Cozumel — part Mexico, part Caribbean

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Victor Block

Tulum is one of the best-preserved coastal Mayan ruins sites. The walled city, built 800 years ago, served as a fortress against enemies approaching by sea and is perched on top of a cliff 40 feet above the Caribbean Sea. It’s a popular day trip from nearby Cozumel.
Shutterstock/ScotteN

Much about the island of Cozumel says Mexico.

Scattered archeological sites hint of the rich Mayan civilization that once flourished there. Parts of San Miguel, the only town, retain the charms of typical villages that are common throughout the rest of the country on the nearby mainland. One of those is the Sunday evening gathering of people along the malecon (esplanade), where parents show off their spiffily dressed children.

At the same time, Cozumel also proudly proclaims “Caribbean.”

White sand beaches are fringed by stately palm trees. The center of the island is covered by dense jungle and swampy lagoons. Activities common to Caribbean islands greet visitors, from sunbathing to sightseeing to snorkeling.

Lying 12 miles off the east coast of Mexico, Cozumel is known for offering deep sea diving that’s among the best in the world. It’s ringed by an underwater wonderland of Technicolor coral heads and submarine gardens that are home to an almost unimaginable variety of sea life.

Non-swimmers may enjoy close-up introductions to creatures large and small in a glass bottom boat or mini-submarine, during a dolphin show, by checking out resident crocodiles in their lair, and by observing endangered sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the Caribbean waters where they will spend their lives.

Venture beyond tourist zone

Most travelers to Cozumel begin their visit in San Miguel, where most island residents live. Once a sleepy village, it has evolved into a popular cruise ship destination, where passengers descend to patronize chain restaurants, jewelry stores and other shops near the docks.

My advice: Venture just a few blocks inland to find a more mellow setting that retains the heart and soul of the original community. There, sidewalks are lined by small, family-owned stores and eateries where locals go. El Mercado, the oldest market on the island, houses a warren of tiny shops and restaurants offering traditional food.

The Museo de la Isla de Cozumel (Cozumel Museum) introduces visitors to the island’s past and culture. Exhibits include a variety of ancient Mayan relics and a thatched hut, which provides insight into the domestic life of pre-Columbian civilization — noted for its hieroglyphic script, architecture and other advanced accomplishments.

In fact, Cozumel derived its name from the Mayans who settled there some 2,000 years ago. They believed the island to be the home of Ixchel (pronounced ee-shell’), the goddess of love and fertility.

According to legend, their construction of temples dedicated to Ixchel earned her gratitude, and in return she sent her favorite bird — the swallow — as a token of thanks. The Mayan words Kozom (swallow) and Lumil (land) were compacted to Kozomil (Land of the Swallows) and it stuck.

A more mundane explanation of the name is that it refers to the large number of those birds that stop over during their annual migration from North to South America.

In the Mayans’ footsteps


A Mayan dancer plays a flute and drum in Cozumel. Dance was a central component of social and political life for the Mayans who first settled this Mexican island 2,000 years ago.
© Shutterstock/Tony Moran

Visitors who explore reminders of Ixchel are following in the footsteps of the Mayans who made a religious pilgrimage to Cozumel. More than 30 archeological sites have been documented on the island.

Present-day San Gervasio was, and is, the most important setting. Sacbes (ancient elevated roads) connect several architectural complexes, including temples, an ossuary and ceremonial centers. Painted red handprints of unknown significance adorn the walls of the Temple of the Hands, and signs of a mural painting remain visible in another structure.

The name of another site, El Caracol (the snail), relates to a conch-shaped building which, according to folklore, acted as a whistle when strong winds blew through it to alert people of an approaching tropical storm. Another theory is that the structure functioned as a kind of lighthouse. However, those in the know insist that neither of those tales is true.

One of the least impressive archeological sites became one of my favorite locations, but not because of the Mayan connection itself. The temple at El Cedral was an important ceremonial place and the hub of Mayan life on the island.

When Spanish Conquistadors landed on Cozumel in 1518, they destroyed the structure, and the remaining portion provides little evidence of its past glory.

However, I found the charming village that surrounds the ruin, which is nestled in the dense jungle, to offer a pleasant contrast with the hustle and bustle of San Miguel. The unpaved streets lead past colorfully painted, miniscule houses that caught my fancy.

Beaches, parks — and pirates

It’s also possible to find soothing settings at some beaches, while others are more developed and crowded.

There are inviting stretches of golden sand along the west side of the island, facing the mainland of Mexico. On the less-developed, eastern (Caribbean Sea) side, quiet beaches are interspersed between rock-strewn areas, and the strong breakers and undertow discourage swimming.

Cozumel also is home to parks and preserves that show off both Mother Nature’s handiworks and man-made attractions. The Faro Celerain Ecological Reserve, which sprawls across the southern tip of the island, does both.

The park protects a mixture of mangroves, lagoons, coastal dunes and reef systems that provide a refuge for a variety of wildlife — including crocodiles, iguanas and resident and migratory birds.

Hardy folks who climb to the top of a towering more-than-century-old lighthouse enjoy magnificent views over the setting, while exhibits in a small museum at ground level are devoted to topics that range from maritime navigation to pirates. 

Speaking of which, Cozumel once provided a safe haven for buccaneers who roamed the Caribbean Sea, including the notorious Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte. At times, the cutthroats hid their ill-gotten treasures in the catacombs and tunnels of abandoned Mayan structures.

Chankanaab Park (Mayan for “Small Sea”) includes enough to-see’s and to-do’s to satisfy many interests. Visitors may stroll through a lush botanical garden, study the colorful inhabitants of a natural aquarium, and enjoy a close-up view of the only inland coral reef formation in the world. There are areas devoted to diving and snorkeling, and opportunities to swim with dolphins.

The complex also recognizes the pervading Mayan influence. It features dozens of replicas of archeological sites, and a working Mayan house that brings to life daily chores of ancient times, like cooking, weaving and planting crops.

A more participatory experience awaits those who take part in atemazcal — a Mayan sweat lodge session that also is available elsewhere on the island. Warning: you will sweat more than you ever thought possible.

One of the most pleasant surprises during my visit to Cozumel with my wife Fyllis was how much I enjoyed the kind of attraction that I typically avoid. Why, I wondered, should we spend time visiting a Mexican cultural theme park when the real Mexico is just outside? As it turned out, I was happy that Fyllis insisted we check out aptly named Discover Mexico.

We began by watching a multi-screen presentation that traces the country’s history and describes its cultures. Then we admired a collection of native art and crafts created by artisans from around the nation.

This was followed by the main attraction. Our stroll through a setting of coconut palms, banana trees and other tropical vegetation, along pathways shared with turtles and iguanas, would have been reason enough for me to be glad we dropped by. But that was just the beginning.

The trail led to more than three dozen meticulously detailed scale models of Mexico’s most famous archeological sites and buildings. Replicas of structures from the Mayan, Aztec and Colonial periods stand near models of contemporary architectural treasures like the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.

Alternating with signs that offer information about the undersized edifices are others that provide interesting, if to me somewhat bizarre, tidbits. For example, I learned that Mexico has the highest consumption of Coca-Cola in the world, and that the Caesar Salad was invented in Tijuana. (Note to readers who may be skeptical of these claims: I verified them through an Internet search.)

Speaking of food, a variety of regional items is on the menu at the Visit Mexico snack bar, and where there’s food, there’s drink. In Mexico, that usually means tequila, which locals light-heartedly refer to as “Mexican water.” Visitors to the theme park have an opportunity to discover how tequila is made, then sample several different brands.

Sipping tequila is about as Mexican as it gets. So, too, is much about the island of Cozumel — which, at the same time, offers attractions usually associated with other Caribbean islands. That combination presents visitors with the best of both worlds.

If you go

Few resorts immerse their guests more in the culture of the destination than the Presidente Intercontinental Cozumel Resort & Spa. The temazcal sweat lodge experience is just the beginning. Many signs throughout the hotel recall the Mayan language, like those for the adult swimming pool (sayab, ocean of tranquility) and lobby bar (Bin K’iin, sunset).

Some traditional Mayan dishes are served in the main restaurant, and the spa incorporates ancient Mayan traditions into treatments.

Mayan art decorates guest rooms, and instead of a chocolate left on pillows, a pamphlet recounts a different Mayan legend each night. My favorite relates how Zamina, creator of the universe, fell in love with the Goddess Ixchel.

Rates at the Presidente Cozumel begin at $282, in keeping with its upscale ambience and attractions. For information or reservations, call 1-800-344-0548 or log onto presidentecozumel.com.

Among cuisines served at the hotel’s four restaurants are northern Italian, international fare and, of course, Mexican dishes. A more local dining experience awaits a short walk away at the casual Money Bar. Given its oceanside setting, the focus there is on dishes like seafood soup ($8) and fish filet with three side dishes ($12). More information is available by calling (987) 869-5141, or visit moneybarbeachclub.com.

In San Muguel, the Casa Denis has been serving meals out of the family home at Calle 1 #132 Centro since 1945. The extensive menu includes snapper filet ($13), beefsteak with onions ($10) and chicken “10 ways” ($10). For more information, visit casadenis.com or call (987) 872-0067.

Information about Cozumel is available at www.cozumel.travel.