Cozumel was not one of my favorite cruise stops — until December.
Cozumel is an island off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. A relatively safe place, the tourist industry developed rapidly after the 1960s; today, tourism is the principle driver of the economy.
We have only visited on cruises. Most cruise excursions there are centered around water sports. Alie does not do well in the heat. I’m not a lie-on-the-beach person. Other stops are better for diving. There is no interesting place easily accessible by foot from the docks. The island is flat and has mangroves — it is much like where we live in Florida.
But in December I went on a tour of the San Gervasio Mayan ruins led by Bianca, an exceptional guide who has Mayan ancestors. She was interesting; I learned a lot; and I had a good time even when stopping at the inevitable souvenir and chocolate shop. Bianca pointed out San Miguel, their principle town, has many American stores like Sam’s Club and Starbucks but has no Taco Bell: “we know how to make tacos.” They had chocolate made to American tastes for sale and, more interesting, free samples of a chocolate drink made in the Mayan style with no milk and no sugar but with cinnamon. It is bitter, but I liked it.
The island name derives from the Mayan for land of swallows. Mayans came to the island about two thousand years ago.
In the period between 300-400 A.D., a group of structures was built near the center to control the hamlets around the island. The Spaniards later called it San Gervasio.
By 1000 A.D., San Gervasio began to control trade between the Yucatán and other parts of the Mayan civilization. Cozumel is the furthest eastern point in the Mayan civilization. In the post-classical period between 1200 and 1650 A.D., in addition to being a trade center, it also was a religious pilgrimage destination for a people who venerated the sun.
At its peak, Mayan civilization is estimated to have had 12 million people; Cozumel had eight thousand. It probably gets close to that again today when a couple big cruise ships come in but otherwise is still a quiet place to visit with many beaches and resorts.
The “Tomb Structure” is just a platform, but its interior houses a vaulted tomb unique in San Gervasio. Its narrow steps, like those of many Mayan religious structures, were deliberately designed that way to force those climbing them to approach in a more respectful sideways manner.
Next to it was the “Little Hands Structure” named for the little hands painted on one wall. They are “young,” only five or six hundred years old, and point up symbolizing life; hands pointing down symbolized death.
There are about 300 cenotes or sinkholes on the island that provided natural fresh water to the inhabitants. They are believed to connect to fresh water streams that come all the way from the mainland. On a limestone island just thirty-five feet above sea level, the cenotes were lined with stone and sometimes covered to provide hurricane shelter as well.
San Gervasio is in the center of the island, but an 11-mile straight Mayan road leads to a site on the coast. Such an engineering feat was not unusual. There is a straight road 300 miles long connecting the mainland sites of Chichén Itzá and Copal.
Bianca also showed us a Mayan calendar – a cog wheel with a cog wheel on the inside, both on the outside of another. As my deaf ears understood her, one small one representing the sun rotated through eighteen 20-day months and one 5-day period for a calendar year; the other, representing the moon, rotated through 260-day cycles, the period of gestation. All three would all meet in alignment once every 5128 years. She strongly pointed out the Mayan calendar did not say the world would end in 2012, but just that the cycle would begin again.
Bianca was clear that there are many people of Mayan descent today but none of pure Mayan blood. When showing us photos of Mayan carvings and wall paintings, she noted the ancient Mayan found beauty in cross-eyed women and heads made pointed in early childhood by wood frames. As noted, the Mayans were great astronomers and mathematicians (although they did not have the concept of zero). These factors led some to speculate they were aliens from outer space. Facetiously, she asked “do you think we are aliens?” When we did not respond, she asked again.
Click on photos to enlarge.