Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cozumel Trip Report 2011...

Cozumel, April 22nd – May 2nd, 2011

“Get away to where the boat leaves from…

…your worries you can drop them in the big ocean, but you have to get away from the boat leaves from…”

Once again this year my Parrothead brain is wrapped around music to get me ready for the beach. The Zac Brown Band sets the mood for our annual pilgrimage to the Caribbean jewel of Mexico, known as Cozumel, Island.

American Airlines daily commute, Flight 367 took off from DFW and arrived at CZM International without incident.

 We made it through the passport stamp line and collected our luggage and for the first time in over a dozen trips to Mexico, we got stopped by the “red light” and had to have our luggage “inspected” by the Mexican customs folks…a mere 5 minute delay.

 I made my way to the Taxi window, not as many time-share sales people as in the past, trying to “help” you find your way to your hotel, and purchased 2 transfers to “Casa Sharky”, more commonly known as Blue Angel Resort, our vacation home for the past several years.

“I hear the waves. Sun beating down on my shoulders…a near perfect day…”

Oh my! It’s good to be back! The weather is in the mid 80’s, partly cloudy, with very low humidity and a somewhat gusty breeze to knock down any stickiness that might want to creep in.

This weather pattern continued throughout the trip, with the winds dying down after the first couple days, making it even more beautiful.

Evenings were quite pleasant, cooling off into the low ‘70’s. Perfect for sitting out on a patio at one of Cozumel’s many wonderful restaurants of which we have added some new favorites to the “must do” list.

Many people like to go the All Inclusive route, but for me, you have to get into town and sample the local flare to really get to know a place.

Cozumel has developed into quite the gastronomic delight! Our personal list of restaurants we TRY to make has grown to a list of over 20 restaurants, ranging from one end of the gambit to the other.

We made many of the old favorites, Ernesto’s Fajita Factory, Rock-n-Java, Guido’s, French Quarter (get Mike’s ribs!!!), the Museum (great for breakfast on a non-dive day, or a post-saturation lunch), Jeannies Waffle House, the fabulous Casa Denis, (mmm Mango margaritas), many good lunches at Blue Angel, (included on dive days) and a couple very nice dinners as well…and of course, Coconut’s, (my Margaritaville)

We made 3 new favorites to add to the list this year.

First and foremost, is the new restaurant/bar called ‘OHANA.

‘Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family. I had heard about this place on Facebook. One of my friends had “liked” the place and it had raised my curiosity.

Located along 5th Ave., between 6th and 8th Calle, (street) North, turns out that it IS as family place and just happens to be owned by a friend of mine, one of MY dive family!

Well, actually his wife. My buddy, Matt, or Matteo as he is known around Blue Angel dive shop, (instructor extraordinaire), and his wife opened up the little restaurant/bar just a few short months ago and have already built a pretty good following.

Angela, Matt’s wife has been in the restaurant business here entire life. Her father, William, owns Rasta’s and the Freedom Bar at Punta Sur, another long-time favorite of ours.

My wife Lore had the house specialty of Coconut Shrimp. I’m not much of a shrimp eater, but she said it was very good with just a slightly sweetness to the coconut casing around the delicate shrimp. A lot of places apparently make it way too sweet, but ‘OHANA’s kitchen has found the right balance.

I opted for a Mexican traditional dish, Pez a mojo de ajo, fish fillet in garlic. You can get this dish almost anywhere on the island, but this is one of the best one’s I’ve ever had. The fish was pan seared crispy on the outside and just as white and flaky as you could want on the inside, immersed in that wonderful garlic flavor.

Later in the week we were tying to find a place to park for dinner and ended up in a parking lot across from La Veranda, a place Lore had wanted to try for a long time…this was the time.

A quick note on parking. The island has made most of the side street parking into “no parking” spots with a large yellow ‘E’s with “No” circles painted in the parking spots.

The Ave. Milgar, the street that runs along the ocean front, has a new meter system, but we did not try to figure it out and opted to park in the off street parking lots that are spotted throughout the downtown area.

Just look for a sign that says “parking” or “public parking” and pull in. The attendant will give you a time-stamped slip and charge a dollar, (US), per hour.

La Veranda, Calle 4 between 5th and 10th Ave., as the name implies, is, mostly, an outdoor courtyard restaurant. There are indoor tables, but on a night like this, who wants to be inside?

This is a place a couple friends of ours go to when they are having a “special occasion” dinner…hey, we’re in Cozumel, what can be more special than that?!

After surveying the menu, Lore settled on Scallop kabobs, which came out, perfect. The scallops were seared on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside, not overcooked or rubbery in the slightest. The veggies were grilled to perfection as well. A feat not easily pulled off by the way.

I decided to be a little adventurous and try the stuffed chicken breast. Wow! What a good choice, pounded boneless chicken breast rolled around walnuts, goat cheese and dried and fresh fruits, covered in a thick, sweet, yummy sauce…Zowie Batman!

Chocolate cake and a decaf cappuccino for dessert…

…we’ll be back.

The third selection on this year’s ‘new places to eat’ list was our last meal on Coz.

We had gone to the airport and checked our bags and found out that we had been blessed with an extra hour of Coz time, due to a weather delay on the incoming flight from Dallas…whoo hoo! Let’s go to lunch!!

A shop keeper that Lore had purchased a pair of very cool earrings from had suggested we eat at La Candela, which was just around the corner from his shop, so we decided to give it a try.

Another one of those cute little open-air eateries that the island is dotted with, this one along 5th Ave. on the north side of town, yes, apparently we spent most of our eating along 5th Ave. on this trip…just worked out that way.

Our maid, Trini's hand work. Our other maid, Francisco doesn't do towel animals,
but keeps the place just a tidy and clean for us. Just 2 of the wonderful staff at B.A.

“…knee deep in the water somewhere…”

When I got out of the Navy, I had a brief moment of madness and thought I’d like to be a commercial diver. This was the early 1980’s and I learned that those guys were getting paid a minimum of $28/per hour and got paid for the full day as long as they got in the water up to their waist…that was pretty good jack back then and the thought of actually getting paid to dive was almost too much to wrap my 20 some year old brain around.

So, I’ve always maintained if you get in the water at least up to your waist…you’ve made a dive…

…we went deeper.

The first dive of our trip was the traditional, equipment check, shore dive at Blue Angel heading South against the prevailing current over Villa Blanca Shallows.

I was testing a new mask and a new mask de-fogger, neither seemed to want to work very well. The mask kept fogging up throughout the entire dive, but despite that, I could tell that “shallows” have made great strides over the past year.

Six years out from Hurricane Wilma’s 52 hour onslaught, both the island the reefs that surround it have made a remarkable comeback.

Villa Blanca Shallows no longer looks like a debris field of scattered rock and the occasional coral head, but many of those debris rocks have themselves become “coral heads” with soft and hard corals, sponges, algae’s and sea grasses sprouting from them.

The Gorgonians, those purple sea fans or whips as some call them are also making great strides, hopefully the Flamingo Tongues as well will be back in abundance as well.

The Stingray enclosure, which caused so much controversy, when it was being built, has actually become a great addition to the shore dive scene.

Just swim out to the end of the darn thing and you can hang out there for the rest of the dive if you wanted to. We found puffers, trumpet fish, Juvenile Angels and a Sharp Tail eel within several minutes.

...deeper please…

Monday rolled around and it was time to jump onboard the six-pack dive boat known as Chiquimax with our pal “Chumba” at the helm and our good friend and Dive Master Jorge to lead the group over the magnificent reefs of the Palancar reef system.

Palancar Gardens was the first stop, one of 4 dive sites given the Palancar name, from South to North, Brick, Caves, Horseshoe and today, Gardens.

Jorge explains that Gardens should really be called Caves because it has more swim-thru’s than Caves does, but I feel it was named just right.

A beautiful wall dive with lots and lots of Deep Sea fans, Black coral, anemones and hydroids sprouting form its rugged limestone base.

I found the first Lion fish of the trip, hanging out on a ledge at about 70’. I don’t care what you say, it’s still a beautiful fish.

A large Hawksbill turtle shot for the surface as we drifted by getting reacquainted with the inhabitants of the underwater world.

Since I am a pretty big guy and really love air, and also spend, most likely, way too much extra energy chasing the perfect photograph, I opted this year to wear 100 cu/ft tanks for BOTH dives the entire trip…great idea. I was able to get a full dive in on nearly every outing.

Juvinile Pez de Leon (baby Lionfish)

After a stop at the little pier that is out in the middle of nowhere. Literally, there is a concrete pier about ½ way down the island, that just sits along an empty beach.

Many dive boats use it for a surface interval stop. Such was the case today, as we pulled in along with 3 other dive ops.

A few years ago, we were at this place and all of a sudden I heard another boat pulling up. I raised my head up from my prone position on the bow or the dive boat to see uniformed Federales jumping off the new arrival with machine guns! Yikes! It’s a raid!!

No, apparently they were pretty much doing what we were doing…potty break.

Cedral Pass or Paso del Cedral, can be done as either a first, Wall dive, or a second shallow dive.

Today, we took the later, dropping down over the mid-shelf reef and drifting along over the coral base, we spotted lots of large Angels; Grays, French and Queens, mostly paired up, some Grays as large as a large serving platter.

We usually find large Green morays and Nurse Sharks on this dive and today was not disappointing. I remembered that we usually see sharks swimming along the channel between the mid-reef and the drop-off, and just as I looked in that direction, a 5’ Nurse cruised by.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Lore found a six footer sleeping in an outcrop and towards the end of the dive; Jorge found a large Green moray and a good sized Nurse resting side by side in a small cave/outcrop.

The one day I don’t full charge my camera battery is the day we see all the sharks and my camera dies on me half way through the second dive…oh well, better than a flood! At least I live to shoot another day!

The next morning I wasn’t feeling to great early on, so we moved our dive to the 10:00a.m. boat, No Problem. The large cabin cruiser is used mostly to accommodate cruise ship diver and folks coming over from the mainland that can’t make the 8 a.m. fast boats.

Today we were grouped up with a bunch of people who had come over from Playa del Carmen and our DM was the very capable Servando, who recongnised me right off. Pretty impressive, since he hadn’t seen me in a year and we had only dove with him once or twice before.

Since this boat caters to folks that the dive shop will not be able to asses and dive with multiple times, it usually does a couple “easy” dives. Our fist stop was San Francisco Wall.

Although, San Francisco is a wall dive, and you can go VERY deep if you like, it can also be done the more conservative way and since we were on the “lumber wagon” as one of the DM’s called it, we did it a little more shallow than usual.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t break 75’, cruising along the shelf drop-off.

I found a juvenile Lion fish inside a little outcrop, it was just about 2” long in the body and it’s little spine like fins were had not began to fill in yet, looking like white radio antennas sticking out from all over it’s body.

Stoplight parrot fish darted about the reef along with the usual suspects, Butterflies, Blue Chromas and Damsels and lots of anemones, in fact, all the reefs had their share of anemones including some that were up to 2 feet across!

Second stop was the perennial favorite, Paradise Reef.

It’s sometimes hard for advanced divers to get on Paradise, other than night dives, as most advanced diver on the boat want to go to the deeper dives located at the South end of the marine park, so the second dive is at a location more at that end of the island. So today we were blessed with the opportunity to get on one of our favorite dive sites.

Paradise is much like Columbia Shallows, although you can get as deep as 40-45’ in places where at Columbia, you won’t get below 30 with out the use of a shovel.

Paradise is still showing stress from cruise ship pier construction and hurricane damage, but despite all that, it is still a beautiful dive.

Lots of fish in all sizes and shapes from juvenile to full grown reside here. We spotted Yellow stingrays, several types of Wrasse, Butterflies, Parrot fish, lobster and a couple large King crabs tucked up under the reef outcrops.

Christmas Tree tube fans displayed their bright plumage in the shallow water sunlight and I was able to take several shots before they would pull back into their tube enclosures in a snap.

The next day was the 2 Columbia’s; first the quintessential Wall dive of Cozumel, Columbia Deep, followed by EVERYONE’S top five dive site list maker, Columbia Shallows.

Deep is awesome, with tall pinnacles, deep crevices, and several wide open swim-thrus, if you don’t do Columbia Deep, you haven’t done Cozumel.

Same is to be said about Columbia Shallows, 25-30’ depth, very little current, great vis and TONS of fish make for a maximum bottom time dive in a place that is like diving in the largest aquarium you have ever seen.

We spent well over an hour on the site exploring the many coral heads strewn about the sand flats.

The next day I had requested Villablanca Wall for the second dive and apparently someone had asked for Santa Rosa Wall for the first.

“Snowy Santa Rosa”, my wife said as we surfaced. It’s true, for some reason, Santa Rosa wall more than any other dive we have done since hurricane Wilma, seems to be the slowest to recover, sitting between San Francisco and Cedral Pass, the prevailing currents here just haven’t seemed to do the job that they have on the rest of the reef system.

Nonetheless, Lore found a large Green moray under a shelf and I ran across a couple Hawksbills, one old girl was quite large.

Villablanca Wall sits just off shore from Hotel Villa Blanca and Blue Angel Resort. It is a true wall dive. Just a gentle slope from the drop-off point along the shelf with no in’s and out’s to speak of.

Absolutely georgous! Covered with Barrel and tube sponges, black coral and hydroids, it is one of the prettiest and most accessible dives on the island. We drifted along poking our noses in every little hole we could find, trying to find the elusive Splendid Bearded toadfish, found only in the water of Cozumel…no luck today.

Our final day of diving, Lore had requested Yucab Wall, no objections on the boat, so that’s where we headed.

Yucab is normally done as a second dive along the mid-shelf reef. It is another beautiful garden dive where toadfish are quite often spotted, but today we headed out to the shelf and dropped over the edge. “The deeper you go, the prettier it gets”, Jorge explained.

I bottomed out at 94’, Lore made the extra 6 to a solid 100’ and we both found that our buddy Jorge knows what he is talking about. Large grouper accompanied us throughout the trip, we saw a couple more Hawksbills and more of the huge Gray Angel fish paired up lazily swimming about the reef.

Last and certainly not least, was Chankaanaab Shallows, pretty much an extension of Paradise reef, Chankaanaab is a series of large coral heads spread out on a sandy bottom at no more than 45’ deep and much like Paradise is full of light and life.

We spent a little over an hour exploring the coral heads. I found a VERY large Great Barracuda lazing in an opening in the coral and took a couple of pics. He moved off and we caught up to him a little while later when one of the other members of the dive group was waving wildly and making the ‘BIG’ sign with his hands and pointing to his right.

“…I ain’t in no hurry today…”

Most afternoons were spent either snoozing by the pool or in a hammock or going for a cruise around the island to visit our favorite spots.

The President of Mexico was in town for the first week of our trip, pulling out on Easter evening.

The large pink stucco compound on the North end of town near the military base is apparently a government owned property and that is where he was staying. 2 jeeps full of Federales and machine guns, including the biggest 50cal. Machine gun I’ve ever seen mounted in the back, were posted on each side of the street and a large group of them were always on post just up the street, by the mock Mayan temples across from the beach the locals hang out at on Sundays.

We cruised through the golf course on one occasion, and I saw my first Cozumel croc poking his little head up in the water feature just as you come onto the property. Then all a sudden 2 small wild pigs darted across the road in front of us.

The golf course and country club are an Audubon Society sanctuary and I had seen signs showing these little guys, but this is the first time I had seen one in the flesh.

We made 2 trips to Coconut’s, as I mentioned, my ‘Margaritaville’. With the addition of the new highway going all the way to it, Coconut’s has become more popular, I think the cruise ships are even hauling groups over there, but regardless, I still enjoy going over to the “wild side” and sitting on top the coastal bluff enjoying the classic rock music, crazy staff, excellent food and kick-ass margaritas.

“…days flew by like a drunk Friday night…”

All good things must come to an end, they say, and so it was with this year’s adventure.

All-in-all it was very successful on all accounts, the weather cooperated very nicely, only raining one day while were there, and we just happened to be on the opposite side of the island where the rain was…I love island life!

The island continues to recover, foliage has filled in all over and for just a few spots, the impact of Wilma is getting harder to point out.

Same is to be said about the reefs, much more improvement over even last year. Corals and sponges are growing and spreading. Lettuce coral, which had been flew and far between had made a remarkable comeback, being found on most dives.

Gorgonians are sprouting up in the shallows in larger numbers and as I mentioned before the rocks that appeared to be just strewn debris are now beginning to be covered with much sea life growth.

Special thanks to:

 The staff of Blue Angel resort and dive op for all they do. To Trini and Francisco for keeping the room nice and tidy. Our buddy Otillio for all his hard work around the grounds and helping out whenever needed. Pony and Martin at the dive shop. Jorge and Servando for the underwater guidance. Chumba and the other captains for keeping us safe above the waves, and all at the front desk and restaurant for taking such good care of us.

To my pal Sally Hurwitch, for the wonderful massage, as always.

To Dr. Scott Kircher for the adjustment, not sure exactly what you did, but man! I feel a whole lot better!!

And last but certainly not least…

Thank You, Thank you, THANK YOU, to the people of Cozumel, Mexico for sharing your little piece of paradise with us part-timers…see you next time around.