Saturday, April 17, 2010

Isla Cozumel, Mexico

El Cozumelena
Isla Cozumel, situated 12 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo (sounds like it should be in Australia) is Mexico’s third largest island. Approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide its principle attraction and major source of income is from scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. Interesting size comparison: for folks familiar with Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, Winnebago measures 30 miles long by 10 miles wide. Aside from lacking salt water and coral reefs you couldn’t tell the two apart.
Shopping and chillin'
In 1996 a deepwater pier was built to encourage tourist trade with cruise ships (that’s in Cozumel – not Lake Winnebago). While we were on the island we saw numerous cruise ships – many taller than our nine story hotel - coming and going to and from the port in San Miguel, the island’s largest population center.
Karst topography comprises the island’s geology. The Cozumel reef system is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest coral reef system in the world.  Numerous species of fish (some endemic to the reef) along with other inhabitants such as sea turtles (Green and Loggerhead), black coral and the Queen Conch benefited when in 1996 the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park on the island’s south end was created. Popular dive sites include Columbia Reef, Devil's Throat at Punta Sur, Maracaibo, Palancar Reef, Paradise Reef, Paso del Cedral, San Francisco, Yucab, and the shipwreck of the C-53 Felipe Xicoténcatl (intentionally sunk in June of 2000 to form an artificial reef).
Swallow-paved road and Carter, Robyn and Cali time out
The Maya were the first to settle Cozumel (Cozumel is Mayan for "Island of the Swallows"). Sacred to the Mayan Moon Goddess, Ix Chei, temples were built and used as pilgrimages, especially by women desiring fertility. Cali and Carter may be living proof?
In 1518 the first Spanish visitor was Juan de Grijalva followed by Hernán Cortez who promptly destroyed many Mayan temples and with the introduction of smallpox, devastated the Mayan population. By 1570 only 30 direct Mayan descendents were left alive. Pirates have used the island as a hideout and during the Caste War of Yucatán the island was a refuge for people escaping the war. At one point Abraham Lincoln considered purchasing the island for a place to send freed slaves but the aforementioned war dissuaded him buying the island. Woudln’t that make for some interesting political and geographic issues had the deal gone through? The largest Mayan ruins on the island were bulldozed during WWII to make way for an airplane runway, but the ruins of San Gervasio still remain.
In 1959, Jacques Cousteau pronounced the Palancar Reef as one of the best places in the world to scuba dive and when a much larger airport was built in the 1970’s tourism on the island really took off.

The 2005 hurricane season was not kind to the island. It was struck by two Cat 4 hurricanes: Emily and Wilma. Wilma by far did the most damage as she lingered over the island. Much evidence of her visit remains. The storm double whammy was deadly to the Cozumel Thrasher, an island endemic bird species. Once numbering in the thousands, it is found no more. However, the hotel industry is on the rebound while the coral reefs still attract divers. All-inclusive hotels and docking cruise ships draw thousands of tourists each month.
Pool time
While an all-inclusive is not our cup of tea, it provided a convenient and comfortable location for a family reunion with Chris, Robyn, Cali and Carter who were there to escape the mountain snows of Colorado and do some snorkeling. We were no more immersed in Mexican culture than had we gone to Disneyworld but it put everyone in close proximity to doing what we all wanted to do.
Canto Gringo Nuevo and Gamma Carol and Carter time out
Cali and Carter spent a lot of their time in the swimming pools while being watched by Robyn and Chris or Gamma Carol and Pa. Chris and Robyn were able to spend some quality dive time sans the kids. Gamma Carol and Pa found were able to take early morning hikes from the hotel and found most of the island endemic bird species: 9 lifers for Pa and 2 for Gamma Carol (Carol had been to Cozumel before). Gamma Carol and Pa sat through an hour and a half unexpected presentation on time-share opportunities in exchange for a free breakfast and the use of a jeep for 24 hours (the real reason we sat through the presentation). The jeep allowed us to drive around the island including a stop at Punta Sur. The downside was we had not expected to be driving anywhere since we had been on a long hike and I had not brought any cameras. Would have been nice to shoot pictures at the top of the Punta Sur lighthouse (133 steps). Bottom line is that we got to spend a lot of time with the Luetkens Colorado Clan and squeeze in some birding to boot. It produced a new phrase for retirement: Professional Vacationers. See more photos here.
group photo and lunch time

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