Cozumel (Mayan for Island of Swallows) is located in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is one of the eight municipalities of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The Maya Civilization
The Maya are believed to have settled Cozumel by the early part of the first millennium A.D., and older preclassic Olmec artifacts have been found on the island as well. Originally the Maya established themselves in the Yucatan Peninsula around 2600 B.C. Their culture and influence then spread throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador. From A.D. 250 to 700 the highly advanced Maya civilization was at its peak.
The Maya constructed many buildings and sacred shrines on Cozumel. They believed in multiple gods. It is uncertain to historians exactly how many gods and goddesses there were. One Spanish source claims there are more than 150.
San Gervasio Archaeological Site
San Gervasio is the most important historical Maya site on Cozumel and the largest Maya establishment found on the island to date. San Gervasio was a sacred Maya site. It was also a strategic site for commerce and politics in the area. This historical destination was a sanctuary to Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility. It was an obligatory pilgrimage for Mayas, once during their lifetime, to visit Ix Chel. On the walls of the buildings you can see ancient drawings and aspects of the rich culture of the Mayas. One of the most interesting buildings is the Temple of the Hands. Inside there are numerous small red handprints of unknown significance painted on the wall.
San Gervasio is a place where one can explore Maya culture and its mysteries. Guided bilingual tours are available or you can experience this amazing destination on your own; but make sure to visit this unique archeological site. Rent a car or take a taxi. San Gervasio is located on the Trans-Island Road 4 miles from downtown.
Cortés and the Spanish
The first Spanish visitor to Cozumel was Juan de Grijalva in 1518 on an expedition to further explore the Yucatan coast. The following year Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador who initiated the conquest of the Aztec Empire on behalf of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Castile.
Cortés was astonished at the signs of civilization he found here as compared with the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. The houses were large and built of stone. The temples had terraces raised on stone towers story above story.
With Cortes were two priests, Diaz and Olmedo. Olmedo was gentle and loving while at the same time demonstrating great wisdom. More than once his gentle wisdom held back Cortes when he was determined to convert the heathen by force if they would not become Christians by any other means. The Indians loved and reverenced their idols, and exclaimed that the gods of rain and sunshine would send down lightning on the heads of any one who should interfere with their temples. Cortes, not able to argue through an interpreter, thought he would give the Indians a chance to see what their gods would do for them. He entered the great temple and rolled their idol down the stairs. Then amid the groans and laments of the natives he set up an altar with an image of the Virgin. Father Olmedo said: “The Indians listened in amazement even though they could not understand. As revenge did not come from heaven over the bold Spanish, the Indians concluded that the God of strangers was more powerful than theirs, so they converted to Christianity. ”
Cortés reported in 1519 an Indian population of 10,000 but a later Spanish expedition brought smallpox to the island. By 1570 there were a mere 300 people living on Cozumel.
Pirates and Re-settlers
In the ensuing years Cozumel became completely abandoned and later rumored as a hideout for pirates. By 1843 the island had been abandoned. Cozumel was not resettled until 1848, during Mexico’s War of the Castes which resulted in resettlement by refugees escaping the uproar. Often violent attempts by natives of Maya ancestry to retain their lands lasted until surrender to government troops in 1901.
In 1961, famed undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau discovered the extent and beauty of Palancar, the coral reefs at the south of Cozumel and publicized it as one of the most beautiful scuba diving areas of the world. By 1970, the population of Cozumel had reached 10,000 and today some 90,000 people inhabit this island paradise.