Resort Report for our holiday in Mexico at the Occidental Allegro Resort, Cozumel Island, May 2005.
In 2002 we holidayed in Playacar on the Mayan peninsula. Lying on the beach, we could see the island of Cozumel on the horizon. We took the ferry over to the island one day, and I did a couple of dives on the south-western reefs. I was bowled over by the world-class reef life, and made a resolution to return sometime.
This year we fulfilled that resolution, and spent a fortnight at the Occidental Allegro Resort, just a few minutes boat-drive from those reefs.
Most travellers to Cozumel fly to Cancun, then there's a coach transfer to Playa del Carmen and a ferry ride out to the island. We discovered that Hayes & Jarvis (via First Choice) were introducing a direct flight from Manchester to Cozumel, and we went out on the very first flight. We stayed at the comfortable but pricey Manchester Hilton overnight before the flight (the hotel do a good deal on airport parking, but breakfast is £17.50).
The flight was comfortable with a bit more seat pitch in cattle class than we've had in the past. Video in seat backs. Drinks expensive. Food good on the whole, apart from breakfast on the way back which was disgusting.
The pilot managed to find Cozumel on his first attempt, and after a lengthy wait at the carousel, a 25 minute transfer by a fleet of minibuses to the hotel. The coast road runs a few hundred meters back from the beach, so Reception is at the back of the resort.
We'd read that the hotel has been partly renovated, and that if you slipped the receptionist $20 at check-in, he'd ensure you get one of the renovated rooms, and so it proved. The new rooms have a plastic card entry system, the old rooms have traditional locks and keys. We didn't see into one of the old rooms, so our comments are about our new room. The hotel is all-inclusive, so you get a plastic wristband at reception that you have to wear for the entire stay.
We followed the bellboy down the main path through the middle of the well-tended gardens, with well-watered lawns, neat palm and bamboo trees and carefully-tended topiary bushes. We spotted what looked like a humming-bird hovering near one of the flowering bushes. Huge iguanas laze about in the sun during the day - they live underneath the rooms in gaps in the concrete foundations. Several species of birds inhabit the hotel grounds, filling the air with loud fluting calls and harsh cackles.
All the rooms are in two-storey blocks of eight. Our room, 5311, was towards the front of the resort, on the southern side of the resort, on the top floor, facing away from the sea. You climb an attractive wooden staircase outside onto the large covered balcony and enter through the door. The immediate impression was it's dark inside - the windows are mostly obscured by the long eaves of the thatch roof and vegetation outside the side window. Also, it's noisy. We looked out onto a large machinery installation at the side of the plot which hummed loudly 24 hours a day - it could have been much better sound-proofed.
However, the room was spacious and clean, if a bit bare, with a big comfortable bed (a mattress on top of a concrete platform), a huge cabinet containing a TV (unfortunately no A/V inputs) with a useful storage area underneath, bedside cabinets and a coffee table and chairs. Towels and linen were changed daily. Towel sculptures were left on the bed each day decorated with bougainvillaea - the sculptures included a swan, rabbit, elephant, mickey mouse, huge iguana and dolls. We left a dollar bill tip for the room boy each day to keep these coming. An overhead fan and very efficient air-con kept the room cool. There was one spare 2-pin US-style 110V electricity socket for recharging batteries in the bedroom, another in the clothes storage area, and a third in the bathroom.
Off to one side was the bathroom with a washbasin (unfortunately no plug) with a big mirror over, and a WC and a bath with detachable shower rose over. A too-small shower screen beside the bath meant water all over the floor at shower time. Always plenty of hot water. A full-length mirror in the rather small clothes storage area, with not much shelf space and no drawer space. A room safe was handy for storing valuables. A coffee-making machine took up some of the shelf space.
A third disadvantage of the room became apparent later - the roof is thatched, and there's no inside liner. The thatch simply sits on wooden laths fixed to the top of the walls, and you look up to the underside of the thatch. This means firstly noise - for several days there was family in the next door room with a noisy toddler who got on our nerves. Secondly it means that you can occasionally see daylight through the roof, and we'd read some reports of rain leaking through. Fortunately this didn't affect us. Others have also reported a musty smell from the thatch after rain, but we didn't notice any such smell.
On the subject of smell, some people had reported sewage smells in the resort. We never experienced that in our room, but there was occasionally a whiff at the back of the resort towards the road.
A great beach, with plenty of sunbeds and quite a few thatched sunshades which offered shade for two. I have to confess that we snuck down to the beach with our towels before 9am to ensure we got a sunshade at the end of the beach area away from the pool. Soft clean white sand sloping down into the clear sea. The snorkelling seemed to be over flat sandbeds dotted with seagrass. Rays, barracuda and other reef fish were seen in the shallows. It was a bit of a swim out to the reefs, which were at about 12m depth, so too deep for snorkelling. There is quite a bit of boat activity offshore - where the reef starts there is a line of buoys to indicate the edge of the safe swimming area. Dive boats and jetskis stayed to seaward of this line.
There was always a good breeze down on the beach to keep you cool.
Occidental's sister hotel, the Grand, was just a few hundred meters along the beach. I spoke to some guests from the Grand who said that, while their hotel was a bit more upmarket than Allegro, their beach wasn't as good as ours - more stony coral chunks mixed in with the sand.
The main restaurant for all meals is back above reception. You queue at the entrance and are shown to a vacant table. This means a different table and waiter every time. No dress code, apart from cover your bathing costume. The restaurant hall has a high thatched ceiling and was rather dark with subdued lighting.
All meals are buffet-style, though there are a couple of manned stations for freshly-prepared things such as eggs and fruit smoothies at breakfast and pasta with sauces at lunch and in the evening. Food was above average, with a good selection and variety of dishes - fruit especially. Topaz was not open every lunchtime.
The waiters were very attentive, filling your glass with acceptable quality Mexican house wine regularly, or they'd fetch you a beer from the bar. The tea was undrinkable, so we had the acceptable coffee at breakfast. There was also a good selection of fruit juices, plus a soft drink and ice dispenser for Coke etc.
The resort's "speciality" Italian restaurant, located next to Topaz. You have to book a place in advance at inconvenient times mid-morning and afternoon - and the Guest Relations Manager is often not in his room when you try to book. You are restricted to one booking per week, but it's included in the all-inclusive package.
Caruso's is air-conditioned, with starched white linen and waiter service, and the food is better quality than Topaz, well presented. You could order up-market wines at extra cost, or stick with the all-included house wine. Some dishes on the menu never seemed to be available, and sometimes what you ordered bore only a passing resemblance to what arrived. Worth booking, nevertheless.
Located next to the pool bar, with similar booking arrangements to Caruso's. Up-market Mexican food. The fish was delicious, but I'm not a great fan of spicy Mexican food, so we only dined there once.
The spectacular gimmick both in here and Caruso's was the provision of a range of liqueur coffees from a trolley at your table. This involves setting light to the liqueur and pouring it from a great height in a flaming blue stream from one metal jug to another over and over before finally allowing it to settle, still flaming, into the coffee. Probably all the alcohol gets burned off in the process, but it's worth it for the display. Have your video camera to hand to record this spectacle, and hope that the waiter doesn't miss and pour burning alcohol all over the tablecloth.
This moved location during our holiday but was always close to the pool-bar. Initially, we thought that any food here was at additional cost but it appeared that there were one or two dishes which were all-inclusive. If you wanted steak (3 different types available) or lobster the price was US$30. We ate here once and enjoyed a salad starter, delicious soup, steak, dessert and exceptionally powerful Mexican coffee (see above).
Pool Bar food
Apart from these set meal-times, there was a good selection of buffet food available all afternoon and again around midnight by the pool bar. In addition to burgers, pizza and hot dogs, there were always at least one meat and fish dish, plus assorted vegetables, and sticky sweets as well. There were a couple of dozen tables available to sit and enjoy the food in the shade.
Given that this food tends to hang around for a bit, it isn't the freshest, but the staff throw a good deal of it away once it starts to look a bit dry. A bit of a waste, but great for snacking. We frequently skipped lunch in Topaz, and settled for something by the pool.
The "main" bar above reception. Although supposed to be open all day, they hated serving you, and nearly always told you that they were closed. Mainly used to serve beer and wine for next-door Topaz restaurant.
Very busy all day, with cheerful staff who worked hard and efficiently. You rarely had to wait more than a few seconds to get a drink. Endless Corona beer on tap. Drinks were all good, with generous shots of spirits - and if you wanted extra in your cocktail, you only had to ask. Mainly local brands, but some international (eg Smirnoff, Bacardi, Kahlua, Jim Beam). An extensive cocktail menu, which we never completed. The melon and almond coladas were delicious.
No stupid restrictions about taking drinks back to your room, or certain items not being on the all-inclusive deal, so that was a relief. The Maldives are getting really annoying for their petty behaviour in this respect.
Another bar back by reception, noisy and containing pool tables - we never visited it. Probably popular with young American males.
There were two pools. Next to the beach was the Activity Pool, where games, exercise, loud music and shouting were organised every day by the entertainment staff. The building housing the swim-up pool bar was at the landward end of the pool, together with the Mexican restaurant and the all-day food buffet. Behind this was the Relax Pool, quieter, and designed for simply barbecuing in the sun.
Both pools were surrounded by plenty of sunbeds and a few big thatched sunshades.
Next to the activity pool is the towel bar, where you swap the towel card issued at check-in for a good quality beach towel, which you can swap for a fresh one any time. Don't forget to take your towel back on your last day to reclaim a towel card for handing in at reception at checkout time.
Water Sports Centre
Next to the Dive Centre on the beach. The usual range of snorkelling equipment and trips, boogie boards, parasailing and hobie cats for hire. Thankfully no noisy, smelly jetskis.
There was an air-conditioned gym, which we didn't use. We were on holiday after all.
Near reception. Payable locally.
A daily newsletter pushed under your room door, giving details of activities eg Spanish lessons, Salsa lessons etc. Lots of information.
You can buy an international dialling card from a machine in reception and phone home. US$10 gets you about 5 minutes.
You get pestered by Occidental's timeshare salespeople on the way to Topaz. They offer discounts on car rental and diving, free taxis, anything to get you to sit through a timeshare presentation. We eventually agreed once we'd got them up to 20% discount on diving, 50% off car rental, and free taxis and entry into nearby Chankanaab Park. We made it very plain during the one-to-one presentation that we had no intention whatsoever of buying anything, so they gave up on us after half an hour or so. Since my diving came to several hundred dollars, this was time well spent.
Car Rental and Tours
A desk in reception. We hired a car (discounted as described) for a day and drove around the island. The east coast is rocky with occasional sandy coves and bars. Otherwise the island is flat, featureless scrub. We were forbidden from driving up the dirt road along the north-east coast - insurance doesn't cover this, as people regularly get stuck in the soft sand.
There was a shop selling souvenirs, post-cards, films, magazines, cigarettes etc in reception. There were also a couple of souvenir shops over the road from the hotel, and a pharmacy where we bought some antibiotic eardrops.
A theme park, built around an old freshwater lagoon a few yards from the sea, 15 minutes drive from the hotel or a US$10 taxi ride. Apart from a jungle walk, archaeological reconstructions and a museum there are waterbased activities such as snorkelling, diving and swimming with dolphins. There are also sealions, sloths, parrots and toucans on display. The park is well-equipped with lockers, bars and restaurants. We went late in the day so it was fairly deserted and the staff were starting to close it down.
San Miguel Town
The main (indeed the only) town on the island. The centre seems to consist entirely of bars, restaurants and jewellery shops, seemingly easily capable of absorbing the many hundreds of visitors from the vast cruise ships which stop over for a day or two.
Occidental's PADI-accredited Palancar Dive Centre (2014 note: Care: I think the dive centre is under new management since this was written) has a big jetty and half a dozen dive boats of different sizes and speeds. The centre has a window where you check in and book yourself on dives. At the next window you can get rental equipment such as BCDs, regulators, weights and belts, which were all clean, newish, in good condition. There are several rinsing tanks, and lockers available for a US$10 deposit on the padlock. They do nitrox. There's also a dive shop and a classroom. The dive leaders were expert and professional and clearly knew the reefs well.
The resort is ideally placed for Cozumel's world-class south-western reefs - Columbia, Palancar, Santa Rosa and so on. The furthest is only 20 minutes travel away. Santa Rosa is just 5 minutes. This means you could do two dives in the morning (9 and 10:30) and two in the afternoon (2 and 3:30). The first dive is always a deep one (limited to max 80ft = 25m) down the reef slope, rising back to the reef top after 25 minutes, with the second shallower (limited to 60 feet = 18 meters) on the reef tops. I did the two morning dives, then spent the rest of the day on the beach offgassing… The dive boat staff hand out bottles of cold water before and after dives.
I did 14 dives in all, including two as part of the nitrox course. The diving was great, with lots of fantastic coral and sponges on the reef, perhaps better than the Maldives, which is still recovering from the 1997 bleaching disaster. Lots of swim-throughs on some of the deeper dives. Plenty of marine life, but not as many reef fish as the Maldives. While there were quite a few stingrays, I only saw one eagle ray. Several nurse sharks, but no other shark species. Lots of turtles and lobsters. The dive leaders were good at spotting elusive specialities such as Splendid Toadfish and Frogfish.
My Olympus camera housing locked up again at depth despite being returned to Olympus in January to address this issue. It seems to work ok until you get below 20m - then it turns itself off. If you press the power on button, the lens extends, but then immediately retracts again. It starts working again once you get shallower. It looks as if the case compresses under pressure and the camera's power on/off button is being continually pressed. Recommendation: don't buy Olympus underwater housings for their digital cameras.
- While the dive leaders and boat staff were very professional, the young shore staff were glum-faced and monosyllabic. They weren't at all interested in helping and advising. Questions produced shrugs. When I checked in at the beginning of the holiday, they failed to brief me on how things were organised. For example, they didn't tell me that you are supposed to pay US$2 per day to the National Park when you dive, and you get a wristband to prove you've paid. So when I turned up at the dive centre the next day for my first dive without any cash on me, they refused to let me get on the boat. You even have to pester them before they tell you that you can collect your rental BCD and regulator at the next window. Hopeless. At other centres I've dived with, you get a full briefing.
- They don't publish a list of tomorrow's dives, so you can't decide which boat you want to be on. Instead, you just seemed to get assigned at random to a boat, and only after the boat has left the dock does the dive leader ask the divers where they want to go. This means you sometimes dive a site you've already visited because somebody who's just arrived at the resort insists. That said, there are plenty of great dive sites, and the ones people insist on are the best ones anyway.
- You have to carry your kit down to and back from the boat. This is a bit of a pain when you are carrying a dive bag containing mask, fins, snorkel, wet suit, computer, compass, sun cream, plus your BCD and regulator under one arm, your weight belt over your shoulder, camera in one hand, etc. Other dive centres look after all this for you.
- The deep dives are restricted to 35 mins and the shallow dives to 45 minutes, and they enforce this to the second. This means getting back on the boat with half a tankful of air and a feeling that you've been cheated. In the Maldives the time limit is 60 minutes, so you're getting nearly twice as much bottom time on a deep dive (if you're careful you can make your air last on a multi-level dive). Admittedly, Dive Palancar might not be able to do two 60-minute dives in a morning, but I'd be prepared to leave the dock at 08:30 and not get back until 13:00. I've done this in the Maldives at Reethi Beach, where the dive sites are further away from the resort.
- The PADI Enriched Air (nitrox) course materials were all in Imperial units for the Americans (feet and psi, instead of meters and bars). I'm from Europe, so I asked for metric course materials but they didn't have any.
Deep dives I did were: Palancar Horseshoe (twice), Palancar Gardens, Palancar Caves (twice), Palancar Bricks and Columbia Deep. All featured steep slopes or walls with caves and swim-throughs.
Shallow dives were: San Francisco (twice), Santa Rosa Shallow, Cedar Wall, Cedar Pass, Dalila and Casablanca. All featured drifts across sand fields with lots of coral outcrops, sometimes with nurse sharks asleep on sandbeds under overhangs. Turtles were to be seen on both deep and shallow dives.
I passed the PADI nitrox course, which seemed pretty easy stuff, if fiddly. Thanks to Gustavo. The course is supposed to consist of four parts. Watch a video, study the book, do some classroom work, do a couple of dives. Then you take the exam. Gustavo didn't bother with the classroom stuff - just checked my worked examples in the book and my exam paper. The dives were only needed so you could see that you got longer bottom time than you'd get on air. I'd bought a new nitrox-capable dive computer (the new Aladin Prime), so passing the exam was a relief. Using the nitrox tables is fiddly and error-prone, so having a computer to work it all out for you is helpful.
Thimble jellyfish were a nuisance, just like they were in the Caymans and Turks & Caicos. The boat drivers and dive leaders seem to treat these casually as an occupational hazard, and I was stung several times on the neck, arm and legs. The stings itch maddeningly and come up in an angry red rash, sometimes blistering. Anthisan seemed to help with the itching. They stop itching after 3-4 days, but take several weeks to fade. The ones on my neck are still visible three weeks afterwards as I write.
Each page consists of a dozen or so photos, totalling one to one and a half megabytes per page, so they could take a while if you're on dial-up.
Occidental Allegro Cozumel is a cheap and cheerful, lively resort. As long as you bear that in mind, you won't be disappointed. The diving is great, but the dive centre needs to work on their shore staff. Would we go back? Maybe - it's good value for Brits, with the dollar currently at US$1.90 to the pound, but there's so many other places to see.