Under the Radar in Cozumel, Mexico
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
It was like nature’s offering of a little retreat from the daily heat.
Knowing that gray clouds do not usually last too long in these parts, I was confident that it wouldn’t be long before embarking on some of the real adventure the island offers.
Or, perhaps lounge by the royal level pool bar with friends as the birds resumed their songs in the fresh azure sky before dining late-night at La Carreta, my fave of the resort’s diverse restaurants, all of which cater to many diets.
Maybe all of the above.
Cozumel, which lies between the Yucatan Channel and the Caribbean Sea, is a considerably less developed island than what I expected, west-coast resort areas exempt. The easy hour-long ferry from Playa del Carmen is a popular route for many reasons.
“The reef is where Jacques Cousteau explored extensively in 1962, and where snorkelers and dive enthusiasts visit in droves from all over today. His famous documentary was made here.” our guide, Diana, pointed out. No surprise, as the island boasts the world’s second largest reef: the Mesoamerican.
The island also attracts avid bird watchers from all over (Cozumel actually means ‘land of the Swallow’ in Maya). The largest planetarium in Latin America is here, too, our guide informed us.
It was a bumpy road on the off-terrain to Punta Sur Eco Beach Park. In fact, there is only one road on the rocky east-coast, and it led us to our thrill jostling journey. The remote and unique vibe on this eastern side revved up our sense of Mexican adventure.
Naureen and I were all the more glad to have Dean at the wheel. Everyday vehicles are definitely not meant for this terrain. Eagerly exploring the winding roads in our rugged jeep from Explora-Tours without any real strict time constraints, we felt gleefully footloose.
We witnessed the conservation efforts of Palancar Reef, where there is also an initiative that involves students and the community keeping beaches clean from the recent influx of seaweed, an education to act as custodians of the threatened turtle population.
Our companions pulled up ahead of us in their jeep to check-out one of the 30+ Mayan ruins, a one-time Mayan lighthouse called Caracol.
Adjacent to the ruin, as part of the 247-acre eco-park, is part of the brackish lagoon, home to more than 300 alligators, which can be observed from high platforms. Considering the unsavory heights and the reptiles, I observed from a distance.
The Celarain, a more contemporary lighthouse circa 1901 along with its adjoining nautical museum, presented a great opportunity for informative sightseeing and a much-needed stretch & hydrate break further south on the road.
Opting to not climb Celerain with my cohorts, I preferred to set my sights on the beach photo-ops and the local craft markets where I picked up pretty decorated hand-painted guacamole and salsa bowls.
On the very southern tip of Cozumel is Pelicano’s Beach Club at Punta Sur Beach where we snacked at the make-your-own taco bar while taking in the vastness of the crystal blue sunny waters. Afterward, we strolled, getting our feet wet while others lounged under umbrellas, in chairs on the white sand.
Learning the Mayan Way
Not long after being welcomed by the chief at Pueblo del Maíz village within its towering forest, my face was painted with blue Mayan symbols.
My travel buddies and I were introduced to the naturist culture while planting maize in their gardens, “a highly spiritually significant practice for the Mayan people, as we believe the souls return into the earth after death,” our chief explained.
Further up the dirt path, our crew gathered in a large hut where a ritual ensued at an altar before us as a woman in blue led the ceremonial rites honoring the elements. Chants and dance commenced, leading to our spirit cleansing through the smoke of smoldering incense upon entering the emulated Mayan village one by one.
I was officiated the Cocoa Man and bestowed a cache of cocoa. I was essentially in charge of the banking.
“Cocoa and maize were very important to daily life, especially in trade and food. One responsible member of a tribe would be in charge of paying the bills - the economics, basically - with the beans. That’s a very important role,” our chief elaborated.
Naureen volunteered to the task of grinding the corn in the metate stone for others in the group to make and sample their own tortillas on the traditional comal skillet with the help of the village’s top chef who later would join us for a lesson in Mayan chocolate making where she shared samples. I tipped our chef generously with extra cocoa beans.
Our taste of daily life in the culture was about to turn more immersive as we were treated to a dazzling display of fire-dance and ceremony.
Chants and song resounded in the air of the forest. I could feel the rhythmic pounding of the bass drums in my body as I shook my hand-held maraca along to its beat. In a crescendo of the wildly energetic and moving ceremony, our dancer wielded fire on his feet and hands. A truly captivated audience were we!
Folksy Flair beneath the Stars
Guitar music piped through the abundantly verdant grounds while we meandered -- learning the many paths of the resort’s green-minded manicured grounds -- and then unlearning them after a tequila tasting.
We also learned our lesson finding our way to sunset dining on the shore of the Beach Club: Don’t forget the bug repellant. Yikes!
One of the best of traditional folk dance shows I had seen in Mexico was staged on one of the ground’s courtyards one night on their traditional Mexican stage which looks something like a Buddhist Circumambulation walking circle. But it’s definitely not as solemn as that.
The intricately embroidered men’s garb with metallic pantaloon buttons shimmered as the tall, slender hombres kicked and pranced in dances of courtship.
The women fluttered their colorful gowns, smiling coyly in their romantic gestures and playful language – swirling mightily and proud in warm colorful spotlights during the traditional Jaribe dance.
The live band delighted the audience. I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to grab some castanets and click our heels along with them in the idyllic atmosphere on this tiny island beneath the stars out in the sea.
Senior Travel Writer Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.