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One of my earliest travel memories, back in the early 1970s, Cozumel at that time was the Yucatan's biggest (hell, only) beach resort deal. Cancun was still but a glimmer in the eyes of Mexico's government tourism planners and the "Riviera Maya" was little more than miles of hot, buggy scrubland punctuated by a string of barefoot (not even electrified) villages with the seaside Maya site of Tulum stuck in there somewhere (suffice it to say, a whole lot more inaccessible in those days).
My, oh Maya, but how times change, eh? Nonetheless, though for many years already Cozumel has been demoted to second - actually, probably third - vacation banana hereabouts, it's still held its own thanks to cruise ships, beaches that are still considered the Yucatan's best, and attractions like Chankanaab Lagoon – a five minute cab ride from the island’s town, San Miguel. Back in the day, Chankanaab was for a then-aspiring marine biologist (moi) the hands-down highlight of a vacation on this island. It sent my sense of wonder into overdrive as I snorkeled through crystalline water above a section of the world-famous Palancar Reef, surrounded by a riot of colorful marine life. I guess you could say I found Nemo (and a few thousand of his buddies) three decades before the movie came out. A poster of the lagoon's colorful finny denizens long held pride of place on my bedroom wall when I came back from that magical experience (yep, fish trumped pinups of Cheryl Tiegs and Farah Fawcett).
Fast-forward…and obviously, things are, well, un poco diferente in 2013 than in 1973. More resorts on Cozumel, a bigger airport, and perhaps most of all, routine cruise-ship calls are among the major factors that’ve led to some changes in the landscape and seascape at Chankanaab (Mayan for “small sea,” declared a national park in 1980, and since 1995 part of the larger Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park). Development since my first visit has added to the menu organized snorkel/scuba tours; Snuba (scuba diving but tethered to a raft; no training required); Seatrek (strolling across the seabed with an oxygenated helmet; also no experience needed); statues in an underwater sculpture garden such as a dramatic Christ (pictured above); kayaking; and Dolphin Discovery, which lets folks get in the water with dolphins, sea lions, and manatees. On land, meanwhile, there are a couple of restaurants and reproductions of a traditional Maya village and ruins to tour. So yes, it’s much pricier now – $21 per adult and $14 for kids – but a lot is included, and the magia marina still there, undah da sea…
Photo: Jason T. Fowler