Old Charm, New Charm, Getting to the Caribbean

     When I was 14 years old  my parent decided to explore the Caribbean. To get there; first, we went camping from Mexico City to Playa del Carmen. We covered around 600 miles, like from Los Angeles, to Mount Shasta, although, the difference between highways is huge. The Mexican roads at that time were not as developed as they are now. One-third of  the way is a mountainous landscape to cover. Also, on those days, some towns and cities were incipients or didn’t exist.

     Roads and highways have evolved in most countries over the years. When I was six, we went to Yucatan, part of the same route we were now driving back. Then, there were no roads between some towns we  passed, for example; from the state of Veracruz, to the state of Yucatan we crossed swampy areas or rivers on a diesel engine barge. The barge could have carried six cars, 20 persons more or less, and some farm animals and mules. There was warm, humid weather, and smelly fumes from the engine.

     Eight years had passed since our last drive to Yucatan, we were excited about the new and improved highway with recently constructed flat sections. No more driving at 6000 feet above sea level while passing the Summits of Maltrata. That, was exactly like living a passage from the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Image very windy, cold, mountainous passage in an imperative way and maybe with hidden stories of passion to talk about. Our trip was one quarter of the road on very cold and humid weather; the rest tropical rainforest. Also, we were really happy about the new time expected to be driven for the beginning length; instead of eight, it was cut to six hours.

       Today, you can do it in four and a half hours by car. Most of all, for the second length, we were going to be some of the first ones to drive all the way without using the barge! Sadly, we were horrified when in the new route we needed to cross the path of  crabs migration. There were thousands of thousands of crabs in the highway, like white pebbles. We heard the crushing shells for some kilometers! We couldn’t stop, avoided them, skipped them. Sometimes I still have nightmares about them.

     Later, and in other adventures I learned, that progress; meaning give electricity to countries, constructing roads, extracting oil and other human commodities come with a huge tag price in sustainability and conservation of the planet.

     It took us  more than  24 hours to drive to Playa del Carmen; with  stops to rest, camping along the route, and eating vernacular delicacies in different towns. I said vernacular because they were food of the region and with pre-Columbian names. When finally we arrived to Playa del Carmen, there was no way to  be sure we had arrived, until we asked  a local man where it was. He told us that we were on it.  Aside the road there was a gravel area topped with rustic little covers made with latticed palm tree leaves; sustained, on thin trunks.

      The night had fallen. It was eight at night. With just a tiny light bulb for this 100 yard site called parking lot, we passed the night, inside the car. That was Playa del Carmen.

      Next morning, we embarked to Cozumel at four thirty at dawn. It was still dark. We hurried to go to a small pier. Jumping inside the boat was easy, then, after two hours of choppy waters and a nauseated feeling for the lack of food; we finally arrived in Cozumel. We were dirty, starved, sandy, and with the illusion of self motion from the ocean trip. But we did it!

       We were breath taking,  with the many different tones of blue the Caribbean  Sea has. From there, we were going to be in one of the most spectacular places of all times.

        We were in fantastic Cozumel!  In front of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is a flat island made of limestone, covered with  mangrove. It has tropical monsoon weather, and it is about the size of Maui, Hawaii. We stayed at a hotel. From this part of the trip, we didn’t camp at all.

         At that time,  there was a main road for  bikes, and open pink jeeps to rent. You could  cover half of Cozumel in an easy breezy way. We explored mainly two places; Chankanaab or “Little Sea” from the Mayan language; in the western coast  of the island, and the Celarain Lighthouse. The Lighthouse  is located at the southerness  part of the island and was built to warn ships passing at night so that they would not run aground.

       “Little Sea” is one of the masterpieces of nature, we spent most days  snorkeling and diving, admiring tropical fish, colorful reefs, green turtles and one moray eel. We were in the reef system now home to more than 65 species of stony coral, 350 species of mollusk  and more than 500 species of colorful fish. Mollusks were part of our diet. Dive, pick one, prepared it ceviche style; and you have a plentiful and delicious lunch. For dinner, lobsters were in abundance.

     Visiting the Lighthouse was a total wilderness adventure. We covered a jeep with plastic roof and plastic windows, Dad drove  on a very narrow dirt road, surrounded  by exuberant plants and the jeep was like machine gunned by ginormous  bugs all the way. I thought we weren’t going to make it. There was a moment when we couldn’t see the road because the windshield was covered by bugs and slimy insect insides. Not even trying to clean it by activating the windshield wipers or washers was a solution. The windshield wipers were stuck and the washers were going to make a blurry film in the entire windshield; at least there were some tiny clean spots to look through. Finally, after this exotic ordeal we arrived. In front of us there were open ocean waters mixing with the shallow ones in an exquisite variety of blues and foam.

    Nowadays the Celarain Lighthouse is a beautiful park called “Parque Punta Sur” where visitors observe nature, and party at restaurants. To get there, there is a wide trimmed road and people see from afar a cordoned site with a Mayan ruin.

     Several civilizations have come and gone  on the island; from 10,000 inhabitants in the pre-Columbian era to 172 after a chickenpox epidemic, to a 100,000 population as in 2011. Pirates, Cruises, traders, hurricanes, oil spills and motorboats have destroyed some of its old charm. Today, the new charm is that, Cozumel is in  preservation mode and Playa del Carmen is a touristic point with 149,923 inhabitants. In 1970 Cancun started to develop and then, The Rivera Maya was born. We still adore it! The next episodes of the story will continue in other two parts later on.

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