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Mission: Explore The Real Cozumel!

Author: Amelia Lynch
Date of Trip: January 2012

MISSION: EXPLORE THE REAL COZUMEL
Cozumel, Mexico, Jan 30-Feb 11 2012

When I booked the flight to Cozumel for our mission trip/vacation I first checked to see if it would be cheaper to fly into Cancun. We’d have to get a taxi or bus down to Playa del Carmen and take the ferry across, and what I found was that it would add about 2 hours to our travel time and save us about $20. We flew on Delta airlines from Des Moines, IA to Atlanta, GA and then right into the one town on Cozumel, San Miguel, without a problem. I was surprised at how small the plane was, and we were a little crowded on the flight, but it was smooth and went by quickly.

We arrived about 10 minutes early, got off the plane and went right down some stairs onto the tarmac to wander inside by following whoever was in front of us from the flight. I noticed a man in green army uniform with an AK-47 dangling from a strap over his shoulder standing by another door leading into the airport looking bored. As we got inside a larger plane from American airlines pulled up next to our little Delta plane, and for a moment I was jealous of their roomier accommodations. Then I saw all the people getting off the American flight and getting into line behind us to go through customs and I realized that if we had been just a few minutes slower we would have been waiting behind their much larger group.

We were a little nervous about getting through customs because we had brought extra things for the mission trip, including about 30 pairs of children’s scissors to be added to the school supplies for local children. The security officer running the x-ray didn’t know what to make of it. He asked me “Do you have, ah, something? Scissores?” He held up his hand and made a cutting motion with the first two fingers. Smiling, I said yes and nothing more. He asked what they were for and I said gifts for children to use at school. He asked if they were donations, which we had been warned not to call them because those had to be pre-approved, so I again said that they were just gifts and smiled. I could tell he was at a loss. He couldn’t really claim that safety scissors with rounded 3 inch blades were dangerous, but he did have them search our checked luggage. I just kept smiling and thanked them for rummaging through my stuff. The female security guard and I laughed as we tried to stuff things back in and I practically laid on the bag while she struggled to zip it back up, so I knew we’d be okay.

We were met by our friend Larry, one of the hosts of Friends of Cozumel’s mission trip who has a house in Cozumel. He was surprised at how early we had arrived and said he had barely parked the car that he had borrowed from a neighbor. We were told that there is one group of taxi drivers in Cozumel who have a monopoly through their union and they are the only taxis allowed to pick up and drop off at the airport, so they tend to cost more. A friend can pick you up in their personal car, but not in a taxi unless it’s one of these.

As we drove through the streets everything seemed so close and busy, and I wondered if I had made a mistake deciding to come here. The houses are all connected to each other, and there is little green space except in wild empty lots. Traffic was busy at a little after one in the afternoon and I couldn’t decipher much of the rules of the road. There were mopeds and scooters and sometimes motorcycles everywhere, and I cried out when I saw a small child being held by her mother on the back of one while the father drove. We saw more children, some held, some standing on the foot space in front of the drivers of the scooters, and I thought to myself how jealous my own children would be of this kind of ride. There was no English visible anywhere, of course, and I felt a little overwhelmed.

Most of the mission trip volunteers were staying at the Villa Diamond K condos, which are away from the tourist areas and about a mile from the ocean up Ave 11. They had given our group a discounted rate, but are normally as little as $350 USD per week for a one bedroom unit with kitchen and daily maid service. We soon discovered that discount lodgings have some hidden costs, starting when Larry led us in through a courtyard garden only to find that our room was not ready. The Mexican maids were still cleaning and Terry, one of the owners, was making the bed. She had expected us to take longer at the airport as well and apologized. We were assured that our things would be safe, so we left our bags in a heap in the main room and let Larry take us over to his house two blocks over. His house was across from a school and there were children in uniforms flooding the street. Later we learned that there are two sessions of school, one set of students comes in the morning and one in the afternoon, which seems smart because they get twice as much use out of a single school.

Larry took us to eat “lunch” at 2:30 in the afternoon at La Conchita del Caribe, only a few blocks walk from where we were staying. We were the only ones there, so the service was excellent, and the open sides of the rooms allowed nice breezes to cool us. Larry raved about the whole fried fish, and true to his word when he and Jason order one the waiter brought over that morning’s catch so they could pick just the fish they wanted. The price was per kilo, so they were not small fish. I ordered mixed ceviche, which filled the plate and was amazing in its variety of seafood; bits of fish, scallops, shrimp and octopus were evident and delicious.

When we got back to the Villa Diamond K our room was made up, but Terry’s husband Doug soon stopped in to go over a few things that he was working on in our unit. He banged around in the bathroom so the on-demand hot water would work, showed us how to run the remotes and promised to fix the little things like missing light switch covers. For an American who chose to live in Mexico he didn’t seem to like the Mexicans much, complaining about the work they had done for him and blaming most problems on some anonymous handyman. The funniest thing to me was the missing deadbolt in the door; there was just a gaping hole, which I soon stuffed with toilet paper to make myself not worry about anyone peeking in. There was no phone service, another thing being worked on, but we didn’t want to be found so that was ok with us. The television only had internet such as Netflix and Hulu and Pandora, no regular stations of any kind, and this would’ve been fine if the internet hadn’t gone out half the time. My husband was a little frustrated, and I told him, “Hey, it’s Mexico.”

You have to be flexible when you are in Mexico or you’re going to be miserable. I would imagine that the bigger, more expensive resorts and such don’t have trouble like these, and what kind of travel story would that make? We didn’t really mind most of the oddities of the place, but it did take us two days to realize that there was a pool. We had to trek out of our complex through a locked gate, down the street half a block and around the corner to Doug and Terry’s house, through another locked gate and there, in their backyard, we discovered the Villa Diamond K’s pool. Most pools in Cozumel seem to be small, but this is a huge, deep monstrosity, at least 20 feet long and the deep end was 8 or 9 feet! It was strange to have to go so far to get to it and a little odd to be in our landlord’s backyard, so we only visited a few times during our 12 day stay. This is something that I will definitely pay more attention to next time I book lodging: can I get to the pool without encountering street traffic?

I don’t mean to paint a negative picture, just one with a little eccentricity involved. The condo was plenty of space, it was always clean and well stocked, so like I said, if you can adjust to a few quirks now and then it’s an economical and pleasant place to stay. Terry was very sweet, and Doug is a nice guy, if a little odd. He gave us free rides and advice on where to go or what to eat more than once.

After that first day we settled into the relaxed pace of Cozumel’s island time and began to explore our surroundings. We like to walk instead of renting a car or taking taxis, it gives you time to see everything and get to know a place. Be careful to drink a lot because it is hot and you will sweat; we each have a Camelbak that holds 3 liters and it was emptied every day. We found a beautiful park where Ave 11 met the ocean, with half a dozen life-sized statues of wild animals like zebras and lions, some with play equipment built in like the hippo that was also a slide. There was an open paved area and stage lavishly decorated for Carnaval and on the weekend there were food carts and rides set up in the park like an impromptu fair.

When we got to the ocean the water was beautiful, bright cobalt blue and clear enough to see several feet down just standing on the rocks. The water comes right up to rock in many places, which makes getting in and out a little tricky and we were intimidated by the waves crashing into the sharp edges that first day.

The second day I vowed to make it into the water with or without my husband, and we went out exploring with a goal to do some snorkeling. Terry told us to turn right instead of left when we reached the water and we would see the Barracuda Hotel. Here we could walk through the lobby, but I checked with the nice man at the desk just to be sure it was okay. I asked if it was safe to leave our bags out in the open while we were in the water and he assured us that it was. Out back where there were tables in sand and stairs that led down into the ocean, making a good place to gain access without having to brave raw rocks. The waves looked bigger, and we watched a couple of scuba divers gear up and splash in from the stairs and over a small underwater breaker wall. They were coming back in when we got up our nerve to try the water, and we helped them out as we adjusted our fins and masks. The divers were easily in their sixties and treated us like we were their children, encouraging us to get out there and giving us pointers like “get out over the wall and you’ll be fine.” I felt a little silly being scared of the waves with these grandparents urging us on, and they were right that we were fine. The waves looked rough but once we got out in the water we were treated to a good beginner experience of snorkeling, although there’s not much to look at compared to the reefs we would see later.

The Hotel Barracuda had a pool with a swim up bar that usually had a child splashing in it. A few were people reading or on laptops at the many tables sitting in sand that they had brought in, and there were lovely stone walkways and walls around the edges. Music that took me back to junior high in the late eighties seemed to be the preference, and it was loud. We ordered sandwiches and fries that were pretty good and we each had two freshly made energy smoothies between swims to refuel. There was a dive shop off to one side and dive boats stopped off a few times while we were there, picking up and dropping off as we lounged and snorkel the afternoon away.

Across from the Hotel Barracuda is the Mega, a large grocery and goods store on the second level above some smaller shops, all inside and air conditioned. There is almost everything you need here from food to clothes to pharmacy and we shopped several times as we passed it on our travels. We also went to Bodega Aurrera about a mile and a half inland on Ave 11. It is usually referred to as Mexcian Wal-Mart, and it is right down to the great value brands and the Sam’s Club next door, but it’s another place to find what you need easily. Mega had one checkout labeled “bilingual cashier” but most things are in Spanish with no English to be found. It’s easy enough to figure things out most of the time by appearance alone, but I did buy what I thought was a bar of soap that turned out to be laundry soap. “Lavanderia” is not lavender as my Western brain translated, but laundry, a mistake that I won’t make again so it was a good learning experience.

Another of Doug’s recommendations was Papa Hogs dive shop, which we used along with a couple of girls from the mission group. Juan, our dive master was a friend of theirs already, so three days of diving felt like just hanging out with good friends. One of the girls and I were newer divers and nervous, so Juan let us take our time, sometimes literally holding our hands until we were comfortable. He took us to some amazing places, and when I asked for sea turtles he knew right where to go to find them. I never wanted to get out of the water! We paid $65 USD per day for two dives plus $10 for equipment rental, and then we tipped Juan and the boat captain well every day. A word on tipping when diving: if you dive more than one day but wait until the last day to tip you may have different dive masters or boat captains each time and the last guy is the one who will end up with all the money, so tip as you go. Also, be generous; our mission trip friend said that Juan only gets $30 per dive, no matter how many people he is responsible for. If he gets two dive outings a day, plus tips he’s doing pretty well, but in the low season he may not get any. The fun in the sun is not always what it appears, even though Juan never stopped smiling.

We ate at the Hog Town Café that is part of Papa Hogs before a dive one day, and the menu was pretty limited but the lemonade was fantastic! La Hace across the street has better more flavorful food and will deliver to the bar area where the dive boats let you off so you can sit outside and eat on the rocky beach. There was live music from the awesome Red Eye Band in the evening after our last dive, and I thought “Where else can you get out of the ocean, have a live band playing while you eat and drink on the beach, snorkel a little and then shower off all in the same place?” It was so wonderful. We went dancing at the French Quarter later that night and saw another live band, Fugga, and if you get the chance go see these guys! Both bands played a lot of English language top 40 dance music, with some local stuff mixed in now and then.

On our last full day in Cozumel we ventured into the “downtown” tourist area to do some shopping for our kids. It all seemed so fake, overly polished and costumed for the cruise ship crowds, of which there were plenty. It was the only time anyone called out to me to come buy their goods, or that I felt like I was just there so they could make a buck. They all had the same things in their shops anyway, it was just a matter of negotiating prices. We saw a parade of horse drawn carriages offering rides, but we had seen signs posted in the less touristy areas letting you know that the horses are not allowed water and last summer one dropped dead from heat exhaustion, so we didn’t take a ride. We had a snack at a place that had logos for both the Hungry Cougar and Wet Wendy’s Margarita Bar, and just chicken nachos and a couple of Cokes was almost $20 USD. We ate at Carlos and Charlie’s before we walked back to the Villa Diamond K, and although the staff was wonderful and the décor was interesting the food was Americanized and bland.

If you want to eat good food get out of the tourist areas. We loved La Jarocha, where we could get ten tacos for 49 pesos (about $4.50 USD) with tasty pastor pork and onions and cold Coca Cola in a glass bottle-just watch out for their “special promotions,” like cheese or a side of beans, that will really jack up the price! At Pescaderia San Carlos we had more delicious fried fish and ceviche, and when I ordered lemonade they made it by hand just for me. We ordered a fantastic whole barbecued chicken from Parilla Cozumel that had been grilled “flat” and came with rice and beans, and the American owner Tim delivered it himself. Our total was about $10 USD but we only had American $20 right then. Tim told us he forgot to bring change and wouldn’t take the money, told us to just order again and he’d catch us next time. We stopped in twice and had more delicious grilled chicken and sandwiches, but Tim had taken a few days off so we didn’t catch up with him-I’m remembering that debt for our next trip. There was even a healthy wrap, salad and smoothie place on 11th Ave close to the Bodega Aurrera that reminded me of a much improved Mexican version of Subway. I think the name of was La Cocina but I’m not sure. Some places don’t have the best English, and they didn’t speak any English so it was tricky to order, but the wraps were wonderful and fresh, with a smoothie that was more like a dessert.

I admit we did stop in at Margaritaville, where we found the prices were easily triple the local food we’d been eating and the atmosphere obnoxious. I was embarrassed for the staff to have to wear grass skirts and dress like pirates; they were making balloon animals and sticking sombreros on the cruise ship customers to take pictures. Most surprising to me was that when I said something in my limited Spanish, even just “hola” or “gracias” they responded in English. Nowhere else did they do that, so I can only think it’s part of the employee training that they must use English only. Culture? What culture? One trip to Margaritaville, Cozumel was more than enough for us.

I’ve seen reviews that describe the area of Cozumel outside of the tourist areas as “not much more than a slum” and at first look it does appear that way to our western eyes. After spending 12 days in it I started to realize that it wasn’t always graffiti on the stone walls, it was their version of billboards, and some of it was beautiful art. Things are small and close because that is Mexican culture; you keep your family and your life close to you. The people are warm and helpful, and while there is not much crime if you are careless your stuff will probably get stolen not because they are criminals but because they are poor. If you can travel here you already have much more than they do and they know it, but they welcome you and treat you as a friend. We walked all over day and night and never felt unsafe for a minute. Whenever we were trying to puzzle out something in Spanish or make a conversion from pesos to dollars someone never failed to notice our struggle and if they didn’t speak English they found someone who did and offered to help us. Mostly we were just practicing and trying to learn, so it was all the more endearing.

As for our mission trip work, a lot of what we did this time around was painting and repair on a house that will become Casita del Corazon (House of the Heart,) a therapy center for children with special needs. There seemed to be a lot of special needs children here, and as a nurse I wondered if there is a higher rate of birth defects than we see in the states or if it just appeared that way. We also visited a home where Friends of Cozumel has been helping the family of 11 who live in one house, and there are two special needs children there. I went there expecting to feel bad, to feel sorry for them in their poverty, but a group of children came running to greet us and pulled us down one by one for hugs. They excitedly demonstrated the pump that one of the mission group men had installed a few days before so they wouldn’t have to haul water with a bucket. The children were fascinated with our digital cameras, so we let them take some pictures. They proudly showed us their Chihuahua, Conchita and took her picture too. They laughed and played with a half flat soccer ball and entertained us. I couldn’t help but be happy, and even a little envious as I wished that my family could be so satisfied with so little.

On the last day I didn’t take any pictures as we left, and I realized that in a way I felt that if I didn’t document this part of the trip maybe I could pretend it wasn’t happening for a little longer. I didn’t want to come home; I just wanted to have my children sent down so we could all stay as so many ex-pats have done. The Cozumel airport was crowded and disorganized, and at one point they played “Sexy and I Know It” over the speaker at our gate and some of the staff started dancing to entertain us. The little Delta plane took forever to get us to Minneapolis and I didn’t get to sit by my husband, but my only real complaint was that I had to leave as soon as I did. See you on next year’s mission trip, Cozumel. There is still plenty of island left to explore.

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