By WALLACE IMMEN
Cozumel Island, where Carnival Liberty is docking for the day on its Caribbean cruise, was where the ancients came to get into the mood for love.
The Maya are believed to have first settled in Cozumel a couple of thousand years ago, and it was probably a playground for an even older Olmec civilization. The island, you see, was considered sacred to the Maya moon goddess known as Ix Chel, and women made pilgrimages to temples here to boost their fertility.
The same forces seem to be at work today as throngs of cruise passengers sing along to the chants of rappers and rock bands as they surrender to their urges in modern shrines with names like Fat Tuesdays and Carlos and Charlie. Patrons dance exotic ritual bumps and grinds on table tops wearing headgear made of balloons while drinking flasks of frozen potions made with fermented juice of the native Mexican agave plant. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to deduce this tequila ceremony clearly reduces inhibitions.
It’s also an extremely auspicious year to be in a place once considered sacred by the Mayans. After all 2012 is the end of time on the 26,000 year Mayan calendar, so that may mean see it now or you may miss out forever. But don’t waste a lot of time looking for the old Mayan temples to the spirits of whoopee; the biggest Mayan site on the island was bulldozed during World War II to build a runway. In fact even though the Mexican flag flies proudly on the flagstaffs, most people getting off the two Carnival Cruise Line ships in port today aren’t really going to find much of the real Mexico during their visit.
Welcome to the Cozu-mall! It’s Mexico Lite: a village that’s predictably safe and clean, where you can drink the water and most of the locals speak at least some English. And the dollar speaks volumes in any language. Getting off Carnival Liberty you first have to pass through the portal of excess, a.k.a the duty free shops. The city block long display of liquors and fragrances, serapes and souvenirs may not have much to do with Mexico, but it is interesting to find that the once lowly tequila has come up in the world to the point where it’s as expensive as other liquors of the world.
The mall itself looks like a Mexican village might look if it was all built a couple of years ago, as this village was to anchor a big new cruise dock. The shops have display windows filled with the wonderful and the bizarre. There are mugs shaped like skulls, T-shirts that glow even in the sunlight, fanciful but mysterious Lucha Libre wrestling masks, Cuban cigars, and more silver than you could polish in a lifetime. There’s even a little man-made beach with hammocks.
But the big attractions in this self-contained port a long drive from the island’s main town of San Miguel are things that raise the spirits.
The longest lineup in any of the mall’s shops is at one not so discretely called the Deli and Drugs store. Sure there are some snacks available, but the main things the store sells are products you can’t get without a doctor’s prescription in the States: brand name drugs, notably Viagra and Cialis. There’s even a chewable version called Viagra Jet that’s being test marketed in Mexico and not available anywhere else. No questions asked: Have a nice night señor.
To answer your question: No, I didn’t indulge.
You can easily spend an entire morning or afternoon without leaving the mall and most passengers who aren’t on a tour organized by Carnival seem to do just that. Fortunately the adventurous can just make a beeline though the mall to the entrance where there are car and scooter rentals, guided tours and even horse drawn carriage tours to the real Mexico.
Finally arriving outside the mall, the scene was entirely different. I can understand that some tourists might hesitate about venturing out into the streets with less predictable stores and menus in Spanish. But you also find that the island features white sand beaches and extremely friendly people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. The nearly city of San Miguel is a very pleasant and clean town with some good restaurants. And while much of the merchandise is the same as you’ll find in the mall, it’s less pricey and you can always negotiate about the final price.
I’ve toured Cozumel island several times in the past and on my next cruise visit I promise to get out and explore. But I have to admit — I did have a good time getting mall-ed.