Published Nov/Dec 2004

By Melissa Toy

If you have yet to experience the breathtaking beauty and quietly relaxed warmth of the Caribbean, Cozumel will leave a delightful first mark upon your memory. With waters as rich as jade and bluer than a Maxfield Parrish painting in the twilight of day, Cozumel's island charm is a must for vacationers seeking romance, adventure, tranquility and affordability.

In the foreground of the beauty of Cozumel's warm gulf waters is the hospitable local color. Located 12 miles east of the Yucatan Peninsula, the island of Cozumel was repopulated by the Spanish Indians and Maya descendants who migrated from the peninsula during Mexico's civil war, the War of the Castes, in 1847. This melding of Maya and Spanish cultures resulted in a social system with highly defined traditions and a strong sense of community. Nowhere is this more evident than during the celebration of Carnaval.

The traditions of carnaval

Carnaval is one of Cozumel's most important festivals. Its origin dates back 100 years and combines pre-Lenten tradition with ancient Maya rites devoted to the gods of wine and pleasure.

"Carnaval is an explosion of spirit, providing visitors with the opportunity to experience the authentic Cozumel tradition of elaborate parades, colorful costumes and vibrant music in advance of Lent," said Fernando Ferrez, a 20-year veteran Carnaval planner and historian.

Rhumba dancers, Spaniards, gypsy women, bullfighters, gods, kings and queens stand perched atop elaborately colored floats while the rhythms of calypso, reggae, flamenco and pop music fill the air. The revelry continues long into the night as parties and outdoor musical concerts are held all over the island.

During the weeklong celebration, dancers of all ages can be seen performing in the streets of downtown San Miguel, and various street performers reciting coplas–humorous and often satirical verses that poke fun at the previous year's political figures–can be heard. Comparsas, or dance competitions, and costume balls take place during the weeks leading up to Carnaval. And each year, Carnaval crowns its queen and king.

The culture of Cozumel also can be found by traveling just a short distance from downtown San Miguel to the San Gervasio archaeological site. Here, visitors can explore ancient Maya structures dating back 20 centuries. The San Gervasio site was a sanctuary of the fertility goddess Ixchel (pronounced eesh-shell), and during the height of Maya civilization, people journeyed by boat from the mainland to worship her. Gift shops located at the entrance of the park offer a variety of souvenir items such as Mexican crafts, jewelry, clothing and educational materials on Maya history and artifacts.

A short ride south of San Miguel, within Cozumel's Reef National Marine Park, is Chankanaab Park. The park features the only inland coral reef formation in the world-Chankanaab Lagoon. Reaching depths of 60–70 feet, the lagoon is home to more than 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans and corals. Other popular attractions at the park include Dolphin Discovery, a 45-minute interactive experience where visitors can touch, ride and snorkel with dolphins; a sea lion show and interactive swim experience; Maya Zone, a modern-day reproduction of a Maya village; and botanical gardens with more than 350 plant species and an array of exotic birds.

Since distinguished oceanographer Jacques Cousteau first visited Cozumel in 1962 and recognized it as one of the most spectacular diving sites in the world, Cozumel has grown to attract more than 80,000 divers and snorkelers each year. Thirty-seven dive sites are situated along a massive reef network brimming with tropical fish and multi-colored corals, including Cozumel's brilliant black coral. The almost transparent clarity of the water provides divers with visibility up to 200 feet, and the steady 77- to 82-degree water and average air temperature of 76 degrees make diving conditions exceptional year round. To accommodate diving enthusiasts, most of the island's hotels offer diving facilities.

One of the top golf destinations in the Caribbean is the Cozumel Golf and Country Club. The 18-hole, par-72 Nicklaus-designed course features spectacular inland lagoons, dense jungle and a variety of local flora and fauna. Visitors will find several hotels offering stay-and-play golf vacation packages.

When you are ready for a break from the sun and surf, a leisurely stroll through the shops of San Miguel's Plaza del Sol is a delight. Great buys can be found on Mexican pottery, jewelry, resort wear, traditional Maya clothing, colorful handmade hammocks, carvings, masks and many duty-free items.

The tastes of cozumel

Caribbean and European flavors played a large part in influencing the food of Cozumel. The island offers many delicious and affordable restaurants within walking distance of the cruise ports. American-style food is available in a variety of chain restaurants. For the more adventurous palate, there are a number of restaurants dishing up traditional Yucatecan and international cuisine.

Casa Denis is the oldest restaurant on the island, serving flavorful and traditional Yucatecan fare. Centrally located in the Plaza del Sol, Casa Denis is an easy walk from the waterfront.

For an unforgettable Caribbean experience, La Veranda offers a full gourmet menu. La Veranda is located just two blocks from the main plaza and minutes from the cruise ports.

Make a date this year to have fun on one of the most beautiful islands of the Caribbean. Cozumel is truly a gem of the Mexican Riviera.

To plan your trip to Cozumel, visit your nearest AAA Travel agent.

Melissa Toy is on the staff of “AAA Going Places” magazine.

Above:A children’s dance group performs during a Carnaval parade. Melissa Toy photo

Below: A glittering display of locally handcrafted Carnaval heads lines the streets of the parade route that winds along Cozumel's waterfront. Melissa Toy photo

Before You Go

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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