Traditionally a favorite day trip location for visitors to Playa del Carmen, Mexico’s third-largest island now invites travelers to call it home for a week or two instead, to explore its many individual offerings, and go home renewed. Its potent power dates back to ancient times, when it was the pilgrim site for the ancient Maya women.
Now it is famed for its scuba diving and snorkeling, as the reef that shelters the entire Riviera Maya coastline runs right by here.
On land, at first glance it has the same bright strip of shops pandering to tourists, many of whom arrive by cruise ship, but venture beyond the hotel zone and you’ll discover a new world on the island itself too. Think dense mangrove forests, lush green landscapes populated by endemic species, and cenotes. The east (or ‘wild’) side of the island lives up to its name. It is gorgeously undeveloped and boasts endless beaches you can have to yourself.
The island life you’ll find here is authentic too. The majority of the island’s population live in the town of San Miguel (about 70,000 people), which is on the island’s western (ferry) shore. Right opposite the ferry terminal there is the main colonial square, where you can spend some time browsing or having a drink watching the people. Or contemplate the island’s history over your drink. The island was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century and out of 10,000 people only 350 were left alive as the Spaniards brought with them the deadly smallpox. In 1861 American President Abraham Lincoln wanted to buy the island to relocate freed American slaves offshore but the Mexicans would not have it. The island was struck directly by two category 4 hurricanes in 2005 (Emily and Wilma) causing substantial damage.
But the history of the island goes way back. Cozumel in the language of the Maya means the Land of Swallows. The name comes from the ancient site, now called San Gervacio. The ruins, now set in a quiet jungle park, were once a hub of worship of the goddess Ix Chel, deity of the moon and fertility. The Maya women came here for pilgrimage trips from all over Central America, first on foot to the ports opposite the island (as they did not have horses), and then on canoes from the port of Xaman Ha (now Playa del Carmen) or Po’le (now Xcaret). The Cozumel priestesses ran the rituals for the pilgrims, healed infertility and taught sexual techniques, sheltered infertile women (discarded by their husbands) and orphans (otherwise heading for human sacrifice). Just inhale that heady ancient power of fertility, female power and the sex cult.
Tequila lovers can visit the local tequila factory at Hacienda Antigua, on the traversal road across the island, just before the ruins of San Gervacio. If you’re a wildlife lover, take a hiking trip through the Punta Sur Ecological Park at the southern tip of Cozumel where you can see exotic birds, crocodiles and sea turtles. Families like to go to Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park, located inside Cozumel’s National Marine Park. There is a lagoon here with underwater caverns, home to manatees and sea turtles. If you come at Easter time, don’t miss the Carnival. The parade is not as big as in Rio de Janeiro but certainly offers a great taste of the local costumes, music and ceremonies.
Whatever you choose to do in Cozumel, try and embrace its dual personality: quietly authentic neighborhoods alongside tourist-friendly playgrounds. That way you will get to feel that Caribbean ambience of an island.
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