Cozumel History

Around 2000 years ago the Maya first settled on Cozumel establishing primarily the religious centers of El Cedral and San Gervasio. It became an important seaport due to the island being between Honduras and Veracruz. There were also pilgrimages from all over the Mayan empire to the island to visit the shrines of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, which were located at the San Gervasio site.

In 1518, Spanish settlers led by Juan de Grijalva arrived and began to settle on the island. Cozumel received its name from Spanish settlers however it is rooted in the Mayan language. It comes from the Mayan words “Cuzam” meaning “Swallow” and “Lumil” meaning “Land of” since every year in April and May due to their migration routes Swallows come to the island in great numbers. When the Spanish arrived on the island they were met with resistance from the Mayan natives. in 1519, Hernan Cortez arrived and was received kindly by the Maya even though he destroyed many of their temples and idols to replace them with the Virgin Mary. A later 1519 expedition led by Pánfilo Nárvaez brought Smallpox to the area which spread through the Maya population on the island and reduced the population from 10,000 to 361 by 1552. By 1600 the island of Cozumel was deserted. Through the 17th century the island was a haven for pirates to operate from in isolation and secrecy. Settlers returned from the mainland in 1848 to find refuge during the Caste war when the Mayans rose up to avenge themselves against the Spanish.

Cozumel came into the spotlight in the late 1950’s when a film was made highlighting the areas reefs and scuba diving. The film director who promoted the island by making an underwater film in Cozumel was René Cardona. That film, Un Mundo Nuevo, was shown in Mexican cinemas in 1957 before being translated into English for American TV as A New World in 1958. Because of the impact of Cardona’s film to the area there is a reef named Cardona Reef in Cozumel!

Wilma in cozumel island-109920 m.jpg
By NOAA Satellite and Information Service - Foto obtenida de la NOAA foto original (web site NOAA of the image), Public Domain, Link

Cruise ship piers were built in the 1990’s and negatively affected the fragile coral reef system on the west side of the island and due to significant cruise and tourist traffic to the island over the last three decades the health of the coral reef has further declined. Two major Category 4 hurricanes hit the island in 2005 (Hurricane Emily and Hurricane Wilma) affecting both the shallower underwater marine habitats as well as the island’s infrastructure which took several years to rebuild. The picture to the right shows the island of Cozumel in the eye of Hurricane Wilma which was the most intense Hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.