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COZUMEL, Mexico — Long before Airbnb was a thing, my family rented houses for our holidays rather than stay in hotels. Houses were easier with small children who needed room to run. We liked going to markets in foreign countries and cooking with fresh, local ingredients. And we liked vacationing with friends.
Before internet rental sites, we selected places from catalogs based on tiny photographs. Our children had no opinions and no vote, so the decision was less complicated.
Now with Airbnb, HomeAway and other sites, we have a plethora of houses to pick from, with photos from every angle and customer reviews. Our children are adults with their own opinions. Satisfying everyone's wish list is a challenge.
FINDING THE RIGHT HOUSE
For a Mexico beach vacation, we considered Sayulita, the popular town north of Puerto Vallarta. But a lot of the houses frankly looked like narco villas, and we decided the town was too small. And for a winter trip, we thought the cerulean calm Caribbean was a better choice than the churlish green Pacific.
So we turned to the Riviera Maya.
Here's where different agendas kicked in. One daughter and her boyfriend like sleek, modern digs, preferably on the ocean with cold wine at sunset. My husband and I prefer slightly rustic Mexican houses over apartments and a pool over potentially crowded beaches. I'm flexible on wine vs. margaritas.
Daughter No. 2 didn't care so much about beach vs. pool but wanted to be walking distance from cafes and shops in town. Like her sister, she loves yoga, so the Tulum area had lots of appeal.
Searching four months ahead of a holiday week trip, we didn't find many three-bedroom houses for rent in the Tulum-Playa del Carmen areas in our price range. We wanted to spend less than $400 a night — preferably a lot less. Mexico now has about 55,000 "short-term rentals," according to market research provider Euromonitor International. We just didn't see a lot for us on the mainland.
Next we looked at the island of Cozumel. There were many condos and apartments, but still not much to our liking. Finally we spotted Villa Oasis on HomeAway/VRBO.
Three bedrooms, three bathrooms in a rustic Mexican house. A lovely garden and pool and a housekeeper who cooks upon request (for extra charges per meal). It wasn't on the beach, but it was a couple blocks from the coast, near supermarkets, shops and restaurants. It was $300 per night. We booked.
We have a lot of experience living and traveling in Mexico. We're often asked if it's safe to vacation there. It depends what part of Mexico you're talking about and when, but more often than not, I think it is. Like everywhere, Cozumel has some petty crime and, apparently, burglaries, but there is minimal police presence, no army and a completely relaxed atmosphere. (Compared to the time, for example, we went on holiday in Valle de Bravo in the state of Mexico during a wave of kidnappings and had to contend with soldiers in armored personnel carriers.)
Here, we felt perfectly safe at home, on the streets and beaches.
WHAT TO DO
There's lots to do in Cozumel: an island tour, swimming with dolphins, archaeological sites, tequila factory and mescal bars, a 45-minute ferry ride to the mainland.
But we didn't do any of that. We went diving and snorkeling, hung out at beach clubs and by the pool at the house reading books. We played games and did a jigsaw puzzle, dined in some wonderful restaurants and ate at home.
Oh, we also visited the International Hospital after I went deaf in one ear from diving. Dr. Pablo Molina Gonzalez was extremely nice and experienced at cleaning water and wax out of a diver's ear. "We get two or three of these a day," he said.
So many that it's on the countertop price list along with use of a hyperbaric chamber by the hour and stitches. "We get one to two sea urchin stings a day, about three recompressions a week and occasional acute pulmonary edema."
The return of my hearing was a bargain: $24.
HOTEL VS. RENTAL
While there are top-of-the-line hotels, visitors can have mixed experiences. Retiree Jan Ross, 60, of Phoenix said she'd stayed at El Cozumeleno Resort 15 years ago, loved it and wanted to revisit the experience. "I think we're sleeping on the exact same beds with the same linens as then," Ross said. On the other hand, the food was good and staff were friendly.
Others think they get more bang for the buck with extended families and friends under one roof in a rental. "We like cooking for ourselves since it's kind of a roll of the dice with food here," said Andrei Piatrashka, 32, a Canadian civil engineer visiting with his wife, two toddlers and a brother-in-law.
We had no complaints. The weather and sea were perfect. Our house was very nice. A massage therapist came to the house for about a third the price of a spa massage in New York. The housekeeper's cooking was wonderful. And the grounds were lovely, with fountains and a little waterfall over the pool for background noise against the morning bird songs.