We were late to meet our wives and couldnít find a taxi. It was getting dark. We had dinner plans. They had our credit cards. This was getting ugly. Across the street we spotted a moped rental shop with just one rickety bike left. Or, this guy only had one moped in his entire inventory, we werenít sure. But one thing was certain, more butts had been on that machine than on the Playboy Channel. Anyway, you get the idea. Smoke spit from its rusty muffler, but the engine finally coughed to a start. We set off at high speed. I drove, my brother hung on. Destination: Carlos N Charlieís, the legendary party spot where the sober get drunk and the drunk pursue hangovers to tell their grandchildren about.
Something supernatural happens to your hair when you mix drying salty ocean water with gusting Central American dirt and blow dry at 40 miles per hour on a moped. It looked like we had glued roadkill to our heads. I just called íem yuppie dreadlocks.
When we topped the stairs at Carlos N Charlieís, gawking at the pulsing crowd and multicolored lights, the SeŮorita was ready for us. She grabbed a handful of my broís hair mat, pulled a shot glass from between her large breasts, filled it with a lime-colored intoxicant, yanked his head back and tossed the liquid down his gullet--all the while blowing a whistle like she was leading a Brazilian Mardi Gras parade. I stood by dumbfounded, and admittedly somewhat aroused, until she performed the same ritual on me and every other unsuspecting newcomer. She was a master at her trade and seemed to like the work. So did we.
A Queen Angelfish scurries
over a blazingly colorful reef.
Somehow fortune was shining on us that evening. We glanced around. No wives. It was a classic shopping spree delay in the game plan. Unfortunately, when they finally showed up, my brother and I had our shirts off and were dancing on a table with several, hair-tolerant, dark-eyed mujeras. This type of behavior does not ingratiate one to oneís spouse. On the upside, our hotel rooms had comfortable hide-a-bed couches.
Iíll Always Come Back
When I think about it, Iíve been to Cozumel just about every way possible. In the early í80s, I spent a few weeks there on an old 30-foot wooden sailboat I had sailed down from Florida. Iíve flown in by plane, taken the ferry over from Playa del Carmen on the mainland and steamed in on a massive cruise ship. On each trip, two things have remained constant: The diving has been killer and Iíve always had fun. What more could you ask for? Oh yeah, a non-stop current that swabs the island from south to north giving Cozumel its reputation for true 100-foot viz and perpetual drift diving.
Back in my sailboat days Cozumel was still pretty sleepy, although diving tourism was beginning to take hold. There were only a couple of high-rise hotels and Carlos N Charlieís was just a tot. Crowds didnít happen and everything was super cheap.
Today, of course, Cozumel thrives. The beach is dotted with five-star resorts, and inland you can still find inexpensive pensions. Food choices are endless, the shopping rivals Cancun and most of the water and ice is purified.
As for diving, the boats are modern, fast and well-equipped with safety gear. The divemasters are professional, friendly and eco-minded. And thereís a first-class, massive cylinder filling facility called, Meridiano 87, which is one of the planetís most impressive pumping stations.
Cozumel definitely ranks at dive Mecca status. Yet, with all the advancements, what has impressed me the most is its commitment to the marine environment. Fishing on the reef by anyone--even the locals--is a capital offense. As a result, youíre likely to see a greater concentration of big fish (grouper, sharks, rays, etc.) in Cozumel than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Thatís a bold statement, I know, but I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.
The Wall at Colombia Deep.
Eat, Drink and Go Diving
In addition to inexpensive Kalua, a million and one varieties of brain-melting tequila and refined Mexican cerveza that makes Bud Lite whine like a baby, the primary attraction to Cozumel is its magnificent wall. Yet, unlike Cayman or Belize, both of which literally have more than a hundred miles of wall diving, Cozumelís wall only stretches for about 15 miles. But it is a spectacular run, and dive operators protect it like a precious child.
Because of that guardianship, Cozumel has a thriving turtle population. Giant Green Moray Eels wait around every turn like cabs in Manhattan. And recently, there has been an explosion of Nurse Sharks, mostly around Paradise Reef.
Talk to divers and 98 percent of them drifted along the wall at sites such as Santa Rosa, Palancar, Colombia, Punta Sur and Maracaibo Deep. Great stuff, but they missed some lesser known, non-wall dives in Cozumelís arsenal. If you think youíd like diving in a zesty oil and vinegar dressing, Chankanaab Caves is your spot. Fresh water gushes from under the islandís terra firma and blends with the sea water for a thermocline and halocline extravaganza. The blurry water will screw with your mind, but the dive is only 15 feet deep and the íclines are confined to a small area. The caves are extensive but off limits to Joe Divers, although some authorized exploration has occurred. The latest hum-dinger at Chankanaab is a dolphin park.
Weíre Gonna Have a Great Show
The last time I dropped in on Cozumel I wanted to go back to a site you wonít find in the tourism literature. Toward the north end of the island is a special place people only whisper about called Barracuda Reef. Itís strictly an advanced drift dive because the current always rips. A special permit is required, although not hard to get if youíre qualified. To give you an idea, the flow is so strong and steady that the sponges grow at 45 degree angles. This is wild Cozumel. Thereís usually nice shark activity and an excellent chance of other big critters. But the muffled rumors I had picked up were about Spotted Eagle Rays sighted in schools of 30 to 50. Sign me up.
At Barracuda, you donít bob on the surface doing buoyancy checks and goofy hand signals. You go down as fast as possible. I hit the water and kicked like hell for the bottom 100 or so feet down. The next thing I knew I was in the cockpit of an F-14 flying across the bottom at seven knots. I buzzed a turtle and then zipped by two Nurse Sharks, all while keeping an eye on the sky for those rays. Ten minutes and almost a mile into the dive I saw something. Within seconds a school of 30 Spotted Eagle Rays materialized into view. They were in a motionless holding pattern. I careened toward them trying desperately to be cool.
With my composure gained, I ascended to try for a photo. They banked effortlessly and dove toward the bottom. With all my strength, I kicked for a truck-sized coral head and ducked behind it. I pressed closer to the obstruction and the eddy embraced me. For the next few minutes I counted the spots on the Eagle Rays as they hung there with me, letting the current wash over them. It was magical. As always, I was astonished at their sleekness, at how they could hold fast by simply tweaking their wing tips in a current that would sweep me away like a leaf in a tornado. It was better than Carlos N Charlieís, a moped ride and a two-hour snorkel rolled into one. Once again, Cozumel had touched me in a new way.
Maybe it was my reward for the effort. Whatever the reason, I didnít care.