is the original Caribbean destination in Mexico, a top
cruise-ship port of call in the Americas, and one of the
world's top five dive destinations. Despite all this
acclaim, Cozumel remains a laid-back island with an
easy-going outlook and the kind of hospitality for which
Mexicans are famous.
The largest island in the Mexican
Caribbean, it is located just 12 miles offshore from Playa
del Carmen, a 45-minute, $7 ferry ride away. The name comes
from the Maya word Cuzamil, meaning "land of the swallows."
Today, it remains the home of two species of birds found
nowhere else: the Cozumel vireo and the Cozumel thrasher.
Only 3% developed, this 28-mile long, 11-mile-wide island
still has vast stretches of pristine jungle and uninhabited
shoreline. The only town is San Miguel de Cozumel, usually
called just San Miguel.
The island offers all the necessities for
a good vacation: excellent snorkeling and scuba places,
sailing and water sports, expensive resorts and modest
hotels, international restaurants and local taco joints, and
even a Maya ruin or two. Due to the influx of cruise
visitors, shopping is extensive, with many duty-free stores
selling jewelry, perfumes, and designer wares. If after a
while you do get restless, the ancient Maya city of
Tulum, the lagoons of Xel-Ha and Xcaret,
or the nearby village of Playa del Carmen provide
convenient and interesting excursions.
During pre-Hispanic times, the island was
one of three important ceremonial centers (Izamal and
Chichén-Itzá were the other two). Maya women would travel
the 12 miles by boat to the island at least once in their
life to worship the goddess of fertility, Ixchel. More than
40 sites around the island containing shrines remain today,
and archaeologists still uncover the small dolls customarily
offered in the fertility ceremony.
Salt and honey, trade products produced
on the island, further linked Cozumel with the mainland;
they were brought ashore at the ruins we know today as
Tulum. The site was occupied when Hernán Cortés landed here
in 1519. Before his own boat docked, Cortés's men sacked the
town and took the chief's wife and children captive.
According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo's account, all were
returned. Diego de Landa's account says Cortés converted the
Indians and replaced their sacred Maya figures with a cross
and a statue of Mary in the main temple at Cozumel.
After the Spanish Conquest, the island
was an important port; but foreign diseases decimated the
population, and by 1570 it was almost uninhabited. The
inhabitants returned later, but the War of the Castes in the
1800s severely curtailed Cozumel's trade. Cozumel continued
its economic rollercoaster after the Caste War as a small
commercial seaport. In the mid-1950s Cozumel's fame as a
diving destination began to grow, and development of the
island followed that of Cancún beginning in the mid-1970s.