The Other Side of Cozumel

My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.

My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.

The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.

In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.

As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.

We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.

After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.

At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.

We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.

With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.

I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.

My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.

My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.

Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.

Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.

Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.

For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 down the road.

At Your Service

The descendents of the Mayans are a happy people. Who wouldn’t be, with 300 days of sunshine per year, average temperatures of 75°F/24°C during winter,

Average-Temp-Cancun

and ocean swimming available all year round in turquoise waters that hover between 79°F/26°C and 84°F/29°C.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before money interests would step in to capitalize on a tropical paradise that was ripe for the picking.

Today, Cancun International Airport connects with 122 airports around the world, bringing over 5 million tourists to the Riviera Maya in 2017, and making Playa del Carmen and Tulum the fastest growing cities in Mexico.

But it all started from humble beginnings. Some say that Jacques Cousteau, the celebrated oceanographer first realized the potential of this area in the early 1960s. After anchoring the Calypso off the nearby island of Cozumel, he shot a documentary film that captured the wealth of sea-life thriving across the Palancar reef, the second largest coral reef biome on the planet, which resulted in an unintended flood of underwater activity from diving enthusiasts around the world, thus becoming the premiere scuba destination in the Western Hemisphere.

My earliest experience in the Yucatan Peninsula dates back to June 16, 1975, when I bounced across cratered jungle roads from Merida to Chichen Itza and Uxmal in a battered VW beetle, in search of Toltec truths once touched upon in college curriculum. This excursion/honeymoon–an elaborate anthropology and archeology tour arranged by a Mexican travel agency that rented cars and booked hotels–came with a fine-print disclaimer that later took on significant ramifications when our Bug broke down on the edge of a coastal clearing that became a colossal construction zone known as Cancun.

At first, the challenge of finding someone/anyone who could speak English was resolved after discovering the bilingual General Manager of the Sheraton Hotel (Cancun’s first and only hotel at the time) sitting in the town’s only restaurant enjoying his tamales. He negotiated a time for us to use one of two known local telephones connected to civilization–one in the restaurant, the other in the pharmacia–so we might call the Meridan agency to report our breakdown.

Several construction contractors were already patiently waiting their turn to call Mexico City for payroll and supplies, all the while drinking shots of tequila and trading gossip while their road crews were laboring 24/7 to carve the future streets of Cancun. The drone of heavy machinery and the scent of hot diesel hung in the humidity amid the occasional peal of electronic church bells tolling away the hours.

Eventually, our Sheraton translator secured a line to Merida, where we further learned that we were responsible for the VW no matter what. The car had to be repaired; it could not be abandoned, and no replacement would be available.

The new challenge was to identify a Mayan mechanic in the middle of nowhere who was VW savvy, and had a surplus of makeshift parts that could be gerryrigged to fix a transmission stuck in reverse. By now, the moon was rising over the mangroves, with little chance of making Akumal by daybreak.

The GM excused himself to network around the restaurant on our behalf, while we finished our simple meal, and to our astonishment located a local Mexican versed in lawn mower repair who offered to examine our 1965 Clasico.

Amazingly, we were on the road by 4:00 am, barreling through the dark night, charging toward our next reservation south of border, trying to make up for lost time, when I reflexively slammed on the brakes in just enough time, with just enough road to spare, and just enough tread to wear, to come bumper to bovine, narrowly avoiding a black cow lounging in the middle of a two-lane highway.

Steering clear of the cow provided an adrenaline rush that would last throughout the day, notwithstanding the bottle of Tequila we drained after finally arriving at the Place of the Turtles by dawn.

Once we checked into our room, we spent the entire day at the beach, watching in awe as leatherback hatchlings emerged from the sand and found their way to the sea.

Playa beach

That’s the moment I feel I fell in love with the Mexican Caribbean, and continue to return to this day.

More on Mexico later…