Cozumel reborn: vacation hotspot recovering from Hurricane Wilma

Destination Mexico

August 06, 2006|By ALAN SOLOMON | ALAN SOLOMON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAN MIGUEL, MEXICO / / Cozumel is back.

Not back to being the semi-exclusive sanctuary of the rich and yachted it was before the cruise-ship hoi polloi frightened them away.

And the reefs aren't back either. They are a work in progress -- but of course, coral reefs are always a work in progress.

And, OK, two of the three international cruise piers are still out of order, and, yes, the greenery on the mangroves is a little spotty, which is what happens when hurricanes happen.

But everything else -- the hotels (all but a couple), the palm trees, the shops, the restaurants, the golf course, the beach clubs and bars, the roads -- are good as new, and, in many cases, better than they were before that mega-storm named Wilma ripped things up in October.

"It's still the best place we have," said Jason Hairel, who helps sell tours on Carnival's Miracle when he isn't onstage dancing or, as he was on this day, teeing off on the par 3 17th hole at Cozumel Country Club. "Grand Cayman, Belize, Costa Maya -- Cozumel is still the best. There's just so much to do."

On a December visit six weeks after the storm, Cozumel was not the best of places. The few quality hotels that were open were under repair. The airport's control tower wasn't functional, roads were gone, buildings were gone. Palm trees were gone.

Tourists, except for cruise passengers -- some ships had returned as early as November, a true blessing to the local economy -- and a few hard-core diving fans, were gone.

"You still saw a bunch of destruction," recalled Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Promotion Board.

There was so much destruction that Marrufo told people to stay away for a couple of months.

"I got slammed for that," he said. "But I held my ground."

He also held his job, and today he's proud of what's been accomplished here so quickly.

So is Manuel Ortiz.

"Cozumel," he said, "is always nice, you know?"

Ortiz owns and operates the Studio Blue Dive Center, one of several that serve what for generations has been a prime destination for snorkelers and divers. In December, courtesy of Wilma, his shop's roof was still missing and walls were uncertain.

With help from friends who flew down from Minnesota, Ortiz is back in business.

"Now, it's nicer than before -- bigger, better, nicer," he said.

In December, the trees in San Miguel's Parque Benito Juarez, the main square of this island's only town, were either toppled or stripped of their leaves. As of mid-June, the palms were back and the leafy crowns of most of the other trees were in full green splendor, joined by new landscaping and other bits of freshening.

"These trees were not replanted," Marrufo said. "They were there -- and they're coming back."

Of the island's 4,000 rooms, 3,600 are open for business. The missing 400 are in two properties -- the InterContinental and the Park Royal -- that are upgrading; the InterContinental expects to reopen in October as a five-star property, and the Park Royal is completing a reconfiguration that had begun before the storm.

It's the Park Royal construction that, Marrufo said, is contributing to a false sense that Cozumel is still in ruins. It's near the one functioning cruise-ship pier. Additional non-hurricane-related construction nearby adds to an unfortunate first-impression for arriving passengers.

"They jump on a tour [at the pier], whether it's diving or snorkeling, and they don't necessarily come into town," Marrufo said. "So they see this and they think, 'It's still messed up.' It's sad, and it's affecting us."

Here's what is messed up: the shallow reefs. The deep ones, as always, handled the angry seas better, but the ones most accessible to snorkelers took a hit.

On the other hand, this presents an opportunity to watch nature do her thing.

"Cozumel," said Ortiz, a certified instructor, "has something very special, no? The current. We have the good water temperature, we have the good visibility, and we have the current bringing all the nutrients -- and that's going to make the reefs recover sooner than we think."

How soon? Ortiz remembers when Hurricane Gilbert hit in 1988 and wiped out all the shallow growth much as Wilma did; the marvelous reef that had been amazing this generation of coral-lovers is all post-1988. That soon.

For now, we have a process to watch. It has already begun.

"The basic structures are there," said Ortiz. "The skeletons [of dead coral] are there. They just need cells to come and attach to all the skeletons.

"And something very important: The reef flourishes a lot nicer after a hurricane."

So for those who love this place for what's under the water, that's the glitch -- but it's a glitch with benefits.

For the rest, who love Cozumel without underwater breathing apparatus?

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