Cozumel island derives its name from the Mayan words Cuzam (swallow) and Lumil (land of) which form the word Cuzamil (land of swallows). The Mayan word changed with time to the Spanish name of Cozumel. The Mayans believed the island to be a sacred land.
The first Mayans settled on Cozumel approximately 2,000 years ago. During the Classic Period (300-900 A.D.) the priests held all political and economical power. Art, science and architecture achieved their highest splendor. This was the time of the great chronological steles, hieroglyphic writing, and the precise and complex calendar calculations by which farming and religious activities where regulated.
Around the year 900 A.D., the Putunes (also know as Itzaes or Chontales) had already coasted the peninsula of Yucatán. Around 918 A.D., they had taken over Chichén, the ancient city that gained a new vitality and a renewed hegemony under their rule. Their influence spread over the northern area of the peninsula and with it the cult of KuKulKan (Quetzalcoatl). Chichén itzá became the seat from where they ruled over the entire region during some 200 years.
In the Yucatan region there were three important sanctuaries visited by pilgrims from all over the area: Chichén Itzá, Izamal and Cozumel. The object of the pilgrimages to the island were to venerate the goddess Ix Chel in her shrines. It was a tradition for the Mayans to make the trip at least once in their lifetime.
Nowadays, usually in the month of May, the islanders make a recreation of this pilgrimage. "The Sacred Mayan Journey" gathers more than 30e 0 oarsmen and 30 canoes. With Mayan ceremonies, full Mayan attire and symbolism, it's like traveling back in time. The recreation includes representations of dances, ceremoniesand rituals that were part of the culture. Check current information at the Sacred Mayan Journey official site.
The art of divination was common practice in Middle America. It was related to the importance set upon calendrical and astronomical signs in person's destiny. In the Mayan area, the predominant form of divination was the Oracle of Cozumel, a rite described in the XVI century.
Ix Chel is goddess of the moon, pregnancy and childbirth. She is the protector of those whom are never born. She is the one who molds the facial features while still in the mother's womb. She is the wife of Itzam Na, Lord of the Heavens. She is the deity of all things feminine, the one who creates spinning and weaving and who is the giver of all attire. But she is also the destructive water that becomes floods and makes things come to an end. By such nature, she is also the ruler of tides.
In Middle America there existed an important long distance trade in which Cozumel was a key link. It was on this island where all kinds of merchandise arrived from far away places. Goods were temporarily stored before being sent in canoes to other distribution points.
The Mayans built a road network in Cozumel. The sacbeob (plural of sacbé which means white road) were wide elevated highways that connected the cities with each other. They were built between parallel stone walls, filled with layers of lime and coarse gravel and covered with an uppermost surface of leveled cement. The roads were between two and ten meters wide and some of them were 100 kilometers long.
In the new social structures during the Post-Classic Period (900-1521 A.D.) the main activities became basically commercial and the great religious and chronological monuments came to be unnecessary and superfluous. Among other pre-hispanic ruins, the remains of great platforms used for storage still stand out in Cozumel.
Gonzalo Guerrero, Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar and their crew were the first Spaniards to reach the land of the Mayans. After being shipwrecked on the shoals of Los Alacranes near Jamaica, the current led their canoe to the coast of the Yucatan, where they were captured by a group of Mayans. Five of their companions were sacrificed immediately, the rest were able to escape. But a few days later they were recaptured by another group, taken as slaves and delivered to different Mayan rulers. After time the only survivors were Aguilar and Guerrero. The latter adopted the Mayan beliefs and way of life, married the daughter of the Principal of Chetumal and fathered her three children signaling the beginning of the long and painful process of mestizaje: the cultural and physical process that gave birth to the unique mexican people and culture. Mestizos are those with Spanish and indigenous blood.
On Holy Cross Day (May 3rd) Juan de Gijalva's expedition landed in Cozumel. The islanders received the Spaniards in peace. They exchanged gold and a variety of goods. The expedition then continued south, sighting several settlements on the coast of the peninsula, among them Tulum. The Catholic mass held that day at the beach, currently named Las Casitas (little houses), is still celebrated by locals every year.
Upon his return to Cuba, Juan de Grijalva brought news about the existence of two Spaniards in the land of the Yucatán. When Hernán Cortés arrived to Cozumel in 1519, in command of the next expedition, he sent them word to join him on the island. Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar did so after a few days, but Gonzalo Guerrero sent word back refusing to return with the Spaniards. Furthermore, he set about organizing the Mayans so that they could defend their land from the Spanish takeover. Eighteen years later, Guerrero died at the hands of Hernán Cortés, in Honduras.
Cozumel was the first site touched by the army of Hernán Cortés in what is now Mexican territory, becoming the starting point for the conquest of Mexico. It was on this island that the long, drawn out domination of the Yucatán started and was carried out. Between the arrival of Cortés in 1519 and the year 1524 when the conquest culminated, there were no large-scale confrontations between the Indians and the Spaniards on the island. The Mayan ruler of Cozumel accepted their domination peacefully.
As the Spaniards became more familiar with the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, they realized they did not have to stop-over in Cozumel, excluding it as a port of call for Spanish ships. At the same time, as an immediate effect of the conquest, Mayan trade was nullified and the cult of the goddess Ix Chel suppressed. The islanders, deprived of their principal economic activity, were forced to depend only on agriculture for their survival.
The Spaniards did not visit the island very often due to the dangers and difficulties of reaching it and the considerable distance that separated it from their ruling cities on the mainland. Nonetheless, a high tax was imposed on the islanders. The Mayans peacefully accepted the ruling of the Spaniards. They did so in order to preserve their peace and isolation, as well as to avoid the presence of the missionaries who insisted on modifying their beliefs and way of life.
By the decree of the King of Spain of July 15 of 1583, Cozumel became directly dependent upon the Yucatan church. Between 1519 and 1570, the island's population dropped from 40,000 to 30. By 1700 it was finally uninhabited.
The social upheavals that took place in the peninsula during the mid 19th century gave way to a rebirth in Cozumel history. The mestizo fishermen and woodcutters that had been harassed and isolated from Mérida throughout the Mayan insurrection were forced to seek shelter in Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. A few years after the war began, there were two known villages formed in Cozumel with more than 700 inhabitants. This war, known as the Castes War, ended when President Porfirio Díaz launched a final attack against the rebels. Without the rebels, he was able to exploit the area's resources, mainly chicle (substance used to make chewing gum), sugar cane and hardwood. In June of 1901, the last of the Mayan chiefs was shot in Xacán.
Although the Castes War brought about a renewal in Cozumel. The island isolation limited the island's development to some fishing and agriculture. It was not until the Mayan rebels were finally dominated that Cozumel came out of isolation and became the most favored port on the eastern coast. Maritime transportation and trade became the most profitable economic activities. Some fruits and other agricultural products reached high production levels for the foreign markets. The island exported Henequen (a natural fiber used to make heavy rope), coconut, meat, sugarcane, banana, chicle and pineapple. Honey and wood, Cozumel's traditional products, also held an important position.
During those years, Cozumel was the only port with permanent and safe facilities, controlled by a group of merchants and ship owners who were able to make contact with the outside world. The port, therefore, became a center for the reception and distribution of products for all of Mexico. By the mid fifties, transporting goods by road became more practical than shipping goods by way of Cozumel.
By 1928 Pan American Air Ways established a route between Key West Florida and Colón, Panama. The plane made a stopover at Cozumel.
History tells us that in 1950 Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey, a couple of journalist, visited the island and later published an article in the tourist magazine "Holiday". They were sent to the island by Charlie Fair who came to Cozumel two years before after a Panamanian flag ship ran aground on the south reefs. This began the international promotion of Cozumel.
The Mexican Airline Company, now Mexicana Airlines, established a fixed itinerary between Mérida and Cozumel. The first flight arrived on June 13th 1958.
In 1962 the French explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau visited Cozumel and proclaimed it to be one of the finest sites in the world for the practice of scuba diving.
In 1970, no more than two thousand people visited the island yearly. In the 1980's, Cozumel became one of the top tourist destinations in the Caribbean.** With the exception of the last two pictures, all images in this page courtesy of Mr.Velio Vivas lifelong chronicler of Cozumel Island, used with permission **