This author relishes the other side of Cozumel, Mexico: an island off the Riviera Maya coast of eastern Mexico where a family beach vacation becomes a cultural exploration.
Cruise ships still ply their ways to the port and disgorge their human cargo for a day of sightseeing and raucous evening entertainment, especially at Carlos’ and Charlie’s, a drink-saturated night spot reminiscent of college fraternity parties and adolescent coming-of-age rituals. But in the spaces between the crowds seeking trinkets and saturnalias, the proud, quiet culture of the indigenous people, the Mayans, is being further discovered and, yes, even promoted. The tourism authorities realize that today’s travelers are interested in the roots and routes of peoples from whom they can learn.
Center Of Mayan Culture
The name itself, Cozumel, comes from the Mayan goddess of love and fertility, Ixchel (Ishel), who made her home here. Religious temples were dedicated to her, and, in return, she sent her favorite bird — the swallow or cuzam — as a sign of gratitude. Since the Mayan world for “land of” is lumil, the island was called Cozumil or “land of the swallows.”
In the Museo De La Isla De Cozumel (Museum of Cozumel), which should be every visitor’s first stop, you’ll also learn that when the Spaniards invaded Cozumel in 1518, there was a complex and advanced culture of 2,000 Mayans. Two years later, when the Europeans left, there were only 40 Mayans left alive–the others had succumbed to various diseases and maltreatment. This is more than a twice-told tale, one not usually told in these parts, where sun and surf are the twin gods of life today, and nobody wants to dig too deeply–literally and figuratively.
When I first visited the island 20 years ago, there wasn’t even a museum. Today, the Museo is a clean, attractive, well-designed building managed with care and sensitivity. The exhibits are explained in three languages: Mayan, Spanish and English. The fragile ecosystem of the island and its striking reefs are nicely covered, and throughout there is a passionate emphasis on the need for conservation and respect for the environment. A model Mayan home with a Mayan calendar, foodstuffs and domestic utensils is a nice touch, especially the craftsman weaving hammocks by hand in the ancient tradition.
The vibrant colors of the local art on the walls captures the whimsical style of many Latin American painters. I especially appreciated the mischievous child on a bright rocking horse in the middle of the very blue ocean, and the charming girl gazing at the viewer with a slightly perplexed but captivating smile. It’s called “Porque?” or “Why?” The shaded tables that dot the open-air cafe on the second floor are perfect places to enjoy a light lunch or good cup of coffee and watch the pelicans swoop along the water’s surface a few feet away. I’m sure few tourists visit this cafe or the museum, or even know they are here. Located on the main drag in San Miguel, the only town on the island, it’s a real find.
From Mayan to Mexican
After the Museo, take the road out of San Miguel, and head for Ixchel, the home of the Mayan goddess who graced this island. San Gervasio — the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Ixchel and had a penchant for renaming anyway — is about 8 miles/13 km from San Miguel and is one of two remaining Mayan ruins on the island. The small road to Ixchel is bordered by intense vegetation, more like a jungle, through which the road unceremoniously runs. You’ll pass a few places selling home-woven hammocks, an occasional food shack, a young man or two pulling a stubborn bull, but precious little else.
Be sure to bring a strong insect repellent, because the ruins are in a virtual swamp and the mosquitoes show no respect. This is an appropriately mysterious place where the late afternoon thunder rolling through the heavens and the forlorn cry of some bird in a nearby tree add to the ambiance. One of our group reached out her hand to touch the holy site at the very moment the sky rocked with an ear-splitting crack of lightning. Strange. But all part of the afternoon rain that comes and goes in minutes.
There are various small and medium-sized figures and homes here, nothing approximating the awesome Mayan pyramids of Chichen-Itza or Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula, a good day’s journey across the water and into the mainland. But there’s enough here to satisfy the interested traveler, especially the arches that line up perfectly with the sun on the spring equinox. The information gleaned from this ingenious arrangement enabled the Mayan priests to give a “heads-up” to their people, letting them know what weather to expect in the next several weeks.
This 10-acre site is marked with descriptions of the various places, but it’s better to have a guide with you to explain the intricacies of the culture, especially to children. These ruins were discovered in 1972 by a team of archaeologists from Harvard University, and although the Spanish invaders destroyed all the astrological records and other fruits of this culture, the various temples and houses that remain give insight to a people who obviously had a lot to teach, and in their search for a harmonious way of life, had a great deal to tell us.
Touring Around The Island to Punta Sur
Cozumel can easily be seen by moped, taxi or rented car, and there are many opportunities to rent one on the streets. It’s a safe island to drive, and it only takes a few days to see the island. But it’s worth renting a car or moped for a couple of days to return to those deserted beaches whenever you want, and there are plenty of them, especially along the east coast. I found that side of Cozumel more beautiful, though the surf is rougher and it’s not safe to swim. Still, the miles of sand dunes and deserted beaches are impossible to resist, so you’ll have to watch the kids carefully.
From time to time along the road, there’s a dilapidated tequila bar or cafe with names like “Lands End” or “Rastas,” where people hang out, gaze at the sea, drink and lay back. You can’t find a better place to do just that. The turquoise water and the winding seaside road studded with gnarled cacti and stunted trees on which perch the crooked-necked Turkey Vultures are an invitation to “drop out.”
The Punta Sur park and nature preserve is located on this side of the island, a notable example of the island’s growing concern for the ecology and environment. Its 247 acres of mangrove jungles, white sand beaches, reef formations and wildlife in the Colombia lagoon region have yet to be discovered. Granted, it was the slow season when I was there (October), but most tourists make the mistake of bypassing this beautiful site in favor of the drinking and dancing, diving and jiving, that most people associate with Cozumel. The visit to the park begins with a 20-minute educational video in the attractive visitor’s center where the different ecosystems and environments are explained. Some of the most varied and rare birds anywhere can be found here at Punta Sur. One expert bird watcher said he saw a Pinnated Bittern and a Roseate Spoonbill, which, I gather from the excitement, are rare things indeed.
If it reopens with rental buggies or electric bikes, you can drive the sandy paths past Mayan ruin replicas, observation towers and the lagoon with alligators lazily sunning themselves or craftily swimming with only their eyes exposed. Straw-thatched huts are conveniently scattered throughout the property with information kiosks and facilities. One of them is a restaurant sitting just five feet from the crystalline blueness of the sea. You can enjoy a cold beer with corn tortillas and fish stew cooked with local herbs and chipotles.
If the kids are old enough to look after themselves, sit and let your mind wander, expand. Maybe it’s the absence of anything to block the view, or perhaps it’s the unique conjunction of sky and sea, but for a moment I too believed the Earth was flat, that nothing could exist beyond the horizon where the Caribbean and the sky meet so dramatically.
At the farthest tip of the park is a functioning lighthouse, all cool blue and neatly laid out as a navigation museum. It tells a fascinating story of Mayan nautical genius and features the habiliments of their sea-going times. I was struck by the way the Mayans placed conch shells strategically around lookout posts in such a way that when winds of a certain velocity blew, the shells would make a piercing sound signaling a hurricane or bad weather. Despite the admission fee this park is a bargain, and Punta Sur is easily reached by taxi, rental car or moped, about 20 minutes from downtown San Miguel.
Downtown Cozumel, Cruise Ship Central
Cozumel’s only town, San Miguel, is one part tourist trap, one part seaport and, in the back alleys and small side streets, an authentic Mexican pueblo. The main drags run along the sea and just off the main pier, and they are full of small and medium-sized shops that usually are quiet … until the cruise ships arrive. Newly sparkling from constant maintenance, they sell silver and various crafts, most of which are well-made and perhaps somewhat cheaper than at home. But be adventurous and explore the town.
You’ll find pleasant people who are eager to help and willing to accommodate most requests. I bought a lovely, hand-made blanket and a bottle of the best Tequila (Jimenez Reposado). More than that, I made some eating discoveries, which you can read about in “Cozumel: An Insider’s Guide” below.
There are many places to poke around in Cozumel, such as San Francisco Beach, which rocks to mariachi music and families enjoying their time together. On Sunday evenings, check out the village plaza downtown, where music blares from huge loudspeakers and the air is pungent with the scents of good food. Try the spiced corn-on-the-cob.
With its tropical sunsets and clear skies, the awakening of a dormant culture, and its physical beauty, Cozumel is a rewarding island offering a great deal to the perceptive… and the patient.
Cozumel Insider’s Guide : Recommended Resources
Casa Denis – Since 1945, it’s been the classy choice of visiting dignitaries, who relish the shrimp tacos and Yucatecan cuisine.
La Veranda – a pleasant place with tables around an outdoor patio; supposedly the shrimp in Margarita sauce is outstanding.
Las Tortugas – a casual location on a quiet side street; the fajitas and fresh red snapper are great.
Plaza Lecea – the back of the place is decorated with old railroad ties, giving off a quaint, colonial feel; the calamari in garlic is a specialty.
The Fiesta Americana Cozumel Dive Resort combines laid-back living with a solid water sports program. Avid divers will be delighted to hear that the nearby shallow reefs and deep water reefs are in fine shape. Additionally, the violent underwater action of recent hurricanes has revealed new caves off the coast for diving. Families will appreciate how this resort is surrounded by lush jungle and wonderful views of the sea; exceptionally friendly staff. Well priced.
Allegro Resort Cozumel. For those seeking the all-inclusive experience, this is one of the best and liveliest. A classic one-story layout with well-maintained Polynesian-style villas whose thatched roofs needed total replacement after the hurricane, the Allegro remains a favorite with many returning families each spring. It boasts a large theatre for nightly shows, a children’s program for ages 4-12 daily, and scuba facilities. The more opulent and tony Occidental Grand Cozumel, same chain, is next door. More Colonial in style, it has similar facilities but a quieter feel and a premium priced “Club” quarter whose guests have butler service and their own private pool.
The 306-room Iberostar Cozumel is another upscale all-inclusive on the island’s western coast. The Iberostar’s children’s program entertains ages 4-12 with a great deal of imagination and some ecological activities along the seafront.
For more information on travel to Cozumel, visit Isla Cozumel tourism office.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.