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RBEmerson
Traveler


Joined: 11/01/02
Posts: 265
Loc: Skippack, PA
Trip report - Cozumel, 20-30 Nov '00
      #125516 - 11/07/02 09:09 AM (68.81.33.12)

[TTOL addendum: This report may well be dated in places but I think it's still a useful description of a trip to "Coz'" and some of the travel options available. This report was uploaded with TTOL's admin's permission - the report will be moved to the archives shortly. - RBE]

In the past, I've written up "on Moday we did this, Tuesday we did
that" accounts of trips. For some reason, our trip to Cozumel doesn't
seem to fit into this form as well. Partly because, frankly, I didn't
log which beach chair or palapa we took over each day and partly
because the trip is best described qualitatively.

Cozumel is a small island just off the east coast of the Yucatan
Peninsula, near the northern end of the peninsula. Cancun is right at
the upper right "corner" of the peninsula and Cozumel is across from
Playa del Carmen, a small city perhaps 30 minutes drive south of
Cancun. Cozumel is under 10 miles east of Playa del Carmen; the ferry
takes about 45 minutes to make the crossing. The general area is
considered part of the "Mayan Riviera" and is roughly about as far
north as Puerto Rico and south of a point between Houston and New
Orleans.

There were three of us on this trip, my wife, Chris, her sister,
Margit, and myself. We left on 20 November 2000 and returned on 30
November. We flew from Philadelphia to Cozumel and back with
Continental Airlines and, after that experience, will not fly with
Continental again unless there is utterly no other reasonable choice.
The autopsy report on Continental is at the end of this report.

The original plan was to arrive on Cozumel around noon on Monday, 20
November. Continental got us there about 10 hours after that. We
took grand transportation to our hotel (hint: the airport is one of
the few places the local taxi service cannot make pickups - unless
you're being met at the airport, pick up a ticket for the ground
transportation in the airport before exiting the building) and were
met by a desk clerk with... a British accent? It turned out that we'd
just gotten the one non-Mexican on the staff but we didn't hold that
against her. The suite we'd reserved was pleasant but the part of the
suite Margit was to use only had a window into the hotel's interior.

The next morning, Chris asked if another room, with a view for her
sister, was available and we were told there was such a room but it
needed to be painted before it would be ready for guests. Chris took
a look at the suite, said she liked it, and the hotel staff said
they'd begin painting so we could be in by dinner time! Well, with
one thing and another, it took a little longer to finish painting so
we said we'd wait until the following morning to change rooms (and let
the paint fumes clear). When we changed rooms, all was as promised,
the room smelled fresh, and Margit had her view while Chris and I had
a view of the beach and water beyond, as we had in the first room.

Backing up a bit, we'd planned to rent a car for our stay on the
island after finding in past trips elesewhere that a car was a good
idea. Because of the delay in arriving on Cozumel, we were unable to
get our car when we finally arrived (the Avis office closed four hours
before we arrived). We cancelled the rental reservation, through the
international reservation number, because Avis could no longer
guarantee the terms of the rental as initially booked (prices had gone
up $4US/day). The following day, Tuesday, we rented a Jeep for one
day to scope out the island and generally figure out how
transportation worked. We did the drive around the perimeter of the
island (there's only one road along the shore) and checked out the
eastern or Caribbean shore. This is the windward side of the island
when the easterly tradewind is blowing and generally is undeveloped
except for a few stops along the way.

It soon became obvious that all of the action was at either our hotel,
Hotel Playa Azul or the city of San Miguel, a little more than three
miles to the south of the hotel. It's possible to walk from one side
of the main section of San Miguel to the other in perhaps 15 minutes.
Cab fare to or from the hotel was $5US for up to four people and the
Jeep was going to cost about $60US/day. Bye, bye, Jeep!

Hotel Playa Azul is, in comparison to some of the all-inclusive resort
factories, a small to medium-sized hotel. It is, in fact, on the site
of the first resorts to open on the island (the original cabana-style
structures are long gone) and it has something hard to come by on
Cozumel, a sandy beach. Most of the island is ironstone or limestone
right to the water and, unless manufactured, beaches are scarce.
Better still, the owners actually live at the hotel. We saw Fernando
and Martha daily and they made a point of asking how things were,
etc. Try that at a Holiday Inn or Iberostar!

For me, of course, diving was a priority. I'd been in touch with
Carlo Scuba Cozumel, the in-house dive operator. Neither Chris or
Margit are certified divers and I have been trying to get Chris to at
least try a resort course, in hopes she'll like diving and take a
certification course. I figured that if she and Margit did it
together, there might be some hope of continuing from there. Margit,
however, isn't very fluent in English and so I needed to find someone
to teach an introductory course in German for Margit. Carlo Scuba's
initial reply was inconclusive so I'd continued to ask around,
arriving at Dive Paradise as the "for sure" place for German-language
instruction. Dive Paradise, however, insisted on a week's lead time
on assigning a dive instructor and, frankly, I didn't know from one
day to the next if Chris and Margit would even take the course.

I decided to dive with the in-house operator and, if that worked out,
figure out how to deal with the German-language lessons afterwards.
Thierry Durand, who runs Carlo Scuba Cozumel (his father runs Carlo
Scuba in Ixtapa on the Pacific coast of Mexico), turned out to be all
I wanted in a dive operator and divemaster. The largest group was
five divers and we left at a civilized 9:00 AM instead of the 8:00 or
8:30 AM many operators insist on. Nonetheless, we rarely saw any
other divers once in the water and went to locations that were
interesting and appropriate for the skill level of the group. Dives
were all done by computer (but planned in advance and SIT's were
extended to leave a comfortable safety margin for the follow-up dive).
Durations weren't tied to the clock but just "tell me when you hit 700
PSI; we'll slowly start back up then". During SIT's, Terry and
Nabito, his boat captain and backup divemaster, had cold drinks and
cookies ready.

The twin 40 HP Yamaha engines pushed the boat as quickly as the water
conditions permitted. I heard a lot about fast boats and slow boats
in reading up on diving Cozumel. Since most of the diving occurs in a
roughly five mile long arc along the southwest shore, dashing from one
end to the other is a waste of fuel; in the end there's still going to
be about an hour of SIT between dives. Going from site to site in a
two or three minutes or five or ten minutes is immaterial.

The weather during much of our stay was unsettled. The winter winds
are easterly trades interrupted by occasional "el nortes", a stiff
northwesterly wind. The "el norte" winds for the first three days we
were there were strong enough to close the port to all but the largest
ships. On Wednesday, when the port re-opened, the seas and winds were
still too strong to let Thierry tie up his boat at the hotel pier so
Thierry put us in a cab to the marina next to the El Presidente resort
and then brought us back in his dive truck. The main dive area,
however, is mainly sheltered by the island and we only had about a 1
foot chop to deal with at the most.

Cozumel diving is marked by being all about drift diving. In many
other locations, there's little or no current and it's up to the diver
to move around by finning along. The current in the Cozumel channel,
however, often runs at one or two knots at the south end and as much
as four knots or greater at the north end, where the channel is
narrower. This calls for anyone diving in these conditions to have
their diving act together for three reasons.

First, how close you are to the bottom determines your speed. Well
off the bottom the current is most apparent and near the bottom its
effect is less. If a diver isn't at about the same depth as the rest
of the group, it's possible to get behind or ahead of the group. And,
of course, if the diver can't control buoyancy properly and bangs into
coral and sponges, the damage to the reef is immediate and lasting.

Second, once in the water, if a diver delays in going under, they can
become separated from the group before the dive even starts. Boat
captains try hard to follow their groups but being a lone diver in the
midst of half a dozen dive boats is not a good situation to be in.
Therefore, a diver has to be ready to dive as soon as the rest of the
group goes in and under.

Finally, diving in currents pose some problems that require more
attention to diving skills. To stay over a given place on a reef, the
diver has to turn and swim into the current. Just floating will not
hold a diver over, for example, a bit of coral. The current will
sweep the diver along. The only way to stay in place relative to the
bottom is to fin against the current. This uses up air, of course,
and can separate a diver from the group. Also, in some cases, water
on top of a reef will move down off the reef in a down current. A
down current can carry a diver to depths were nitrogen narcosis can
take over, air and bottom times get short, and so on. The strategy
I've been told to use is swim across the current and swim away from
the wall until out of the down current. Increasing buoyancy will
help, too, of course, but remember to dump the extra air once clear of
the down current. Since the current is probably moving faster than a
diver can hope to swim, moving across the current gets the diver clear
of the down current sooner and with less exertion. Fortunately, I
never had to put theory into practice.

I found that once I got used to the experience of diving in moving
water, however, it was much easier diving than diving in still water.
In a fifty minute dive we saw far more coral and covered far more
bottom than would otherwise be possible without the help of an
electric scooter. In fact, some dives have to start well south of the
international cruise ship docks because otherwise divers will be
carried right up to the ships by the current.

The water temperature was around 77-80F. After being chilled at the
end of a week of diving in Grand Cayman, I decided to bring my
complete 3mm wet suit (shorty top with long arms and farmer johns). I
was warm on all of the dives and comfortable on top while people
diving in 2mm shorty suits came up chilled or soon chilled once out of
the water. When I go back, I'll stay with the full 3mm suit.

Visibility was easily in the 100-150' range with only one dive that
got slightly below that level, and that because two currents met and
stirred up the bottom somewhat. Coral formations along Cozumel tend
to occur in ridges and groupings and are less like the spur and groove
formations of Grand Cayman, for example. There are also walls and
swim-throughs ranging from simple arches to extended tunnels. On the
walls, coral extends well above the level of the bottom leading to the
dropoff. Instead of just a layer of coral following the profile of
the bottom, there were immense towers of coral extending well above
the plane of the bottom. I had to remember to look up as well as down
and across to see all the formations.

While many of the fish I saw were ones I've seen elsewhere in the
Carribean, there were a few notable new species. One, the splendid
toadfish, seems to be local to Cozumel. I saw more king crabs on this
trip then anywhere outside of a Seattle fish market. And I saw more
schools of barracuda than anywhere else. Also, there seemed to be
more angelfish, in several species, than I've seen before. The barrel
sponges are much larger than the already huge ones I saw on Grand
Cayman. These sponges were large enough that the current collapsed
the sides together.

Some dives featured more fish, some featured more coral or more
sponges. Thierry was very good at keeping the changes coming. Even
on a day with two shallow 30-40' dives as part of a resort program for
two guys staying at the hotel, I found the diving enjoyable. On two
separate days we dove in pouring rain and during one of the dives
there was a thunderstorm topside. We could see the lightning flashes
illuminate the water briefly and once or twice I heard thunder. It
was a novel experience to be warmer and better off 35' down than in
the boat.

Over the weekend, Thierry said he was taking Saturday off to work on
one of his two boats. He recommended I dive with Edmundo Torres and
Dive Chachacha (Calle 5 Sur, half a block back from the waterfront).
This was the same day that Chris and Margit were going to take their
resort course. Thierry, with only a few hours' notice on Friday,
located a Dutch woman who also taught in German and who worked from
Discovery Divers in town (run by Marcela Torres in Calle 3 Sur, about
3/4 block from the waterfront and next door to the hyperbaric chamber
facility). So Saturday morning, Chris, Margit, and I piled into a cab
with our gear and separated for our different dive adventures.

After Thierry and Nabito's laid back style, Edmundo was very much a
"here's how I want you to be" person. He was very concerned about
safety and making sure that the dives went well. For him diving is
serious business and, although it was a different style of diving, I
found it a good challenge. He started with a swim-through that was
tighter than I expected but after that I stayed right with him.

Chris and Margit seem to have had a good time and Chris allowed as how
she might just take her cert course. They enjoyed Barbara, their
instructor, and told Thierry they thought she was very good. For the
curious, Chris and Margit told me they wanted to do the resort class
on their own and even though I wanted very much to see Chris dive, I
gave in to the obvious.

Also on Saturday, Thierry said he was planning to dive some of the
northern reefs above the hotel on Sunday. This area is not dived
often because of the faster currents and I was pleased that he thought
I might be good enough to dive there. Paulo, one of the desk clerks
from the hotel, was going to make the dives, too. These dives were
among the best dives I've ever had despite two things. First, there
was almost no current at all. More than once Thierry said how odd
this was. Second, I started the second dive without my fins. Rolling
off the boat, I realized that I'd forgotten my fins but, lacking the
ability to defy gravity, I kept on falling. Paulo brought my fins
along when he rolled in. Oops! Even with that silly error, cruising
the reef and just hanging out with locals made this a superlative set
of dives.

I usually got back from diving around 1:00 to 1:30 and found Chris and
Margit catching rays on the beach next to the hotel's beach bar. We
grabbed something for lunch and then headed into town or just hung out
and read. There are some small Mayan ruins on the island and the San
Gervasio ruins for the goddess Ix-chel are the best known of these
ruins. We took a cab to the ruins one afternoon, expecting we could
get a cab at the visitor center. The driver, however, said this
wasn't the case and that he'd wait for us. By then we'd learned that
the cabbies were quite reliable and that if that's what he said was
the case, that was it. We spent about an hour and a half, until
closing time, walking around and reading the signs (in English,
Spanish, and Mayan[!]). Had we come earlier, we could have hired a
guide but it was too late in the day for that. Even so, we felt the
major buildings and remains were well marked for a self-guided tour.

Our taxi was waiting when we returned and, since we realized the
driver wasn't making any fares while waiting for us, we tipped him
generously for his efforts. In our entire stay, we never had a taxi
ride that left us thinking we were either being taken the long,
expensive way or otherwise taken advantage of. San Miguel has several
one-way streets that make getting around a problem and a couple of the
drivers took care to explain why they were making turns at what
otherwise might have seemed out of the way places.

We also went to the Island of Cozumel Museum which is small but well
organized and has a very good collection of exhibits explaining both
island's natural history and the history of the Mayans and
post-Columbian era. It was an afternoon well spent. Chris wanted to
visit Chichen Itza on the mainland and the museum visit, as well as
the visit to the San Gervasio ruins, did a lot to get us ready for
that trip. For example, both the signs at the ruins as well as the
museum exhibits underlined that the Mayan people are still very much
alive, if not living in manner of the pre-Columbian era. The War of
Castes, a Mayan resistance struggle, with the Mexican government,
started in the 1840's and extended, in some measure, into the 20th
century.

The trip to Chichen Itza can be done by ferry and bus or by air and
bus for the short ride to Chichen Itza. We took the ferry to Playa
del Carmen and then a total of three hours to Chichen Itza by way of
Cancun and Valladolid, a city of about 50,000. The guide, Francisco,
is a consumate story teller as well as being "only" a guide and
narrator of facts. How he told the group about the Mayan history
was as entertaining as what he had to say. Who knows what we would
have gotten if we'd flown instead.

Chichen Itza itself is not something to be "done" in a few hours. It
is a trip in itself and the most one can hope to do in a short time is
get a sense of what exists in the middle of the Yucatan jungle. Going
by bus, it's a long day. We took the 7:00 AM ferry and returned on
the 9:00 PM ferry. Nonetheless, I highly recommend the trip. (And
for skeptics, we were met at the Cozumel ferry dock by Grupo Rivera
Maya representatives, we were met at the Playa del Carmen end, and
brought back to the dock at the end of the day.)

Our return flight was Thursday, 30 November, and the trip to Chichen
Itza was the Tuesday before we were to leave. I told Thierry I wanted
to dive on Wednesday but was concerned about diving too close to
flying. Because I'd taken a day off from diving, however, I was able
to dive without being too concerned about nitrogen build-up (which, if
a diver flys too soon after diving, can cause serious medical
problems). The first dive, however, ended in a tense moment when my
regulator's grip on the tank loosened. A screw presses part of the
air regulator to the valve assembly on the air tank. My regulator's
screw had somehow backed out slightly during the dive. I heard
bubbles stream off the tank where no bubbles should appear and, as I
pointed to the tank for my dive buddy to tighten the screw, I heard
the small stream of bubbles become a big stream and saw my air gauge
drop visibly. It was time to bail out. I did an emergency swimming
ascent from about 50'.

Up to this point, emergency ascents had been, for me, the topic of
lectures and "trust me, it's easier than you think" talks. I was now
well into the "breathing fumes" range of remaining air as I tried to
remember to keep breathing the remaining air and exhaling to keep my
lungs from expanding under the reduced pressure of the ascent.
Swimming 50' along the length of a swimming pool is easy when air is
only 4-5' feet away but when the shortest distance is that same 50'
straight up, it seems a lot harder but I was surprised to reach the
surface much faster than I expected and without gasping for breath.
Nabito, the boat captain, saw me wave and soon was along side to pick
me up. I explained what had happened and he understood the other
divers wouldn't be coming up at the same time.

On the surface after a fast ascent from 50' and following a dive as
far down as 70', I was worried that I might get "bent" from excess
nitrogen forming bubbles in my blood. Fortunately, nothing like that
happened and I did the next dive without a problem. Halfway through
the dive my buddy and I stopped long enough to make sure the screw
that had backed out was still tight and all went "as advertised".

We tried several restaurants during our stay. The hotel's restaurant
is a good one and the staff are all very helpful, friendly, and
accomodating. Still, we wanted to try a number of restaurants and
here's what we found. Pizzeria Guido's (called Pizzeria Rolandi in
older guides) is an excellent place for pizza and pasta. The main
seating area is in a courtyard in back and off the waterfront.
Palmeras is a good general restaurant right on the town square and
facing the water. The only real problem is that sitting next to the
(open) windows or french doors means every wandering guitarist and
bracelet seller passing by will offer their product. It got the point
where we were saying "no, gracias" every two minutes automatically.
Prima's, an Italian restaurant just off the same square, solves the
problem by having their seating on the second floor, overlooking the
street below. The meal was good but the prices were more like US than
Mexican prices and the wine prices were certainly more like US prices.
Pablo's Backyard is, despite the name, actually a very good restaurant
in the middle of the Cinco Soles crafts store. There's a Hard Rock
Cafe, a Fat Tuesday, and some other party bars but Carlos 'n'
Charlie's turned out to be our "let's go get stupid" bar of choice.
Owned by Grupo Anderson, it's part of a chain of Senior Frog's and
Carlos 'n' Charlie's across Mexico but even so, we had fun.

The night before we left Cozumel, we decided to return to Pizzeria
Guido's (they not only remembered us but what table we'd sat at,
almost a week before!). The plan was to go to Carlos 'n' Charlie's
"for just one drink and then we've got to pack!" Uh, well, that was
the plan. Instead, we closed the joint. Oops! Three rather unsteady
gringos (well, "un gringo y dos gringas") made their way back to the
hotel.

We really cannot say enough nice things about Hotel Playa Azul
(www.playa-azul.com) or Carlo Scuba Cozumel (tds@cozumel.com.mx).
Although the jewelry and souvenir merchants in town were a minor
irritation ("Hey, Senior Wheeskers!" is not the best way to get my
attention even though, yes, I do have a beard) nobody was rude or
pushy. There are three things to do in Cozumel, dive or snorkel, go
to town, or do the beach thing. If diving isn't big on your to-do
list, ten days of Cozumel is perhaps a little long. For divers,
though, it's enough to figure out how to dive the area well, take a
break, and come back for more.

Most of the people we dealt with had some level of working English but
we found that unlike, for example, Europe, the locals often didn't
have any conversational English. Chris and I took a "Spanish for
Gringos" class at the local high school, used tapes from a Berlitz
course, and I supplemented that with "Spanish Lingo for the Savvy
Gringo", a very helpful book aimed at teaching Mexican colloquial
Spanish. Although I'm sure that in Spanish I sound like a rather
slow-witted four-year-old, I honestly think that being able to speak
what little Spanish I could manage paid off in better contact with the
people we met. For anything more than a brief weekend somewhere, I
strongly recommend learning at least some "tourista-level" Spanish.

On Cozumel, they readily accept dollars and many stores, because of
the cruise ship trade, give change in dollars (and many give prices in
dollars to begin with - at least one store clerk actually was a little
startled when we said we'd pay for something in pesos instead of
dollars). As of November, 2000, the conversion rate was usually 9.5
pesos to the dollar (although some places quoted as low as 9.2 and
some offered 9.8). A 50 peso cab fare paid with $5US took care of the
fare and tip.

Would I go back to Cozumel? You bet! Would I stay at Hotel Playa
Azul? For sure! Would I dive with Thierry and Carlo Scuba? Is water
wet? Would I fly there with Continental Airlines? Has Hell frozen
over? If so, maybe.

The routing from Philadlephia to Cozumel, booked through Continental,
was via Houston. We had a 45 minute wait in Houston before flying
from Houston direct to Cozumel. In Phildelphia, there was a 45 minute
delay centered on de-icing the aircraft. The cold weather put frost
on the wings even though there was no rain or snow. Still, it's a
part of flying and life can be like that. Where Continental failed us
was in not holding the Cozumel flight or, failing that, getting us on
the next possible flight to Cozumel. Instead, we were sent from
ground agent to ground agent, each one of whom said we couldn't get
out for at least six to nine hours, effectively killing off our first
afternoon in Cozumel. We finally found a service representative who
found us a late afternoon flight that put us in Cancun where we could
either take a short hop to Cozumel or take the ferry. That was the
good news.

We arrived in Cancun at dinner time to find our bags were missing.
Since we needed to clear them into Mexico, though Mexican customs,
this wasn't just a matter of not having a toothbrush and PJ's for the
night. The local baggage agent spent a lot of time on the phone,
calling Cozumel and Houston, trying to find our bags. In the end, all
he could say for sure was they probably weren't in Houston but that
nobody in Continental's baggage system could say where the bags were
or where or when they were going anywhere. The last option we had was
to wait for the flight we had been told, in Houston, was the only
available flight to Cancun (so we arrived earlier in Cancun by
flapping our wings???) in hopes our bags where on the flight. They
were. We cleared the bags through customs and got them on the shuttle
to Cozumel just in time.

The return trip was also hit by a delay. In this case, the airplane
was grounded by the pilot for mechanical problems and we had to wait
for a mechanic to fly in from Cozumel. The delay killed our
connection from Houston to Philadelphia. After clearing our bags
through US customs (at least they travelled with us this time) and
putting them back in Continental's system, tried to find how to make
our way back to Philadelphia. At no point did anyone apologize for
the delay, say "here's what we'll do to get you going" or otherwise
make any effort to minimize the delay. We had to explain the cause of
the delay and generally fend for ourselves in getting anything done.
Through the entire trip, it was as if we'd somehow delayed the flight
and one "red coat" (ground agent) in particular actually got huffy
when we simply said we'd arrived on a delayed flight, making it seem
it was our fault the flight was late. Bottom line: Continental
Airlines is one we'll avoid even if it means paying a premium to fly
with someone else.


--------------------
Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.


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