The island is about 48 km (30 miles) north-south and 16 km (10
miles) east-west, and is the largest Atlantic island of Mexico. (It is the
third-largest island in Mexico, following Tiburón Island and Isla Ángel de la Guarda.) It is
about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the mainland, and some 60 km (36
miles) south of Cancún. The vast majority of the population of Cozumel lives in the town of
San Miguel (pop. 71,401 in 2005), which is on the western shore. The rest of
the island is low, flat, and densely vegetated. The island, including offshore
islets, has a land area of 477.961 km² (184.54 sq mi). The municipality,
which includes two small areas on the mainland enclaved within the Municipality of Solidaridad with a land area of 10.423 km² (4.024 sq mi), has a total land
area of 488.384 km² (188.566 sq mi). The two areas enclaved on the
mainland are Calica, near Playa del Carmen and Xcaret, and the Xel-Há Water Park, near the Xelha archaeological ruins.
The Maya are believed to have first settled Cozumel by the early part of the 1st
millennium AD, and older Preclassic Olmec artifacts have been found on the island as well. The island was sacred
to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess, and the temples here were a place of
pilgrimage, especially by women desiring fertility. There are a number of ruins
on the island, most from the Post-Classic period. The largest Maya ruins on the
island were bulldozed to make way for an airplane runway during World War II.
The ruins of San Gervasio are located approximately
at the center of the island and are the largest remaining ruins.
The first Spanish visitor was Juan de Grijalva in 1518 , and in the following year Hernán Cortés came with a fleet and
destroyed many Maya temples. Some 40,000 Mayans lived on the island then, but
the smallpox disease devastated them, and by 1570 only 30 were left alive. In the
ensuing years Cozumel was nearly deserted, just used as a hideout by pirates
from time to time. In 1848, the Caste War of Yucatán resulted in resettlement
by refugees escaping the tumult. A plaque at the Museo Cozumel states that Abraham Lincoln as the American President came close to purchasing the island of
Cozumel as a place to send the freed slaves. The continued war in the Yucatan
caused him to change his mind.
In 1959, Jacques Cousteaudiscovered
the extent and beauty of Palancar, the coral
reefs at the south of Cozumel and publicized it as
one of the best places to go scuba diving in the world, although this reputation
has been marred as a result of the controversial death of British singer Kirsty MacColl whilst diving there in 2000.
Although the original airport was a World War II relic and was able to
handle jet aircraft and international flights, a much larger airport was
built in the late 1970s. This resulted in much greater tourism to Cozumel.
Scuba diving is still one of Cozumel's primary attractions, mainly due
to the healthy coral reef marine communities. These coral reefs are protected
from the open ocean by the island's natural geography. In 1996, the government
of Mexico also established the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, forbidding
anyone from touching or removing any marine life within the park boundaries.
Despite the importance of healthy reefs to Cozumel's tourist trade, a deepwater pier was built in the 1990s for cruise ships to dock, causing damage to the
reefs, and it is now a regular stop on cruises in the Caribbean.
More significant--and virtually impossible to humanly repair--was the
damage to the underwater marine life. This includes both the coral reefs, which
suffered particularly at the shallower dive sites, and the fish that inhabit
Diving and charter fishing comprise nearly all sources of income. There
are over 100 restaurants on the island and many hotels, some of which run dive
operations, have large swimming pools, private docks, multiple dining
facilities, and offer complete wedding and honeymoon packages.
Other water activities include para-sailing, kitesurfing, and a tourist submarine. One of the hotels has captive dolphins that
put on shows with tourists each day for approximately $100 per person.
At the cruise ship docks there are several square blocks of stores
selling Cuban cigars, jewelery, t-shirts, tequila, and a large variety of
inexpensive souvenirs. There are three brothels located in southern area of the
island - two of which (Platina's and California Club) cater to tourists. Adult
entertainment in town is limited and much of it has been shut down.
All food and manufactured supplies are shipped onto the island. Water is
provided by a seawater desalinization facility located on the southern portion
of the island.
There are two universities on the island: Universidad de Quintana Roo and Partenon. In addition to teaching English as a degree, they offer
five other career options including natural resources research, tourism and
Cozumel is part of the State of Quintana Roo (Q-Roo). The Municipality
of Cozumel consists of the island of Cozumel (with its offshore islets) and
small pieces of adjacent mainland enclaved within the Municipality of Solidaridad. They
are Calica and the Xel-Há Water Park.
of El Cedral in Cozumel
To this day a historic festival is held in the small town of El Cedral,
in the south of Cozumel Island at the end of April. This annual event is said
to have been started over 150 years ago by Casimiro Cárdenas.
Cárdenas was one of a group that fled to the island from the village of
Saban, on the mainland, after an attack during the War of the Castes. The
attackers killed many other villagers, but Cárdenas survived whilst clutching a
small wooden cross.
Legend has it that Cárdenas vowed to start an annual festival wherever
he settled, to honor the religious power of this crucifix. Today, the original
Holy Cross Festival forms part of the wider Festival of El Cedral, which
includes fairs, traditional feasts, rodeos, bullfights, music and competitions.
The celebrations last about 5 days in all and are held every year at the end of
April or beginning of May.
Looking north from the top of the Punta Sur lighthouse.
Cozumel is a flat island based on limestone, resulting in a karst topography. The highest natural point on the island is less than 15 meters above
sea level. The Cenotesare deep water filled sinkholes formed by water percolating through
the soft limestone soil during thousands of years. Cenotes on the island are
not generally available to most, and are home to several aquatic species. In
the early 1990s, a group of cave explorers here discovered the 5th largest
underwater cave in the world. Ancient inhabitants of the island also used the
large holes in the rocks for shelter, particularly to escape the heat, by
digging out small caves in the ground.
Cozumel has a number of endemic species and subspecies of bird