We arrived early in the morning at our final foreign port for the trip, Cozumel. I hadn’t realized that Cozumel was actually an island off the coast of mainland Mexico. In port with us was the most gigantic ship I’ve ever seen – the Harmony of the Seas. Massive, towering over the hulk of our ship, it looked as if it could contain at least eight of our vessel. Five or six additional decks rose into the sky above us, and a maze of water slides twisted around the rear. Even the workers on our ship were sticking their heads out of the railings to look at the Harmony and some were even taking photos. Walking on the pier between the two was like moving between two huge buildings. We walked down towards the security checkpoint – the most stringent of all the ports yet. No food was allowed on or off the ship. They had dogs sniffing at passengers as we queued to gain entry to the pack of souvenir-crap-filled tents lining the next walkway. I’d packed my bag full of snacks for the kid, as usual, for our excursion. The guard asked me if I had any food in my bag. I grabbed a bag of pretzels, the first thing that my hand touched, and brought it out of the bag as my guilty admission. He looked at it, then waved me along. He didn’t bother to look inside my bag. We were through, and a man directing passengers to the correct meeting places greeted us as we approached, switching from English to Spanish. I guess we looked like we spoke Spanish primarily, and I took it as a compliment. We understood what he said, anyway, and the kid was beginning to greet people with a friendly “Hola!” – at least when he wasn’t grumpy from waking up so early, so we pretty much fit the part. We had to make our way over to a big water bus, the ferry between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. It looked like a yacht, I guess. We sat up top for the ride over, and I’m glad we did, because we looked out the window and I didn’t feel sick at all from the motion. I guess lots of people get sick on the ferry, because one of the woman working on the boat went around passing out sick bags, “Just in case,” and I saw more than a few people accept them. The ride was about a half hour. We got off and met with our guide, Luigi, the Mexican cave-snorkeling adventure leader. We walked up from the beachfront to the famous 5th Avenue and surrounding shopping extravaganza. I was a little disappointed to find shops just like the ones in the mall back home – Old Navy? I’ll pass. My husband pointed out that I could pay in pesos, which was true, though all of the shops also accepted American currency as well. We went to a two-story kitsch shop and most of our smallish group went in to use the restroom. Luigi said we could also purchase snorkel gear here if we were squeamish about using the rental equipment at the caves. I don’t think anyone bought any. We walked down to park ourselves in front of a Starbucks while we waited for our van. We didn’t wait too long, but one of the guys in the group became impatient and went over to harass our guide, asking him for a refund so they could just go back to the ship (to do nothing, I guess, because snorkeling in caves in Mexico just isn’t worth waiting for…) because everything was taking forever. Luigi jumped up and said that our van was just arriving and we would now walk over to the road where the driver would be pulling up any minute. The van arrived just as we walked up to the road and Luigi told us to be careful because the road was a very busy place, with lots of bicyclists and cars not really wanting to stop or slow down for dumb tourists. We piled into the van and took a short drive out to the caves at Cenote Chaak Tun. We got our gear, snorkels and mask and waterproof flashlight (turned down the wetsuits), and went to stash our clothing and cameras in the lockers. I was a bit bummed out about leaving the cameras, and hadn’t gotten any waterproof ones to take with us. I expected that we’d all get in the water and definitely didn’t want to risk damaging any of the photo equipment. We walked down a path to the first cenote. It is still used by shaman today, apparently. They reserve the space, typically at night, for rituals. We passed a path lined with white stones that glow in the moonlight, but we didn’t get to walk down it. There was also a sort of sweat lodge built into the cave which was also part of the rituals (and therefore off-limits to us, too). We got our floatation vests. Mine was still wet from the last time it was used, and soo cold when I put it on. We got one for the little guy, and the group prepared for our first venture into the water of the underworld. Luigi just plunged in, and told us that was the best way to do it. “Just pretend you’re not cold,” he said. I was the first one to enter the water of our group of ten or so, and just went for it. It was indeed very cold. Other people began to follow, with gasps of shock. Even the folks with rented wetsuits were complaining about the temperature. As Mike began to go in with the kid, screams echoed through the cavern. I thought it was just due to the cold water, but it turned out the little guy was terrified and was definitely not going into the water. Luigi said that since there were two caves to go into, one of us could go into one, and then the other could go into the next, while one person stayed with the kid. Mike told me to go into this one, so I did. We were instructed not to touch the stalactites, or anything out of the water, but formations under the water were fine. Everything was a lot rougher than I imagined it would be. I tried to look under the water with the mask and snorkel but was gripped by terror as I tried to submerge my face, so decided against it. It was cool to look at the reflections of the cave in the water, so I shined my flashlight up at the ceiling often until we came to the area where the bats were living and I felt bad for shining the light at them. The water was quite deep, hence the life vests to keep us afloat, and it was a bit disconcerting to not know the depth of the water below me, but there was really no danger. Mayans used to use the caves and would swim into them to explore and to perform rituals. One person would be in charge of the fire to light the way. A very important job, as if the flame happened to be extinguished, the whole group may perish, lost in the darkness.
The initial cave exploration was of a rather small area. There were more caves connected to the main part, but the entrances were so low in the water that it would be impossible to pass through with the float vests on. We made our way back out to the steps out of the water. It was really chilly in the dark of the cave, but as we walked out into the sunshine to go to the next cave I warmed up again.
Xibalba, or the underworld, was the name of the next cave. We walked in through a long walkway, with different formations lit up with colored lights. As we walked further into the cave we came upon a big sink hole, open to the jungle above us, and the natural light was streaming in in shafts. I was kicking myself for not having a camera. It was beautiful. We walked through the sun rays and onto another wooden deck and to the jump off point (or the steps) into the water. A photographer followed us and took posed shots along the way, with cave formations strategically integrated into the frame. It was Mike’s turn to go into the water this time, so everyone got in again (Luigi jumped in). After the group moved down the passageway into another section of the cave, it got very quiet sitting alone in the semi-darkness. There was enough light from the sky opening to illuminate much of the area we were in, and we could see bats flitting back and forth and guppies and catfish swimming in the water. It was peaceful sitting there, and I sat down lower on the steps in the cold water, just to be at one with the cleansing energy. We told stories in the cave and listened to the water dropping. After a while, the group came back. One of the ladies – the wife of the complaining guy – said, “too bad you missed it” and I didn’t know how to respond so I said nothing. I didn’t feel that I missed anything. There was nothing better than getting to spend that time in the cave with my child. It was exactly where I should have been at that moment. We all walked back and returned our gear and got dressed to go have lunch in one of the caves. It was a buffet lunch, with tamales and beans and juice. Simple, but good. We took some more pictures (I convinced Luigi that I needed to go back into the caves and take photos, though the cool shafts of light were gone from the hole in the roof when I returned) and were subjected to a tequila tasting. No one bought any of it, and the small amount I drank as a sample didn’t leave me feeling very good in the heat of the day.
We drove back into town for our shopping time. I still wasn’t super excited about exploring too many of the shops, so we wandered around town. There was quite a bit of awesome public art around. We went on a little adventure documenting as many murals, decorated cars, and sculptures as we could find. It was soon time to get back to our water bus for the last ferry back to Cozumel before our ship was scheduled to depart. We were supposed to have a little time on Cozumel before we needed to be back on board, and I was looking forward to exploring the island just a bit, since we’d not had the chance to see any of it, leaving first thing in the morning for the mainland. Unfortunately, a couple folks who had gone on an over-land excursion from Belize and were set to get back on board here in Cozumel had become delayed in traffic, so we had to wait for them - part of the benefits, and drawbacks, apparently, of booking excursions through the ship. There had been some shootings in the area just a couple days before we arrived, so security was tight. We sat there until they arrived, and then took the ride back to Cozumel. This time, we sat in the interior, where they had no windows and a large TV playing random videos of reefs and boat safety. I began to feel very sick from the bouncing up and down on the waves, so I tried closing my eyes. The folks that we’d waited for sat down next to me – the younger couple that had sat there previously decided they wanted to go up top, so those seats were vacant. Their large rolling suitcases rolled back and forth along the front of the seats as the boat jumped and rolled. I grabbed one just before it struck me in the shins, asked the woman if she’d like me to lay it down on it’s side, and she responded that it wasn’t hers, it was her friends, so I put it over, and there it stayed. She asked me if there was a bathroom on the boat and where it was. I told her I knew there was one, but didn’t know where it was. She asked me how much longer the ride was going to be. I told her maybe five minutes (in my hopeful state, I figured I wouldn’t make it much longer than five minutes before my stomach gave back it’s contents). We docked shortly after, and there was no time for exploring. One of the crew members was there as we got off the water bus to instruct us to go directly to the long line leading up to the security checkpoint. We waited in line. I still had food in my bag, and I saw trash bins with sandwiches and other foods being tossed, as well as a huge rack where any alcohol bought in port was stored for transport onto the ship, where it would be returned at the end of the final day. I put my bag onto the conveyor belt to be scanned. I really didn’t care if they decided they needed to toss out all the snacks left in there, but they didn’t even take a second look at it, and gave it back to me without looking inside physically. We walked on and boarded the ship.
The last day on board before we arrived back in Tampa the next morning was a bit of an uneventful blur. We slept in for a long time, watched some cartoons in the room, got some food, went up top to the ‘giant’ bubble blowing activity, and I hung out on Deck 5 for most of the rest of the time, taking pictures of the crew cleaning the deck and windows and trying to get good shots of the flying fish leaping from the wake of the ship. I definitely saw a shark, or a very large fish, some trash, lots of macro-algae, and a few sea birds. That evening, for our last supper, the newbies – us and the Canadians – exchanged contact info for a photo and ideas of correspondence (I’m not sure the photo ever came through from them, so therefore we had no way of corresponding with them, and I’m not really broken up about it…). The other couples, the veteran cruisers and the folks from North Carolina said cordial goodbyes, but made no pretenses of keeping in touch, which was fine, too.
We got into Tampa at 7am the next morning, and had to drag ourselves with our bags out to the theater for our assigned disembarkment time. We ended up sitting in the theater for almost an hour before we were able to leave, looking at the folks in front of us compare First Lady and First Daughter inaugural gowns, because that was obviously the most pressing issue at the moment. Once we got to leave the theater, everything moved quite quickly. We got to jump ahead of the line for customs because we were traveling with the young kid, and no one wants to listen to a whining kid (in case he started up). Then we got to jump ahead of the taxi queue for the same reason. We’d decided to head straight for the airport, as I had no idea how long it would take for us to get there and get checked in. Our taxi driver was nice. He told us that his first fare of the day was a woman who asked him to roll up the windows and turn on the heater. It was 65 degrees – cold for Tampa. He said he’d close the windows, but not turn on the heater. He had a thick accent, from eastern Europe or Middle East, and told us he’d moved to Tampa a few years ago. I asked him where he moved from and he said “Missouri.” We drove by a massive “Make America Great Again!” banner hung along side the highway, then we were at the airport. It didn’t take very long. We got to skip ahead to the front of the security check, too, so we ended up with about three hours to kill before our flight. We had lunch at the restaurant in our little wing. (Not too many things to do in our little concourse, unfortunately. There were signs for the hundreds of shops that they were anticipating opening sometime that year, but as of January, none of them were there yet.) We sat around. Then it was time to board. We got on the plane and took off. Within five minutes of takeoff, the Sunshine Skyway bridge was quickly moving from view and we were on our way home!
I’m writing this after we’ve returned from our voyage, so I have hindsight in addition to experience. I want to say that I did enjoy the trip and feel like we got to see and do so many extraordinary things all in the span of a week. In saying that, I’m not sure that I’ll take many (any) cruises in the future (I do have two ship adventures in mind if we do decide it’s the way to go, though none are on giant, floating semi-cities…). Upon our return, we did watch a comedian, whom I like to some extent, though some of his bit is really quite offensive, so I’m not going to say I’m a fan, but I did laugh at his cruise ship joke: when he becomes dictator, he will have to deal with population control and will do so by hunting cruise ships. In the light of the full moon, he’ll look for them in his submarine, emerging from the depths to follow the bumping of the Top 40 hits being blasted from the top deck… I can’t fully disagree with his “reasoning,” despite a feeling of comradery with the few fellow passengers I did interact with (and despite the feeling that we were coming from much different places, in just about every meaning of the phrase). My come away thoughts on cruise ships are that they are very ‘American’ in that they are full of people who want to go visit a country – say Mexico – but not interact with any of the locals there. Yay for Mexico without the Mexicans.
When we arrived in Costa Maya, which I’d specifically included in our itinerary because it sounded pretty awesome, though I should have researched the port a bit more I guess, the water was the most gorgeous blue color and I was in a good mood, ready to get off the ship. The captain had announced that we’d stay an extra hour at the port, as we’d had some complications in getting cleared for disembarkment in the morning, and subsequently had lost almost an hour. We walked down the long concrete pier into the gateway to Costa Maya – a giant shopping center in the middle of nowhere on the Yucatan Peninsula. From here, we boarded a bus to go to a private beach. Our guide assured us that the beach was “for cruise passengers only, no locals” and proceeded to give us some background info on Costa Maya. The town was built a little more than a decade ago, after a hurricane ripped out the mangroves (the government didn’t allow for destruction of mangroves, but when natural disaster occurred, the plans to build the cruise ship port were allowed). “No one lives here,” he said. They all travel in from villages in the surrounding area. We passed some tent camps on the bus, and saw some of the workers riding bikes into the shopping area for work. We were also given an oral history of chewing gum on the bus, along with some unflavored boiled gum from the sap from trees that grow in the area. We learned some Mayan: Chicle with ‘chi’ meaning ‘mouth’ and ‘cle’ meaning ‘movement’ – and hence, chewing gum… also, the (disputed) origin of the name Yucatan: when Spanish explorers came to the area and asked what the name of the place was, the local Mayans answered, “yucatan,” which means “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” and the Spanish conquistadores thought that to be the name of the place.
The background info was interesting. Our guide told us that he came from a poor family, and he and his brother would sell oranges on the side of the road. A driver of one of the regular tourist busses along the road took pity on them and gave them a VHS copy of cartoons and a VCR, but they were so disappointed that the cartoons weren’t in color, like they’d seen on the bus. They only had a black and white TV, so had never seen cartoons in color, and thought that the VHS tape would play in color on their TV…
The beach was nice. We had some snacks and drinks and swam in the ocean. It was surprisingly cold. Afterward we relaxed in the hammocks and built castles in the sand and then it was time to go. There is a small fishing village nearby that I’d initially booked a visit to, but our excursion had been cancelled, so we opted for the beach instead. We got back to the port with quite a bit of time to spare, so looked around at some of the shops. Most of them were the same after the first few. They all had the same stuff, and many of the stores were chains that were at all the previous ports, too. We watched some European tourists swim with the dolphins in an ocean-side pool. The trainers would have the dolphins jump out of the water or grab a basketball or give kisses. The couple in the pool was having a great time – you could tell it was something they’d been looking forward to. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the dolphins (and the trainers) – they all looked bored and like they’d rather be somewhere else.
In the middle of the shopping area was a big saltwater pool with a swim up bar. We saw two of our dining room assigned couples there, lounging. I waved, but didn’t go over to talk. We looked at the menu at the pool restaurant, the only one I saw in the area, but paying $20 for appetizers didn’t sound, well, appetizing, when we could just board the ship and eat for free (or, rather, included with our cruise payment). Some of the people selling things from the booths began to realize that if they appealed to the kid, they would most likely be making a sale. Once he got the first Batman Mexican-wrestling mask/cape, the other hawkers would bring out their identical goods, hoping to make another easy sale. Of course, haggling while the kid is more than likely going to cry if you don’t buy it is not really going to work, and I’m not much for haggling anyway. We ended up with two mask/capes, but declined the huge Spiderman statuettes. One man kept telling us that Batman in Spanish was ‘Hombre Malo’ – “bad man”.
After our fill of cheap souvenirs, we walked back down the pier, took some photos at the props, and got back on board the ship. I can’t remember what the suggested dress theme for dinner was that night. One night it was 70’s. One night it was 50’s and 60’s. Romantic red or pink. Formal. Casual. Caribbean. We joked that they probably had an overstock of items in the onboard shops and chose the theme accordingly. “Uh, we’ve got way too many red polos and dresses in the warehouse – let’s have a romantic red dress code tonight.” We tried our best with what we’d brought. Some nights worked better than others. If we’d known ahead of time what the themes would be, we could have packed accordingly, but I guess that’s beside the point.
For the most part, though I can see that the cruise industry does help some of the local people, like those who are lucky enough to get jobs at the recommended shops or on the excursions advertised by the ship, but most of the local economy doesn’t seem to be helped all that much. In fact, the tiny villages probably have it pretty hard dealing with the huge influx of waste that comes from the population in the area doubling or tripling overnight every day of the week for six months out of the year. It seems that most of the money stays within small circles, and most of that money goes back to the cruise line. However, I’d say all of the guides on the excursions we took seemed to be very happy with their line of work (and some even compared their tourist guide jobs very favorably compared to the other work they have to do for the parts of the year when tourism is low), and the workers at the port shops seemed to be very well-off in comparison to the poor folks living in extreme poverty in the areas directly around the ports. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Our main dining attendant, from Romania, told us on our last night that she had only two more weeks until her break – two months – and you could see the look of hope on her face just of thinking about getting a break from the ship. She said this was her second time taking a job on a ship. After the first time, she said she’d never do it again, but then her she is. She’s not sure what she will do for her break, and not sure if she will come back on the ship, but probably will. I can’t imagine working for seven months straight, seven days a week, under such extreme conditions. Having to always be smiling, always be of utmost service, always be a gracious hostess. All of the workers on the ship were incredible – not a single one that wouldn’t smile at me or greet me, or strike up a conversation, and you’d see them doing several jobs over the course of the day, with hardly time to rest. A really hard industry to be in, I think.
At dinner we learned what happens to someone if they end up missing the back-on-board call time: they open your safe, remove all the things from your cabin and place your luggage out on the dock. A man had just missed the ship, so there he stood next to his bags, just waving, as the ship pulled out of port.
We’d had an extra hour in the morning, which was nice, as we had to be up and out at the tender at 7am. I got up early and went up to get some breakfast things to bring back to the room for us all to eat. Little dude was not happy to be up so early, but it was a beautiful morning. We’d tendered off the coast, about 6 miles out, at the only natural break in the coral reef. We rode in large pontoon boats to the dock. There were lots of sea birds in the water, fishing around us, and a small rainbow in the sky. Welcome to Belize!
On the dock, we met one of our tour guides for the day and he took us to our bus. We got on the bus with the exuberant Lion brothers – excellent guides, but a little to hyper for that early in the morning. One of them had a speech pattern that reminded me of Cheech Marin, and his favorite saying was “It’s un-Belize-able!” which was funny for the first ten times or so. We were also instructed to roar like lions in order to keep our group intact out and about off the bus, so we got to practice our roaring a bit, too. The brothers gave us a whole bunch of facts and history about their country on our hour-long bus ride to the stopping point: where the highway meets the New River. We passed by junk-filled yards, school grounds filled with kids, and large, open fields of low jungle overgrowth. We learned that anyone can squat in Belize – you improve your plot of land, up to 1 acre, for five years, and then you can petition the government for ownership. The brothers were very enthusiastic about this tour guide job. Their other job was working in the sugar cane fields, harvesting and burning in 100+ degree weather. “We love this job!” they said, but went on to say that when the tourists stop coming, when it gets too hot, then they have to go work at their other job.
We got off the bus at the junction of the highway and the New River. There was a hotel of sorts there, with a bar/restaurant, and a dock at a pond where the river boat was to pick us up for our river safari up to the Lamani Mayan ruins, about an hour up the river. We waited in the shade of the thatched roof porch and I tried some cashew wine. It tasted like prune juice, and I didn’t like the way it emphasized my feel of non-stop rocking motion, even on land, so didn’t finish it. We all got on board the fairly big, covered motor boat for the second leg of our journey.
The New River was beautiful. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the amount of noise that the boat made (and pollution), and the wake from the powerful motor would wash up onto the surrounding vegetation. A big dark band was formed where it hit. It didn’t look healthy, exactly, and I imagined that soon all the trees close to the edges of the river would fall in, but there were endless rows of new trees behind them, just waiting to take their place. We didn’t see much wildlife – no surprise there, anything living in the area would hear us coming a mile away. We did stop and see a small Nighthawk asleep on an overhanging branch, “for all you bird lovers,” and “for all you snake lovers” we saw some huge yellow air plants that did indeed look like snakes twining around the branches of the trees. We saw termite nests in the trees, and a dead egret, its white body draped gracefully over the branch of a tree. We stopped to see some camouflaged bats on the trunk of a tree – little brown star shapes blending in nicely with the bark. We got quite a history on the medicinal value of the local flora, which I found very interesting. Along the river were large tracts of land that were Mennonite communities, their horses would wade in the river among the lilies. In my exuberance for getting close-up photos, I was whipping the camera with the long lens around, trying to capture the birds and details in split-second opportunities. Between that and the bouncing motion of the boat, not many of them turned out even remotely sharp.
We got off the boat in a wider lagoon of the river, with grasses growing deep along the sides. Then we proceeded to walk up the stone pathways, and then the unpaved, dirt pathways into the ruins. We first visited the Mask Temple, and while the masks on the sides of the temple structure were beautiful and of impressive size, I was disappointed to learn that they were replicas, albeit of the real things which were positioned behind the replicas. We learned even more about the “natural pharmacy” of the jungle, and walked to the large, multi-generational pyramid in the area. We got to climb to the top, though not up the steps up the face of the structure (too much wear on the old stones, and they had become slippery from rains and mud and mosses growing on them); instead we made our way up a steep wooden set of stairs around the back of the pyramid, then entered onto the stone at the second to highest level. From there, we could climb up the steps to the top and take in the view of the surrounding jungle. The kid decided that he absolutely couldn’t walk anywhere for the whole trip this day, except for climbing up and down the steps at the very top of the pyramid. We made jokes to our guides about carrying him up and not having a human sacrifice, which they did not laugh at. Other climbers were giving Mike high-fives for carrying the kid all the way up there, and it was definitely no easy feat. I was huffing and puffing just lugging myself, the snack bag and my cameras, let alone 30 extra pounds. After some shots of the surrounding scenery and a brief break we started back down.
We made it up and down safely, then continued on through the ruins into the ball court area and then the Jaguar Temple. Mike swung like a monkey on the thick vines hanging down from the canopy, and we heard howler monkeys off in the distance and caught a glimpse of a couple spider monkeys hanging around in the trees. In the entry part of the ruins there were a few small buildings that housed the ‘gift shops’ for Lamani. I went into one and talked with the woman there, who was running it that day with her mother. She really liked my son, and said he reminded her of her own son, who had just turned 2 the day before. She showed me a picture of him on her phone, and they did look similar, especially the hair. One of her friends came up while we were talking and he saw my son from the back and thought it was her son, too. They gave him a little wooden turtle toy, and I bought a beautiful woven table runner (I had to ask what it was for – a belt? a scarf?). All of the items for sale in the shop were made by a women’s collective, from Central American refugees, so I felt good about supporting the cause. Mike got us t-shirts from one of the other shops, too.
We were late in getting back to the river boat – the last ones to get back on. We were walking on the wooden walkway out to the boat, behind a couple that was rather slow moving. “Are you with the Lions group?” I asked them, and when they said no, I asked if we could hurry on past them, so they let us. We climbed into the last seat in the back of the boat. I was a bit disappointed, as the vantage was not really great for photos, and Mike kept getting splashed by the wake when we turned left, but it turned out to be a fortunate seating arrangement as it started raining on the way back and everyone in the front of the boat was getting pelted with rain, but we were almost completely sheltered all the way in the back.
We got back to the restaurant and had a buffet style lunch – beans, rice, and chicken. Not four-legged chicken, as the Lions call iguana, but regular two-legged chicken. They also had salsas of varying hotness, and some sweet bread for dessert. Afterwards, we got back on the bus and most of the passengers took a nap. The Lion brothers sat up front, talking quietly with each other and looking worn out. We got back into town just in time for the last tender back to the ship.