The crashing Caribbean surf is serenading me with its rhythm; the humid ocean air immobilizes like a sodden straightjacket. Frivolous thoughts pour through my mind. Has it been a dozen, or maybe 15 times that I’ve found myself at this precise latitudinal coordinate, sitting on this exact barstool? Actually, it’s a new barstool and a new palapa, built in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes that scoured Cozumel. Yet the familiarity is still here, and Señor Cuco is again holding court.
On this empty windward shore of Cozumel, he is the impresario of Coconuts Bar & Grill, popping Coronas and mixing heady concoctions for a couple dozen travelers like me who willingly succumb to the island’s rituals of surf, sun, sand and bar-bound celebrations of nothing and everything. The joint is hopping; Cuco is on his game and certainly too busy at this moment to entertain any inquiries about Coconuts’ star patron, whom I’ve come to see. Elvis, it seems, has left the building.
A traveler’s quest for spiritual awakening this is not – not even close. During my annual migrations here, there is no deeper purpose beyond satiating rudimentary urges for Cozumel’s tropical sunshine, paper-white sand beaches and tourmaline seas; no duty beyond sensational diving among kaleidoscopic colored fish and coral grottos, or watching liquid-crimson sunsets smothered by the horizon from some lazy, boozy, beach-bound cantina. But today? Today began with a measure of purpose – my self-appointed mission to learn of the whereabouts of Elvis.
This morning in San Miguel, on the island’s populated west side, I was apprehensive and clueless as to the fate of Cozumel’s remote east coast and its ramshackle outposts like Coconuts. The island took an incredible pounding during the infamous 2005 hurricane season. First Emily, then Wilma strafed the island. But Cozumel is in the business of escapism and bliss, strong motivators to regroup and rebuild. Just months later, after the community orchestrated a massive storm mop-up, I’ve found it’s mostly business as usual for plucky San Miguel and the resorts on Cozumel’s developed west side. Transplanted palms, road repairs, trucked-in sand to replenish eroded beaches and rebuilt buildings make any remaining blemishes seem minor to a visitor like myself.
For days I’ve been wooed silly by the island’s signature offerings, a formula that is quite simple here: In the windless mornings, while the sea is as placid as syrup, I savor the ambrosial diving at the Palancar Gardens, the wall diving at Santa Rosa, or at any of the other spectacular Cozumel dive sites. Come afternoons, I trade flippers for flip-flops and enjoy the amusing commotion of commerce among San Miguel’s maze of backstreets, where it’s perfectly acceptable – indeed, expected – to make sport of bargaining with merchants to the beat of boom-box mariachis. This usually leads to Pancho’s Backyard, where I appease my addiction for fresh chicken tacos in the shady courtyard, a welcome sanctuary from the street buzz. Invariably, as blazingly hot afternoons morph into more temperate evenings, I rendezvous with expats or trade traveler’s tales with strangers at some obscure cantina.
But capriciousness, even in Cozumel, has its limits. With the fate of Coconuts and Elvis at the top of my mind, I rent a battle-scarred scooter and charge to the eastern shore. Riding south from town, I envision myself fearless as I hit 40 mph along the coastal road, which cuts like a machete through a canopy of low-lying jungle. There are whimsically colorful signs pointing to beach resorts hidden from view and occasional rickety souvenir stands tucked into clearings where only a few pesos stand between you and incongruous knickknacks, such as raw sugar cane, carved coconut monkeys, key chains and T-shirts.
I veer inland to El Cedral, a quaint present-day village that was the site of idol worship for early Mayas. El Cedral’s ruins are an archaeological treasure trove: weathered stones, a church, artifacts and its signature intricate arch, all nestled in a shady, timeless jungle. Rounding the southern tip of the island and then motoring northward along the eastern coast, I dodge potholes. At the beautiful strip of sand and exposed coral reef known as Chen Río, there is cause for elation. A natural protected lagoon has been born from the storms’ rearrangement of sand and rocks, and there I join a local family playing in the shallow, tepid water. Mom, dad and two kids are enjoying themselves as if they’d just won the lottery. It is a priceless scene, reminding me that Mexico’s basic social element – the family – is still the backbone of Cozumel.
Within minutes of continuing my journey, I spot the “new and improved” rebuilt Coconuts, perched on the island’s highest point (all of 37 feet). My hopes are buoyed. And of course, there is the little matter of Elvis.
All of which is how I now find myself here, at this same spot I’ve frequented so many times before. The bar rush abates, and I’m able to get in a word to Cuco as he brings me a Corona.
“What about Elvis?” I ask him, seeing the empty spot at the end of the bar, afraid of the worst. Cuco smiles mischievously, expectantly, recognizing me as the once-a-year visitor who has a thing for the unflinching fellow who’s been in his care since 1977 – incidentally, the same year that “the king” checked out of Graceland for good. Cuco retreats to a back room and emerges with the same scaly reptile that I’ve come to expect at Coconuts.
“I see he’s OK. I wasn’t sure,” I say to Cuco, as Elvis perches on his special rock located on the bar, oblivious to our conversation.
“Yes, he pulled through just fine,” Cuco tells me. “He’s tough. When the storms hit, we took Elvis to a caretaker’s house until we could rebuild.”
Happy endings on all fronts.
Cozumel survived. Coconuts is rebuilt. And my indulgent fantasies for island escape, predicated upon some semblance of theoretical purpose, can continue to hinge on nothing more than a 29-year-old iguana – an ersatz Elvis.