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Footloose in Cozumel

Enjoying the Yucatan's Lush 'Island of Fertility'

April 20, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

COZUMEL, Mexico — Montezuma II made what proved to be a fatal mistake when he assumed that the strange white creatures who landed on this Yucatan island in 1518 were the legendary plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and his coterie of lesser Aztec deities, even sending food and gifts to the invaders as tribute.

The "gods" were Spaniards under Capt. Juan de Grijalva sailing from Cuba, and while some historians say they made first landfall near today's Veracruz, it matters little in the demise of Mexico's rule from Aztecs to Spaniards under Cortez and his conquistadors three years later.

The island fell into disuse, becoming the lair of brigands such as Henry Morgan, Jean Lafitte and Francis Drake preying on Caribbean shipping.

It is an unbelievably lush and tranquil island, matted with impenetrable forests, garlanded with morning glories, palms, hibiscus and the vibrant red blossoms of arbol de reyes , the kings' tree. Little wonder that the Maya called it "The Island of Fertility."

Here to there: Mexicana and Continental fly directly to Cozumel, these plus Aeromexico, American and Continental to Cancun on the mainland. Take a 15-minute Aerocozumel flight for $16 on to the island.

Getting around: Cozumel is strung out along the western side of the island, buses running regularly each way, fare a pittance. But rent a car to move around the island, unless you're there only to hug a patch of sand at your beachfront hotel.

How long/how much? You can do the village and a number of Mayan ruins in one day, there are marvelous beaches and even better diving around the reefs, plus a number of interesting day-trips. Cost for the best hotels gets up to expensive during high season, about 20%-30% less from mid-April until mid-November. You'll dine like a bandito almost anywhere in Mexico for the price of fast-food at home.

A few fast facts: The peso was recently valued at about 460 to the dollar, with prospects grim for it getting any stronger soon. Come any time of year, pack light clothes and set your watch on Mexican time, which means a few hours give or take whatever time it's supposed to be.

Getting settled in: Low season runs from about mid-April to mid-December, then it's arriba prices.

El Cozumeleno (Playa Santa Pilar, north zone; $48 double low season, $75 high season) has the requisite palapa bar at beachside, fair food, huge rooms with decor that matches the exterior Miami-Beach modern. Most comforts, but very little feel of Mexico.

Sol Caribe (Playa Paraiso; $70 and $90) is enormous, has spectacular soaring lobby, gorgeous rooms, good evening entertainment, palapa huts sprinkled all over the beautifully landscaped grounds and a pool with more bends than the Mississippi. We like this one.

Mayan Plaza (Playa Santa Pilar; $98 high season for junior suite, desk wouldn't speculate on summer prices) is another high-low rise on north end of hotel row. Fine beach, tennis, evening entertainment and all the things you expect in resort hotels, but the price strikes us as pretty steep.

Rock bottom for the young at heart is Hotel Elizabeth (Calle Rosado Salas 3; $16, even less in summer). This one is center of the village for those who want to be where the bright lights burn, muy basic the operative words here. Yet these "suites" have a stove and refrigerator for cooling the cerveza , struck us as neat and clean throughout. No pool or other frills, just shelter.

Regional food and drink: Not really that much to jump up and down about for being different from other Mexican fare, although Yucatan cooking has Mayan overtones. We lucked onto two regional specialties at the same meal and ended up swapping plates at the halfway mark. Pollo pibil , chicken steamed with schiote seeds, capers, and then wrapped for further steaming in banana leaves, bordered on the heavenly, while red snapper Veracruz style with tomatoes, peppers, olives and spices ran it a close second. They also do snapper Yucateco with pimiento and olive sauce, schiote and cilantro. We still find beer the only way to go in Mexico.

Moderate-cost dining: It's difficult to find anything else around here, unless you go for the blimp-size lobster. La Cabana del Pescador (north end of main drag opposite Hotel Playa Azul) serves them up in all sizes, pay for the crustacean, they toss in the trimmings, all for about $7. Pepe's old place, once the haunt of Americans, is now a pile of bricks inside and has split into Pepe's Grill and Pepe's Restaurant. We'll steer you to the former, which is only open for dinner and maintains Pepe's reputation for the best seafood and steaks.

Those two old Aztecs--or are they Mayas?--Carlos 'n' Charlie have a place here, just as they do in almost any Mexican town. Food and fun share the menu, the first very good, latter going on until half past a hundred. We've never run a count on C&C locations south of the border, but they must outnumber the agave cactus.

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