Just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula sits Cozumel, Mexico’s largest Caribbean island. With lush greenery on land and colorful reefs that fringe the isle, millions of vacationers travel to this Mexican paradise each year. The Mayans were here long before the isle became a tourist haven, however, and their legacy remains on the island to this day.
The Mayans settled here around AD 300 and the tropical isle, in addition to becoming a trade hub for the region, was a place of pilgrimage. Mayan women journeyed here to pay tribute to the goddess of fertility, Ixchel. The name Cozumel came from a Mayan word meaning “land of swallows”; it was believed that Ixchel sent her favorite bird as a way of thanking her devotees.
Travelers can make their own trip to San Gervasio, the centuries-old archaeological site that was Ixchel’s sanctuary. Limestone structures here -- featuring altars, arches and plazas -- date back to distinct eras, including the Early Classical Period (AD 300-600) and the Late Post-Classical Period (AD 1250-1500).
Other ancient Mayan ruins here are El Caracol, used long ago to signal approaching storms; El Cedral, a place of worship in what is now a quaint village and Castillo Royal, a former lookout tower.
The arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century was the beginning of the end for the Mayans here. Conquests and the introduction of smallpox drastically reduced the population and, for a while, Cozumel became a hideaway for pirates, such as Henry Morgan.
It was Jacques Cousteau’s underwater explorations that brought the island attention from scuba divers and snorkelers around the world and Cozumel has been charming tourists ever since.