2 Days in Hell or How We Almost Missed Racing Ironman Cozumel 2020

Wednesday before the race, we arrived in Playa del Carmen (PDC), with Ironman (IM) race check-in on Cozumel island scheduled for Thursday- plenty of time to take the ferry to Cozumel, get to our resort, get to race check-in, and relax a few days before the big race.

BUT we arrived with baggage, lugging our bike case, at the blustery, rainy pier, only to be told all ferries had been cancelled! Winds from hurricane Iota from much further south were making docking impossible. One ferry was even forced to abort docking when the rope attached to the prier snapped, leaving a large number of athletes and family stranded, while the passengers on the ferry, hoping to land in PDC, were taken back to Cozumel.

At best, the ferries might run the next day. At worst, they would be cancelled again, and we would miss IM check-in.

With no ferries running, the only ways to get to Cozumel was either a plane ride from the small PDC airport (comprised of small chartered planes for island tours) or to go back to Cancun airport for mostly sold-out $600 flights. (A 3rd way was to get passage on the car ferry to Cozumel, but it had the same issues with docking during high winds as the Ultramar and Winjet).

Sounds easy, right?

At the small PDC airport, the only hope of getting a plane ticket was through a broker… local tour brokers bartered for passage through a locked fence at the airport. Lines of brokers frantically waved wads of money through the fence, vying for airport personnel attention. We sat amongst over 100 others (athletes and their families), lugging bike boxes and baggage…and hoping. Plane fare escalated rapidly, from $75 per person to 100’s. No charge cards were accepted, leaving people scrambling to get cash. People were bumped off potential flights by others shoving wads of extra pesos at the brokers. NOTE-Large, hard-shelled bike boxes would not fit on many of the planes, while the soft-sided cases (like SciCon) had more flexible options). We, of course, had a huge hard-shelled case. (Note: Christmas 2020 include a new soft-sided case after this experience!)

Wednesday evening we were assured paying a deposit would get us a plane Thursday morning, leaving us scrambling for a hotel (see our great find!) with many already sold out. We notified our resort in Cozumel of our predicament- and they elected to not charge us for they night! (See Sunscape Sabor)

Thursday morning came and every. single. hour. we were told “don’t worry.”

Our broker promised we were schedule to fly at 8am, then 10am…then noon…then 3pm. Then we heard, ”we have a problem, but don’t worry.” Our bike box was too big and wouldn’t fit on the smaller planes. “Come back tomorrow at 8am for a big plane! Don’t worry, you will be on that plane!” With Cancun flights sold-out, we were faced with finding yet another hotel, missing Ironman check-in, and praying we actually got a plane on Friday, as promised again. Thankfully word came from Ironman that they were aware of the hoards of stranded athletes and would allow late check-in. (See Ironman Cozumel Class of 2021 Facebook page- a wealth of information from other athletes). Again, the Sunscape Sabor Cozumel did not charge is for yet another night cancelation!

Of course, 8 am Friday came and went-still no plane.

We watched other athletes and bike boxes getting loaded on planes, realizing our mediators were not aggressive enough. The current excuse was that fuel was running low and the bigger planes weren’t flying. Finally- we were told for even more money we could take a helicopter to Cozumel, without the bike.

How we got the bike there is a story for another day that entails the kindest person I may have ever met in my life, who saved the race for us for no other reason than he wanted to help. All I can say is if you are in Playa Del Carmen, take the opportunity to sign-up to skydive with the team at SkyDive Playa.

Forking over yet more money, we were taken into the airport, our luggage inspected, and we were assessed taxes. THEN we were taken BACK out of the airport, and told a different person was going on the helicopter!! But ‘don’t worry! You are in the next one!’ The next hour was horribly stressful, until we actually, finally, climbed onto a chopper. We finally arrived Friday afternoon in the Cozumel airport, then got a taxi directly to race check-in, then to the hotel. Exhausted, our wallets a lot emptier, and stressed, I will be ever thankful to Sunscape Sabor Cozumel that 1) didn’t charge us for the days we were stranded in Playa del Carmen, and 2) got us drinks right away, sending us off to our rooms with a smile.

Our planned 3 days pre-race rest were eaten up in stress sitting on a sidewalk outside the PDC airport, often in pouring rain, praying (literally) for a plane. I’ve heard from other athletes and tourists that this has “never happened in all the years I’ve flown into Cancun to take the ferry”. And yet the bartering agents at the airport gate said it happened enough that they all know, if the ferry is down, they run to the airport to set up a bartering camp. This year was just anomaly, with the convergence of a huge number of athletes and family, a large volume of tourists, and bad weather all working to overwhelming the system.

Personally, I don’t plan to rely on the ferry for future races on Cozumel (and probably not for vacations, either). We made the best of a horrible situation, but I never want to repeat that experience again!

Tips:

-Have a soft-sided bike case (such as SciCon) to provide more travel flexibility and ease of carrying around a bike. 

-If you end up stranded awaiting air transport at the PDC airport, get the loudest, most aggressive bartering agent you see, willing to stand at the gate vying for your ride. Have plenty of pesos on hand- they won’t take charge cards.

Any tips on your own travel between Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel? Anyone else planning to do a race in Cozumel in 2020?

Happy Travels!

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