open for critters.

Maya + Kayak = Mayaking

“Mayaking”: described in the tourist brochure as kayaking in the Mayan preserve of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere near Tulum—a UNESCO world heritage site. Corny name, but cute. Later we learned the name was actually pretty significant.

The Sian Ka’an preserve is actually a giant national park—in fact, the fifth largest in Mexico. It stretches down the Yucatan coast from Tulum halfway to Belize. It includes many different ecosystems—brackish coastal lagoons, inter coastal waterways, jungles, freshwater lagoons. It is home to manatees, jaguars, huge saltwater crocodiles, hundreds of species of birds, and rich collection of both freshwater and saltwater fish.

Our tour company, Community Tours, based in the tiny town of Muyil, is completely operated and run by Mayans, part of a local effort to build a local economic base for jobs and to keep kids in the community. Our guide for the three of us, Benjamin, left his village at age eleven as the only way to further his education. After college, he tried living in Mexico City but came back to his roots and culture. Mayan language and culture is very much alive in this region—in fact there are about 800,000 Mayan speakers left in Yucatan. Benjamin’s first language is Mayan and he said his English is much better than his Spanish.

The Community Tours headquarters is right on the main road in Muyil and consisted several whitewashed buildings, including a beautiful open air, thatched roof meeting room that doubled as the dining hall. On the grounds were a butterfly enclosure and, of course, a gift shop that featured local handmade souvenirs (which, strangely enough, Benjamin never urged us to visit).

The tour began with a typical Mayan breakfast of fried tortilla chips, ground pumpkin seeds and tomatoes and sautéed summer squash. Sounds slightly strange, but was delicious! As we ate, Benjamin gave us the overview of the kayak tour which would take us onto two huge freshwater lagoons connected by an ancient cut dug by the Mayans. Both lagoons are fed by rain runoff seeping through the Yucatan limestone into the underground rivers—the same rivers that fed the dozens of local cenotes.

A short, but bouncy van ride took us through the jungle and past barely visible Mayan ruins covered by vines and brush. There are likely dozen more ruins throughout the area that have simply been swallowed up by the jungle. Hard to imagine the size of the population that must have existed before the arrival of the Europeans.

When we arrived at the lagoon, we saw a dozen of more Mayan locals sitting around with cell phones perched on top of huge plastic gas cans. Later we found out they were the boat operators who took less adventuresome tourists out for boat rides on the lagoons.

We settled into our kayaks — certainly well used (aka beat-up) sit-aboard kayaks, but with the most comfortable strap-on backs we’ve ever used, first-class paddles and new personal floatation devices. And we were off on the absolutely flat, crystal clear water.

Through water grasses along the shoreline we saw dozens of birds, with Benjamin calling out their names and pausing to show us pictures in his dog-eared bird book, always carefully stowed back in a plastic bag. Some of the birds were known to us like the Great Egret and Green Heron, but others were new, the Black Crowned Heron, Tiger Heron, Tropical Kingbird, Northern Jacana and Anhinga. The water lilies that the raccoons devoured in our fish pond at home in Seattle grew here unscathed.

The first and smaller lagoon was several feet above the larger lagoon and as we ventured through the very narrow canal a slight current made the paddling easy. The entrance to the 500 meter channel was all but invisible to us but Benjamin signaled for us to follow him and suddenly we were in a beautiful narrow waterway barely wide enough for our kayak paddles. An oncoming motorized boat every now and then added to the excitement—forcing us to the side as we used our hands to guide the boat past us.

Benjamin kept checking the reeds along the shoreline for crocodile nests. One of the other guides reported seeing one, but no such luck for us.

Once in the large lagoon we stopped briefly for a dip in the clear water. A soft bottom of silt felt a little strange on the toes, and we were told to avoid the darker rocky or sponge-like objects — actually an important organism that created oxygen that flourished in these waters.

All in all, the kayaking was peaceful, gorgeous and easy. However, by the end of the three hours, our sitting muscles were sore and our paddling muscles tired. It had been almost six months since we had been kayaking! Getting out of the kayaks was a bit exciting as a result, but the Mayans did not let us embarrass ourselves.

We returned to the lodge for lunch — our choice of chicken or fish cooked in banana leaves and hibiscus juice, again prepared in a more traditional manner. Quite tasty.

As we were eating, Benjamin used some well-worn, laminated pictures of Mayan drawings to illustrate the tree of life and several Mayan legends. After unsuccessfully trying to teach us some basic Mayan phrases (the word Ka’an has four different meanings based on slight changes in pronunciation), he explained that Sian Ka’an translates to “where the sky is born.”

Not hard to see why after mayaking in this gorgeous part of the Yucatán.