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We're not in San Miguel de Allende...

...but we are in San Miguel de Cozumel

semi-overcast 27 °C

We've been to San Miguel de Allende three times in the past several years and we have spent countless hours wandering the hilly streets with one stunning sight-line after another unfolding at every turn. We have always thoroughly enjoyed our visits; San Miguel offers up something different every time. What we have enjoyed far less is the dominating gringo presence that has turned this beautiful colonial city into a well-heeled tourist playground - often at the expense of the locals.

San Miguel has earned a reputation as being "Gringolandia" and it is not undeserved. But the pluses of this city have always outweighed the annoyances for us, and so we had slotted a couple of weeks to check out our favourite sites. We would be there right now, but for an incident that soured us on the place once and for all.

We had booked an Airbnb from a Washington State couple who contacted us several weeks ago to find out our anticipated arrival time. Since we would be arriving on a Sunday around 6:00 pm, the owner told us that we would be expected to tip the property manager $30 to let us in. When we inquired about this practice, we were quite curtly told that a) Mexicans don't normally work on Sundays (?) and b) it is customary to tip in Mexico. Since Mexicans most definitely work on Sundays and we are well versed in tipping customs, we were both annoyed by the misinformation and insulted by the insinuation. We were also puzzled - in all the years and dozens of places we've stayed at in Mexico, we've never been charged to have someone hand us a key. We chose not to get into it with the owner, but merely changed our arrival date so as to avoid any "Sunday" issues.

Then we got to thinking... Would this unfortunate intro to this Airbnb be just the beginning of aggravating dealings with this owner? We had met several people like him in San Miguel before and they get in the way of all the reasons we love Mexico. So we turned to Plan B - head to another tourist destination with lots of gringos, also named San Miguel (de Cozumel)!

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If you remember our last visit in Cozumel, we were here for just four days with one sick day (Stephen being sunned out) and one rainy day cutting into our adventures. We left wishing we could have stayed longer and now we are back - back in our same cute casita and this time hitting the ground running - knowing where to go and what to see. Also my cousins are here - we've already had one visit and have more planned - more on that in the next blog.

Cozumel is a contradictory place. It is the fourth largest cruise ship destination in the world, and yet the presence of thousands of daily visitors is hardly noticed. I don't know where they all go. There is far more wild, jungly land than there is development, and the whole east coast is usually unswimmable due to winds and currents. Senor Frogs and Hooters have staked their ubiquitous claim on the waterfront, but the dining out scene is well balanced with Mexican-owned establishments, both mom and pop, and fine dining. The malecon is simply beautiful, running for many kilometres along the west coast of the island. If you are needing shade and don't mind being hassled, you walk on the street side where you will be coaxed to "take a look" for everything from made-in-China souvenirs to cigars to tequila. More serious purchases include diamonds, gold and no-prescription-necessary opioids and Viagra. If that proves to be too much, you just flip over to the water side and enjoy the view in peace.

We have found the tourists in Cozumel to be a little different than other beach destinations - quieter, less yahoo behaviour - more family, less party. Many folks live here here for the winter months and they are well integrated into the community. It is a much more relaxing place to be.

Getting around is the one sticking point - most of the tourist sites and beach clubs require either a car rental or a taxi - there is no bus service. Typically a round-trip taxi to most beach clubs will be $20, which adds up but is still way cheaper than a daily car rental. Most beach clubs either rent sun beds and umbrella for a fee that is then put toward the food and drink bill, or they simply ask that you purchase your lunch from them.

We headed out to Sky Reef Beach club a couple of days ago - it was blowing up quite a gale, so unfortunately the snorkelling was not as satisfactory as it could have been.

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Neither was the food - I foolishly ordered nachos, which aside from a few crispy tortillas on the edges, was a soggy mess, topped with a scant handful of tomato and onion and held together with a gelatinous mass of congealed cheese. Still, as we always say when the day does not unroll as we had hoped, " Real life happens on the road" - including unmet expectations.

A few real-life scenarios have unfolded for us this time around. The most inconvenient is the loss of our phone, which did not survive a Caribbean swim. Just prior to that, Stephen bought a new cord in Playa del Carmen for his iPad and then left it behind in Merida. We have since bought a second cord but the iPad is still behaving badly, so we may well be on the hunt for a few new devices once we return home.

Our experience at Buccano's Beach Club was incredible - the polar opposite of the Sky Reef. Buccano's is beautifully appointed, immaculately maintained and people actually go there for the food.
This is the entrance:

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We arrived early enough to have our pick of sunbeds, and set ourselves up for a completely enjoyable and memorable day. This flotilla arrived, which felt like a worrisome sign of things to come, but not at all. They dropped in their snorkelers for a while, then left and that was that.

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The snorkeling was fabulous. It is an incredible and highly addictive pastime to wade into the ocean, drop down and begin exploring. At times we were simply floating with fish swimming all around us; at other times we would be drifting along and just above our heads a barracuda would glide by. Fish of every colour of the rainbow, including huge schools of sargeant major fish ( small, black and yellow striped) that according to one of our nearby beach neighbours, actually bite. "They'll give ya a good nip" which was all the intel I needed to try and stay clear of them. I looked up "Cozumel fish" and according to the images I saw online, we saw angelfish in many different colours, a few harlequin bass, a school of blue tang, some honeycombed cowfish, damselfish and grouper. I also saw a magnificent spotted moray eel - slithering along the ocean floor, with its wavy back and sinister-looking mouth opening and reaching. We're hoping to have at least another few snorkelling experiences over the next week. We've run into a number of divers here and I have to say, their enthusiasm is infectious. If we love snorkeling, can you imagine what it would be like to dive - especially in this warm water with so much marine life. Maybe another trip.

We've been amusing ourselves with the fauna visible from our front deck. We wake up each morning to birdsong and in the early evening the action resumes - they swoop and soar and chirp and twitter, but sadly they are all birds of a feather - black and grey and brown. I have read through our Cozumel Bird Book and there is not a drop of colour to be found in our neighbourhood. I did get a snap of this Yucatan Vireo but that might be it for our tropical sightings.

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Most nights we are visited by this froggy fellow - I think this is a common milk frog. He sits on the cement wall and gradually makes his way up to the top, where he eventually climbs over and disappears. I hear myself doing the colour commentary," Oh I think he just moved" and I realize how far away from my youth I have moved.

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Although our weather has been a bit unsettled since we arrived, we have had a few nights where we've been able to watch the sunset. We had a multi-media event at Rinaldi's - a pizza place on the waterfront. There were people gathering on shore, a couple of snorkelers in the water and a cruise ship preparing to cast off.

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We had a ring-side seat.

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The main event.

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And finally, because I love them, some murals - all nature and Cozumel related.

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We still have lots to do and see here, so we'll catch up again in about a week. Our trip is starting to come to an end. We still have three weeks, which for non-retirees, is a very respectable holiday. For us, we are seeing the end on the horizon, which is always greeted with mixed feelings. We will finish our time in Mexico with 12 days in Mexico City - one of our very favourite cities.

As I write this, Stephen is watching the Superbowl in Spanish! See you all again in a week.

Posted by millerburr 00:19 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cruise_ships murals island snorkeling malecon cozumel #stephenpaulburr Comments (6)

Whistling in Isla Mujeres

semi-overcast 28 °C

This was our favourite restaurant in Isla Mujeres - the Mango Cafe. It serves an exceptional breakfast and lunch, there is always a line-up and we always managed to snag a coveted upstairs table.

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Unfortunately, on two out of our three visits, we were tormented by the worst singer we have ever encountered; his off-key renditions of gringo oldies verging on parodies. He punctuated "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with plunking chords for emphasis, followed by a whistled version. Our erstwhile entertainer summed up a lot of how we felt about Isla Mujeres - confused, surprised, at times annoyed, at times charmed, and still at a bit of a loss as to the attraction.

Isla Mujeres, (Island of Women), is a bony finger of land 13 miles from Cancun that is just seven kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide - we walked the length and breadth of the island a number of times. It is so named because of the goddesses the Mayans used to celebrate fertility and childbirth.

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I don't know if it was the luscious reference to women, but we had imagined powerful swelling waves, fertile valleys and a magnetic appeal. Isla Mujeres has turned out to be kind of like that, but with less polish and a rougher edge. It's taken us the full week to get a feel for it.

The island is divided into three parts - the south end, which is populated by large homes and beach clubs; the north end, where the ferry spills out visitors every half hour onto the hotel zone, beaches and shopping areas; and the centre - where the locals live.

This is where we rented our Airbnb from Maria and Rolando, a warm-hearted, hard-working couple who have three sons, a restaurant, and a family compound at the end of this alley. They live on the first floor, Maria's parents and one sister on the second floor, another sister on the third floor and our place was on the top - the one with the palapa and the blue walls. There are also two dogs, several birds in cages, at least a half-dozen motorcycles, two golf carts and a chicken that appears to be a pet.

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We also met the neighbourhood kids - they play in the alleyway. They are like children from another era - beautiful manners, curious, and self-possessed. These two little girls, Renata (on the left) and Rowena were quite taken with us. Renata wanted an English lesson every time we met, so she dutifully repeated "dog", "cat", hair" ,"t-shirt", "shoes" etc.

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We tried the same thing with the boys, but after repeating "dog", they gave up and got back to the business of throwing stuff against the wall.

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We arrived home yesterday afternoon to a 6-year-old birthday party in full swing, complete with SpongeBob SquarePants, fully mic-ed entertainers, and a very stubborn SpongeBob pinata that despite the best efforts of the party-goers, would not break. One of the organizers, in the interest of keeping the party going, finally had to bring it down and it took two adults to manhandle the thing open. Out flew the goodies and it was every man, woman and child for themselves as they dove in.

The somewhat glum-looking party-goers:

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There is lots of life in this neighbourhood and much of it lived outside. Doors and windows are open, kids run from house to house, neighbours stop to chat - an effective and comforting Neighbourhood Watch. We were locking our door until we realized that you could slide open the window beside the door and undo the latch, so we just closed the door and left knowing all would be as we left it when we returned.

Coconuts are ripe for the picking. We watched this two-man effort at dislodging them onto the pavement.

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Local restaurants like Dona Mari's chicken place are typical. A few tables, a big plate of barbecued chicken and a big bottle of Coke for about $6 and take-your-chances seating. All the seats are doubled up and when I attempted to take them apart, the young man quickly came over and warned me to keep them together. A few minutes later a trio from West Virginia arrived - one of those big boys got those chairs undone and he sat down before we could warn him. Flat on his backside he went, as the four legs splayed out - a batch of defective plastic chairs that in Mexico, cannot go to waste.

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A typical street in mid-island.

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The water surrounding Isla Mujeres is easily described this way: the body of water facing Cancun (calm, good for swimming and snorkeling), the north end (the best beach on the island), the east coast (the Caribbean - wild, dangerous currents, strong surf), and Punta Sur ( the southernmost part of the island where the two bodies of water meet and soften).
We chose to walk south to Punta Sur on our first full day on Isla Mujeres. Our place is a block and a half from the east coast, so we set out along the paved path for a number of kilometres.

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Mainly, the water is somewhat inaccessible, as there are cliffs to navigate and surf that rumbles right up to shore. But in spots, the land dips down and small beaches emerge.

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We spent an afternoon under one of these palapas - going no further than our knees in the surf, but just enjoying the peace and quiet.

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Eventually, the paved path disappears and is replaced by a rugged dirt path that veers away from the road and runs between the sea and some very fine real estate.

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And then, finally we reach Punta Sur. This is the easternmost part of Mexico - the very first spot in the country where the sun rises each morning. It is also the meeting point between the wild waves on the east and the photogenic, emerald crystal waters of the southwest.

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And now, I will take you out of the life and colour of the local Mexican neighbourhoods, the calm well-bred vacation homes of the south into a whole other world that is just not our cup of tea. However - big but here - we have talked to a number of tourists who either live here each winter, or have been coming here on vacation every year and simply adore this place. I've come to realize there are distinct differences between travelling around Mexican towns and cities and traveling around beach towns. What we are looking for during extended travel and what someone on a much-needed break hopes to find are two very different things.

A little tipsy on watered-down margaritas by 11:00 a.m., sun-burned in your beach coverup and hanging onto the back of a golf cart might not be anybody's best look, but you need to get away from winter and your job and your life. But - another big but here - if Holbox was the hang-out of the cool kids, Mujeres is far more middle-of-the-road, and all of this is hugely amplified by a bombardment of day-trippers from Cancun. They come over by ferry, sail over on party boats, even hop on jet skis (illegal on the beaches, but they try until the navy shows up), and then once here, swarm the small island in golf carts.

This is a typical parking scene:

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Playa Norte is considered Isla Mujeres' best beach. It is beautiful - talcum powder sand, crystal water. We sat beside folks from Kelowna who have been coming here for eight years and according to them, the beach experience has been ruined in the last few years by this:

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When we first arrived, about 11:00 a.m., there were just a few boats out there. A couple of hours later, it was like a parking lot - boats backed up to the buoy line and many of them blasting their tunes. Each of these boats are from Cancun - each of them filled with between 10-30 passengers. Most of those boats arrive stocked with food and liquor, so there is very little financial benefit to the beach clubs and restaurants. The passengers hop out, swim around a bit, make a lot of noise and then leave. It is a gong show. As well, the buoy line is really close to shore, so there is a very small area in which to safely swim, and then that small area is filled with drunk people playing drinking games.

We decided another day to try our luck at one of the beach clubs on the south shore. Zama Beach Club had good reviews, so away we went; confident we would be free from the hordes. The beach clubs vary in price and quality and amenities, but generally you either pay a small fee for sunbed and umbrella rental and food is on top of that, or you pay a higher fee and most of the price goes back toward your restaurant bill. In this case, we paid roughly $5 for our rental for the day and we ordered food and drink.

Zama has a gorgeous setting, and at first glance, appeared absolutely perfect. And for the most part, it was - we spent several hours there, chatting with other tourists, eating good food, swimming and reading.

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The pools were cool and clean, and as it turned out, the only place we swam while we were there. The sea water in this area was quite murky and footing was unpleasant - mucky and filled with seagrass.

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And there were a number of boats that came ashore, but we hardly noticed them. No music, the passengers who all filed off to one side were quiet - they were a non-issue.

Who could resist jumping on this swing for a photo? I tried to smile and point my toes like Esther Williams might have done, but was somewhat impeded by the sheer weight of that swing, so this was as high as I could muster.

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And finally, the north end of Isla Mujeres - where there are most of the hotels, restaurants and shops. On first impression, the centro of Isla Mujeres is not immediately attractive. There are not impressive government buildings, nor are there photogenic little parks. This is a typical small street:

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These small streets are lined with stores just like this one, hawking their "handcrafts" - not one authentic Mexican souvenir in sight. It is depressing to see shop after shop after shop filled with tourist tat, and it is also depressing to be aggressively hassled by merchants wanting to sell stuff, tequila, cigars, massages - whatever. The quality Mexican goods are not here - we are walking wallets -period.

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Something that struck us about Isla Mujeres is the infrastructure has not been maintained; much more so than the financial devastation that Covid has wrought over the past two years. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, everything needs a coat of paint, a bit of love. We were told that for many years Isla Mujeres languished under a corrupt mayor and council and that in the past while, their dynamic new mayor has begun to make very significant changes. One of the first things she did was to remove the open landfill that was in the south end and that is in the process of being totally cleaned up.

You can see major work going on in the main square:

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I was shocked by the state of the malecon. In most seaside places we have visited, the malecon is a showplace; a natural gathering place to stroll, eat ice cream and stop for photos. With the sea as a natural backdrop, the malecon is usually enhanced by sculptures, monuments, and a line-up of waterfront cafes and restaurants. We passed one small cafe, but otherwise, this could have been a back alley. Many buildings boarded up, piles of rubble - a few stalwart walkers, but this could be so much more. Perhaps that is on the mayor's agenda as well.

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We did pass this delightful place - home to Timothy Fisher art. He has utterly transformed this building with his 3-D ceramic art, and it is a glimpse into what incredible potential exists here.

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Back in town, we came upon this installation - perhaps it is a collection of shoes found on the beach? I often walk by one flip flop or a single slipper and wonder how it is the owner didn't notice them missing.

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We leave Isla Mujeres a little confused. I think our experiences and impressions would have been entirely different if this island was more remote. If those beaches were not invaded and the streets not filled with tourist junk, the charm and beauty of the place would have a chance to shine. It seems the folks who live here for part of the year find their own spots, stay away from the crowds and have figured it out. We're glad we came, it was another adventure.

Next stop - back to Cozumel for two weeks. See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 00:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cancun playa malecon isla_mujeres punta_sur _norte Comments (7)

Cozumel: Home to Cruise Ships, Shipwrecks and Crocodiles

sunny 28 °C
View Mexico 2021/2022 on millerburr's travel map.

After a rather harrowing 30-minute high-speed catamaran ferry from Playa del Carmen, in which many of us emerged nauseated, if not actually vomiting, we landed into the welcoming arms of Cozumel's many, many vendors, tour operators and strangely, diamond salespeople. Big tip for travelling by catamaran? Sit in the middle of the boat and keep your eyes on the horizon. Big tip for avoiding vendors as you emerge into a new place in a state of confusion and disorientation? Keep your eyes on the horizon and do not engage.

In spite of my finely-tuned resistance to the sales pitch, on our second day in Cozumel, I found myself whisked off the street and into a salon where a dazzling young woman patted cream onto the bags under my eyes and clucked sympathetically as I held a small dryer to allow the serum to set. For just US$180, (normally $800), I could solve the problem of my baggy eyes; and in a critical error of judgement, she elicited an opinion from Stephen, who had just wandered in with his rumpled hat, eating a bag of chips. Nonplussed, he stared at my eyes, trying to guess which one had been worked on. To give the salespeople their due, they had a good-natured laugh about it. We were so clearly not their target market.

Honestly, although the streets are lined with shops, the vendors are not aggressive. They welcome you in to their shops and when you decline, give a smile as you walk by.

So, on to the cruise ships - part of the reason these shops exist in the first place. I can't tell you the numbers in 2021, but Cozumel is the busiest port of call in the Caribbean, and they average between 25-35 ships every week, spilling out up to 100,000 guests in that space of time.

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We were dreading their impact on our visit: anticipating the "sidewalk shuffle", long lineups for restaurants and beaches packed to capacity. We don't know where they all were, but those thousands of passengers were simply not in evidence. One restaurant owner told us that the larger cruise lines have specific shopping plazas and attractions that their passengers are steered toward, and the overall economic benefit for smaller businesses is not that great. He told us that many business owners and residents would be much happier if the cruise ships were not there.

Cozumel's malecon is scenic - running for a few kilometres along the west side of the island. One side is lined with shops and restaurants, and the other runs right along the water.

Sculptures line the walkway.

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This boat was wrecked in a hurricane and became permanently beached. It has since been painted and is now something of a tourist attraction.

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Cozumel has a large number of resorts that line the northern edge of the island; many of them fully contained with pools, restaurants and amenities.

This leafy boulevard runs through the hotel zone.

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There are a number of small hotels right in town, but we opted for an Airbnb located in a pretty Mexican neighbourhood. This is the gate to our second-floor casita.

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Our studio was well appointed and designed, with a small deck in the front, and windows that let in light and breezes and birdsong. Our host is a cellist with the Quintano Roo symphony, and she and her architect dad designed the space.

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We really enjoyed wandering the streets in Cozumel - an architectural feast for the eyes.

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We discovered a few great little spots to eat. This one was just around the corner from us:

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Our host recommended Novena Ola, so we had our final lunch in Cozumel there today. It was such a delightful surprise, for many reasons. First of all, prices were in pesos, not US dollars. Most shops and restaurants in Cozumel are priced in US dollars. Secondly, we were the only non-Mexican guests there, which is often a good sign - eat where the locals go, or at least where the Mexican tourists go. Everything clicked - the setting, the service, the view...

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...and the food. Chilaquiles - so delicious.

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We really liked Cozumel and it was way more laid-back and less touristy than we had thought it would be. It has a very Caribbean feeling to it - so lush and slightly different even from Puerto Morelos. However, beach access and getting around the island can be a costly endeavour. There are no buses, and unless you are staying at a beachfront resort, there are no beaches within walking distance. You have two choices - taxi or car rental. We had plans to go to a few different beaches, but one day we stayed home because Stephen was not feeling so well. Yesterday we did not go to the beach because we had a full day the day before and were a little sunned out. So, we cannot give a full description of beaches and particularly of snorkeling options, as we really only had the one day.

We chose to go to Punta Sur, which is an ecological reserve right at the south end of the island, featuring swimming, snorkeling, a lagoon that is home to crocodiles, and a lighthouse. After that, our plans were to drive up the east coast of the island, which is far less-visited and far more wild.
For that, we needed to rent a car (US$55). What $55 buys you in Cozumel is a tiny white high-mileage vehicle with mountain-bike sized tires, innumerable scratches and dents and a resident ghost. I was hearing indistinct voices and then our radio kept flashing on and off until I gave it a good bang. Still, it took us where we needed to go and once we were out of town, the road was practically empty.

Once we arrived at the Punta Sur entrance, we still had four miles to go down a dirt road in hilariously poor condition; an obstacle course that meant we drove at 20 kph the whole way. This photo does not begin to show the axle-bending potholes. Still - a change of scene and a reminder that much of Cozumel is uninhabited and rugged.

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Along the way, we saw signs warning that swimming was prohibited due to the rough waves. Then we spotted the lighthouse - the signpost that indicated the road was leading us back into the calm bay.

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We had our almost-new snorkeling gear to try out, and no sooner were we settled into our sunbed and chair than we were heading for the water.

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Pure heaven, this water, but although we have developed a much higher comfort level with snorkeling, we did not see anything more exciting than several schools of fish, some fan coral, and an eel. We needed to swim out a little further to see the big "catches", but the water was a bit bouncy. It is a shame really, as Cozumel has a reputation for some incredible snorkeling and diving.

Still, we had a fantastic day enjoying our beautiful surroundings, and the nearby wildlife reserve. We had an up-close visit with the Great Egret, who watched us closely, but stayed still for a photo.

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We saw this Roseate Spoonbill, who did not cooperate with me by lifting up their beak for a photo op.

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As we were leaving the beach, we noticed a couple taking photos and there they were - the pygmy raccoon that is endemic to Cozumel. So adorable (not a word I normally attribute to a raccoon), but these little guys are a bit shy, with ropy tails and curved snouts. The restaurant owner had tossed down a coconut at the end of the day, which coaxed them out of hiding.

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We had the opportunity to take a boat ride into the lagoon, but decided against it as the boat was just crammed with people. Also, I had forgotten my mask back at our beach site and wouldn't have been allowed on the boat anyway, so it was a moot point.

Luckily for us, on our way out of the park, we stopped at the lagoon lookout point.

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And as is always the case in wildlife sightings, timing is everything. Just as we were walking up the boardwalk, this large fellow slid out of the shallows and went for a languid glide into deeper water. I grabbed a couple of photos and a minute later, he was gone.

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We drove back up on the east side - largely uninhabited and home to rough surf-y water, and large parties of Mexicans, who want to get away from the tourists.

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We wish we were here a bit longer, to more fully explore the other beaches, but time to move on. We will be in Merida for nine days, using this city as a base to explore other sites in the Yucatan interior.

Posted by millerburr 02:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cruise punta sur ships swimming snorkeling malecon cozumel novena _ola Comments (6)

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