Learning, exploring and tasting the island while barely exiting the taxi.
Pineapples as big as your head!!! My fondest memory of Mexico as I chatted with a street vendor thru the open door of the taxi cab trying to decipher his accent. It was the biggest pineapple I had ever laid eyes on and I wanted it, even if I knew it was not humanly possible for me to finish it all. Bright yellow and green with a fresh fruity smell. I had been set loose for 8 hours to roam and roast in Cozumel after our ship had docked. I had immediately jumped into a taxi outside the terminal and told the driver I wanted to see the “real parts” of the island, and he immediately obliged.
We were driving down a small street and I saw a clothesline with monstrous pineapples pinned to the line with old wooden clothespins and I had to stop if not to satisfy my own curiosity but at least to chat up the local vendor. From what I understood they were not only large but were the sweetest pineapples on the planet, and from my aspect, I’d have to agree. No bargaining here, I was sold in 30 seconds! (I’m easy like that). Prior to the trip, I had dreamed about Cozumel long before I arrived.
Because I hadn’t done my research, I was at the cab driver’s mercy; which actually worked in my favor! I questioned the taxi driver relentlessly about the economy, the best places to swim, where I could find the cheapest yet tastiest taco, and everything else imaginable.
As we drove into the inner workings of the sun-kissed island, I took in the sights and sounds of an island stopped in time. Children playing in the streets, native women walking with shopping bags, street art, and warm tanned faces. It was refreshing to see people nodding as we drove by and older people sitting outside as if reminiscing on days gone by. The driver told me about the social make-up of the communities, the importance of the family structure and why he was so happy he had all daughters. We stopped in front of a traditional church for me to get a quick photo and as we continued on I was very focused as he pointed out the various government buildings, parks, and no-go areas for tourists. Keep in mind I only had 8 hours to explore this gem of an island which included the 20-minute walk coming from and going to the cruise ship, and I needed to see as much as possible.
I am weird in a way. I will go to a country and not want the hotel experience or 5-star treatment that we think we deserve when we travel. For some reason, I am obsessed with poverty and persons that are marginalized and how they live compared to that lifestyle in my own country. Not coming from a wealthy family I understand and appreciate lack and am intrigued to see the way real people live. I am also very intrigued by schools and universities. I would visit campuses during my travels and my friends couldn’t believe that on vacation I wanted to see halls of learning!! Nerd yes or nah?? Sometimes yes! So forget the overpriced restaurants and dressed-up downtown areas. My goal was to get out and meet natives, meet school teachers and grandparents, and taxi drivers. Because only then would I get the true taste and feel of the island. And my mouthful of Mexico was no different as I enjoyed not only the food but the culture, the living, the people.
Ok, enough being so serious, don’t wanna bore you to death. My island tour continued as did my conversation with the taxi driver. “Where are the best beaches?” “How come the women are so beautiful?” “Show me some of the nearby schools?”. As he obliged my every request I was able to take in so much more of the island than I would have had I played it safe and stayed right around the cruise ship terminal like most of the other cruise ship dwellers did. My few years studying Spanish while in college came flooding back and I was able to carry out basic conversations in the language which helped when navigating the island and making tour requests to the driver.
Which trip is not complete without a trip to the local souvenir stores and shopping districts!! Forget fridge magnets and other memorabilia made in China but printed with the country’s name. I always head straight for the jewelry stores. And no I didn’t inherit a trust fund, and my name and “wealthy” are never heard in the same sentence, but I have a kind of expensive hobby. I love collecting gold charms from far away countries and in Cozumel it was a must. It started with an idea from a very special person of collecting gold charms whenever I travel and organizing them on a bracelet. Well the idea stuck and in Mexico I was able to land the cutest 14k gold sombrero with a minimal price tag thanks to my negotiating skills learned from my resident cheap cousin Dr. Jodee B. Alas I also indulged in some of the cheap tourist crap of course, a cute Cozumel beach bag and some leather like or leather looking sandals.
“Is that really beef?” I heard it in my mind as the words simultaneously poured out. I have foot in mouth disease and it takes a while for my brain to catch up with my mouth. So with the words already expelled I received a raised eyebrow from the food vendor as if wondering whether to walk away or ask me to leave. Clearly embarrassed, I graciously accepted my taco. If I haven’t stated before one of my favorite things to do is eat! And although I am not necessarily a foodie, I will try anything at least once. In this regard Cozumel cuisine wouldn’t be left unturned. With all my curiosities and inhibitions out the window I must say that the tacos and enchiladas were a far cry from their fast food equivalents and were a much needed break from cruise ship food. I think what I loved most about the food was the dramatic colors. Bright red, green, yellow and orange peppers adorned our enchilada and the beef inside the tacos was seasoned to perfection. The bean soup was so yummy with a thick consistency. The mouth watering fajitas were a much needed distraction from the unwavering eye of the vendor.
Leaving the beaten path and venturing away from the ferry terminal was worth it if only to taste the local palette. As the taxi teetered we eventually stopped at a small hotel where there was beach access. Aha!! The taxi driver was listening as I went on and on about the beaches in my hometown and I assume he wanted to shut me up for a while if only for his own sanity. Of course my love of the ocean and trying anything once, made it necessary for me to cliff dive into Mexico’s blue depths. Ok although I didn’t cliff dive (it was more like a 2ft ledge) it was still exhilarating feeling the warmth of the water and floating under the scorching sun. The taxi driver had already told me about the beautiful coral reefs, green moray eels, sea turtles and nurse sharks that made Cozumel home, and being a self proclaimed drama queen and scaredy cat my eyes were peeled for any and all of them. He had also explained that although it was hurricane season, that the expectancy for a storm during July was very low.
My day there would not have been complete without the obligatory stop at Senor Frogs on our way back to the ship and the huge goblet in which my elixir was served. Cruise ship in sight I realized that spending the day with the taxi driver was not only a history lesson and informative session in and of itself, but a true “mouthful” of the island. There is so much more to see and do in Cozumel and my short stay has definitely guaranteed a return trip. I would suggest anyone travelling here or anywhere abroad use your taxi driver as an invaluable resource. They have their ear to the ground and are the heart of the island, they live, work and play there and will provide the most honest descriptions and opinions of the island. They are a wealth of knowledge and will give you a real world perspective of the state of affairs of the country…..plus they know the best spots for ….well…..everything!!