Island of Swallows

Island of Swallows

In preparation for an upcoming trip I thought I would research the history of Cozumel, a Mexican island off the coast of Playa del Carmen. My husband and I visited the island over 6 years ago, but only stayed for a few hours and took the ferry back to Playa del Carmen where we were staying. Having enjoyed those few hours, we decided to make it our home base as we escaped the never ending snow assault here in the Midwest.

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Cozumel is located in the Caribbean Sea and is famous for its natural reefs which draw scuba divers and tourists from all over. The Mesoamerican Reef and Museo Subacaticode Arrte’s submerged sculptures are highlights any trip. A port built in the 1990’s has turned the island into a stopping point for cruise ships passing through the region. It is also likely responsible for the damage and decline of the reefs. Other natural features include the Chankanaab, an ecopark surrounding a lagoon with underwater caverns, home to dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. The main attraction is swimming with the dolphins.

The flat island measures only 30 miles long by 9.9 miles wide, a total of 184.5 square miles. It sits on top limestone which has created a karst topography, similar to what you find in the Ozarks region in the U.S. This types of formation is what creates the caves and caverns that produce good diving. The islands name is derived from Mayan Cuzamil which means island of swallows. The island keeps true to its name with a host of bird species, but other wildlife like the Cozumel fox and raccoon are either extinct or nearly extinct.

The population in 2011 was 100,000 people with most living in San Miguel, the islands largest city settled in 1849. Despite the small population, the tourism industry boasts 300 restaurants and hotels, a number that seems crazy for a normal community of 100,000 people. The population has grown exponentially in a short time however. There were almost no Maya left in Cozumel until 1848 when they fled the mainland to resettle on the island during the Caste War of Yucatan.

The full history of Cozumel is varied and long however, beginning in the 1st Century AD. The island was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess. Women would often pilgrimage to the island seeking good fertility. In 1518 the Spanish arrived, but were peacefully received. That changed when the Panfilo Narvaez expedition reduced the Maya population from 10,000 in 1520 to 186 men and 172 women in 1570 after bringing smallpox with them. They were then attacked by pirates, forcing most of the population to flee to the mainland in the mid to late 1600’s. The largest remaining ruins from this period are the San Gervasio, located at the center of the island.

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One of the longest standing traditions on the island is the Cozumel Carnival, celebrated the week leading up to Mardi Gras each year going back to 1908. The five day festival is filled with food, parades, dancing, and celebration. The parades take place in downtown San Miguel and the celebration concludes with the burning of Juan Carnival on the Wednesday following Fat Tuesday.

For such a small island, Cozumel has a lot to offer visitors. Natural beauty, coral reefs, wildlife, temperate climate (when not getting hit by a hurricane), and history. I am excited to visit again armed with this knowledge of how the island has developed over time and what has made it a success.

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