March 6—13, 2005

        The first answer: We all agreed! Everyone wanted to go back to Cozumel.

        The second answer: Water Play. Palancar Reef is part of the second largest coral reef in the world. Diving off Cozumel is world class and snorkeling is better than any place we know. The weather is warm and so is the water.

        However, there's more to vacationing in Cozumel than playing in the water. Maybe more important, the pace of island living forces busy people to slow down and enjoy the people, the sunsets, the beaches, and each other. Since we had come here eleven years ago and had a great time, we looked forward to coming back to a familiar, friendly place.

        Isla Cozumel lies 12 miles off Mexico's Yucatan. Only nine miles wide and thirty-two miles long, it is Mexico's largest island. Its history begins with scattered Maya settlements followed by years of abandonment when it was a place of sanctuary for pirates and refugees from the mainland. San Miguel, the island's only town, was a small fishing village until 1961 when Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the Palancar Reef the finest diving site in the world. Exploring the reefs, spectacular deep dives, drift diving along the reefs walls, the abundance of aquatic life and the health of the reefs has made Cozumel a magnet for serious divers from around the world. More than 30 dive shops are now in business.

        The tourist explosion that followed in Cousteau's wake has steadily grown, threatening to overwhelm the island's resources. Giant cruise ships—many more than when we vacationed City Streethere in 1994—arrive daily disgorging thousands of lookie-lous who clog the narrow streets, at least along the waterfront, milling crowds in search of retail therapy. In addition to a growing number of upscale shops and garish spots like Carlos O'Brien and Hard Rock Cafe, we noticed a glitzy new shopping mall that rivals any mall anywhere built very near where the big boats dock. There's money coming off the boats and there are more and more places to leave it behind at the end of the day. To the nearly 70,000 people who make their home on the island, the steady stream of visitors must be physically overwhelming as well as a financial transfusion.

        Hotels, expensive private home, and condominiums line the western shore of the island, extending several miles north and south of town. The east side of the island is a nearly untouched "other world" where the beaches are smaller, where services are nearly non-existent, and in some cases where the roads may require jeeps or ATVs. Most of the interior is quite undeveloped, inaccessible, and uninhabited.

        It is obvious that the reefs of the western side are the primary reason for the island's development and prosperity. It is why we came back: to snorkel and to dive, as well as relax and reconnect as a family.

        Three couples and two pre-teens need space when vacationing. We need opportunities for privacy, for choice of indoor and outdoor activities to do alone or with others, and, since it's a vacation, we like a modicum of comfort. It has always been a challenge to choose a vacation place because our interests, ages, and abilities are diverse.

        Las Iguanas, a beach front house about 2 km north of town located right on the ocean, that provides four bedrooms and four bathrooms as well as a comfortable kitchen, a large area for eating, watching TV, playing cards, and shooting pool (click on the website for pictures of the rooms and grounds). The veranda and patio are perfect for eating and relaxing; a palapa down by the water's edge had hammocks for shaded afternoon reading and snoozing. The sun-heated saltwater pool was perfect for water play. A small man-made lagoon was a place to enter the ocean for snorkeling (we seldom used the diving board or the ladder). We could not have picked a better spot. While it was the most expensive accommodation we've had, it was a splurge we all appreciated.

        The house lived up to its name: many iguanas live on the grounds and they paraded and posed daily. So did groups of geckos each the evening. As an added attraction, a lone tarantula visited (outside) on the one evening when we had a brief shower, never to be seen again. There must have been bugs for the geckos to eat, but none got to us.

        Las Iguanas is located along a fairly quiet residential area on the northern outskirts of town where there are other houses, some hotels/resorts, the golf course, and a few condos. There was not a lot of road traffic in the mornings so we could run or walk safely before breakfast and before it got hot.

        We also rented a vintage VW convertible, probably the oldest VW on the island. It started every time. That's all I’ll say.

       The water off Las Iguanas was like our own private part of the ocean. We used it every day, Snorkelexploring for new sea creatures and coral. We also enjoyed the salt water swimming pool, much more than we thought we would. Dan and Hughes planned a two-tank dive along the Palancar Reef during the week. The weather was sensational and we got our fill.

        Snorkeling. Everyone in our family loves to snorkel. Griffin learned in Grand Cayman, Julia in Hawai'i. Snorkeling is great off the beach/shore most anywhere on the island. However, we found there was little need to snorkel anywhere else than off the property. In either direction there was a coral wall about 20 feet deep that was made up of fans, sponges, tubes, and other “fixed” creatures clinging to the Diving Boardcoral face (e.g., urchins, anemones, et al.). Visibility was more than 150 feet. Despite the regular boat traffic within 50 yards of the shore, we saw a wide variety of small, familiar tropicals: angels, tangs, wrasses, ever-present schools of sergeant majors, parrotfish, jacks, rockfish, trunkfish, balloon fish, and many others—plus at least five varieties of eels, flounders, some squid, a ray, a rockfish, and a couple of small jackknife-fish and several starfish. One group of snorkelers even reported to have seen a snake slithering across the sand about 20 feet down.

        The most memorable fish was Spike, a surprisingly aggressive dark blue angel or damsel fish that lived behind the last rung of the ladder we could use to climb out after snorkeling. Spike attacked anyone who came close to the ladder by bumping with his snout or perhaps trying to bite the person (he's probably attacking Hughes's foot as he's climbing out of the water in the photo on the left). Spike's behavior caught several of us off guard and freaked out some of us. We generally left Spike to his territory and learned to return through the tunnel and into the small lagoon behind the diving board.

        Swimming. A saltwater swimming pool makes a lot more sense Poolthan we had anticipated. First, it is easy to clean: sea water can be easily pumped in and drained out of the pool. The pool maintenance folks cleaned the pool entirely twice while we were there: draining, scrubbing, hosing down, and refilling the pool in a few short hours. Second, while swallowing a bit of salt water while swimming is a bit distasteful, it's safer to get in your mouth than the city water supply: that makes most people sick. (Bottled water was supplied throughout our stay.) We spent many hours cooling off in the pool, as well as relaxing and reading nearby.

        Diving. So far, only Dan and Hughes are certified to scuba, though we're working on Debra and Griffin to take the course later this year. When we came in 1994, Dan and Hughes had just been certified and were dazzled by three days of diving Palancar Reef. Our dive master back then was a young fellow named Perfidio (we never learned his last name). It seemed only right that we search him out to be our guide this year, if he was still working. We learned he had changed dive companies, and tracked him down at Dive Paradise. Our request for Perfido’s services this year was honored: for a small additional fee Perfido did what he did so well eleven years ago: made us feel safe and confident, and made sure that we saw everything he did, including a beautiful spotted eagle ray, a huge green moray as big around as our arms and twice as long, several turtles, lobsters, and a barracuda among others.

        They took only a half day for a two-tank dive, but the trip would not have been complete without seeing Perfidio again and the beauty of one of the premier dive sites on the planet. In spite of some scattered recent reports to the contrary, we found the coral “gardens” healthy and colorful, and the fish life rich and varied. San GervasioWe have been diving Belize, Cayman Islands, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Hawai'i, Fiji, and the Great Barrier Reef, and can testify that diving Cozumel is at least the equal of any. Dan and Hughes are talking about coming back just to dive when Griffin gets his C-card.

        San Gervasio. We wanted to spend parts of some days away exploring some areas that we hadn't seen before. One of those places is in the center of the island: San Gervasio is a small Maya site dating back to as early as 300 A.D. It is thought to have been a ceremonial site with as many as 380 buildings constructed and thousands more houses scattered throughout the jungle nearby. We walked through several areas in the jungle and read the printed signs (in Spanish, English, and Mayan) explaining the purpose of each building, foundation, complex, or in someChichen Itza cases pile of rubble. Compared with Chichen Itza, San Gervasio is tiny. However, it is interesting and a peaceful diversion from the bustle of the town just 10 km away. It was a good place for Deb, Dan, and the kids to visit before their tour the next day of the much more impressive…

        Chichen Itza. While vacationing in Cozumel in 1994, we visited the ruins at Tulum on the mainland almost directly across from Cozumel. It's a beautiful spot that was brought to life by our guide, Mr. Pinky. This year, Dan and Deb and the grandchildren went by ferry and van to the spectacular Maya ruins at Chichen Itza, a World Heritage Site. It was a fairly long trip which was broken up by stops to explore a cenote, and to visit Villadolid, a small colonial town along the way. In spite of the heat and time coming and going, everyone enjoyed seeing the remarkable buildings at Chichen Itza. While they were on the mainland, the rest of us went to…

        The “Other Side” of Isla Cozumel. Hughes and Judy and Michael and Cindy drove to the wild east side of the island, to enjoy a different landscape. Few people go there, even fewer live there. This area has a different kind of charm: there's feeling of isolation, beaches are rugged and small, the jungle across from the ocean is impenetrable: green desolation. We've never taken—and didn't this time—the dirt road along the northeast shore. The road requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle or and ATV which can be rented where the dirt/sand road begins. Maybe next time. Instead, we walked along the beach hunting shells for a while and then drove south. We had the paved road to ourselves until we rounded the southern tip of the island, passed the lighthouse, and came up to the southernmost beach at Playa Palancar. We stopped just past Palancar at “Mr. Sanchez’s Beach” for a tasty lunch, cold beer, and some unexpected retail at the dozen or so small shops set up at the entrance to this rather crowded beach. This beach is very much for tourist day tripping Hughes and Judy(no accommodations), but Mr. Sanchez has created a very clean, comfortable, and attractive area for those who want a day of sand, sun, and water toys, a place to swim, eat and drink, and watch people. We enjoyed it more than we thought we would. Continuing north after lunch, we passed by…

        Chankanaab National Park. The stretch of beach and adjoining jungle have been set aside for families to tour a well maintained botanical garden, visit a reconstructed Mayan village, explore a wildlife sanctuary and saltwater lagoon, and see dolphins and sea lions up close. Chankanaab spreads several hundred yards along a beach dotted with palapas, restaurants, and an easy to enter cove that is great for snorkeling (the fish are quite used to human company). There are also dive shops that will rent equipment for shore diving. The US$12 daily admission fee does not assure quiet and privacy. However, Hughes, Deb, Dan and the grandchildren agreed that for a one day experience, the clean facilities (including free showers), varied attractions, and comfortable setting are worth the price.

        We love sampling local foods whenever we're outside the USA. We do not eat out every meal when we travel. We try to rent a place that has a kitchen, so we eat our various breakfasts (or not) at the house, and we usually snack or have a light lunch “at home.” But we look forward to local specialties at different restaurants in the evening. Unlike the residents of Cozumel (and Mexico generally) who eat a light evening meal after after work at 8:00 or 9:00, we eat dinner “early” (i.e., 6:00 or 7:00) when the restaurants always have good seating.

        Like other Mexican resort areas, Cozumel has some fine Restaurantrestaurants that feature fresh seafood and other dishes cooked Mexican/Yucatan style. Yes, there are many places that serve enchiladas, tacos, burritos, and similar dishes more commonly associated with Mexican food in the USA. However, to eat in a coastal town where fish, shrimp, lobster, and calamari are caught and served fresh daily is an opportunity to eat great seafood.

        Of the seven restaurants we tried, three are worth recommendation:

        La Choza is a favorite of locals for outstanding food and very reasonable prices. It was as good as the word of mouth advertising promised. We almost ate there twice it was that good.

        La Veranda is a former pub (originally called “d’Pub” in older guide books) built Caribbean style: it looked exactly like a typical Cayman Islands bungalow. Dinner was elegantly served in the very pleasant garden behind the house. Michael and Cindy took us there for our “birthday dinner.” The food was excellent and the waiter put on a fine show making the flaming Spanish coffee Hughes had for dessert. A little higher priced, but a fine dining experience.

        Acuario  is a newer upscale beach front restaurant near the new port for the big cruise ships. The fish was very fresh and tasty, the view excellent (though not nearly as spectacular as it was each night from our veranda), and the service showy as it was at La Veranda.

        Though we are not extravagant people, our family does like to shop, and a town the size of San Miguel is an excellent place to enjoy shopping. There are lots of shops confined to a relatively small area (though we didn't see them all!), and the folks who run the shops are not offensively aggressive as can be the case in places like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and lots of other resort towns everywhere.

        The streets are crowded when the big ships unload their several thousand passengers for the day, but evenings are much quieter. There is much to commend strolling down the narrow streets and around the zocalo in the warm evenings after a hard day of water play, several margaritas, and a good dinner. Judy found a treasure trove of prints by Mexican artist Robert Block and purchased several to add to our small collection. Hughes 1994 Groupbought a very handsome belt (made in Argentina); Judy liked it so much, she bought a similar one for herself. The grandchildren bought small gifts for friends and teachers back home in addition to a small  bracelet or necklace for themselves. Cindy bought some sterling and gemstone jewelry. Dan bought “Dive Paradise” T-shirts for Hughes and himself to remember our day with Perfidio.
        Covi Liquors (corner of 30th Ave. and Calle 2) had a fine selection of familiar and hard to find tequilas and liqueurs well below USA prices. If you've not vacationed in Mexico or out of the countr, there is, by the way, no duty to pay when returning to the USA if you stay within your permitted amount of liquor (or other goods). Shopping at “Duty Free” stores at the airport is not necessary and almost always more costly.


        This was our eighth family vacation, a tradition that began in Cozumel in 1994 (see photo on left). Since then we have gone to Lake Winnipesaukee, Grand Cayman, Hawai'i, Steamboat Springs (and Nederland), Puerto Vallarta, and Belize. For the trip this year each family selected photos from past trips and we noticed how we've each changed. We Playing Cardsspent some time reminiscing, catching up on who's doing what, and marveling at how capable and pleasant both grandchildren are to have with us.

        The week passed too quickly, though we took our time doing things together:

        •We played a lot of cribbage and at least a daily round of seven-handed Shanghai Rummy (mountain rules) each evening (Griffin was the clearly Player of the Week);

        •We shot a lot of pool. Julia organized an eight ball tournament with seedings and brackets—Michael won;

        •Everyone worked on coloring in a large detailed poster of a tropical setting that was always out for anyone to work on whenever they wanted. (Alas, it was left in the Cozumel Griff and Julia Coloringairport to be found, we hope, by a family who needs a hand colored work of art to grace their home.);
        •Everyone read or finished at least one book during the week;

        •We ran (or walked) almost every morning—Griffin shows real promise as a long distance/cross country runner—and we spent a lot of time in the water—diving, snorkeling, swimming;

        •We drank more margaritas and Mexican beer and ate more fish in a week than we would in several months at home;

        •We walked most of the downtown streets, looked in scores of store windows, and enjoyed the warmth of the island's hospitality; and

        •Collectively we took hundreds of pictures that will help us remember the week together.

        We don't know what the future holds for this tradition of family vacations. I'm sure we'll find a way to come together out here, in the Boston area, or some vacation destination in some other part of this country or the world. The trips have, we hope, opened the eyes of our children and grandchildren to the joys of travel, and of the benefits of experiencing other people and other places, being a visitor not a tourist. We also hope that they remember these times together and sense the importance of staying in touch as a family despite being separated by distance and time.

        We're certain we'll be doing trips like these again. VW Group PhotoThey have been too important to us in keeping in touch with those we cherish.

                                        Michael (driving)
                                               Julia (on top)

Judy and Hughes Moir
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