The Day our Ship Came In

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In 1948, Cozumel was languishing.   The chicle boom was a distant memory, the American airbase failed to materialize, and fewer cargo ships were stopping at the island than ever before.   Times were tough.   But things were about to change.   Cozumel’s ship was about to come in.

The Cargo Ship Narwal

On February 13, 1948 the American-owned freighter “Narwal,” on its way north from Puerto Barrios Honduras to Mobile Alabama with a load of bananas, suffered engine failure and struck the reef at Ixpalbarco, on the eastern coast of Cozumel.   While some of the crew remained aboard the crippled vessel, the rest walked the 20 kilometers or so to town, where they were put up in the rooms of the mothballed Hotel Playa, a hotel that had been built by the state government, but closed due to the poor economy years earlier.

The owner of the vessel, Mr. Charles Fair, flew down to Cozumel to supervise the salvage operation and while he was here he fell in love with the island.   When it was time for him to leave, he promised he would send a friend of his back to Cozumel to write an article about the paradise he found when he lost his ship.   A few years later, in 1953, the writer, John Richard (Dick) Humphreys, showed up and stayed for a week at the Hotel Playa, which was again drafted out of retirement to house an unexpected visitor.   Liking what he saw, he realized it would take longer than he thought to really explore the island properly, so he returned to the states and planned to return to Cozumel for a much longer visit later.   When he did return to the island, he rented a three bedroom house at the corner of Avenida Melgar and Calle 8 Norte and stayed for a month while he explored the island and got to know its people.   He wrote about their kindness, about the low cost of living, the beautiful water, the great seafood, and the idyllic lifestyle.

It took Humphreys until 1955 to find a magazine that would publish the article, but the magazine he found was a powerhouse; Holiday Magazine, the magazine of the American Automobile Association, which had over three million subscribers.   When the article appeared in the August, 1955 edition of the magazine, the stampede began.   The travel agencies in Merida were swamped with American tourists vying for the $10 seats on TAMSA’s DC-3 that only flew to the island every other day.   By the middle of September, 1955, around 25 Americans a week were flying to Cozumel.   By the end of September, the number had grown to 60 a week.   The problem was, once they got to Cozumel they had few choices of where to stay.   There were no hotels!

The Joaquin brothers jumped into the breach and quickly refurbished and reopened the old Hotel Playa.   Soon thereafter Ilya Chamberlain, an American born in England to Russian parents, opened another.   Chamberlain’s hotel, the Mayaluum, was actually the same three-bedroom house that Humphreys had rented earlier.   Before long the Chamberlains had expanded their hotel into the adjoining property.

When Humphreys returned to Cozumel for the third time in 1958, he was astounded by the changes.   He was greeted warmly by everyone he met, thanked profusely for his help in bringing Cozumel’s economy back from the brink, and welcomed home like a conquering hero.   New hotels and guest houses were popping up like mushrooms, like the 12 new bungalows on Playa San Juan and the Barbachano’s Hotel Isleño, across the street from the Mayaluum (now Cinco Soles).   Counting every bed available, Cozumel was now able to house almost 100 tourists a day.   The age of tourism had reached the island and the 1958 edition of the magazine Visión headlined, “Cozumel se Acapulciza!” meaning “Cozumel is turning into a new Acapulco!”


Copyright 2012 Ric Hajovsky