Cozumel is an island deeply
rooted in its past, but poised for its future. The Mayans
lived on the island sporadically from 300 to 1200 A.D. and
the name Cozumel is derived from the Mayan Cuzamil, or “land
of the swallows.” Over time, the Mayan word changed
into the Spanish name of Cozumel.
Because of its location, Cozumel was a center for
trade. Its main exports were salt and honey, both as good as gold
in those times. The island also served as main distribution point
for canoes carrying goods from far away places.
Cozumel also has a strong sacred past. After the Mayans settled
on the island, people from all over Mesoamerica would travel to
Cozumel by canoe to worship Ixchel, the deity of moon, fertility
In 1519, the popular Spanish-born Mexican explorer Hernán
Cortés sought out Cozumel after hearing tales of others travels.
Cortés laid claim to Cozumel and the island became the starting
point for the conquest of Mexico. Between 1519 and 1570, the island's
population dropped from 40,000 to 30. Mayans that weren’t
massacred by the Spanish were killed off by diseases like smallpox,
leaving the island abandoned by 1600.
Cozumel was also quite popular with pirates who, for nearly centuries,
utilized the island’s safe harbors and the Maya’s temples
as hiding spots for their treasure. The notorious Henry Morgan and
Jean Lafitte were among the several pirates that frequented the
In 1848, the abandoned island once again accepted settlers. The
brutal War of the Castes caused 20 families to flee Mexico and resettle
Cozumel. Their descendants still reside on the island.
The start of the 20th century was fairly prosperous for the island.
It had become a stop-over for large vessels and the island began
capitalizing on its large stock of zapote trees, which produce chicle,
a main ingredient in chewing gum. The search for chicle in the wild
brush led to the discovery of ancient ruins and brought on visits
by archaeologists from all over the world. This hustle and bustle
of visitors soon died down as the airplane wiped out many ship routes
and synthetic ingredients replaced chicle in chewing gum.
Americans first descended on to the island during World War II
when an airstrip and submarine base were built. Drawn by the clear
water, the military trained their frogmen on the island and word
quickly spread about the underwater vistas of Cozumel.
The world really began to notice Cozumel in the 1960s when famous
diver Jacques Cousteau featured the island and its beautiful underwater
coral reef mazes of on his popular TV program. Since then, tourists
have flocked to the island to enjoy diving and snorkeling in this
tropical slice of heaven.
Cozumel's current population is more than 75,000, a staggering
figure considering it was totally abandoned just 150 years earlier.