[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]<br><br>In the past, I've written up "on Moday we did this, Tuesday we did<br>that" accounts of trips. For some reason, our trip to Cozumel doesn't<br>seem to fit into this form as well. Partly because, frankly, I didn't<br>log which beach chair or palapa we took over each day and partly<br>because the trip is best described qualitatively.<br><br>Cozumel is a small island just off the east coast of the Yucatan<br>Peninsula, near the northern end of the peninsula. Cancun is right at<br>the upper right "corner" of the peninsula and Cozumel is across from<br>Playa del Carmen, a small city perhaps 30 minutes drive south of<br>Cancun. Cozumel is under 10 miles east of Playa del Carmen; the ferry<br>takes about 45 minutes to make the crossing. The general area is<br>considered part of the "Mayan Riviera" and is roughly about as far<br>north as Puerto Rico and south of a point between Houston and New<br>Orleans.<br><br>There were three of us on this trip, my wife, Chris, her sister,<br>Margit, and myself. We left on 20 November 2000 and returned on 30<br>November. We flew from Philadelphia to Cozumel and back with<br>Continental Airlines and, after that experience, will not fly with<br>Continental again unless there is utterly no other reasonable choice.<br>The autopsy report on Continental is at the end of this report.<br><br>The original plan was to arrive on Cozumel around noon on Monday, 20<br>November. Continental got us there about 10 hours after that. We<br>took grand transportation to our hotel (hint: the airport is one of<br>the few places the local taxi service cannot make pickups - unless<br>you're being met at the airport, pick up a ticket for the ground<br>transportation in the airport before exiting the building) and were<br>met by a desk clerk with... a British accent? It turned out that we'd<br>just gotten the one non-Mexican on the staff but we didn't hold that<br>against her. The suite we'd reserved was pleasant but the part of the<br>suite Margit was to use only had a window into the hotel's interior.<br><br>The next morning, Chris asked if another room, with a view for her<br>sister, was available and we were told there was such a room but it<br>needed to be painted before it would be ready for guests. Chris took<br>a look at the suite, said she liked it, and the hotel staff said<br>they'd begin painting so we could be in by dinner time! Well, with<br>one thing and another, it took a little longer to finish painting so<br>we said we'd wait until the following morning to change rooms (and let<br>the paint fumes clear). When we changed rooms, all was as promised,<br>the room smelled fresh, and Margit had her view while Chris and I had<br>a view of the beach and water beyond, as we had in the first room. <br><br>Backing up a bit, we'd planned to rent a car for our stay on the<br>island after finding in past trips elesewhere that a car was a good<br>idea. Because of the delay in arriving on Cozumel, we were unable to<br>get our car when we finally arrived (the Avis office closed four hours<br>before we arrived). We cancelled the rental reservation, through the<br>international reservation number, because Avis could no longer<br>guarantee the terms of the rental as initially booked (prices had gone<br>up $4US/day). The following day, Tuesday, we rented a Jeep for one<br>day to scope out the island and generally figure out how<br>transportation worked. We did the drive around the perimeter of the<br>island (there's only one road along the shore) and checked out the<br>eastern or Caribbean shore. This is the windward side of the island<br>when the easterly tradewind is blowing and generally is undeveloped<br>except for a few stops along the way.<br><br>It soon became obvious that all of the action was at either our hotel,<br>Hotel Playa Azul or the city of San Miguel, a little more than three<br>miles to the south of the hotel. It's possible to walk from one side<br>of the main section of San Miguel to the other in perhaps 15 minutes.<br>Cab fare to or from the hotel was $5US for up to four people and the<br>Jeep was going to cost about $60US/day. Bye, bye, Jeep!<br><br>Hotel Playa Azul is, in comparison to some of the all-inclusive resort<br>factories, a small to medium-sized hotel. It is, in fact, on the site<br>of the first resorts to open on the island (the original cabana-style<br>structures are long gone) and it has something hard to come by on<br>Cozumel, a sandy beach. Most of the island is ironstone or limestone<br>right to the water and, unless manufactured, beaches are scarce.<br>Better still, the owners actually live at the hotel. We saw Fernando<br>and Martha daily and they made a point of asking how things were,<br>etc. Try that at a Holiday Inn or Iberostar! <br><br>For me, of course, diving was a priority. I'd been in touch with<br>Carlo Scuba Cozumel, the in-house dive operator. Neither Chris or<br>Margit are certified divers and I have been trying to get Chris to at<br>least try a resort course, in hopes she'll like diving and take a<br>certification course. I figured that if she and Margit did it<br>together, there might be some hope of continuing from there. Margit,<br>however, isn't very fluent in English and so I needed to find someone<br>to teach an introductory course in German for Margit. Carlo Scuba's<br>initial reply was inconclusive so I'd continued to ask around,<br>arriving at Dive Paradise as the "for sure" place for German-language<br>instruction. Dive Paradise, however, insisted on a week's lead time<br>on assigning a dive instructor and, frankly, I didn't know from one<br>day to the next if Chris and Margit would even take the course.<br><br>I decided to dive with the in-house operator and, if that worked out,<br>figure out how to deal with the German-language lessons afterwards.<br>Thierry Durand, who runs Carlo Scuba Cozumel (his father runs Carlo<br>Scuba in Ixtapa on the Pacific coast of Mexico), turned out to be all<br>I wanted in a dive operator and divemaster. The largest group was<br>five divers and we left at a civilized 9:00 AM instead of the 8:00 or<br>8:30 AM many operators insist on. Nonetheless, we rarely saw any<br>other divers once in the water and went to locations that were<br>interesting and appropriate for the skill level of the group. Dives<br>were all done by computer (but planned in advance and SIT's were<br>extended to leave a comfortable safety margin for the follow-up dive).<br>Durations weren't tied to the clock but just "tell me when you hit 700<br>PSI; we'll slowly start back up then". During SIT's, Terry and<br>Nabito, his boat captain and backup divemaster, had cold drinks and<br>cookies ready.<br><br>The twin 40 HP Yamaha engines pushed the boat as quickly as the water<br>conditions permitted. I heard a lot about fast boats and slow boats<br>in reading up on diving Cozumel. Since most of the diving occurs in a<br>roughly five mile long arc along the southwest shore, dashing from one<br>end to the other is a waste of fuel; in the end there's still going to<br>be about an hour of SIT between dives. Going from site to site in a<br>two or three minutes or five or ten minutes is immaterial.<br><br>The weather during much of our stay was unsettled. The winter winds<br>are easterly trades interrupted by occasional "el nortes", a stiff<br>northwesterly wind. The "el norte" winds for the first three days we<br>were there were strong enough to close the port to all but the largest<br>ships. On Wednesday, when the port re-opened, the seas and winds were<br>still too strong to let Thierry tie up his boat at the hotel pier so<br>Thierry put us in a cab to the marina next to the El Presidente resort<br>and then brought us back in his dive truck. The main dive area,<br>however, is mainly sheltered by the island and we only had about a 1<br>foot chop to deal with at the most.<br><br>Cozumel diving is marked by being all about drift diving. In many<br>other locations, there's little or no current and it's up to the diver<br>to move around by finning along. The current in the Cozumel channel,<br>however, often runs at one or two knots at the south end and as much<br>as four knots or greater at the north end, where the channel is<br>narrower. This calls for anyone diving in these conditions to have<br>their diving act together for three reasons.<br><br>First, how close you are to the bottom determines your speed. Well<br>off the bottom the current is most apparent and near the bottom its<br>effect is less. If a diver isn't at about the same depth as the rest<br>of the group, it's possible to get behind or ahead of the group. And,<br>of course, if the diver can't control buoyancy properly and bangs into<br>coral and sponges, the damage to the reef is immediate and lasting. <br><br>Second, once in the water, if a diver delays in going under, they can<br>become separated from the group before the dive even starts. Boat<br>captains try hard to follow their groups but being a lone diver in the<br>midst of half a dozen dive boats is not a good situation to be in.<br>Therefore, a diver has to be ready to dive as soon as the rest of the<br>group goes in and under.<br><br>Finally, diving in currents pose some problems that require more<br>attention to diving skills. To stay over a given place on a reef, the<br>diver has to turn and swim into the current. Just floating will not<br>hold a diver over, for example, a bit of coral. The current will<br>sweep the diver along. The only way to stay in place relative to the<br>bottom is to fin against the current. This uses up air, of course,<br>and can separate a diver from the group. Also, in some cases, water<br>on top of a reef will move down off the reef in a down current. A<br>down current can carry a diver to depths were nitrogen narcosis can<br>take over, air and bottom times get short, and so on. The strategy<br>I've been told to use is swim across the current and swim away from<br>the wall until out of the down current. Increasing buoyancy will<br>help, too, of course, but remember to dump the extra air once clear of<br>the down current. Since the current is probably moving faster than a<br>diver can hope to swim, moving across the current gets the diver clear<br>of the down current sooner and with less exertion. Fortunately, I<br>never had to put theory into practice.<br><br>I found that once I got used to the experience of diving in moving<br>water, however, it was much easier diving than diving in still water.<br>In a fifty minute dive we saw far more coral and covered far more<br>bottom than would otherwise be possible without the help of an<br>electric scooter. In fact, some dives have to start well south of the<br>international cruise ship docks because otherwise divers will be<br>carried right up to the ships by the current.<br><br>The water temperature was around 77-80F. After being chilled at the<br>end of a week of diving in Grand Cayman, I decided to bring my<br>complete 3mm wet suit (shorty top with long arms and farmer johns). I<br>was warm on all of the dives and comfortable on top while people<br>diving in 2mm shorty suits came up chilled or soon chilled once out of<br>the water. When I go back, I'll stay with the full 3mm suit.<br><br>Visibility was easily in the 100-150' range with only one dive that<br>got slightly below that level, and that because two currents met and<br>stirred up the bottom somewhat. Coral formations along Cozumel tend<br>to occur in ridges and groupings and are less like the spur and groove<br>formations of Grand Cayman, for example. There are also walls and<br>swim-throughs ranging from simple arches to extended tunnels. On the<br>walls, coral extends well above the level of the bottom leading to the<br>dropoff. Instead of just a layer of coral following the profile of<br>the bottom, there were immense towers of coral extending well above<br>the plane of the bottom. I had to remember to look up as well as down<br>and across to see all the formations.<br><br>While many of the fish I saw were ones I've seen elsewhere in the<br>Carribean, there were a few notable new species. One, the splendid<br>toadfish, seems to be local to Cozumel. I saw more king crabs on this<br>trip then anywhere outside of a Seattle fish market. And I saw more<br>schools of barracuda than anywhere else. Also, there seemed to be<br>more angelfish, in several species, than I've seen before. The barrel<br>sponges are much larger than the already huge ones I saw on Grand<br>Cayman. These sponges were large enough that the current collapsed<br>the sides together.<br><br>Some dives featured more fish, some featured more coral or more<br>sponges. Thierry was very good at keeping the changes coming. Even<br>on a day with two shallow 30-40' dives as part of a resort program for<br>two guys staying at the hotel, I found the diving enjoyable. On two<br>separate days we dove in pouring rain and during one of the dives<br>there was a thunderstorm topside. We could see the lightning flashes<br>illuminate the water briefly and once or twice I heard thunder. It<br>was a novel experience to be warmer and better off 35' down than in<br>the boat. <br><br>Over the weekend, Thierry said he was taking Saturday off to work on<br>one of his two boats. He recommended I dive with Edmundo Torres and<br>Dive Chachacha (Calle 5 Sur, half a block back from the waterfront).<br>This was the same day that Chris and Margit were going to take their<br>resort course. Thierry, with only a few hours' notice on Friday,<br>located a Dutch woman who also taught in German and who worked from<br>Discovery Divers in town (run by Marcela Torres in Calle 3 Sur, about<br>3/4 block from the waterfront and next door to the hyperbaric chamber<br>facility). So Saturday morning, Chris, Margit, and I piled into a cab<br>with our gear and separated for our different dive adventures.<br><br>After Thierry and Nabito's laid back style, Edmundo was very much a<br>"here's how I want you to be" person. He was very concerned about<br>safety and making sure that the dives went well. For him diving is<br>serious business and, although it was a different style of diving, I<br>found it a good challenge. He started with a swim-through that was<br>tighter than I expected but after that I stayed right with him. <br><br>Chris and Margit seem to have had a good time and Chris allowed as how<br>she might just take her cert course. They enjoyed Barbara, their<br>instructor, and told Thierry they thought she was very good. For the<br>curious, Chris and Margit told me they wanted to do the resort class<br>on their own and even though I wanted very much to see Chris dive, I<br>gave in to the obvious.<br><br>Also on Saturday, Thierry said he was planning to dive some of the<br>northern reefs above the hotel on Sunday. This area is not dived<br>often because of the faster currents and I was pleased that he thought<br>I might be good enough to dive there. Paulo, one of the desk clerks<br>from the hotel, was going to make the dives, too. These dives were<br>among the best dives I've ever had despite two things. First, there<br>was almost no current at all. More than once Thierry said how odd<br>this was. Second, I started the second dive without my fins. Rolling<br>off the boat, I realized that I'd forgotten my fins but, lacking the<br>ability to defy gravity, I kept on falling. Paulo brought my fins<br>along when he rolled in. Oops! Even with that silly error, cruising<br>the reef and just hanging out with locals made this a superlative set<br>of dives.<br><br>I usually got back from diving around 1:00 to 1:30 and found Chris and<br>Margit catching rays on the beach next to the hotel's beach bar. We<br>grabbed something for lunch and then headed into town or just hung out<br>and read. There are some small Mayan ruins on the island and the San<br>Gervasio ruins for the goddess Ix-chel are the best known of these<br>ruins. We took a cab to the ruins one afternoon, expecting we could<br>get a cab at the visitor center. The driver, however, said this<br>wasn't the case and that he'd wait for us. By then we'd learned that<br>the cabbies were quite reliable and that if that's what he said was<br>the case, that was it. We spent about an hour and a half, until<br>closing time, walking around and reading the signs (in English,<br>Spanish, and Mayan[!]). Had we come earlier, we could have hired a<br>guide but it was too late in the day for that. Even so, we felt the<br>major buildings and remains were well marked for a self-guided tour.<br><br>Our taxi was waiting when we returned and, since we realized the<br>driver wasn't making any fares while waiting for us, we tipped him<br>generously for his efforts. In our entire stay, we never had a taxi<br>ride that left us thinking we were either being taken the long,<br>expensive way or otherwise taken advantage of. San Miguel has several<br>one-way streets that make getting around a problem and a couple of the<br>drivers took care to explain why they were making turns at what<br>otherwise might have seemed out of the way places. <br><br>We also went to the Island of Cozumel Museum which is small but well<br>organized and has a very good collection of exhibits explaining both<br>island's natural history and the history of the Mayans and<br>post-Columbian era. It was an afternoon well spent. Chris wanted to<br>visit Chichen Itza on the mainland and the museum visit, as well as<br>the visit to the San Gervasio ruins, did a lot to get us ready for<br>that trip. For example, both the signs at the ruins as well as the<br>museum exhibits underlined that the Mayan people are still very much<br>alive, if not living in manner of the pre-Columbian era. The War of<br>Castes, a Mayan resistance struggle, with the Mexican government,<br>started in the 1840's and extended, in some measure, into the 20th<br>century.<br><br>The trip to Chichen Itza can be done by ferry and bus or by air and<br>bus for the short ride to Chichen Itza. We took the ferry to Playa<br>del Carmen and then a total of three hours to Chichen Itza by way of<br>Cancun and Valladolid, a city of about 50,000. The guide, Francisco,<br>is a consumate story teller as well as being "only" a guide and<br>narrator of facts. How he told the group about the Mayan history<br>was as entertaining as what he had to say. Who knows what we would<br>have gotten if we'd flown instead.<br><br>Chichen Itza itself is not something to be "done" in a few hours. It<br>is a trip in itself and the most one can hope to do in a short time is<br>get a sense of what exists in the middle of the Yucatan jungle. Going<br>by bus, it's a long day. We took the 7:00 AM ferry and returned on<br>the 9:00 PM ferry. Nonetheless, I highly recommend the trip. (And<br>for skeptics, we were met at the Cozumel ferry dock by Grupo Rivera<br>Maya representatives, we were met at the Playa del Carmen end, and<br>brought back to the dock at the end of the day.)<br><br>Our return flight was Thursday, 30 November, and the trip to Chichen<br>Itza was the Tuesday before we were to leave. I told Thierry I wanted<br>to dive on Wednesday but was concerned about diving too close to<br>flying. Because I'd taken a day off from diving, however, I was able<br>to dive without being too concerned about nitrogen build-up (which, if<br>a diver flys too soon after diving, can cause serious medical<br>problems). The first dive, however, ended in a tense moment when my<br>regulator's grip on the tank loosened. A screw presses part of the<br>air regulator to the valve assembly on the air tank. My regulator's<br>screw had somehow backed out slightly during the dive. I heard<br>bubbles stream off the tank where no bubbles should appear and, as I<br>pointed to the tank for my dive buddy to tighten the screw, I heard<br>the small stream of bubbles become a big stream and saw my air gauge<br>drop visibly. It was time to bail out. I did an emergency swimming<br>ascent from about 50'.<br><br>Up to this point, emergency ascents had been, for me, the topic of<br>lectures and "trust me, it's easier than you think" talks. I was now<br>well into the "breathing fumes" range of remaining air as I tried to<br>remember to keep breathing the remaining air and exhaling to keep my<br>lungs from expanding under the reduced pressure of the ascent.<br>Swimming 50' along the length of a swimming pool is easy when air is<br>only 4-5' feet away but when the shortest distance is that same 50'<br>straight up, it seems a lot harder but I was surprised to reach the<br>surface much faster than I expected and without gasping for breath.<br>Nabito, the boat captain, saw me wave and soon was along side to pick<br>me up. I explained what had happened and he understood the other<br>divers wouldn't be coming up at the same time.<br><br>On the surface after a fast ascent from 50' and following a dive as<br>far down as 70', I was worried that I might get "bent" from excess<br>nitrogen forming bubbles in my blood. Fortunately, nothing like that<br>happened and I did the next dive without a problem. Halfway through<br>the dive my buddy and I stopped long enough to make sure the screw<br>that had backed out was still tight and all went "as advertised".<br><br>We tried several restaurants during our stay. The hotel's restaurant<br>is a good one and the staff are all very helpful, friendly, and<br>accomodating. Still, we wanted to try a number of restaurants and<br>here's what we found. Pizzeria Guido's (called Pizzeria Rolandi in<br>older guides) is an excellent place for pizza and pasta. The main<br>seating area is in a courtyard in back and off the waterfront.<br>Palmeras is a good general restaurant right on the town square and<br>facing the water. The only real problem is that sitting next to the<br>(open) windows or french doors means every wandering guitarist and<br>bracelet seller passing by will offer their product. It got the point<br>where we were saying "no, gracias" every two minutes automatically.<br>Prima's, an Italian restaurant just off the same square, solves the<br>problem by having their seating on the second floor, overlooking the<br>street below. The meal was good but the prices were more like US than<br>Mexican prices and the wine prices were certainly more like US prices.<br>Pablo's Backyard is, despite the name, actually a very good restaurant<br>in the middle of the Cinco Soles crafts store. There's a Hard Rock<br>Cafe, a Fat Tuesday, and some other party bars but Carlos 'n'<br>Charlie's turned out to be our "let's go get stupid" bar of choice.<br>Owned by Grupo Anderson, it's part of a chain of Senior Frog's and<br>Carlos 'n' Charlie's across Mexico but even so, we had fun.<br><br>The night before we left Cozumel, we decided to return to Pizzeria<br>Guido's (they not only remembered us but what table we'd sat at,<br>almost a week before!). The plan was to go to Carlos 'n' Charlie's<br>"for just one drink and then we've got to pack!" Uh, well, that was<br>the plan. Instead, we closed the joint. Oops! Three rather unsteady<br>gringos (well, "un gringo y dos gringas") made their way back to the<br>hotel.<br><br>We really cannot say enough nice things about Hotel Playa Azul<br>(www.playa-azul.com) or Carlo Scuba Cozumel (tds@cozumel.com.mx).<br>Although the jewelry and souvenir merchants in town were a minor<br>irritation ("Hey, Senior Wheeskers!" is not the best way to get my<br>attention even though, yes, I do have a beard) nobody was rude or<br>pushy. There are three things to do in Cozumel, dive or snorkel, go<br>to town, or do the beach thing. If diving isn't big on your to-do<br>list, ten days of Cozumel is perhaps a little long. For divers,<br>though, it's enough to figure out how to dive the area well, take a<br>break, and come back for more.<br><br>Most of the people we dealt with had some level of working English but<br>we found that unlike, for example, Europe, the locals often didn't<br>have any conversational English. Chris and I took a "Spanish for<br>Gringos" class at the local high school, used tapes from a Berlitz<br>course, and I supplemented that with "Spanish Lingo for the Savvy<br>Gringo", a very helpful book aimed at teaching Mexican colloquial<br>Spanish. Although I'm sure that in Spanish I sound like a rather<br>slow-witted four-year-old, I honestly think that being able to speak<br>what little Spanish I could manage paid off in better contact with the<br>people we met. For anything more than a brief weekend somewhere, I<br>strongly recommend learning at least some "tourista-level" Spanish.<br><br>On Cozumel, they readily accept dollars and many stores, because of<br>the cruise ship trade, give change in dollars (and many give prices in<br>dollars to begin with - at least one store clerk actually was a little<br>startled when we said we'd pay for something in pesos instead of<br>dollars). As of November, 2000, the conversion rate was usually 9.5<br>pesos to the dollar (although some places quoted as low as 9.2 and<br>some offered 9.8). A 50 peso cab fare paid with $5US took care of the<br>fare and tip.<br><br>Would I go back to Cozumel? You bet! Would I stay at Hotel Playa<br>Azul? For sure! Would I dive with Thierry and Carlo Scuba? Is water<br>wet? Would I fly there with Continental Airlines? Has Hell frozen<br>over? If so, maybe.<br><br>The routing from Philadlephia to Cozumel, booked through Continental,<br>was via Houston. We had a 45 minute wait in Houston before flying<br>from Houston direct to Cozumel. In Phildelphia, there was a 45 minute<br>delay centered on de-icing the aircraft. The cold weather put frost<br>on the wings even though there was no rain or snow. Still, it's a<br>part of flying and life can be like that. Where Continental failed us<br>was in not holding the Cozumel flight or, failing that, getting us on<br>the next possible flight to Cozumel. Instead, we were sent from<br>ground agent to ground agent, each one of whom said we couldn't get<br>out for at least six to nine hours, effectively killing off our first<br>afternoon in Cozumel. We finally found a service representative who<br>found us a late afternoon flight that put us in Cancun where we could<br>either take a short hop to Cozumel or take the ferry. That was the<br>good news.<br><br>We arrived in Cancun at dinner time to find our bags were missing.<br>Since we needed to clear them into Mexico, though Mexican customs,<br>this wasn't just a matter of not having a toothbrush and PJ's for the<br>night. The local baggage agent spent a lot of time on the phone,<br>calling Cozumel and Houston, trying to find our bags. In the end, all<br>he could say for sure was they probably weren't in Houston but that<br>nobody in Continental's baggage system could say where the bags were<br>or where or when they were going anywhere. The last option we had was<br>to wait for the flight we had been told, in Houston, was the only<br>available flight to Cancun (so we arrived earlier in Cancun by<br>flapping our wings???) in hopes our bags where on the flight. They<br>were. We cleared the bags through customs and got them on the shuttle<br>to Cozumel just in time.<br><br>The return trip was also hit by a delay. In this case, the airplane<br>was grounded by the pilot for mechanical problems and we had to wait<br>for a mechanic to fly in from Cozumel. The delay killed our<br>connection from Houston to Philadelphia. After clearing our bags<br>through US customs (at least they travelled with us this time) and<br>putting them back in Continental's system, tried to find how to make<br>our way back to Philadelphia. At no point did anyone apologize for<br>the delay, say "here's what we'll do to get you going" or otherwise<br>make any effort to minimize the delay. We had to explain the cause of<br>the delay and generally fend for ourselves in getting anything done.<br>Through the entire trip, it was as if we'd somehow delayed the flight<br>and one "red coat" (ground agent) in particular actually got huffy<br>when we simply said we'd arrived on a delayed flight, making it seem<br>it was our fault the flight was late. Bottom line: Continental<br>Airlines is one we'll avoid even if it means paying a premium to fly<br>with someone else.<br>

Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.