Cozumel: Island of the Swallows

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Jeep caravans take tourists to Cozumel’s archaeological sites.No one's got an exact figure, but the little island of Cozumel off the tip of eastern Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula likely has the highest “JPV” ratio – jeeps per visitor – in the country. You'll see the spunky, open-topped vehicles darting around the island's main town of San Miguel, whizzing down the Caretera Sur to the diving mecca at Chankanaab National Park and zipping over the trans-island highway to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio.

Bouncing along the highway to the ruins, few tourists are aware that they're riding over an ancient path trod by millions of Mayan women who came from villages across the Yucatan and as far south as Honduras to pray and leave offerings at the shrine of Ixchel (eee-shell), their goddess of love and fertility.

Visitors from cruise ships pass under a brass sculpture of a sparrow.The ruins cover two square miles including sites of the goddess' shrines and palaces along with restaurants and souvenir shops. According to Mayan legends, if Ixchel was pleased by an offering she rewarded the pilgrim by filling the air with swallows, her favorite bird. The name Cozumel comes from the original Mayan name of the island, Cuzamil, meaning “Island of Swallows.”

The Mayan religion required all women to come to Cozumel to worship Ixchel “at least once in their life,” according to Velio Vivas Valdes, Cozumel’s official cronista (historian). Even today, he noted, offerings – usually, little straw dolls -- are still found at San Gervasio from time to time. 

The long journeys ended in 1519 when Hernan Cortes and his army showed up on Cozumel to begin their conquest of Mexico. Why Cozumel? Besides being a quick sail from the Spaniards' New World headquarters on Cuba, Cortes had heard there was lots of gold on the 30-mile-long island. There wasn’t, and a week or so later the bearded strangers packed up and sailed away, eventually to start the invasion way down the country’s eastern coast at Veracruz.

The Spanish invaders didn’t spot them – they probably sailed right over them – but as things turned out, Cozumel really is loaded with treasures: The island is ringed by 30 coral reefs rated among the most spectacular diving sites in the world.

Some 37 dive sites wind through the reefs, offering scuba divers and snorkelers a Darwinian panorama of swaying gardens, sunken galleons, tunnels, rare trees of black coral, limestone caves and steep walls plunging to the ocean floor. Darting around the virtually transparent aquamarine waters – so clear there’s up to 200 feet of visibility – are over 500 kinds of fish, everything from nurse sharks to large angelfish.

Mayan 'sacbe' roads criss-cross the ruins at San Gervasio.Drawn by the island’s diving and archaeological attractions coupled with the beauty of its white sand beaches, Cozumel today draws millions of tourists, many from cruise ships docking there for the day. Other day-visitors hop off water ferries from the mainland port of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya, while stay-over guests arrive on jets at Cozumel's international airport.

Buy a tour of the island, and chances are you'll end up in a jeep caravan. The four-wheel-drive vehicles, developed by the Willys-Overland Company in World War II as an all-purpose scout car, make it easy to explore Cozumel's off-road historic sites and the jewels of nature found along its powdery beaches.

Just about all of the three dozen resorts, hotels and inns listed in Cozumel's official guide ( offer tours, some included in special package deals.

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