I’ve seen in the festive season in Belize for the last few years (and eaten my enormous fill of turkey, ham, and black cake; not to mention drank myself slowly under the table with beer and rum). Now, it’s time to head north to Mexico, to spend my Christmas holiday in the tropical paradises (or over-hyped tourist traps, depending on your point of view) of Cozumel and Playa del Carmen.
The Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is stunningly beautiful – over 300 km of sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and coral reefs. But it’s certainly not ‘undiscovered’ – Cancún (the epicentre of Mexican beach tourism) received over four million visitors in 2012. The Riviera Maya (the heavily-touristed coastline from Cancún south to Tulum, including Playa and Cozumel) got three million. And the Costa Maya (the area south of Tulum to the Belize border, and by far the least-developed stretch of coastline) still received over one million tourists. So that’s anywhere between four and eight million tourists a year hitting the Yucatán’s beaches. By contrast, Belize receives less than one million tourists annually (across the whole country). So if you’re looking for unknown and untouched hideaways, where it’s just you and a few locals on the beach, you probably won’t find it here.
Having briefly stopped in Cancún (which I hated) and nearby Isla Mujeres (which I loved) in 2012, I decide to spend my Christmas in Cozumel, with a few days in Playa on the way back. Sadly, I can’t stay for New Year’s Eve, as I have to be back at work on the 2nd, and I don’t fancy travelling back on the 1st with a New Year’s Day hangover.
Previously, getting to Mexico involved catching a Belizean bus to Chetumal (crossing the border in the process), and then catching a Mexican bus to your final destination. But for the last few years, the Mexican bus company ADO has been running two overnight buses from Belize City – one to Mérida (for all the Belizeans going for healthcare – Mérida is a centre for medical tourism [the bus even stops at all the major hospitals!]); and one to Cancún (for all the Belizeans [and tourists] going to the airport – flying is another thing that can be done quicker and cheaper outside of Belize).
Convenience and price aside, going from Belize to Mexico is a bit of a palava. Because there’s no ADO office in Belize, you have to reserve your ticket from the ADO agent here (who’s an Indian shopkeeper). He sets up his stall (and it is a stall) in the Belize City bus station from 5 – 7 every night. You reserve your seat and get your ticket (all on paper of course, you weren’t expecting a computerised reservation system, were you?). But you don’t pay the full price for your ticket, you pay a small amount to the Belizean agent and the rest in Mexico. Then you wait patiently for the agent to find some change, or you try every shop in the bus station in a fruitless search for small money. Then you come back on the appropriate day to get the bus.
The next night, after piling all the passengers and luggage onto the bus, we’re off. There’s a brief pause at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, as police check the bus, and all the driver’s mates (who are using the bus as a free ride to Orange Walk) are chucked off, and the driver is taken outside and chastised for his sneaky rule-breaking. Then we’re off again, a dreadful rom-com starring Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler on the TV (fortunately it’s in Spanish, so I can’t understand what they’re saying), and the air-con set at a temperature somewhere between suspended animation and ice age.
After picking up more passengers at Orange Walk and Corozal, we cross the border around midnight. Crossing is as slow as always, but it’s painless, and I pass the time in the various queues chatting to a Canadian guy who lives in Corozal and is flying out of Cancún back to Vancouver. He tells me he’s a deeply religious man who started speaking in tongues as a teenager, then discovered God, and has been going around the world preaching the word of the Lord ever since (there are a surprisingly-large number of these religious types in Belize). When he says that his young son is now speaking in tongues too, I resist the urge to suggest a psychiatric evaluation of hereditary mental illness, and excuse myself to the toilet.
After all the stops and starts in Belize and at the border, you’d think we’d be full speed ahead once we get into Mexico and onto its straight, paved, multi-lane highways. But no. As we get to Bacalar (home of the multi-coloured lagoon), we stop again, this time to pay the rest of the bus ticket fee. The man in the seat next to me (whose huge size will later prevent me from getting any sleep, as he spills over the armrest and crushes me against the window) makes a comment about us being herded around like cattle. Looking at his bovine frame, I’m inclined to agree…
We roll into Playa at 5 a.m. (the bus stops at Tulum at 4, and finishes in Cancún at 6). The first ferry to Cozumel doesn’t leave till 7, and I can’t check in to the hotel till 10. So I pass the time keeping myself awake with continual cups of coffee, and wandering Playa’s lovely beach, admiring the sand sculptures (the artist has rendered a life-like nativity, complete with Baby Jesus and farm animals), being baffled by the tourists who are already sunbathing at dawn (how keen are some people to get a tan?), and sneering at the joggers (no doubt spurred on mile after mile by their feelings of superiority over all the unhealthy slobs like me – I feel like shouting at them that jogging may well extend their lives, but probably only by the amount of time they spent jogging).
Finally, I can’t put it off any longer, and catch the ferry to Cozumel. The ferry is large, modern, and fast, and has AC and TV (although, in between the adverts for various local attractions, they show the video for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” multiple times – My God, the 80s were a horrific time for fashion and hairstyles; those poor Africans may have been starving in “a world of dread and fear”, where “nothing ever grows”, but at least they didn’t look like Boy George or Simon Le Bon).
After arrival and check-in, I spend most of the rest of the day sleeping, finally venturing out in the evening to wander round San Miguel, Cozumel’s main (well, only) town. As befits a tourist town in the high season, there are tons of restaurants serving every kind of cuisine, many of them with a staff member standing outside, waving a menu and entreating the passing tourists to enter. I pick the quietest one, eat my fish, drink my beer, and go to back to bed.
It’s Christmas Day. My Lonely Planet guidebook states “Cozumel is too resilient and too proud to become just another cheesy cruise ship destination.” That may apply to the rest of the island, but not to San Miguel – it’s the epitome of the cheesy cruise ship destination. The waterfront avenue is packed with souvenir shops selling tourist tat of every stripe, from huge sombreros to tacky woodcarvings to cheap booze to Cuban cigars. There’s a shop that sells clothes made from bamboo (huh?), and a bakery that makes cakes from tequila (bleurgh). And like the restaurants, outside virtually every one is someone begging the passing tourists to enter their emporium of junk. Coming from Belize, where the most aggressive salesmanship you find is a guy on the Cayes trying to sell you a CD or some weed, it’s all quite a shock. Cozumel is the second-busiest cruise ship destination in the Caribbean, receiving three million tourists a year (as opposed to the half a million or so cruise ship tourists Belize City gets annually). And it shows – there are white people everywhere, most of them looking like they’ve got no idea what country they’re in, and many of them the size of folk who’ve been at the all-you-can-eat buffets since departure. And unlike Belize City, where the cruise ships moor offshore and the tourists are ferried into the city by tenders, in Cozumel the ships are docked right at San Miguel – there are two docked on the edge of the town centre, and another two a few miles outside. They have grandiose names like ‘Enchantment of the Seas’ and ‘Spirit of Adventure’ (I can’t see any called ‘Pier Pressure’ or ‘Nautibuoy’), and they are gigantic, dominating the horizon and viewable from miles away.
But just a few blocks back from the tourist zone, away from the trinket sellers and car hire reps and tour guides and henna tattoo artists, the town is quieter (and the restaurants cheaper). I find a bike shop near my hotel and hire one to ride up to the northern coast of the island. The paved coastal road ends abruptly once I get to the northernmost resort, and turns immediately into a dirt track of mud and rain-filled potholes. Living in Belize, I’m used to these kinds of ‘roads’, and spend an enjoyable (and muddy) hour riding to the northernmost beach, which consists of mangroves and a few dilapidated fishing boats, and which is completely deserted, except for me and a family of raccoons.
On the ride back, there’s a noise in the distance that sounds like a large swarm of angry bees. It’s gets closer and closer, until ahead of me there appears a fleet of ATVs (they look like souped-up quad bikes), driven by hordes of suntanned gringos. The vehicles are bouncing over the mud and splashing through the potholes, and are heading straight for me. There’s thick forest on either side of the track, so there’s nowhere for me to go – I have to hug the side of the track as they tear past me, dousing me and the bike in mud and dirty water. Bastards. These vehicles may look fun to drive, but they ain’t fun to drive past. On the ride back, I decide to take a dip in the sea to wash and cool off, but much of the coast is occupied by large resorts, who’ve bought up the prime beach real estate (and I don’t think I could pass for a rich tourist, strolling through the lobby covered in filth and dripping with mud). So I end up bathing in the sea with the locals at one of San Miguel’s rocky beaches.
Inspired by yesterday’s trip (apart from the mudbath), and keen to spend as much time away from San Miguel as possible, I hire a car (a VW Beetle, of all vehicles) and drive round the island. The western side (facing the mainland) has calmer water, and is full of resorts (so nicer to swim at, but harder to get access to the beach, and busy with people). And the eastern side is windswept and deserted, with a succession of beautiful beaches, mostly being hammered by some rough-looking water (that I don’t fancy swimming in).
Back in town, and at night, after the day-trippers have gone back to Playa or to their cruise ships, it’s actually quite pleasant (so long as you stay away from the main shopping strip, with the slick salesmen trying to tempt you into buying duty-free jewellery at 9 p.m.). Yes, there’s a Hard Rock Café, and a Senõr Frog’s, and a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville (and a Hooters!), plus stalls selling t-shirts that say ‘One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor’. But it’s nowhere near as tacky as Cancún (or as built-up), and the town square is a pretty spot surrounded by illuminated colonial buildings and food stalls (where the locals, who wouldn’t dream of forking out a hundred Pesos for some shrimp tacos, are all eating).
I finally get round to doing what I came to Cozumel for – dive. The reefs around the island were made famous by Jacques Cousteau (who also filmed at Belize’s Blue Hole), and are supposed to be the best in Mexico. And having done plenty of diving in Belize, it’s time to explore some more of the Mesoamerican Reef.
And it is superb – huge corals and colourful sponges, plus fish, turtles, sharks, and rays. The bright tropical sunshine, amazing visibility (maybe 30 metres or more) and relatively shallow depths mean that every colour stands out, from the bright red anemones to the vivid yellow tube sponges and the electric blue damselfishes. And I don’t even have to swim – the current is so strong that they’re the driftiest drift dives I’ve ever done (at times it feels like I’m flying over the reef). Going with the current also requires very little effort – at the end of the dives (which are over an hour, the longest dives I’ve done), I still have a third of my air left (as opposed to using it all up in 45 minutes, which is what normally happens).
I have such a good time diving yesterday that I decide to go back for another bite of the underwater cherry. And it’s another great day’s diving – we visit different dive sites from before (there are 65 sites around Cozumel, so you could dive here for weeks and not see the same place twice). And at these sites the current isn’t too strong, so there’s a chance to see all the small and hidden creatures of the reef – pregnant seahorses (it’s the male who carries the fertilised eggs, lazy female seahorses), cunningly-disguised stonefish (I don’t go too near them, as they’re supposed to be highly venomous and I don’t fancy finding out for certain), and ill-tempered-looking moray eels, with their gulping mouths and staring bug-eyes. The reef is riddled with fissures, tunnels, and caves, and as today’s group is more advanced than yesterday’s, the divemaster leads us over and then into the reef. Not for the first time while diving on this beautiful reef, I wish I’d bought myself a GoPro camera…
And the end of the dive also marks the end of my time in Cozumel. Next stop, Playa del Carmen…