Located just offshore from the hip and growing town of Playa del Carmen in Mexico’s Riviera Maya,the island of Cozumel enjoys a rich and storied history that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Maya. Today,it has become a favorite destination for tourists and the international dive community,thanks in part to explorer Jacques Cousteau,who first visited the area in 1961 and showed the world what they were missing in the underwater wonderland of the surrounding Mexican Caribbean Sea.
“His award-winning documentary spotlighted an underwater panorama of swaying gardens,sunken galleons,tunnels,rare trees of black coral,limestone caves and steep walls plunging to the ocean floor,” writes the Huffington Post. “Darting around the waters – so clear there’s up to 200 feet of visibility – Cousteau found more than 500 kinds of fish,everything from nurse sharks to large angelfish.”
Although it may not be the same kind of treasure that was sought by Spanish invaders who landed in Cozumel during the early 1500’s to begin their conquest of Mexico,this underwater world is today viewed as one of the world’s most valuable gems. In fact,the waters immediately surrounding the island are home to a colorful array of more than 30 types of coral reefs,which are part of Cozumel’s National Marine Park. This protected area encompasses more than 12,000 hectares (which translates to about 29,600 acres) of sea and coastline,which is home to a grand total of at least 105 different types of coral and more than 260 species of tropical fish.
“The island’s diving and archaeological attractions,coupled with the beauty of its white sand beaches,today draw millions of tourists a year,many from cruise ships docking there for the day,” writes the Huffington Post. Other visitors come by water ferries on the 12-mile run between the island and the mainland port of Playa del Carmen,on a 20-minute air shuttle from nearby Cancun,and on jets arriving at Cozumel’s International Airport.
As one of the world’s top cruise ports,at a total of 463 square miles Cozumel is 34 miles long and also happens to be Mexico’s largest Caribbean island,as well as the nation’s largest inhabited island and Mexico’s third largest island overall.
When Spanish invader Hernan Cortes and his army showed up near the island’s modern-day capital of San Miguel,it would soon put a stop to a time-honored Mayan religious tradition,which required all women to make a pilgrimage to Cozumel at least once in their life to pray at the shrine of the goddess Ixchel.
Millions of female pilgrims must have made their way to the island over the centuries on long journeys from across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and from other Mayan territories that stretched as far south as Honduras,hoping to gain favor with the goddess and be blessed with fruitful marriages and healthy children. So the next time you visit this jewel of the Mexican Caribbean,just keep in mind that you are likely treading on sacred ancient ground.