We almost didn’t go to Cozumel, Mexico.
In the spring of 2001, a coworker and friend invited me and the Mr. to join them on a trip to the Bahamas. We were thrilled.
It would be our first international vacation together, and our first beach vacation. We spent all of our free time dreaming and planning. That is, until three weeks before we were scheduled to leave, when we got notice from our tour agency that the chartered flight and our package had been cancelled.
We were deeply disappointed and spent a couple of days moping about, not knowing what to do next. But it didn’t take long for us to realize that our trip cancellation actually meant we could go anywhere in the world. So we poured over the last-minute travel ads in the Sunday newspaper–remember when THAT was a thing?
We settled on a trip to Cozumel, Mexico.
My friend Beth, who absolutely adores Mexico (and that’s putting it lightly), gave us tons of advice and expressed the appropriate level of enthusiasm for such a trip. To this day, I still love her for that. The Wisconsin winter that year seemed especially harsh and long. But in no time, our swimsuits were packed, the plane was de-iced, and we were off.
When we disembarked and walked down metal stairs leading to the tarmac, the sultry humidity, the saltiness and the unique smell that is the island of Cozumel washed over us. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I daresay we instantly fell in love with her.
We stayed at a cozy, beachside hotel outside of San Miguel: Sol Cabanas del Caribe.
Upon arrival we were treated to icy cups of rum punch. The lobby opened up to the azure of the ocean, and a white sugar sand beach lined with blooming hibiscus and teeming with singing, tropical birds.
But that blue. We’d never seen anything like it. Its shade was so remarkable to our eyes, at first, we thought it was a mural.
That was the day we first met Rogelio, a prominent staff member of the hotel who would, over the course of the week, become a friend.
We spent the week doing what we pasty midwesterners do on a trip to the tropics: we sipped blender drinks and got sunburned and snorkeled along the sunken dock on the property. (The fish, to be honest, terrified me at first. I was used to the murky lakes of Minnesota; seeing the fish frightened me.) We got to know the hotel regulars, travelers who came back to Sol Cabanas year after year after year. We knew why; we felt it too. We flew to Chichen Itza and toured Mayan ruins and watched the geckos climb our balcony walls and we stared in slack jawed wonder at the ocean. It was candy for our eyes, which were so weary of white. And we ate. Oh my god, we ate. I remember one particularly sweet, family-run restaurant, just across the street from Sol Cabanas del Caribe: El Guacamayo. Our server snapped our photo: we look sun-kissed and blissed out, Backpack Mr.’s arm around my shoulders.
One day we rented a VW Bug convertible and with the top down, drove it to the “other side” of the island. The side where the water is rough, where it slams itself against a rocky shore. After what felt like a drive through deep jungle–I think we even saw a tarantula cross the road–we found a bar seemingly on the edge of the planet.
We had arrived at Mezcalito’s.
It was so peaceful, with the wind and the waves and a quiet, non-touristy vibe. A guy who’d probably been there far too long tried to hook a ring on a string around a nail on the wall, repeatedly dropping that ring it into the gentle pull of gravity, while with the other hand, lazily sipping a beer.
Then, we bid Cozumel goodbye. I remember the lump in my throat as we sat at the airport, awaiting our flight. There was, to that point in my life, no paradise to match Cozumel. And I found it hard to believe that anything the world over could come close.
A few months later, we returned to Cozumel for a long weekend. We just hadn’t had enough. This time, we got to meet Rogelio’s family, his wife and two children. It was all over far too quickly. We got double prints of photos of our trip–remember prints?–which are now tucked away in our shed. I’ll dig them out one of these days.
Since then, we’ve been to many beautiful places. But that experience in Cozumel, that blissful stay at Sol Cabanas del Caribe, and that chill vibe at Mezcalito’s over a cold beer with lime during which time the most important thing was nothing, will never, ever leave us. I even wrote about the experience and our friendship with Rogelio in a story that appeared in a travel anthology entitled, Mexico, A Love Story. (Now apparently available for about a buck-fifty! Though I make no money off sales, so don’t buy it on my account.) The essay title: Sugar Sand.
We’re Cozumel bound, once again.
On our upcoming cruise with Holland America, we’ll stop in beautiful Cozumel for one precious day.
It won’t be enough. It never is.
But more than that, I am anticipating the return trip to Cozumel with mixed emotions. Truly, you can never go home again. Can you ever go back to your first transformational travel experience?
Cozumel has changed. When we were last there in 2001, you could smell change on the breeze. Crews were in the process of building a gigantic pier for cruise ships. Glossy, new high-end shops were opening their doors. A swanky golf course was being developed. High rise hotels already towered over the humble Sol Cabanas, all-inclusives that brought in a different crowd than those who frequented our favorite hotel.
You can still see photos of Sol Cabanas del Caribe on some hotel booking websites, like this one. Beware: sites advertising rooms there are either scams or abandoned.
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma struck Mexico.
Among her victims was Sol Cabanas del Caribe, #8 in this article, “25 Pics of Once-Popular Resorts That No One Steps Foot in Anymore.”
Since then, the internet has made it easy to conduct a post-mortem. There was talk of rebuilding, but it never came to fruition. In 2014, the property was purchased by Westin Hotels & Resorts.
The Westin Cozumel has since opened for business.
As evidenced by the fact that our cruise ship is docking in Cozumel, clearly the pier and the high-end shops will be there to greet us. It’s not Rogelio with a rum punch, but it’s okay. That’s progress.
Over the years, we also sadly lost touch with Rogelio.
El Guacamayo, which was just across the street from Sol Cabanas, seems to still be standing, albeit under a new name.
And Mezcalito’s? Heck yeah, it’s still there, perched on edge of the rough waters, on the wild and untamed side of the island, as if waiting for us to return. It was never fancy, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. If there’s cold beer with lime, and a ring on a string, the kind a person could let fall into the graceful arc of gravity while spending a few hours doing nothing much, well, that’s good enough for us.
I’m not sure if we’ll go back to the property that once was Sol Cabanas del Caribe. Though I imagine the beach is still lovely, still somewhere beyond what seems real. I remember that sugar sand like my toes were burrowing into it yesterday, like the touch of a lost love from 18 years ago. But maybe that’s the way life and travel are supposed to be. You go once or twice, you fall in love, and you let go. You drop that ring into the graceful arc of gravity. Then, you move on. You roll your rollerbag elsewhere to see the colors and meet the people and taste the remarkable deliciousness of first-time experience.
And if you return to those favorite places of yours, you do your best to not let that lump in the throat get the best of you. You try your hardest to summon instead the salty night breezes off the ocean, the smooching sounds of the geckos, the initial thrill of seeing that remarkable shade of blue, and the sweet siren song of sugar sand.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.