Cozumel's History

Cozumel’s name is believed to have come from the Mayan "Ah-Cuzamil-Peten" ("Land of the Swallows"). For the Maya, who lived here intermittently between about AD 600 and 1200, the island was not only a center for trade and navigation but also a sacred place. Pilgrims from all over Mesoamerica came to honor Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, childbirth, and healing. The mother of all other gods, Ixchel (also known as Lady Rainbow) was often depicted with swallows at her feet. Maya women, who were expected to visit her site at least once in their lives, made the dangerous journey from the mainland by canoe. Cozumel’s main exports were salt and honey, both of which at the time were considered more valuable than gold.

In 1518 Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva arrived on the island in search of slaves. His tales of treasure inspired Hernán Cortés, Mexico’s most famous Spanish explorer, to visit the following year. There he met Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, Spaniards who had been shipwrecked years earlier. Initially enslaved by the Maya, the two were later accepted into the community. Aguilar joined forces with Cortés, helping set up a military base on the island and using his knowledge of the Maya to defeat them. Guerrero, in contrast, died defending his adopted people, and the Maya still consider him a hero. By 1570 most Maya islanders had been massacred by the Spanish or killed by disease, and by 1600 the island was abandoned.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates found Cozumel to be the perfect hideout. The notorious buccaneers Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan favored the island’s safe harbors and hid their treasures in Mayan catacombs and tunnels. By 1843 Cozumel had again been abandoned. Five years later, 20 families fleeing Mexico’s brutal Caste War of the Yucatán resettled the island, and their descendants still live there today.

By the early 20th century the island began capitalizing on its abundant supply of zapote (sapodilla) trees, which produce chicle, a chewy substance prized by the chewing-gum industry. (Now you know how Chiclets got their name.) Shipping routes began to include Cozumel, whose natural harbors made it a perfect stop for large vessels. Jungle forays in search of chicle led to the discovery of ruins, and soon archaeologists began visiting the island as well. Meanwhile, Cozumel’s importance as a seaport diminished as air travel grew, and the demand for chicle dropped off with the invention of synthetic chewing gum.

For decades Cozumel was another backwater where locals fished, hunted alligators and iguanas, and worked on coconut plantations to produce copra, the dried kernels from which coconut oil is extracted. Cozumeleños subsisted largely on seafood, still a staple of the local economy. During World War II, the U.S. Army paid to have an airstrip built to hunt the German U-boats that were sinking Mexican ships. Then, in the 1960s, the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau helped make Cozumel famous by featuring its reefs on his television show. Today, Cozumel is among the world’s most popular diving destinations.

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