Thirty minutes out of Puerto Juarez, as our flat-bottomed boat passed Isla Mujeres, we saw the first bolt of lightning ahead and off to the starboard side.
A line of thunderstorms was spaced almost evenly to the southern horizon, each a tall stack of clouds hovering over a grey blanket of rain that extended down to the water. I'd been looking forward to this excursion since I booked my trip to Mexico, and I hoped the weather would not become a factor.
Forty minutes later, our captain slowed the boat and invited the five tourists on board to help in the search for the two black dorsal fins of a whale shark. We were there to swim with them, but we had to find them first, out on the open sea.
Whale sharks are slow-moving, filter-feeding sharks, the largest of all species of fish. They can grow up to 60 feet long, weigh up to 50,000 pounds and live more than 100 years. They have about 3,000 teeth and eat plankton and small shrimp and fish.
It wasn't long before we spotted the first fin, and as we proceeded slowly in that direction, we saw dozens more, a huge, slow-moving pod of 60-70 sharks.
The light on the water was poor due to the storms in the area and it was hard to make out the entire body of one of these gentle giants despite the fact that they were feeding very close to the surface. We donned masks, snorkels and fins and went over the side of the boat, where the first thing I saw underwater was as incredible as anything I have ever seen: A three-stories-tall whale shark "standing" straight up, it's massive mouth open and facing the sky, body perpendicular to the surface and tail directly below.
Pilot fish nibbled at parasites on the whale shark's skin, and a different species of shark about three feet in length slowly circled the tail of the whale shark, far below us. I wondered if it was looking for a good opportunity to pick off a pilot fish.
It was a sensory feast, an entire food chain in one glance.
I could have watched this beautiful, spotted creature all day but our guide, Cindy, motioned to turn around and we saw another whale shark swimming almost directly at us, mouth open wide enough to swallow any one of us. As it slowly went by, we could see its eyes and fins and tail, close enough to touch, which is not allowed. It was not the least bit interested in us, a good thing, as I saw it.
I am writing today from a lounge chair on the powdery, white sand at Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun, the flagship of the Palace Resorts chain of all-inclusive hotels. Ahead of me, the Caribbean Sea sparkles in the sun.
The water is light green where it touches the beach, giving way to dark green further out, then to turquoise, sky blue, royal blue and navy. The air and the water are both in the 80s.
The stunning beaches of Cancun are almost empty. Most of the mid-rise and high-rise hotels and condos are closed. There are perhaps 5% as many tourists here as is normal for July. COVID-19 has decimated this place, as it has all tourist destinations. Only a few resorts are now reopening.
Mexico is the first foreign country to open to Americans without restrictions. I have come to see for myself and report on what international travel will be like in the foreseeable future.
I arrived three days ago to a sparkling clean and orderly airport where literally every worker wore a mask and kept their distance. After breezing through the standard immigration, baggage claim and customs process, I accepted a squirt of hand sanitizer and climbed into a taxi for the short ride to Le Blanc. There I was greeted at the door with a friendly welcome, more hand sanitizer, a coconut-flavored drink and a non-contact temperature check.
Then on to my room, where a video detailed the impressive array of safety measures being taken by Le Blanc. Rooms are completely sanitized from floor to ceiling between guests, as is every item brought into the room. Employees are sprayed with disinfectant upon arrival every day, have their temperatures taken and step in disinfectant to ensure they do not track anything into the hotel.
Guests are expected to accept hand sanitizer as they enter every restaurant and shop and venue on the property, including the spa, which is open. Every chair and table inside the hotel, around the pool and on the beach is sanitized as soon as a guest leaves. Instead of traditional menus at restaurants and bars, guests scan a bar code and read the menus off their phones. The list of safety measures goes on and on.
The staff at Le Blanc is unfailingly friendly, efficient and well-trained, the food in all five restaurants is outstanding, and the entire property is immaculate. I can imagine how difficult it must have been to reopen at such a high level of service amid the chaos and uncertainty of COVID-19.
Tomorrow, I will return to Vacations To Go in Houston, where we are continuing to navigate the shifting sands of the pandemic and waiting for more destinations to reopen. There will be a form to complete at the Cancun airport stipulating that I am not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and that I have not recently visited any banned countries (China, Iran, etc.). There will also be an infrared temperature check (at a distance) while going through security, but nothing else out of the ordinary for U.S. citizens returning home.
Is it safe to travel internationally now? I wish I could say so, but nothing is ever 100% safe, including a visit to a grocery store or a hair salon.
If you are in a high-risk group, now is not the time to travel. If you are worried that you would not enjoy a vacation for fear of COVID-19, you should probably put it off a little longer.
Everyone else must decide for themselves when it's safe enough to travel again. I'll sign off now, from Cancun.
Vacations To Go