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Cozumel - History

Cozumel History

The Mayans were settled in here way back in the day, starting from AD 300. In the post-classic period, Cozumel thrived as a trade center and, very significantly, a ceremonial site. Mayan women all over the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond made pilgrimages here to pay tribute to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and the moon, at a temple erected in her honor at San Gervasio, near the center of the island.

The first Spanish, Juan de Grijalva and his men, made their way to Cozumel in 1528. At the time, there were at least 32 Mayan building sites on the island. A year later, conqueror Hernán Cortés sacked one of the Mayan temples but left the others intact, apparently satisfied with converting the island population to Christianity. As if that weren't enough, Spanish conquistadors introduced devastating smallpox to the islanders - the disease wiped out half of the 8000 Mayan population. And the survivors? All but 200 fell under genocidal attacks by conquistadors in the late 1540s.

A period of virtual desertion on Cozumel followed, during which the island became a refuge for notorious pirates such as Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan.

In 1848, Indians fleeing the War of the Castes found their way to Cozumel, and by the early 20th century its now mostly mestizo population grew, thanks in the most part to chewing gum. Locals harvested chicle on the island (Cozumel was a port of call on the chicle export route); the natural gum was sugar-coated in America and turned into the ubiquitous Chiclets. The later invention of synthetic chewing gum meant the need for chicle eventually waned, as did Cozumel's major industry. However, the economy stood strong for a while because of the construction of a US air base during WWII.

After the US military said adios, the island hit a real economic slump, and many of its residents moved away. The hangers-on fished for a living. Then in 1961, everything changed when ocean explorer-extraordinaire Jacques Cousteau produced a documentary about Cozumel's glorious sea life. Almost overnight, the tourist began to arrive - voilà, a new era.

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