Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Christmas break in Cozumel

We haven't been diving in almost 2 years and with Andrew now a year old and weened onto cows milk it was time to get back under the water!  One of our favorite places to dive is Cozumel, Mexico.  The diving is spectacular, its close, its cheap, the people are friendly, and the food is spectacular!

We managed to get some free tickets using miles which got us to Cancun - thats when the adventure began.  The Cancun Airport is completely nuts - there is the laid back domestic terminal that with regular flights to Mexico City and other Mexican destinations, the is the International Terminal which feels more like a shopping mall inside and complete insanity outside where all the locals try to sell you something to provide a taxi service... and then there is private aviation terminal which also happens to have flights to the island of Cozumel.  It also happens that in the instance that you are hungry and desire a snack while waiting for your flight you are SOL unless of course you have pesos for the vending machine.  Then the airline staff uses a laptop with a wifi connection to check everyone in.  Want to fly standby to catch an earlier flight - too bad - no such thing.  The airline's agent tells you that the earlier flight has empty seats which would get us there about 3 hours earlier (where this is also wonderful food only a block from the hotel) but will cost $20 US per seat for us to "change" our flight...  gotta love Mexico - I'm sure that 40 bucks went right into her pocket...  
So then they walk us out to the "plane" which looks like this:
Trust me - the picture makes this thing look way cooler that it is - we were the first to board and climbing in we found that every seat is both and isle and a window seat by virtue of their being only one seat on either side of the plane.  Additionally it was physically impossible to stand anywhere near upright.  As for carry ons... overhead bins - no way...  stuff it under the seat in front - not a chance - you just have to hold it and be happy.  You will also notice in the picture that the fuselage of the plane has a square-ish cross section which means that it is not pressurized which means that it can't fly very high.  Well once we took off we were informed that the "cruising altitude" would be 1500 feet - not meters or yards, but feet.  Just for perspective the Sears tower in Chicago is only 1450 feet tall.

As for security - well now-a-days every commercial flight in the US has some kind of a vaulted door to keep would be terrorists out of the cockpit - on this flight Kate and I sat in the front row directly behind the pilot and co-pilot / flight attendant / ground crew / mechanic.  The picture on the right above was the view from my seat on take-off... 

Fortunately the travel drama ended here and the flight was smooth.  Once we landed the co-pilot brought all of our luggage in from the plane and life was good.  I was also able to get the cool picture out of the window on our final approach coming into the island.  It turns out 1500 feet is a fun altitude to fly at in the Caribbean.    

This trip we decided to splurge a little bit and upgrade from the $50 per night roach motel to the $100 per night place.  Great Idea!!!  We stayed at the Casa Mexicana Cozumel which I would highly recommend if you are looking for a nice place in town and isn't an all inclusive type place.  Each day we would find some new animal made from our towels greeting us on the bed.  The rooms were clean, the staff very friendly and helpful, and probably the most amazing breakfast spread I have ever seen at a hotel.  It puts the Hilton, Marriott, Westin, breakfast to shame, and its free.

Every time we have been diving in Cozumel we have always used the same company, Scuba Du.  They are simply awesome! 

As you can see the diving is simply awesome!  The visibility is always unbelievable and the sea life and coral formations never disappoint.  This trip we had some long dives - most of which were nearing an hour under water which is pretty good considering we made it down to 90 feet on some occasions.

Each day after diving we decided to hang out at the Presidente hotel where the dive shop is located and enjoy the most delicious Mahi sandwich and french fries I have ever had - the ocean side ambiance was also very enjoyable!

While we were there we even went on a night dive which is usually pretty fun.  It was raining when we went in but that doesn't matter much under water.  The reefs completely change at night and a lot of different creatures come out that you don't usually see during the day like octopus, crabs, giant parrot fish, lobsters, and moray eels.

Our other favorite thing about Cozumel is the food.  Its just plain good.  Yucatan Mexican is my favorite kind of mexican which uses a lot of grilled meats and sea food and the best place on the island for that is at Casa Denis right off the main square.
Every night the place is packed and for good reason - the food is spectacular and relatively inexpensive, atmosphere is also very entertaining with all of the mariachis trying to play music for you which is usually horrible and being on the square makes for some good people watching - the shot of tequila on the house at the end of the meal is also a nice touch. 

After three days of diving we decided to change it up a bit and give the saltwater flats a go and try for some bonefish.  We had great luck fishing the flats in Belize, each of us landing several bones so we were looking forward to this.  We hired a guide through the "legandary" Carlos Vega, proclaimed by the locals to be "el Mejor Pescador" (the best fisherman) in all of Cozumel.  As it turns out his wife was very nice, Carlos was pretty drunk still from a few too many new years cervesas the night before and his guide that we were to go fishing with, while sober, really didn't seem all that interested in fishing and a bit lacking in the seamanship / boat handling department.
After a long boat ride in a very cool Panga, we arrived at a beach.  In trying to beach the boat the guide had a few issues and we spent about 10 minutes fiddling around with a stern anchor and numerous failed attempts to get the boat up on the beach.  I just sat and watched and shook my head... not my boat... not my place to say anything.  Some people just make things much harder than they need to.
Now with the boat finally beached we got our tackle together - which consisted of my nice fly rod and the guide's POS that had seen much better days.  I gave the nice rod to Kate.  Then with tackle in hand we set out inland through the jungle to find a swamp about 50 yards inland from the beach where all of the "flats" are located.  We found a few fish initially - nothing that we could cast to though and then set out on a hike though the flats looking for fish.  After a couple of house of hiking, we never found any and went back to the boat.  Exhausted and thirsty Kate and I just sat down in the boat.  (Kate called it the death march through the flats.) The guide pulled up the anchor and off we went to some new place... only to find the same thing.  No fish.

Kate did find some cool Mayan ruins on our little excursion - makes you wonder what it was back when they built it...
So after spending 6 hours trudging through the swamp and not seeing any fish that we could actually cast the guide told us it was time to head back...  pretty disappointing in just about every way imaginable.  We still tried to have fun and not let it ruin our trip but that turned out to be an expensive boat ride and hike.

We did have a nice boat ride back, with the waves this time, and got to see some parts of the island that we would otherwise never have seen so it wasn't a total loss.  We will also never wonder anymore if its worth while to try fly fishing in Cozumel.
Our last two days on the island were a little different - one was new years day, and the other was Sunday.  On Sunday there aren't any cruise ships on the island and the place seems to breath a collective sigh of relief.  The usually busy little town stays pretty quiet and the locals aren't trying to sell you stuff every time you pass them.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it the Casa Denis was closed for these two days forcing us to eat at other establishments.  Asking a police officer he recommended "Choza" and when we showed up it was full of locals - our kind of place!  The food was amazing!  Interestingly, on a more cultural note, all of the restaurants, hotels, public squares etc on the island had very impressive nativity displays which is what you see Kate sitting in front of above.  Its refreshing to see a culture where their Christian faith can be openly expressed and displayed in a place of business - I don't know how we have gotten it so wrong in the United States...

In the end, it was a wonderful trip and a great opportunity to get away.  We can't wait to get back again!

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