Under the Sea

Under the sea, Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter, Take it from me” Sebastian

Cozumel, Mexico – February, 2016. I am here to testify that crab in The Little Mermaid knew a thing or two. There is a beautiful world that only a fraction of us get to experience under those lovely blue and turquoise waters. Jim and I have been scuba diving for 10 years now and we love it more every year.

We have visited many great dive locations; Bonaire, Utila, and Cayman Brac to name a few. But Cozumel holds a special place in our hearts and in our pocketbooks as it’s inexpensive enough to visit often. It had been 2 long years since we had gone on any significant dive trip and we were missing our time under the waves.

I took my Sony A6000 out in its new waterproof case. I was extremely nervous taking my $500 camera to 100 foot depth in a $200 case. I had a couple glitches with the functionality of the buttons that I need to work out but the case did bring it through safe and sound and dry. Jim used his GoPro2. About half of these pictures came from each camera.

We don’t have any fancy lights, strobes, or filters yet so these pictures are not as good we’d like.  Eventually we will have equipment to filter out some of the blues and greens, light our subjects, and allow you to see the rainbow of colors that actually exist under water.  I hope these will give you some idea of our experience.   

Diving off the hotel pier makes for a decent shore dive. They built this pyramid which is a nice photo op and a good home for fish. Here’s Jim peering inside.

 

We saw so many beautiful turtles this trip. This one was being treated to a cleaning by angelfish while our new dive friends, Wisconsin, watched and recorded the scene.


More outstanding was the fact that not more than 6 feet away was a ledge with a nurse shark resting under it and a huge moray eel guarding it. Unfortunately a picture of that duo would have taken more skill (and lights) than we possess.

Generally nurse shark are sleeping during the day. They are usually tucked pretty far under an overhang. This fellow didn’t seem to care how well he hid himself.


Many divers passed right by the reef he was resting behind without knowing he was there. Then a couple divers passed directly over him and alerted the rest of the group to his proximity. I was swimming against a hard current to stay above him and get this shot so it was a little hard to keep the camera steady.

Eels are also generally hidden and most often we just see their heads sticking out of a hole. This 6 foot long moray swam right under Jim without him even noticing while I frantically tried to get his attention (not because I was concerned for his safety but because he was missing a great photo!) Luckily he swam around in the open for a bit and Jim got several nice shots of him.


This gorgeous spotted eagle ray swam right by our group. He was stunning and majestic and had a wing span of at least 5 feet.


We were entertained by this duo for a bit. The stingray couldn’t shake his little buddy who we imagine was hoping to get a free meal from the scraps of the ray’s next victim.


The fish are unbelievably plentiful in Cozumel. Some of our favorites…


The filefish seemed extremely large this year.


The triangular shaped cowfish are always adorable.


SQUIRREL…fish (sorry, inside joke)


These are tiny juvenile drum fish. Like most kids, they won’t stay still for a photo. They were no more than 2 inches long front to back or top to bottom even with those long fins.

Here is a huge black grouper. He was probably 4 feet long.


The diver in the photo was a kid from Israel who has lived in Canada for several years and was spending a week backpacking around Mexico. We meet tons of interesting people on dive boats.


This is how silly I look while diving. I have my hands tucked under my arms because I’m freezing. Diving is generally magical, but I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone into believing it is always comfortable or easy.

There is a lot of gear to lug on and off the boat every day. You have to haul your butt off the boat with a tank strapped to your back and weights in your pockets to help you counter the buoyancy of you and your gear. You get to haul all that back up a ladder at the end of the dive. Thankfully the deckhands are there to help you.

Often you are hot, like when you have to put on a heavy black suit and sit in the sun while you listen to the dive plan and wait your turn to get off the boat. I’m very cold natured so once I get wet on the first dive, I’m likely to be cold until I step off the boat at the end of the day. Jim is generally comfortable and rarely gets cold when we are diving in the Caribbean. Most divers fall somewhere between us. It depends a lot on their nature and a little on the type of wetsuit they choose to wear.

We dove 5 days, the first two days before our friends arrived and three more days with those of our group that are scuba divers. The boat picked us up about 8 and there is an hour long ride to the best dive sites. Then the first dive takes an hour or so before everyone is back on board and accounted for. There is usually about an hour’s rest between dives, then another dive, then the boat ride home.

So diving takes up a good portion of the day. We arrived back at the resort around 2 most days. By that point the divers are thirsty and famished. Luckily Hotel Cozumel has a bar and a buffet right by the pier.

We enjoyed our two week stay so much. But we were not sad to leave. Like most of our adventures we couldn’t wait to embark on this one and when it was over we were excited for our next chapter. We were also happy to get back to our own kitchen and return to our routines.

We had left our fifth wheel and truck in a storage lot outside the Houston Airport. The owner of RDP Storage was incredibly kind. He allowed us to stay in our home, in his storage lot, the nights before and after our flights. He also insisted on driving us to the airport and would have been happy to pick us up on the Sunday evening of our return if he didn’t happen to have plans out of town at the time. We paid the storage facility $85, a month’s storage fee and the minimum charge, and $30 for the cab to get home from the airport. This was well under the amount it would have cost us just to park our truck for two weeks at the airport.

The Island of Cozumel

Cozumel, Mexico- February, 2016. For many years I could not fathom why some people return to the same vacation spot year after year. There were, and still are, so many places in the world I want to see I couldn’t understand why anyone would visit the same one more than once, let alone over and over. That was until I discovered Cozumel!

Cozumel is a perfect little island just east of Cancun on Mexico’s mainland. It has some of the best scuba diving in the world. The people are friendly and we feel very safe there. Best of all, and what keeps us coming back, is that it is so inexpensive. It is one of the cheapest destinations in the Caribbean period. But when compared to other locations that have outstanding diving its value is off the charts.

We made the plan more than a year ago to meet three other couples there in February 2016. We were able to shop for airfare way in advance and found a great fare on a direct flight from Houston. With the savings on airfare and a good rate on the room from Travelocity we were able to book 2 weeks for what we usually pay for just one week with airfare from Missouri. We set the money aside for this splurge from the sale of our home last summer.

This is our 7th trip to Cozumel. It’s fun to return to a place that’s somewhat familiar. We know what to expect from the hotel, where to get supplies, and how to get around town. But we’ve only scratched the surface of what this island has to offer. There is so much left to discover.

This was hands down one of the most enjoyable trips of our life. I would have thought that traveling with such a large group would have made it less likely we would make new friends. Instead it seemed to have the opposite effect. We became acquainted with tons of new people and felt like we were part of a small community.

While RVing people often just call us Missouri so we took to calling everyone whether single or a couple by their place of origin. We met Iowa and Wisconsin on the dive boats and Minnesota and Kentucky while playing pool volleyball each afternoon. There were newlyweds from a small town very near our hometown, so we called them Branson. Someone would walk by and one our friends would call out “Canada” or “Ohio” and someone they met in line at the bar or who knows where would join our tribe.

Each time we visit Cozumel we spend one day on what is called the wild side of the island. The water is rough on the east side so the opportunities to swim are limited to a few spots. But the surf is incredible and the beaches are stunning.

There is no electricity to this side of the island so there is very little development. Every few miles there is another beautiful location and its obligatory beach bar and often a little hut offering some gifts in the vicinity.

As usual this was one of the best days of the entire vacation. Some of our favorite places on the wild side are the blowholes near the Rasta Bar on the southeast corner of the island.


The twin natural coral bridges at El Mirador are not to be missed.


Then there is the great little protected cove where it is safe to swim and many locals bring their families.


The most popular bar on the wild side is Coconuts. It has fun birds to look at and sometimes pet. And a million profound signs like this one.


We generally rent a jeep to make the trip around the island and whether there are 2 or 4 of us it costs about $100 with fuel. We looked for alternatives for the 8 of us and finally decided to hire a large taxi for 6 hours to make the loop. We talked them into doing this for $25 per person. So including tip each couple paid $60 and no one had to drive.

Our favorite place to stay on the island is Hotel Cozumel. It is not a five star resort but it is clean, friendly, and very reasonably priced. Even though they have a couple hundred rooms it doesn’t feel large or crowded.

One of our favorite pastimes is watching for iguanas that gather on the wall out back of the hotel. This fellow was apparently tired of being relegated to the back yard and chose to wrap himself around a lamppost out front.


The hotel claims to have the largest pool on the island.


But our favorite spot in the resort is the small man made beach across the street. There is a pool carved from the coral where fish are free to come in and out and there is great snorkeling just off the wall.


We always choose the all-inclusive option with the room so our drinks are included and there is a buffet somewhere from 6:30 am to long after we ever stay awake (I think 11pm). The food is not fancy but always good and there is a large enough variety that we can always find something we like. Most years we eat dinner out one or two times.

One of our friends was celebrating a birthday so we decided to try a restaurant we had not visited before called Casa Mission. It turned out to be a great choice. They made a birthday cake and had the mariachi band sing happy birthday. The service wasn’t great but the food more than made up for it and they served amazing margaritas.

We went downtown a couple times with different friends to look around and shop for this or that. The square is a fun and colorful place to walk around if you can ignore the sometimes pushy salespeople. I don’t enjoy haggling but if you do this is your place.


The locals are some of the friendliest people we have ever met. They always seem so happy despite working so hard for the little they have. Many families rely on scooters for transportation here. It is not uncommon to see a family of three or four riding a scooter.


One time we saw a family of 5. Mom sat on a 2×6 with a child perched on each side and then held a baby in her lap while dad concentrated on keeping the whole ensemble on the road.

I am looking forward to telling you about the beautiful world underneath the waters of Cozumel in my next post.

.

Mexican Dentist, Eyeglasses, and Prescriptions

Los Algodones, MX – December, 2015 We headed to the very southeast corner of California because we wanted to cross the border for a day to try out a Mexican dentist and check out prescription drug prices and eyeglasses as well. We could have visited Tijuana quite easily from our camp in San Diego but I had researched the border town of Los Algodones and I felt a lot more comfortable going there as opposed to a larger town like Tijuana that has a somewhat sketchy reputation. And it was only a 2 ½ hours away.

Los Algodones exists solely to meet the medical needs of its American and Canadian visitors. There are several square blocks filled with dentists, optometrists, and pharmacies among others. It is said to be very safe and we never felt the least bit uneasy during our visit.

We got to the border at 8 am for a 9 am dental appointment and paid $6 to park right next to the entry. I didn’t expect it to be difficult to get in to Mexico but I never imagined we would walk right in and not even see a single border agent or have to show our passports. We had an hour to walk 3 blocks to the dentist. Since the pharmacy was already open we headed in there first.

PRESCRIPTIONS We were in and out of the pharmacy in 10 minutes. We priced three prescription medications. One would have cost $200 for a month supply and we only pay a $25 copay so we obviously passed on that. A second would have cost $45 for a month, again the copay won. The third cost us $5 for a 3 month supply so we saved $70 over our copay.

We also priced some medications we buy over the counter in the US. Generic Zyrtech was $7 for 100 pills which would cost over $20 at Walmart. We paid $5 for 100 generic Prilosec. You would pay more than $35 for them at Walmart.

You can walk in and ask for anything. You don’t need a prescription. And you can take anything you want back across the border, also without a prescription, except for controlled substances. I read that you can only take a 3 month supply but there is nothing to stop you from returning every day for 4 days until you have a year’s worth. Many snowbirds stock up before they head north

DENTIST We walked on to the dentist office. I chose The Rubio Clinic for our dental work based on recommendations of fellow bloggers and after reading tons of comments following blogs on the subject. Jim and I were both overdue for a cleaning so I made the appointments and was quoted $30 each plus $50 for panoramic X-rays if they were required.

We arrived at 8:30 and were grateful that their waiting room was already open. It was barely 40 degrees out and we were chilled. We were the first to arrive but by my 9 am appointment time the room was pretty fully.

I was the first patient called and was taken to a typical exam room with a very modern, comfy dentist chair. I met the dentist (not Dr Rubio but another doctor) and discussed my teeth and he examined them. I even told him I was willing to have an X-ray to determine if there was anything I should be concerned about. He said he didn’t see any signs of decay that would warrant the expense of an X-ray. Who am I to argue? Then the dentist proceeded to clean and polish my teeth himself with the help of an assistant. I was all done in 30 minutes.

Jim’s appointment was scheduled for 10 but they took him right after me. He had an equally satisfying experience. When he was done I wrote them a check for $60 and we were out the door at 10 am.

I don’t feel like this experience was sufficient for me to form a complete opinion about Mexican dentistry. They did a pretty good job cleaning my teeth but my Missouri hygienist is more thorough. Only time will tell if I have any issues that an X-ray would have detected. I would definitely consider going again but I would never choose a dentist without consulting other’s recommendations and reviews.

EYEGLASSES We ambled along looking for one of two optical offices we had heard good things about, Best or Maya. We stumbled upon Best Optical first. I have been avoiding getting bifocals for more than a year. I wanted to try them out without investing a fortune so I figured this was as good a time as any. I already had a prescription so I didn’t need to see their doctor. I made my choice from the very cheapest frames available. I generally wear contacts so I wasn’t too hung up on what they looked like since I mostly wear them for a little while in the morning or occasionally all day when my allergies are giving me fits.

I was shocked and pleased when they quoted me only $39 including progressive lenses. Of course, the extras were very costly, transitions $80 and anti-reflective $80. So I just stuck with the basics. I also wrote them a check and they said they would be ready in 2 ½ hours. I ended up liking the progressive lenses very much. I will definitely consider going to Mexico when I need glasses again. I checked with Walmart and the very least expensive pair of glasses with progressive lenses would have cost me $120.

SHOPPING & LUNCH We walked around and shopped a bit but honestly we don’t need or even want anything. When shopping in Mexico you are often barraged by street vendors and if you even look at some merchandise they start trying to negotiate a price. I can enjoy it when I’m in the mood, especially if I actually plan to spend some money. But this day I tired of it quickly.

I intended to find some cheap street tacos for lunch. But when we saw patio seating in the warm sunshine and a band beginning to play, we quickly decided to stop at El Gourmet and kill an hour. We asked for menus and ordered Bloody Maries. Surprisingly we were told they couldn’t serve alcohol for another 15 minutes (it was 10:45). That was fine with us but I just never heard of there being a wrong time to drink in Mexico.

The food was pretty good and the bill for 2 large combination platters, 3 Bloody Mary’s, and a beer came to $30. We still had another hour before my glasses were ready so we walked around some more.

LIQUOR I had read that many people purchase alcohol while in Algodones. We are always up for saving money in that department so we checked out a liquor store. We priced the usual suspects and didn’t find any deals. The best deals appeared to be on tequila but that is not something we drink regularly.

I did find a bottle of banana liquor that I had eliminated from one of my favorite drink recipes in order to reduce the number of bottles we drag around the country. It was $7 for a liter and I used to pay around $12 for a smaller bottle. I decided that was cheap enough to warrant its space in the cabinet. The clerks in the store informed us that each person can carry one liter of alcohol across the border but we didn’t find anything else we wanted.

We finally went and waited outside the optical shop until my glasses were done. They arrived close to the promised time and we were soon on our way. We knew there was sometimes a long line to get back in to the US but it took us only 10 minutes to get through the process.

There were no forms to fill out. We had all our purchases out for inspection but the agent barely glanced at them and hardly said a word. We were glad to be on our way home and pleased with what we had accomplished and the money we’d saved.