By Tim McDonald,
COZUMEL, Mexico - Golf-happy Cozumel - "Land of the Swallows" to the ancient Maya - is one of the world's biggest cruise ship destinations, and it certainly bears both the badges and the scars of that fact.
Some of the residents may gripe about the heavy-handed business tactics of the cruise ship lines, but there's little doubt the big boats that disgorge their thousands of cash-carrying tourists on the streets have made the island one of the wealthier pockets in the golf destination of Mexico.
It's also one of the safest areas for tourists and golfers in the Caribbean; government officials here have done a good job of convincing residents to understand where their bread is buttered, so there is relatively little crime against visitors. You can walk the streets, for the most part, without fear.
Of course, the healthy economy and relative safety come at a price; this isn't exactly a quaint authentic Mexican village we have here. Downtown is a huge cluster of modern restaurants and shops, many of them selling the same cheap goods with the usual aggressive salesmanship so often found in tourist destinations, though there are many upscale shops as well, selling diamonds and expensive jewelry.
"Hola, amigo," is almost always followed by "Come, come, I have a great deal for you."
This is exactly what many golfers come for, and there are definitely some good deals to be found, especially on silver.
But for those who have already bought T-shirts for the grandkids or Tanzanite jewelry, or for golfers looking for a break from the excellent Cozumel Country Club, there are many things to do on this island about 11 miles from the sparkling lights of the mainland.
First and foremost, of course, is the diving. Most of Cozumel's land and waters are protected ecological preserves.
From the steady currents of the Cozumel Channel to the world-class reefs, divers flock here from all over the world. Some of the reefs include the Yucab, with more than a thousand coral formations, and Tormentos, famous for its moray eels.
As you might expect, the waters around Cozumel are teeming with fish, of the sporting kind as well as the eating kind. That includes the sport-fish king, the blue marlin.
April to July is the peak fishing season, and includes several tournaments, including "Rodeo of Mexican Boats," the largest fishing tournament in the Mexican Caribbean.
Most dive operators also offer fishing trips, usually trolling the deep drop-offs for blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, tuna, barracuda, grouper and shark.
Cozumel is a great island for zipping around on a motor scooter. Just be extremely careful in the downtown area and watch for taxis and other mopeds careening headlong off of side streets. Scooter accidents take a heavy toll here.
But, once you get out of the congestion of San Miguel, the only town on the island, the well-paved, main highway takes you on a loop around the southern half of the island, about 32 miles long and 9 miles wide. Traffic thins considerably, and the scenery changes dramatically.
If the main highway makes you uncomfortable, a smaller side street parallels the highway the entire route; it's bumpier, but safer.
The route soon opens onto expansive views of the sea, with that turquoise and deep-blue water the Caribbean is famous for, and you can find private, isolated beaches in small, protected coves. Most of the beaches and water are rocky - the island is basically marine sediment frequently covered by fossilized shells and sea life - but there are areas where the water is crystal clear, a sign of sandy bottoms.
The route is dotted every so often with some interesting little - and big - beach bars, with good food, cold beer and, of course, tequila. Ever tried pomegranate tequila? Me neither. But, they have it in case you're interested.
Places like Playa Corona Beach Club, Mr. Sancho's and Nachi-CoCom are on the calm western edge, while, on the other side of the island, which has rougher, wilder surf, you can hang out at Playa Bonita, Chen Rio, Coconut's Restaurant, Mezcalito's or Bob Marley's Paradise Café.
Mezcalito's happened to be my favorite, even though the sign hanging from the bar - "Sick and Perverted Behavior Welcome" - didn't seem to spark any indecent incidents among the drowsy tourists when I was there.
You can also get an occasional glimpse of how the few locals who don't work in the tourist trade live, like those hand-lining for their fish supper off the rocks.
Discover Mexico is a "cultural theme park," a walking tour of Mexico's archaeological sites and colonial buildings.
Be sure to stop off at Punta Molas Lighthouse, Chankanaab National Park and Punta Sur Park, Ecological Preserve and Lighthouse.
Carnival is held in January.
There are a few places that offer horseback riding, including a 3.5-hour guided tour at Buena Vista Ranch, through rainforest and past Maya "replicas" and caves where they are said to have once lived.
Water sports are king on this island, which is surrounded by some of the prettiest water you'll see in the Caribbean. Parasailing, snorkeling and windsurfing are just some of the ways to get wet.
The east side of the island is also suitable for surfing, the real kind.
You can also catch ferries to golf in Cancun and Playa Carmen.
June 26, 2007
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.