I first visited of Cozumel in 1979. Fact is, I’d never even heard of this island before my then boyfriend, Steve Sisco, suggested we go for vacation. Steve, having been the son of an offshore oilman, had spent most of his youth growing up in Cartagena, Colombia. He talked of diving off city walls into water so clear, so blue, that one could easily think they were in a swimming pool were it not for the colorful, vibrant tropical fish beneath the surface. In search of a similar place a bit closer to home, Steve had Cozumel on his radar. Living in Corpus Christ at the time, Cozumel was practically in our back yard.
There was little on the island back then. Just a sleepy little town with lots of local establishments and one high rise “resort” hotel. It hadn’t really caught on as a scuba diving destination yet, let alone a major cruise ship port. During our week long vacation, we feasted on cheap tacos from hole-in-the-wall restaurants, rode motorbikes around the island stopping in remote, off-the grid beach bars to sip warm cervezas with lime, and snorkeled until our lips shriveled inside and out. Steve found his aquamarine sea, and I found my bliss with no one else around to distract from the miles of pristine, sugary white sand beaches.
Years later, Cozumel became like the “Anthony Summer Home” as some combination of my family members visited with such frequency that we became regulars at the quaint Hotel Barracuda on the waterfront. We would commandeer the gazebo in the courtyard along the small beach and watch the sunset, then meander the sidewalks of town stopping to feast on cheap seafood under palapas in quiet, locally owned restaurants. My brother Don and I both got our SCUBA certification on the island, where we went diving with such frequency, we came to know the tunnels and swim-throughs of our favorite dive sites by heart. Cozumel was comfortable, quaint, convenient, and most of all, familiar.
But oh, how times have changed. Now, Cozumel is as ubiquitous among cruise ship destinations as the Midnight Buffet itself. On any given day, eight to ten different cruise ships can be parked at three separate cruise ports, the most recent of which was built by plowing right over Paradise Reef. These giant floating hotels empty out over three million visitors per year, a thriving industry that has changed the landscape (and seascape) of the island completely, promting me to ponder the question, “Has Cozumel sold its soul?”
I have been spending winters or vacationing with regularity in Mexico since 2007. There are so many things I have come to adore about this country…the colorful culture, the passion-evoking music, the affordable and flavorful street food, and the genuine respect that Mexican’s show to visitors in return. It’s a country that has an old soul. But walk the front street of Cozumel, the Cruise Corridor, and you will find none of that. The main street is lined with expensive jewelry stores selling tanzanite and strands of diamonds, Rolexes, and Gucci bags. The corner restaurant sells “yards” of beer and foot-tall frozen margaritas. Disco music blares from the flashy bars upstairs. And Hooters and Starbucks vie for the front street white tennis-shoed foot traffic.
But the thing I notice most when walking the front street in Cozumel is how I am treated differently than in the rest of Mexico. I am taken aback as hawkers shout at me, “Hey, Lady! What are you shopping for?” “Hey Lady….try on this necklace, almost free!” “Hey, Lady…where’s your husband? Bring him here for Happy Hour.” Not the usual commentary I receive most places in Mexico.
I spent a week in Cozumel, “rediscovering my roots.” I knew it had changed dramatically, but I wanted to go back in search of some familiarity. I had to look long and hard to find some soul in my former family vacation destination. I had to venture three blocks back to find anything that resembled the sleepy little island I once knew. In fact, one must travel three blocks off the front street to find much of anything that resembles “Mexico” for that matter. I am treated differently here….like an outsider. Like “one of them.” When I wander the back streets, I get looks of concern, like I must be lost…
I think about what life must be like for locals who live on this island and must serve the zombie-like cruise people who wander the front street path in search of tee-shirts, trinkets and tequila. Those who must make their living by serving drunk vacationers in a place that has no authentic semblance of their local culture. The words “social exclusion” come to mind.
It makes me sad to think the impressions of the extravagance and opulent consumption are the only exposure most of the locals get to us “foreigners.” And in turn, it also makes me sad to think that visitors who disembark long enough to walk this front façade think they can now tick “Mexico” off their must visit list.
MEANWHILE…..(stealing a line from Stephen Colbert.) One of my favorite things to do while in Cozumel is to rent a little scooter and ride around to the more remote, off-the-grid, windward side of the island. Here is a photo essay of that route, along with descriptions of how it has changed since my last visit.