When people think of Carnival, that week of unbridled revelry preceding Lent, they think of Rio or New Orleans. Few think of Cozumel, the small Mexican Island located 12 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike the rowdy and sometimes raunchy Mardi Gras celebrations held elsewhere, this Carnival is family-friendly and easy on your wallet.
The festivities usually begin the week before Ash Wednesday but check here to be sure. In 2008 Carnival was held a week earlier so it wouldn’t conflict with national elections.
Carnival festivities are centered in downtown San Miguel, the island’s only town. The sidewalks along the waterfront are lined with glitter covered statues. The Village Square, Benito Juarez Park, is crowded with crafters, food vendors, and stages erected for visiting bands and other entertainment. There is live music and dancing every evening from Saturday to Fat Tuesday and the party continues till the wee hours of the morning.
The highlight of Cozumel’s Carnival is its masquerade parades, usually held Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday evenings. The parade route is always crowded with spectators. The parades start at City Hall and travel north up Ave. Rafael E. Melgar for more than a mile before turning and marching back on the other side of the street. Each parade is 3 to 4 hours long.
The King and Queen of Carnival preside over the celebration. Revelers outfitted in shiny satin or sparkling silver and gold lame ride atop elaborate floats. The costumes are ornate, encrusted with sequins, spangles, beads, and feathers. Pirates, harem girls, pharaohs, and dancing rats wave from their perches high above the crowd, moving their hips in time to Latin music blasted over loud speakers.
Showers of confetti, candy, beads, and other trinkets are tossed from the floats, setting off a stampede as children and adults hurry to scoop up the loot.
Dance groups, called “comparsas”, are as colorful as the floats. They vary in age from school children to seniors. Each comparsas has 40 or more dancers and is sponsored by a local business or organization. They spend months preparing for Carnival, practicing dance routines and designing ornate costumes. Dressed in vibrant fuchsia, bright electric blues and every other hue imaginable, the comparsas look like moving rainbows as they samba, salsa, rhumba, and cha-cha by.
Stilt walkers, clowns, cartoon characters, and a contingent of men in drag wearing lipstick, eye shadow, and lingerie are also on hand to entertain the crowds.
The Fat Tuesday parade is the largest and best of the festival. It is accompanied by a huge fireworks display. The pyrotechnics are set off from two piers a couple of blocks apart. It is truly a spectacular show.
After the parades, everyone heads to the village square for food, drink, music, and dancing. You can put together a tasty inexpensive meal by visiting the food vendors scattered around the park. There are stalls selling fajitas and other Mexican dishes. Corn- on the cob and fried potatoes are also available. Mexican beer or “cerveza”, as it is called south of the border, is the drink of choice, and vendors selling Superior, Corona, and Dos Equis do a brisk business.
Sit-down meals are available in the sidewalk restaurants bordering the park. You can listen to the bands and watch the crowd strolling by while downing a margarita or munching Yucatan cuisine.
The streets of Cozumel are safe, especially during Carnival when there are police on every corner.
It’s usually easy to get a cab at night in Cozumel, but not during Carnival. After the parades, traffic is banned from the streets nearest the village square till well past midnight, so you’ll need to walk a couple of blocks to find a taxi. The local cab drivers are courteous, helpful, and surprisingly honest.
Cozumel used to be a relatively quiet, laid-back place, popular with divers, snorkelers, and day-trippers coming over from the mainland; but that was before they built a second cruise ship pier. Now, from 10am to 4pm each day, downtown San Miguel is crowded with shoppers and sightseers coming off the boats. Though there are Carnival activities and entertainment downtown during the day, you might want to pass on them to avoid the crowds.
Instead, visit San Gervasio, a real Mayan ruin, located in the middle of the island. For a nominal fee you can roam the 10-acre site. The main altar here is dedicated to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility.
Or you could take a trip to Chankanaab Park. The snorkeling here is wonderful. In addition to water sports, there is an archaeological area, which boasts replicas of Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec sculptures. There is also a lovely lagoon and a botanical garden. If you really feel adventurous, you can swim with dolphins.
Another good way to while away an afternoon is to rent a car and drive along the undeveloped East Coast of the island. The scenery is spectacular. You can sunbathe on the beaches, but it’s not advisable to swim here because of the strong currents and undertow. While you’re there, stop at the Freedom in Paradise Café. Though the name keeps changing, and it’s been damaged and rebuilt because of hurricanes, this place remains the quintessential beach bar. It’s located near the entrance of Punta Sur Ecological Park. Take your shoes off, stick your feet in the sand, and relax. Their margaritas are fabulous as are their nachos smothered in cheese and chilies. A word of warning: the bathroom facilities here are primitive. Be sure to bring some tissues and hand sanitizer with you. But don’t let that deter you. This place is worth the inconvenience.
Further down the road you’ll find Coconuts. It sits on a cliff overlooking the water. The beer is cold, the salsa hot, and the view breathtaking. Keep driving and you’ll come to Mezcalitos, a good place to kick back, grab a hammock, a beer, and listen to the crashing waves.
Love good food? You’ll love Cozumel! After the parades, wander over to Plaza Leza on the square or Casa Denis, just off it. They both serve Yucatan-style cuisine at reasonable prices.
The fajitas at Las Tortugas are fantastic and the portions huge. Save some room for dessert though, their homemade flan is delicious. Or for Italian the Prima Trattoria is the place to go for delicious seafood, steaks, and pasta. Their new location, on the rooftop of the El Cantil Condos, affords diners spectacular sunset views.
If you dither when deciding which menu item to choose, you might want to visit La Cabana del Pescador. They don’t give you a choice. They serve lobster tail and only lobster tail, with a side of seasoned rice and boiled vegetables. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how good their food is. You pick the tail you want and pay by weight. Like many other restaurants on the island, it isn’t air-conditioned, but the steamy tropical ambiance adds to its allure. Be advised they don’t take reservations and they don’t take credit cards, just cash!
The most raucous night of Carnival is Fat Tuesday. After the parade, revelers crowd the main stages to hear the ”featured” bands. Everyone drinks, dances, parties, and has a good time, but since the Cozumelenos allow their children to stay up late for the festivities, you don’t see people flashing body parts or falling down drunk like you do at other such celebrations.
Carnival officially comes to a close on Ash Wednesday when an effigy of “Juan Carnival” is burned in the Village Square.
For more information on Cozumel and Carnival visit http://cozumelmexico.net/carnival/, http://www.cozumelinsider.com/carnaval or http://cozumelmexico.net/.
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