CozumelIsland History

Cozumel is the largest island in the Republic of Mexico. Itlies about 14 kilometers off the eastern coast of the YucatanPeninsula, in the State of Quintana Roo. It is 53 kilometers long(about 34 miles) and 14 kilometers wide (about 8 miles).   Itis the largest of three islands off the coast of Mexico.  (Theothers are Isla Mujeres and Contoy).

The island rose from the sea in the Pleistocene epoch to its maximmheight of 45 feet above sea level. 

Cuba is 95 miles north of the island and Cancun and Isla Mujeres arethirtymiles to the northwest. The maximum elevation of the island is 45 feet.The limestone surface is pitted with caves and holes which absorb alltherain water, creating a large underground fresh-water supply. Thechannelbetween the mainland and the island goes to the depth of 3000 feet, andthe currents sometimes reach five knots.

San Juan Beach

The island was originally named by the Maya, Ah-Cuzamil-Peten,meaning “place of the swallows”. The Spanish simplified thepronunciation and just called it Cozumel. It has been inhabited by theMaya since at least 300 A.D.

As an important trading center, Cozumel was in contact with regionsas far north as Veracruz and as far south as Honduras. It wasconsidered an indispensable port for the culture's “merchant marine”link of establish trade routes. The island was also an importantreligious pilgrimage center and drew people from all parts of the Mayarealm to the shrines to Ixchel. It was known as an island of love andfertility and Maya women made the pilgrimage to Cozumel before theirweddings. This was a sacred place.  Pilgrimages from all ove rtheMesoamerica came to honor Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, childbirth,the moon, and rainbows.  Viewed as the mother of all other gods,Ixchel was often depicted with swallows at her feet.  Mayan womenwere expected to visit Ichel's site at least once during their lives,made the dangerous journey from the mainland by canoe.  Cozumel'smain exports were salt and honey, at the time, both were consideredmore valuable than gold.

Some ruins on the island are still more or less standing, othershave been destroyed. San Gervasio has been excavated in recent yearsand is now accessible by tourists.

Castillo overlooking ocean

In 1518, the Governor of Cuba, Don Diego de Velezquez, sent Juan deGrijalva on an exploratory expedition to the unknown western lands tolook for slaves. The first place Grijalva landed was Cozumel, on May 3,1518. On this day, the name Isla de Santa Cruz was given to the islandbut the original name, Cozumel, survived. During this same expedition,the first Catholic mass in Meso-America was celebrated, possibly fromthe top of a pyramid.

Grijalva’s peaceful visit was followed in 1519 by HernanCortez, on the first stop of an expedition to conquerMexico.   Cortes was in Cuba at the time, and heard tales ofthis new land. He set sail for this new fabulous land with elevenships, and five hundred men, horses, and goods for barter. Francisco de Montejo as a captain, and Alaminos was chief pilot of thesmall arnada.  They landed in Cozumel again, and through a littleluck, this is where Aguilar the ship wrecked sailor was reunited withhis Spanish countrymen.  Geronimo de Aguilar, Gonzalez Guerreroand Ortez joined forced and set upu a military base on theisland.  In their invasion, they tore down many of the Mayantemples.  They built a small church somewhere near where theairport now stands.

Guerrero died defending his adopted people, and the Maya stillconsider him a hero.

This church wasn't all he left behind. Smallpox swept the islandafter his departure and the population fell to under 300 by 1570.

While on Cozumel, Cortez was told of Geronimo de Aguilar, theSpanish survivor of a shipwreck who had been living with the Indians onthe mainland. Cortez sent for him and the story has it that Aguilarswam to Cozumel to see Cortez. Because of his knowledge of Mayan andSpanish, he was able to serve as Cortez’s interpreter during theconquest of Mexico.

The island was also the base of operations for Francisco deMontejo’s first attempts at the conquest of the Yucatan. When hisexpeditions on the mainland failed, Cozumel was taken over by theSpaniards until the conquest of the Yucatan in 1543.

By the time the Spanish got around to belatedly conquering theYucatan, they found it a much more difficult task than the organizedkingdoms of the west. The Mayan economy of Belize and the Yucatan hadalready collapsed, or was in severe decline, because of the westernconquests of the Spanish. What once had been flourishing cities androads had already deteriorated into scattered settlements. French,Dutch and English pirates had already started to attack the Spanishsettlements for their gold by the 1560's.

The Spanish found it difficult to conquer the Yucatan. Their horseswere of little benefit, the terrain was harsh and the Maya were awarethat resistance would bring reprisals by military expeditions. The Mayathus found it more prudent as a policy to feign submission and thenrelocate to new settlements. Or go along with the Spanish customs andmissionaries were it could not be avoided and return to their owngovernment and religious beliefs when the interlopers departed. TheSpanish took more than 165 years to achieve an equivalent control overthe Yucatan compared to the few years it took to conquer the mightycivilizations in the west. The Lacandon Maya have never been conqueredby the Spanish or the successor government of Mexico and still givetrouble to the authorities in Mexico City today.

By 1600, the island was completely abandoned. Pirates tookadvantage of the calm deep waters to rest between their raids and usedCozumel as a base of operations. Famous pirates such as Henry Morganand Captain Jean Lafitte visited often. In the meantime, the few localnatives were busy producing chicle (used for chewing gum, collectedfrom the sapodilla tree) and copra (coconut kernels).

The Maya war of 1847 was launched across the wide Yucatan andreached from Bacalar in the south almost to the houses of Merida. Thewar stopped for the rainy season because the Mayans troops had toreturn to their fields in their villages to plant. The foreign Spanishinvaders re-grouped and the Maya had to retreat again, though the newfrontier was now about where it had been a hundred years earlier in themid 1700's. This state of affairs continued for another fifty years.

In 1901, Chan Santa Cruz the cruzob capital fell to federal Mexicantroops from central Mexico. The Caste War was technically finished, butnot in practice. The Santa Cruz Maya still controlled the districtaround which is now called Quintana Roo.

The war was not officially over until 1969 with the death of thechief of the cruzob town of Chumpom and the last of the Caste Warleaders. This Caste War lasted 122 years, when the new council of Mayaelected not to attack the road crew invading their territory, becausethey could not get modern carbines to fight with.

The island wasn’t really resettled until 1848 when people soughtrefuge from the “war of the castes” on the Mexican mainland. During the18th and 19th centuries, the island of Cozumel became  home to alittle fishing village and supply post for ships.  By 1843,Cozumel had again been abandoned.  Five years later, 20families fleeing Mexico's brutal Ware of the Castes resettled theisland.  These families still live on the island.. 

Cozumel was inhabited in 1848 by refugees from the War of theCastes on the mainland. These settlers numbered around 700 by 1890 andbased their economy on the Columbia Hacienda, which was a little southof San Francisco Beach.

In the early 20th century, the island had an abundant supply ofZapote (sapodilla trees), which produce chicle, prized by the chewinggum industry.  Chiclets was one of their original products. Shipping routes included Cozumel..  The deep harbor made itperfect for large vessels and ships.  Jungle forays in search ofclicle led to the discovery of ruins which drew attention fromarcheology.  The invention of synthetic chewing gum diminished thedemand for chicle.

In 1927, the first airplane touched down on island soil. In it wasthe great aviator Charles Lindberg, fresh from his New York–Paris run.

During World War II, the USA built an air base on Cozumel.Unfortunately, the base was built over the ruins of an ancient Mayantown and almost all vestiges of San Miguel ruins disappeared.  TheUS Army built an airstrip and maintained a submarine base here foryears. 

It was not until the 1950’s that the island emerged as a healthresort for Yucatecans. Jacques Cousteau visited the island in the late1950’s and discovered Palancar Reef. He was struck by the beauty andmassive size of Cozumel’s reefs. Slowly, the dive trade began todevelop.

The island continued to grow and by 1970, the population hadreached 10,000 for the first time since 1500. In 1978, the census was20,000 and today it’s closer to 50,000.

Tourist interest has increased greatly not just because ofthe incredible diving but also the many other water and sun relatedactivities, archaeological excursions to be made nearby, world-classfishing, cruise-ship visits, great shopping, and restaurant hopping.All this in a much less hectic or glittery atmosphere than Cancun —which go together to make this wonderful island a true paradise.




The heart of the island is the little town of San Miguel.About 90 years ago, a group of workers digging in an area north of townunearthed a statue of the archangel St Michael carved from ivory,brandishing a sword of pure gold and wearing a gold crown. This eventoccurred on a day holy to San Miguel — September 29. To the locals,this coincidence was too great to dismiss as less than a miracle, andthus the town was renamed. The statue is believed to have been a giftfrom Juan de Grijalva as part of an attempt to introduce Christianityto the island. The original statue was sent to Merida to be restored.Some say that the real statue never returned, and that the one ondisplay is an exact replica rather than the original, but this hasnever been proved.

In 1916, when Colonel Isaia Zamarrypa ordered the Catholic templelocated in the town center destroyed. Pious members of the congregationwith much forethought took the statue and put it away for safekeeping.

Today, the statue of San Miguel de Cozumel, patron saint of theisland, occupies a place of honor on the alter of the island’sprincipal Catholic Church. Visitors should go to the church to see thestatue. It is an object of considerable beauty and great archaeologicaland historical significance.


The area including the Yucatan Peninsula, El Salvador, Belize,and Guatemala is the home of the Maya, and has been for over 3,000years. There are many different pre-Columbian sites to see on themainland, including Chicken Itza, Tulum, Coba, Uxmal, Palenque, andmany more. ChichenItza-2.jpg

There are also some ruins on Cozumel Island. Though not asawesome as Chicken-Itza or as spectacular as Tulum, they arefascinating nonetheless and worth seeing.

San Gervasio

The recently restored San Gervasio ruins are located in thecentral part of the island just off the main highway that crosses theisland. The little “town” is in the middle of a beautiful jungle. Thearchaeological zone consists of six groups of several buildings each,most of them in the “Oriental Coast” style. San Gervasio is thought tobe a ceremonial center and is connected to other parts of the island bysacbe, or white roads.

Three building groups are visible at San Gervasio; these areconnected by trails that are built along the old Maya causeways. Thestructures are mainly small temples and shrines built on platformsaround a plaza. In the middle of one causeway you come to the Temple ofIx Chel, a small but well-preserved building that was probably ashrine, although the connection to the goddess is not certain.Archaeologists at San Gervasio have recently found a grave containing50 skeletons and some Spanish beads, leading them to believe that thesewere victims of a European disease brought by the conquistadors.

Most ruins on the island are of the "oratorio" type: small squarebuildings, low to the ground, with short doors that convinced earlySpaniards the places were once inhabited by dwarfs (a myth no longerbelieved). El Cedral is the exception; though the temple is small,major ceremonies were probably held on this site.

El Cedral

Just beyond San Francisco Beach on the main highway leaving town, a3.5 km paved road takes off to the left and ends at El Cedral. Smalland not enormously impressive, this is the oldest Maya structure on theisland. Amazingly, it still bears a few traces of the paint and stuccoapplied by the original Maya artist, but deterioration indicateshundreds of years have passed. A tree grows from the roof, with thick,exposed roots interminably tangled in and around stones of the ancientstructure. Fat iguanas with bold black stripes tracing theirmidsections guard the deserted, mold-covered rock structure; sounds ofcows blend with the songs of countless birds and the resonant buzz ofunseen insects. Located in what is now a small farm settlement, ElCedral was used as a jail in the 1800s. Nearby is a rustic, modern-erastucco church painted vivid green. Go inside and take a look at twocrosses draped with finely embroidered lace mantles--a typical mixtureof Christianity and ancient belief, which some believe is associatedwith the Talking Cross cult.

There are a large number of other sites on the island,
yetnone of them are very well restored. Many are located in the swampyarea in the northern part of the island near the lighthouse. You canonly get there byboat.
The original Mayan town on the island was located at El Cedral. During the escape from the war of the Castes, Don Casimiro Cardenas y su esposa Dona Victoriana Tapia, landed on the island and while hiding from the Spaniards, at El Cedral, he swore that if God saved his life, he would forever hold a celebration in honor of God at El Cedral. Today, that celebration is still held once a year at El Cedral. The town itself today, is a community of cute wooden homes, combining the Mayan rustic style mixed with the Caribbean palapas, and large partios. There are street signs, and many people live here full time. The majority of the homes are owned by families who have theirmain life and home in San Miguel, the town. They spend holidays, and weekends at their Cedral Homes. Here are a few samples of the cutest homes I saw while I walked the streets.

Castillo Real

Castillo Real, on the east coast, where the largest ancientbuilding onthe island is located, is well preserved.  There used to be arough route getting there but is hasn't been accessible since HurricaneWilma hit in 2005.  Rumours are that un unnamed millioniare (hint,he has a reality show and three beautiful wives),  bought a largeportion of this land for development but so far, there have been nomoverment towards development or to opening up the roadagain.    There is a military base up there and theyprotect the land.
Castillo Real CastilloR.jpg

There were other vestiges of ancient Maya occupation on the island,such as Buenavista El Cedral, Punta Morena, Tumba el Caracol, and SantaPilar.  Hurricanes have played havoc on the shoreline ruins. 
MiradorMiradorStore.jpgBefore and After, same shot.

Hurricane Wilma
Oct. 2005


Even today, many of the local people show a striking resemblance tocarved and painted images of the pre-Columbian Maya. Many locals stillspeak a Mayan dialect as well as Spanish.

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