Cozumel: Maya Island of People, Pirates and Plenty of Fishes
12 hours of steady tropical downpour leaves many streets in Cozumel's downtown to be impassable.

Cozumel: Maya Island of People, Pirates and Plenty of Fishes

Cozumel Now and Then

Choppy grey seas bounced our ferry as we bumped up and down on interior seats with the rest of the passengers. Dark clouds hung low on the horizon.

Compared to our first visit in the 1970s—via an earlier era ferry—this was a joy ride to the island of Cozumel today, now a turista favourite along the Riviera Maya in Mexico.

In those long-ago but vividly remembered days, the ferry crossing took one-and-a-half hours from then Playa del Carmen, site of a single open-air, thatched roof, beachside fish eatery. The lone Mayan chef served grilled fish, head and tail intact, a surprise novelty at the time for this diner.

photo of Playa del Carmen in 1974. Only one restaurant. Ferry dock shown
In the 1970s Playa del Carmen had only a few houses and one lone beachfront restaurant at the then ferry dock. Mainly fisherman lived here and along the coast. In fact, the Mexican government tried to entice more residents by giving land away.

In today’s modern vessel, the crossing time is a mere half-hour from the growing city of Playa, now a popular tourist destination of about 150,000.

Nor was this modern ferry’s radar navigation causing any problems we experienced in the 70s. Back then, frantic crews tried fixing a deteriorating steering system. Two of few travellers on board, we could see lights from the target coastline continually drift from view as the old ship tried to ply the Caribbean isthmus in the darkness.

“Don’t worry,” crew members assured us in Spanglish, “sea so warm. If you needs, you can swim in water all night til mañana when rescuers can see you.”

photo of flooding in downtown Cozumel in fall 2019 during rainy season
This flooding in the fall of 2019 was created by one steady downfall within 24 hours. This scene was repeated with each major rainfall. Since Cozumel is virtually at sea level there
is no natural outflow.
We knew we were going to encounter rain as we travelled here in November, the rainy season.

Fast Forward to 2019, Cozumel Today

Outside our Cozumel B&B, we solemnly watch a torrential downpour leave behind streets of flowing rivers. Wearing only flip-flops, we venture out, nimbly sloshing in ankle-deep water trying to reach dry pavement. Anywhere. During our laborious wet walk, we notice how much water has accumulated on the dirt floors of many humble casas. Easy to peek inside these little huts with open doors. We view first-hand the poverty a poor mixed-blood Mayan family endures on their heritage land now peppered with turistas and giant cruise ships.

A quick glance shows an overturned plastic yellow pail on which sits a black-haired preschooler. She looks at us curiously. We smile.

photo of Mayan girl in typical Mayan house
A Mayan girl living in a poor area of today’s Cozumel. Her home has only basic facilities.

Styrofoam pieces, junk and plastic toys float on the stagnant water surrounding her. A young male, perhaps the father of this little doll, lounges at the door, looking desolate, resigned, forlorn.

We look at him; think of his noble Mayan lineage.

Why the name?

            The invading Spanish called this island Cozumel: Cuzam (Swallow) and Lumil (land of), a translation from the Mayan Ah Cuzamil Peten (island of swallows). Each April and May, large flocks of swallows appear on the island during their migratory flights.

Pilgrimage

            At the height of the Mayan empire, women frequently journeyed to Cozumel. They shared a common mission: drawing strength and fertility from the shrine of Ixchel, goddess of fertility. You can find its remains today at the San Gervasio ruins, located on the transversal road heading east.

Pirates!

            In the 17th century, pirates took advantage of Cozumel’s isolation, using it as a base. Most famous of the island’s pirates is the American, Jean Lafitte. It took until 1848 for re-habitation. That’s when mainland settlers, caught in the fierce Caste War, sought refuge in Cozumel. The war began when Mayans sought to avenge the wrongs inflicted on them and their lands by the Spanish. White settlers prevailed in the end, however.

Plenty of fishes

            Cozumel remained a quiet fishing community until 1961. That’s when the famous underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau, dove into the aquamarine waters surrounding the island. Astonished, he described it as “one of the most spectacular scuba diving sites in the world.”

            Today Cozumel attracts millions of visitors annually.

photo of underwater reef in Cozumel with tropical reef fish
The Cozumel diving is spectacular here in the channel between the island and the mainland. There are a number of reefs and walls (drop offs) with crystal clear water. Visibility often exceeds 100 ft.

Travelled:  Fall 1976 and Fall 2019

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Love the fish! One day, I will snorkel again in the salt water of life.

    Nice Blog Heather and Norm….the pirates unfortunately never went away…they own the banking system…and put countries like this into desolation by design….the picture at the opening is spectacular (looks like sand on the mountains)….this is a good idea, to share your experience and travels with the rest of the world.

    Cheers.
    Scott

    1. Appreciate your comments, Scott. Fyi, the photo to which you refer is a picture of Ponte Negra, Natal, Brazil.

    1. Thank you – stay tuned!

  2. Hi H & N! I lived on Cozumel for a year mid-80s and used to go to P del C for the odd weekend. Stayed at the Posada Lily near the little church and could hear frogs at night that sounded like ducks. The only thing I like about Playa now is that the posada is still there against all odds. Or it was last year. Happy travels wherever you are now! Brin

    1. Hey Brin….good to hear from you! Do not recall Posada Lily but love the look of it. So you must have been in Cozumel about 10 years after our first visit. Would be interesting to compare notes on growth. Although we love to explore we also know there are pros and cons to communities after tourism begins. Not all good! We are currently in Hua Hin, Thailand. I understand you are back ‘home’ where we first met. Buenos Dias!

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