Friday, August 15, 2014

Cruise with Toulouse: Riding Harleys in Cozumel

Carnival Dream docked in Cozumel
“Get up, you lazy bones! Time to go onshore!” In her exuberance, Nina grabbed me by the tail (she isn’t always considerate when she’s excited) and cheerfully shoved me into her daypack. “We’ve landed in Cozumel!”

‘Docked!’ I corrected her from inside the pack, as she blithely rushed out of our stateroom and rode the glass elevator twelve stories down to where we would disembark. The word is docked!  Good thing I’m her editor, is all I can say.

As we got off the ship, Nina gave me a glimpse of the huge pier. Our first stop on the Carnival Dream cruise was Cozumel, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Cozumel means Island of the Swallows in Mayan and it’s the largest Atlantic island of Mexico with a low, flat and densely vegetated topography, based on limestone. The limestone has created some cool karst formations. For instance, Cenotes are deep water filled sinkholes formed by water percolating through the soft limestone over thousands of years; if you’re a qualified cave diver – and foolishly adventurous – you can get permission to explore Cozumel’s Cenotes. About twenty years ago some of those foolish adventurers discovered what is now recognized as the 5th largest underwater cave in the world. 

Toulouse checks his Harley
The Maya first settled Cozumel in the early part of the 1st millennium AD. It was a place of pilgrimage and considered sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess. In 1518 Hernán Cortés and his fleet swept in like a dark storm, destroying a bazilion temples and eventually wiping out the locals with smallpox. Those were tough times for the Mayans. According to some researchers, by 1570 only a meager 30 people survived from the original 40,000 Mayan population. Those were the dark years, when the deserted Cozumel became a hideout for pirates and refuges and other interesting eccentrics. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln almost bought the island as a place to send the freed slaves of the United States? But the drawn-out war in the Yucatan changed his mind.  Cozumel finally entered its golden years when Jacques Cousteau “blessed it” by discovering and popularizing its spectacular scuba diving in Cozumel’s coral reefs at Palancar. Even the destruction by Hurricane Wilma hasn’t slowed down Cozumel, which remains a popular tourist destination and currently boasts over 90 restaurants. The locals, a wonderful mixture of Mayan and Spanish descent, are friendly, optimistic and cheerful people with a great sense of humor and healthy outlook. Nina tells me they remind her of the cheerfully adaptive Thai people of Phuket, who after the devastation of the recent tsunami, just picked up the pieces and built it all up again within a short few years. 

Cozumel is a popular charter fishing destination and offers some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling for our “Joe Tourist”. But Nina and I aren’t “Joe Tourist”… Besides, you may recall from my last post that I’m not particularly fond of water (I am a cat, after all, free to exercise the inalienable rights of my species). We did something far more exciting – and exotic:  we toured the island on Harleys! We saw the “wild side” of Cozumel.

Toulouse chills with Willy and Carlos
On the pier we met our guides, Willy and Carlos, two regular guys in black leather jackets and tattoos. Smiling like pirates, they led us to a lonely back parking lot, where we found our bikes. Nina chose a red 1200cc Sportster and I chose a blue one. What? You don’t believe I rode one all by myself? Take a look at the picture of me on the bike at Punta Sur, one of our stops!
The tour was an exhilarating fur-raising ride along Cozumel’s cracked and warped roads with a view of its scenic shoreline. We took off from Sunset Beach and headed south through the ancient Mayan town of Cedral then continued south, salt air whipping through my fur, to Punta Celerain and the historic lighthouse at Punta Sur Ecological Park. Nina panted and huffed after me as I scampered up the 100-some steps to the top for a breathtaking view of the island’s surf and vast beach. I don’t know what her problem was: the stairs weren’t nearly as narrow, crooked, and worn as the crumbling Tower of Pisa (but that’s another story…). It was in the park that I met Charlie, the resident crocodile. Charlie’s presence in Cozumel, let alone North America, is an oddity. If you know anything about natural science, you know that crocs are normally restricted to the “old continents” of Africa and Asia. North America and South America support alligators. The way I remember it is: “Nile” rhymes with crocodile and “Amazon” starts with an “a” like “alligator”.

It must have been the fresh sea air, because my stomach started to growl. Nina’s followed soon after and Willy got the message. We quickly mounted up and he navigated us along a windy back road to the main highway and the “wild side” of the island to “Coconuts Restaurant and Bar”. We dined on authentic Mexican cuisine at this funky seaside eatery and watched the locals cavorting and laughing. The open-air restaurant resembled something from an old James Bond movie, thatched palm-leaf roofs decorated with t-shirts from across the world and support poles tattooed with business cards. Fearing the retarded dog that decided to park itself near us, I wandered off to the beach below, lured by deep sea-green surf, lava-shaped rocks and the sweet aroma of local herbs. Of course, no one told me that the beaches here allow partial nudity! Bonus for me. Nina was “put out” though; she’d panicked when she couldn’t find me.

After she found me on the beach, she shoved me back into her backpack where I stayed as we continued the last leg of the tour through Mezcalitos, and west toward the main town of San Miguel, where Willy showed us—well, Nina (I was still socked in the backpack)— where he lives. We then rode through San Miguel’s bustling downtown and finally returned to the pier’s back parking lot.
Nina relented (she can never stay mad at me for long) and let me out of the pack when Willy produced two bottles of Corona Beer to celebrate our cool 5-hour tour. It was a blast!

You can book your Harley Davidson Tour with Willy and Carlos through Sand Dollar Sports. From Canada call: 972-966-0616; from USA call: 1-888-737-6399; from Cozumel call: 987-872-0793 or 987-872-1884; fax: 987-872-6158.

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