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History of Cozumel

Cozumel is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, and the third largest overall in Mexico. Spanning around 34 miles in length, it has a total area of 463 square miles. Cozumel is at the moment one of the world’s top cruise ship ports. The island attracts cruise tours from the world over, with its clear waters and reefs that are protected from powerful open ocean waves. Today Cozumel has a population of around 50,000 residents, most of who live in the western town of San Miguel.  Located 12 mile from the mainland coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the island is a limestone base with a coastline about 11 miles long. The central part of the island is very sparsely inhabited and is home to a wide variety of animals and birds, with many of them just being specific to the island. The first inhabitants of the island were the Mayan people. They were sea people and other than the island being a significant trading stop for them, they saw it as a sacred shrine.

Cozumel initially began as a pilgrimage site, where the goddess of fertility was worshipped by the Mayan people. The shrines where the worshippers visited to pray are now just ruins but are still visited by tourists. The Maya people are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Cozumel Island, having settled there in the earliest years of the first millennium. The name Cozumel is even derived from the Mayan language. The Mayans named the island “Cuzaam Luumi”, shortened to “Cuzamil’ which translates to “the place of swallows.” This name could have been given due to the swallows that appear every year between April and May in great number during their migration period. They believed the island to be a sacred place.

Mayan women were required by their tradition to pay pilgrimage to the shrines in the island to seek blessing from the goddess of fertility, Ix Chel. Millions of pilgrimages must   have been made by women from other Mayan territories, even as far south as Honduras. They crossed the sea in wooden canoes to give offerings. What remains of one of the altars used for these sacrifices can be found San Gervasio ruins, in the middle part of the island.

The island later on proved to be a very important seaport for the Mayan traders, mainly due to its location in the middle of the route from Honduras and Veracruz. The Mayan population in the island began to decline in the 10th century attributing to a number of reasons including famine and plagues. Attacks from the Tolteca people were also a big blow to the Mayans. This tribe had better warriors and their conflicts with the Mayans left many of the Mayan soldiers killed. The Mayan culture was as a result dominated by the Tolteca by the 12th century.

The Spanish started arriving in 1518 when Juande Grijalva landed with his four ships, though he did not have as much impact to the island as compared to those who came after him. Hernan Cortez arrived one year after Grijalva and went into war with the Mayans over power and control of the island.  Around this time, just as Cortez left the island to continue on to Cuba, a big population of the Mayans died after an outbreak of smallpox that left less than 350 men and women alive. In the years that followed most of the island inhabitants were forced to relocate into the island. By the start of the 17th century, Cozumel had been completely abandoned.

Pirates took advantage of this isolation of the island and for many of the years after 1600 saw Cozumel being the base of many pirate operations. Most notable of the pirates is Henry Morgan who frequently raided in the Caribbean waters, and the infamous American pirate Jean Lafitte. Although some authors of history allege that no pirates actually made Cozumel the headquarters of their operations. In his book “The True History of Cozumel”, Ric Hajovsky tries to put forward that the stories of Cozumel being a pirates’ hub might have surfaced  due to lose translation from Spanish. At this time, those referred to as ‘piratas’ were those who had refused to pay taxes to the Spanish Crown. It was not until the mid 19th century that the island was inhabited by refugees fleeing the Castle War at the main land.

Up to around 1961 Cozumel was a quiet little known island with fishing being practically the only activity, but from this year people would start flocking the island for diving. This is after French explorer Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the island one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world. The island was also made popular by the film Un Mundo Nuevo, directed by Rene Cardona. It was first shown in Mexican cinemas in 1957 and later translated to into English in 1958 and aired on American television.  Today Cozumel Island in Mexico is a world class tourist destination simply because of the magic and beauty of this island. The rich history of the Island and rich culture of its people make it an amazing place. The waters surrounding the island are crystal clear and the beaches are just a beauty. There is even the Cozumel National Marine Park that covers an entire 12000 hectares of land in sea and coastline, boasting a home to at least 100 different types of coral reefs. The world’s largest coral reef, about 700km in length, is found in Cozumel Island.

No one knows for sure when diving started in Cozumel island but it is alleged that the U.S. Navy used the island as their training ground during the second world war, long before being documented by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau. Today thousands of divers visit this Mexican island, and even more visit just for the island’s beauty and its rich culture. All these attractions have made Cozumel a major stop for many Caribbean cruise ship tours. Cozumel is a popular destination for many cruise ship excursions, one for the fact that it offers the best stop in the Western Caribbean and secondly because on the route to Cozumel, the other stops are also equally or more spectacular.



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