Mayans made Isla Cozumel a sacred place where they built temples to worship their gods. But when the Mayan civilization was decimated, their island fell into obscurity until its magnificent coral reefs and natural beauty were rediscovered by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in the mid-20th century.
The sun-drenched beaches and beautiful coral reefs of Isla Cozumel appeared off our starboard bow as our cruise ship made landfall off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, some 330 nautical miles northwest of Grand Cayman.
Settled by the Maya some 2,000 years ago, Cozumel quickly became an important stop for the region’s “White Road” trade route, and an important religious centre for the Mayan empire. At its peak, the island boasted 10,000 residents and 24 different temples, including a shrine to the Moon Goddess Ix Chel, who the Maya believed could bestow fertility on its female pilgrims. And traders flocked to the island to buy and export the honey it produced, which was used by the ancient Maya in place of sugar.
Unlike its nearby neighbour Cancun, the Island of Cozumel was never over-developed into a mass tourist destination, and has been able to preserve more of its original flora, history, cuisine, and culture. In fact, the island has just one tiny city in San Miguel, offers many unspoiled beaches like Playa Palancar and Playa Caletita, and boasts a handful of decaying but interesting Mayan ruins including Aguada Grande and San Gervasio.
The island’s largest and best-preserved Mayan ruin, San Gervasio, was still a functioning religious site at the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Located in a lush jungle populated with beautiful flowers and foliage, it’s easy to see why this wonderful setting was chosen to house a religious shrine. While not as well preserved as some Mayan sites, San Gervasio still has a number of beautiful statues in tribute to Ix Chel, and a graceful arch leading into the Temple of the Hands.
Over the centuries, Cozumel remained a quiet fishing village until Jacques Cousteau rediscovered it in 1959. Cousteau explored and then told the world about the beautiful six-mile long Palancar coral reef at the southern end of the island, which is the fifth longest reef in the world. It is also one of the best preserved places for scuba diving and snorkeling, and is part of the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park.
Arguably the finest place to dive in the Caribbean, Cozumel has more than 30 exceptional dive sites, the majority of which are located along the West coast and southern end of the island. The reefs are teaming with a variety of species, including the local toadfish, butterfly fish, French angels, snapper and turtles.
As we had snorkeled on the reefs in previous visits, we decided to take a shore excursion by ferry across the 12-mile (19 km) channel to Playa del Carmen where we boarded a tour bus for an excursion to the ancient ruins of Tulum.
The Mayan civilization was one of the most advanced cultures of the pre-Colombian Period, and it flourished on the Yucantan Peninsula where it built several great cities including Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and Tulum. While less well preserved than Chichen-Itza and Uxmal, Tulum is perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and easily has the most beautiful location.
Built in honour of the sun, the city has some 56 temples, shrines and platforms, many with carvings featuring the solstices, equinoxes and movements of the sun. The principal buildings include The Castle (a tower overlooking the Caribbean Sea used to safely guide Mayan boats through the dangerous reefs surrounding Tulum), the Temple of the Frescoes (an outstanding collection of Toltec wall paintings), and the Temple of the Wind (a small sanctuary overlooking the bay built in honour of Ehecatl, god of the wind).
While it took us the better part of a day to see Tulum, many of our shipmates remained in Cozumel where they went snorkeling, swam with dolphins, or simply browsed the many shops near the pier that offer local handicrafts including silver jewelry, colourful blankets, ceramics, pottery and Mayan artifacts.
As we boarded our tender to return to the Veendam, we felt sad that our time here had been so short. But like the many Mayan pilgrims who had come to Isla Cozumel before us, we also felt blessed to have experienced the beauty and mysteries of this marvelous region.