2002: Destination - Colors of Cozumel

Once a year, at the start of their birthing season, Cozumel’s 10,000 crabs migrate across the full width of the island, from its raw, unpeopled Atlantic coast to their nesting sites on its calmer western shores. • The journey isn’t easy. Skittering sideways, as crabs do, they traverse 10 miles of dense tropical jungle before arriving at the beach hotels that face the Mexican mainland. Cautiously, they make their way past the bellmen and through the lobbies, marching their armored bodies past the sandaled feet of the astonished tourists – crabs with their claws raised in the air, in defensive position, like little crustacean Power Rangers.

This year their cross-island itinerary was slightly different. Neither the hotels nor the tourists budged. But 350 acres of the jungle had been cleared to make way for the Cozumel Country Club, the island’s first golf course.

Traversing the fairways mostly at night, the crabs witnessed few, if any, golf shots. The island’s other shelled denizens, on the other hand, watched plenty. Indeed, they seem to have developed a certain fondness for the game – and even a tendency to dispense golf tips to visiting duffers. Playing the course, you’re likely to see, beside any one of its fairways, a box turtle, head cocked upward, cuing you to keep your chin up. Behind the next tee a striped iguana may sprint by, erect on its hind legs, reminding you to keep your fanny out. Lazing in one of the back-nine hazards there’s likely to be a crocodilus acutus – or American crocodile – politely hinting that you might be better off in a hotel pool, or wading in the sea with the crabs, than chasing a silly white ball around in the mid-day heat.

The rapport between Cozumel’s wildlife and its new, saddle-shoed guests is not unprecedented. Just ask the divers, who have frequented the island since Jacques Cousteau, back in the ’60s, put it on the scuba map. Surrounding Cozumel are 30 reefs, including the famous Palancar, part of the largest barrier reef system this side of Australia. Under the island’s coastal waters,

visibility is typically farther than 200 feet. The innumerable fish patrolling those waters are

startlingly social, schooling around divers – and, at lesser depths, snorkelers, too – with the enthusiasm of autograph seekers. Because Cozumel is one of the world’s premier diving

destinations, it will take much more than 18 new holes to make golf its main attraction. Still, playing its one and only course is a rare treat.

From most sets of tees, Cozumel Country Club, laid out by Nicklaus Design’s Greg Letsche and Steve Nicklaus (Jack’s second eldest son), is a fun but unintimidating, user-friendly resort course. Yet clever routing and some formidable carries make playing from the back (at 6,900 yards) more than enough of a challenge for the better player. Fairway landing areas are equally generous for everyone. But on the fairway peripheries are walls of vegetation that never let you forget the course was carved from the jungle. And then there’s the wildlife. Along with the golf-loving reptiles are geckos, armadillos and flamingos, as well as the

swallows (in Mayan, Cuzamil) that gave the island its original name. The only thing missing is Marlon Perkins. (Plans to build a second

18-hole course on Cozumel have been in the works for the last 11⁄2 years. Nothing, as yet, is certain, but project representatives say they could be breaking ground as early as January.)

Golf, diving and snorkeling, though, aren’t Cozumel’s only pastimes. Island holidaymakers can partake of all variety of watery fun, including sailing, windsurfing and some of the Caribbean’s best sport fishing. Back on shore are restaurants toney enough “to make you feel like you’re in New York or Mexico City,” as someone remarks in the awful novel “Cozumel,” written, believe it or not, by Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. Visitors also can investigate, at eight different sites, the archeological remains of the Maya, one of Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations. As a golf destination, then, Cozumel is best suited to golf travelers open to a little diversity training – instruction, that is – in how to take pleasure in more than just golf.

Nearly swimmable

Cozumel resides just off the fishhook tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, like bait for travelers keen on exploring the Caribbean or Mexico’s east coast.

From most points in the United States, no Caribbean island, with the exception of Cuba, is closer: It would be only slightly more difficult to swim from Havana to Cozumel than from Havana to Key West. Flying into the island, what’s most obvious is that jungle covers almost all of the island’s 189 square miles – everything, that is, except the sliver of beach hotels on its western flank and, also on the leeward side, San Miguel, Cozumel’s sole city, itself only as big as an average American football stadium.

Apart from San Miguel’s streets, the island has only one paved road. It bisects the island from east to west, and slides south along the coasts, like a capital “D” lying on its stomach, before looping together at Punta Sur. Once on the ground, there’s no mistaking Cozumel for anything but a tropical island. Its air carries that signature Caribbean stickiness, and the plaster on the walls of its restaurants and hotel rooms, cured by the salty sea air, bear a distinctly briny scent.

Most of the island’s tourist traffic – all but 200,000 of its 2.1 million annual visitors – arrives via gangplank, disembarking, most often for a single day, from a cruise ship. Nine different cruise lines dock in Cozumel. On a busy day three or four floating hotels might make port in Cozumel, disgorging as many as 7,000 visitors between them, and increasing by more than 10 percent the island’s full-time population of 69,000. Sadly, not many of those visitors venture far from San Miguel. But the wisest wind up making a return trip, eager to explore Cozumel’s beauty, and investigate its importance in the history of the Americas.

Cozumel was the first landfall of Hernando Cortez, perhaps the greatest – and most infamous – of the Spanish explorers of the New World. Not long after he arrived in 1519, he massacred most of the island’s Maya and destroyed their settlements before moving on to the mainland and laying waste to both the Aztec and the rest of the Mayan civilizations.

The Maya remains in Cozumel do not reflect that culture’s full splendor. They aren’t nearly as significant as the ruins at mainland sites such as Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal and Tulum. Still, Cozumel’s sites indicate that the island played an important role in their culture.

San Gervasio, the largest of them, hosts the ruins of temples dedicated to Ixchel, goddess of fertility and agriculture. The temples were the destination of frequent pilgrimages from the mainland; for the Maya, life, like the sun, originated in the east, and Cozumel (along with Isla Mujeres) was one of the two easternmost points in the world. The ruins in the small village of El Cedral date from as many as 2,500 years ago. The village’s vaulted arch, though not as impressive as the great pyramidal buildings for which the Maya are best known, is nonetheless striking for having been created independently, and perhaps earlier, than similar structures in Greece and Rome.

Off-site, two places in Cozumel provide excellent introductions to Maya history. One, well worth a visit, is a museum, San Miguel’s Museo de la Isla de Cozumel. The other is Chankanaab, an ecological park located a few miles south of the beach hotel strip. Chankanaab was created by the Cozumeleños to present, principally to their one-day guests, a microcosm of the island’s cultural and natural riches. It features replicas of Maya structures as they once were, and short-order lectures on Mesoamerican history. But it also boasts a wildlife sanctuary, botanical gardens and terrific snorkeling spots. There’s also the opportunity to swim with – or, indeed, to ride on – penned dolphins.

Chankanaab can be the jumping-in point for some rare and challenging diving. Spurring off its saltwater lagoons is a system of long underwater caves; dive shops located in the park specialize in leading tours for accomplished submariners.

The caves, with their eerie stalactite and stalagmite formations, do have their allure. But most will opt for the more vivid seascapes residing just off the coast. Coral species are as varied as they are colorful. Crowding the local reefs are beautiful parrotfish, black and yellow butterfly fish and angelfish; bigger residents include groupers, sea eels, yellow and eagle rays and sea turtles. None of them is shy. Don’t forget your Sharpie.

A watery theme

Sadly, none of the reef-dwelling marine life ever joins its scaled, shelled and feathered brethren on the golf course. That may be because the crocodiles are notoriously bad bathing partners. But it’s certainly not because there’s any shortage of water on the course. Water hazards come into play on 15 of Cozumel Country Club’s 18 holes. Most of them – as is characteristic of Nicklaus designs – constitute big stretches of tee-ball unhappiness along one or the other side of a fairway. While there’s usually plenty of fairway to work with, shots that curve hard in the wrong direction almost always will require a trip back into your golf bag.

When a tee shot doesn’t present you with a water hazard, there’s usually a similarly positioned crushed limestone waste area. Some of these bleached-out stretches are surprisingly scenic. In the middle of the waste area on No. 13 is a tall rocky outcropping left unblasted during course construction; atop it sits a single, beautiful native palm, a representative of the species whose Spanish name (again, believe it or not) is guano macho, and whose leaves are used to make the thatched roofs of the island’s ubiquitous palapas.

The golf course has a good variety of three- and four-pars, but its most interesting holes are its quartet of par 5s. The first three are reachable, although doing so requires cunning and nerve. After an uncomplicated tee shot, the 499-yard third presents you with a second of shot of about 180 yards, every inch of it over the belly of a water hazard that protrudes into the right side of the fairway like a silhouette of Craig Stadler. The 506-yard ninth mandates a long nutted tee shot to the extreme right of the fairway—all of it over a limestone waste area—but from there provides an easy route to the green. The 526-yard 14th requires another monster drive. But the only place on this hole from which to get to the green is a large mound on the right side of the fairway that’s covered with gnarly bermuda rough. If you don’t have a seven-wood in your bag, you’re outta luck.

And the course’s last three holes – as one might suspect at a Nicklaus design– constitute a particularly Bearish finish.

The 16th, the last of the par 5s,is a brutush 571-yarder intersected, at strategic points, by broad, swampy fields of low-slung red mangroves, from which recovery is impossible. Calling this hole a true three-shotter doesn’t do it justice; unless you’re hitting it pure, it’s more likely to take you five or six to get home.Thus humbled, you’re then faced on 17 with a diabolical little 170-yard par 3. If you don’t hit your first shot stiff, it’s virtually impossible to two-putt this wildly undulating green – —and even harder to get it up and down from its steep-faced bunkers or bathtub-shaped chipping areas.The 18th, a shotmaker’s hole, plays at only 382 yards, and calls for a smartly struck fairway wood from the tee. Any other club brings into play more fields of red mangrove residing both short and long of the ideal landing area. The hole then turns sharply to the right. Playing from anywhere but position A-plus will have you contending with the twenty-foot tall white mangroves that lean out over the fairway and protect the route to the green.

After battling through the tough finishing trio, most golfers adjourn to the open-air palapa clubhouse for a few recuperative cervezas. But the wiser ones follow the crabs’ lead, and skitter immediately across the street and directly through the hotel lobby for a post-round dip in the drink. All 10,000 crabs, after all, couldn’t be wrong about what to do after visiting the course. Though in retrospect you’ll have to consider them foolish for having passed up the golf.

– Chris Lewis is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer.

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