Deep blue

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Cozumel, Mexico

We left The Yak hostel early when the air was still cool to carry our packs down through 5th Avenue and to the far side of the Ferry Dock to catch the catamaran for the 45min trip to the island. After purchasing our tickets you could just make out the silhouette of a few of the high rise apartments on Cozomel from across the Carribe Mar. The sun was trying to rear its head through the thick clouds, however the sky was dark and there was clearly rain out to sea. A few early birders in their lycra ran along the long playa esplanade and a few more commenced a morning swim into the florescent light blue waters. We made our way to the second story of the catamaran in the outside section to catch some breeze and I closed my eyes for the ride as the mild seas were causing some upset stomachs on route. But soon enough we pulled up to main pier and docked.

Cozumel was an immensely popular diving spot because of its position right on the reef and we had planed to see what was going on down below a few days later. The island, about 53kms in length, was Mexico’s largest island and was named after the population of swallows that flew overhead through the pink sky around dusk. Not only was it famous for the diving but also for the passing cruise ships which pulled up in their droves. The largest floating cities you had ever seen catering for thousands of passengers piled off to view the tourist ticky tacky shops during the day and be shuttled off to an “all inclusive” beach club to down fishbowl sized cocktails while the kids played on the floating trampolines and rode banana boats.

But long before the Hawaiian shirts and wet suits populated the island, the Maya settled here around AD 300 and the island flourished as a trade and ceremonial centre. Every Maya woman living on the Yucatan Peninsula was expected to make at least one pilgrimage here to pay tribute to Ixchel, the goddess of earth, fertility and the moon. Our first pilgrimage was the walk to Amigos Hostel which turned out to be a 20 minute pilgrimage through the local residential streets. Kathy our host was a lovely American lady that showed us to our perfect little room with kitchenette and before her in-depth introduction to the island, apologised that she might have come across as a “little aloof” but she had just come from viewing the body of her best friends husband. He had just dropped dead of a heart attack in the street. In our efforts of consolidation, she still had the time to sit down and answer all our questions about the island to which we had just landed. The property was lovely with a well manicured garden and beautiful blue pool. The resident cat had a “weigh in” the following day and lurked around playing with us when she could be bothered.

The centre of town had a lovely little stoned square surrounded by bright yellow and white Spanish casa’s which housed little tourist shops, restaurants and banks. A few local men wheeled carts selling juice or empanadas and the touts around the sides tried every trick in the book to get you into their restaurant. Along the centre of the malacon you could look back across to Playa del Carman and Cancun another 71kms north, the tremendous cruise ships docked to the left and all along sat jewelry shops offering “tax free diamonds” for the passengers. However the further inland you walked, there was a couple of good local restaurants, some yummy chicken shops and even a refuge for local cats and dogs on the island. The local concrete houses where painted in colour and most housed a little catholic shrine devoted to Mary and adorned in Christmas lights.

The following day we decided to head 13kms north up the island to check out a few snorkeling holes and a local band that Kathy mentioned was excellent at Playa Azul. Renting some snorkeling gear from the hostel we jumped in a taxi and headed north to a resort where we could walk straight through and jump into the waters out the back. After asking concierge if we could snorkel in their seaside garden, they let us go with a smile and we sat on the concrete steps before lurching into the water to view what was down below. The clarity of the water was excellent and after looking at a couple of clown fish and after Murray was bitten by an angry fish on his foot drawing blood, we lounged in the luxury of their setting and ordered a few coffees. Ahhh…perfect. We walked another 2kms north to the next destination, Playa Azul. Again, traversing through another large scale resort we were met by the most crystal clear water and florescent white sand carved out in a few little bays. The Mexican beaches did not disappoint. After a little more snorkeling the local band The Red Eyes kicked off so we downed a club sandwich and beer at the local restaurant and grooved out to what was an excellent show. They could play.

We had booked a dive with Scuba Magic for the following day. I was nervous as apparently the reef went to 60-80 feet which was around 20 to 26meters and being the first dive off my Open Water I knew that this was deeper then what I had been accustomed too and what I actually thought I was certified to do (which I still think is a bit of a grey area). But after talking to the resident DM at our hostel, he kinda convinced me that it was fine and knowing that Cozumel was one of the top dive sites in the Caribbean, I had to give it ago. So we headed out early that morning with another two DMs that had just completed their certification. A German lady in her late 40s which looked a little more like a man and a French lady in her late 30s that was out for a good time. Feeling more confident that I would have the support of 3 DMs made be feel much better.

We saddled up, jumped in the speed boat and motored out 20kms south off the island to Palancar Reef. My DM was a Mexican in his early 50s that was obviously a little over the “niceties” of conversation with his clients. After the quickest brief on the site to which all I got was the dive site name “Palancar Gardens”, I was geared up and rolled back over the side of the boat. Kinda panicking trying to remember my training, I inflated my BCD and before I had the time to even get my mask straight, the DM called out “lets go down” and disappeared under the water”. Jesus christ!

We went down like a rocket and trying to equalise and get my buoyancy right, he grabbed my hand and pulled me down. We had to be over 20mtrs already. The next thing I knew the current grabbed us and we were drifting along the bottom of the ocean at great speed. Trying not to bump in and destroy the walls of coral we went deeper through some grottoes and channels of high rising coral that looked more like caves. The colour was there and the fish were plentiful. Schools of parrot, clown, barracuda and even a gigantic turtle were circling us. Its was beautiful but the current continuously changed and I felt myself holding on to my mask in efforts to keep it on my face. I had this fear of it being swept off and not being able to see a thing while I was well under my depth and the DM just doing his thang.

After 45 minutes or so we started to rise, did our safety stop and pulled ourselves back onto the boat. We scooted off to the closest beach for a rest. We were both tired. The drift was incredibly strong and my inexperience plus Murray’s ill fitting flippers made for an adventurous effort. Back on the boat again we tore off to the second site, this time I don’t think we even got a briefing except a muttering of the sites name which was something off Santa Rosa Wall, another top area of the reef. Christ, here we go again. Somersaulting back over the boats edge again and this time fixing my mask in record time, we were down in the deep.

The current picked us up at a tremendous speed and pulled us along to which everyone was fighting for control. There was nothing you could do except go with it and try not to fly into the coral walls. Every attempt to change direction by kicking was unsuccessful so
we just tore along the bottom of the reef. At one stage I was swept up a few meters higher then the group and was taken by an even stronger current. One of the DMs (not mine), had to come flying after me, grab me by the front and hook us both down onto a to rock. We were both traveling so fast and away from the group. But as the rest, including Murray and my DM caught up, she waved goodbye to me, un-clipped me and we flew together again. Exhausted I surfaced just as an eagle-rey was spotted down below and crawling back on to the boat we headed back to the main land. What a ride.

On our final day we headed around 17kms south of the island, walked through a tacky beach club filled with cruise ship holidaymakers and trailed a further km north up the beach front. We stopped outside the most idyllic wide stretch of white sand and illuminated water. It was a private beach club to which apparently we weren’t permitted to use the facilities of the restaurant or daybeds but the sand and waters were not owned by anyone, and by Mexican law anyone was allowed on any section of coastline. While we were in ore of the setting, a huge catamaran pulled up, blew its horn and all the remaining crowd disappeared. It was almost laughable. We had the largest, most incredible stretch of beach all to ourselves while those in their though-sand’s were crammed into a few small clubs where sunburnt bodies lined the cramped daybeds.

Murray and I took a walk down to the town centre one night to where a celebration of the king and queen of carnival was taking place. A huge stage was erected in the centre, all glittered up and to where a samba band was rocking out while the contestants in the most elaborate costumes danced for the thrown. The locals gathered round and danced in front of the stage including a ****** old man that was probably living on the streets and a down syndrome teenaged boy that was pulling out the most amazing moves with his nose pressed against the story high speakers. Everyone was having a great time.

But soon enough it was time to move on back to the mainland to visit one of the New Wonders of the World and probably the most iconic structure in all of Mexico. So staggering back to the ferry port in the wee small hours of the morning and landed a 6am departure back to Playa del Carman away from the sea..for just a bit.

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