Expat Letter from Cozumel

By Michael Lewis

Swimming with the rays off of Cozumel, Yucatan

Editor’s Note: When we moved to Merida, we purposely decided that we would rather live somewhere less oriented towards tourism than anyplace we had seen on the Mayan Riviera. Over the years, we have grown to love many of the communities there as we have visited them for weekend getaways or on work assignments. Cozumel is one of those communities that seems like it would be a very different place to live than it is to visit. When we met Michael Lewis, a photographer who lives on Cozumel, we asked him to tell us how he found life on Cozumel as a resident. This article is his reply.

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It was never my goal to live on an island in the Caribbean.

The pristine water of Cozumel, Yucatan, Mexico

I began visiting Mexico in the 1980s. I fell in love with the beaches and the water and the climate almost immediately, and then became a regular to the Riviera Maya before it was even called the Riviera Maya. In 2000, when I started scuba diving, I became a regular visitor to Cozumel in particular. Cozumel is known around the world by scuba divers as one of the best places to dive and I was drawn to its myriad of diving opportunities. I loved my annual trips to the Blue Angel Resort, a small hotel on the waterfront south of town. When I would come for a visit, I usually did ten dives in a seven day period, reveling in the underwater world. The warm, clear water and the abundance of amazing sea life captivated me.

Even so, I remember the time when a friend of mine, also a photographer and a scuba diver, remarked to me that in a perfect world, “I would live on Cozumel.” I remember replying to her that I would probably go crazy living on an island.

Two years ago, my wife and I left our home in Colorado and made our way to the island of Cozumel and set up a photography business. After two years, I have discovered that I am anything but bored, and no more crazy than when I started.

Oh, The Water…

As you can see from the accompanying photographs, the truth is… we came for the water. We came for the water, and all the activities that we can do in the warm water of the Caribbean: diving, snorkeling, kayaking and swimming.

Kayaking off Cozumel in Yucatan MexicoAnd while the water and those activities have been spectacular, we find we have been captivated by the people and the relaxed ambiance of this 30-mile-long by 10-mile-wide island. Our friends on Cozumel come from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Russia and France. On any given day when we aren’t working, we can choose the west side of the island for diving or snorkeling or the southern tip of the island for white sand beaches and a very shallow reef. We can go to the east side for unspoiled beauty and occasional surfing. On that side, there is only one hotel, no electricity and five or six beach clubs that close at sunset. As if that isn’t enough, there is still the northern lagoon for kite boarding, kayaking or bone fishing.

Cozumel Cruise Culture

Its true that Cozumel is home to one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the world and sees an amazing amount of visitors every year from those cruises. Most of the time, we are working in our home office, or traveling to the mainland to photograph a destination wedding or shoot an ad campaign. On most days, we personally don’t see a single cruise ship passenger or find ourselves inconvenienced by them in any way. And despite the commercialized stores and areas that cater to cruise ship passengers, one of the positive results of so many cruise ships is the handful of Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants that have opened up on the island. These restaurants cater to the cruise ship crew members who have the day off while in port, and of course, we get to enjoy them too. Not too many towns in Mexico, and certainly none in the Yucatan that we know of, have restaurants with bakwan udang or sambal on the menu!

For the most part, the cruise ship passengers themselves are a non-issue with us. The bigger issue is how they drive the economy on the island. It seems to us that there are too many tours, too many touts, too many t-shirt shops, etc. There are several beach clubs that cater to the ship’s passengers. They offer bland, expensive food and close at 5:00 pm. We never patronize those places.

Most of the week you will find us working. We, like many locals, tend to go to the beach on Sundays, when there are no ships in port. That doesn’t mean we don’t go during the week if we want to take a break from the office. When that happens, we know when and where to go to avoid the crowds.

What About the Food?

Late night dining al fresco on Cozumel YucatanWhen it comes to food, Cozumel lacks nothing (except a French bakery). We have terrific taco stands, a couple of cafes that roast and blend Mexican coffee, a darn good Argentine parilla (Del Sur), outstanding seafood restaurants (Popeye, El Moro & La Perlita), a couple of solid continental restaurants (Buccanos, Guido’s, La Cocay) and several outstanding cocina economicas (our favorite is La Cucina Italiana – the comida corrida concept but with Italian food). Italians love the Mayan Riviera, and the rest of us are lucky to benefit from their cooking skills.

We are not retired and we are definitely not on vacation. Our friendships have developed here much as they have at home. We enjoy a small group of like-minded working people, since we have more in common with them than the retired expat community. Most of the time we do not eat at restaurants. Instead, we go to the local mercado, or shop at the very modern Mega and Chedraui grocery stores. We love to cook and have dinner with friends. We are fortunate to have one friend who is a French-trained chef. She has a business that specializes in private dinners, cooking classes and food tours (Cozumel Chef). We never turn down an invitation to her house! We have gotten involved with various volunteer efforts for the Humane Society, sea turtle rescue and with a group that does monthly trash collection along the beaches (we get a lot of the region’s garbage on our shores).

We Too Are Working Gringos

Trash your wedding dress in a cenote in Yucatan MexicoOver the last few years, the Riviera Maya has become a hugely popular location for destination weddings. That means that despite living on the island, we spend a good amount of time on the mainland. There, we get to enjoy the creative restaurants in Playa, the beautiful beach in Tulum or the amazing cenotes that are along the north-south highway from Playa to Tulum. The best part about photographing weddings on the mainland is taking the couples to the cenotes for a “trash the dress” photography session the following day. Our work on the mainland keeps us from developing “island fever” and makes us realize that we do like coming home to Cozumel when the work is finished.

About Hurricanes and Storms

We have not gone through a hurricane yet, although we came close last October when Hurricane Rina came by the island. We saw about ten inches of rain in a short period of time and the water in the backyard was about one inch away from flooding the house before it stopped raining. The island is probably one of the safest places in the area to endure a tropical storm, since people here build homes to withstand the storms.

We were shooting an assignment for an airline magazine last October as Rina was approaching and we were finishing up, return home to secure the house, and process and transmit the photos before we lost power. I was shooting in Puerto Morelos and Jennifer was shooting in Playa del Carmen, when she was told that the port was closed. We sprung into high gear and booked flights on MayaAir from Cancun to Cozumel. As it turns out, they had closed the port on Cozumel to small craft, not ferries. In fact, the ferries ran for two more days, so we canceled our flights, returned home by ferry, completed our assignment and got ready for the storm. It was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm by the time it arrived. We imagine we will face a hurricane eventually, but we are not worried about it.

Housing on Cozumel

At the moment, we work out of our home and like to have space for guests. Our budget allows for us to live in a comfortable house with a mixture of gringo and Mexican furniture, in a neighborhood with lovely and modest houses. Houses for rent or sale on the waterfront are very expensive. We would likely pay twice the rent for the same space if we had a water view. We prefer living in a larger space, and a house that doesn’t share walls with neighbors. If we want to see the ocean, we are only a fifteen minute walk away.

Property values on the island seem high to us, until someone really needs to sell. Our rent is probably less than we would pay in Denver for a lesser house. A good shopper can buy Mexican products and eat cheaper than in the United States. Start piling the imported food items in your cart and the food bill climbs precipitously. It is not so much the prices of the food that you notice on the island, as much as the quality and availability of certain things. Everything is brought in by boat, so sometimes the stores run out of produce or even dry goods.

A Car on Cozumel

We have driven to Mexico three times from Colorado and have our car here on the island. I can’t imagine not having one, since we have taken amazing road trips to Chiapas, Oaxaca and around the Yucatan since we have lived here. Sometimes we take the car ferry to the mainland for work and sometimes we get by with the passenger ferry. We do get “island fever” from time to time, but still experience a palpable feeling of calm come over us as the boat prepares to dock “back home.”

The Problem With Living on Cozumel…

Our biggest problem with living here is the same problem that most entrepreneurs and business owners face everywhere. We run our own business and we have too much work to do. We have to remind ourselves to go swimming, ask a friend if there is room on the dive boat tomorrow or just say, “Enough, let’s go to the beach!”

And now that I’ve just written that, I plan to do that tomorrow!

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Michael S. Lewis and his wife run a photography business. All photos in this article were taken by them. You can also see their photography at www.mandjphoto.com, at cozumelphotographers.net and at michaelslewis.com. They also write a travel and food blog called latinjourneys.net and a magazine about Cozumel called thecozumelsun.com.