By Victor Block
Much about the island says Mexico. Archeological sites hint of the rich Mayan civilization that once flourished there. Parts of San Miguel, the only town, retain the charms of villages common throughout the country's mainland.
At the same time, Cozumel displays its Caribbean roots. White sand beaches are fringed by stately palm trees. The center of the island is covered by dense jungle and swampy lagoons.
It was the opportunity to enjoy some of the best diving in the world that helped bring international attention — and tourism — to the island, which lies 12 miles off the east coast of Mexico. Those who venture underwater and snorkelers floating on the surface are immersed in a kaleidoscope of Technicolor coral heads and submarine gardens that are home to an almost unimaginable variety of sea life.
Nonswimmers have a choice of other ways to enjoy the magnificent underwater setting and its inhabitants without getting wet. These range from venturing out in a glass-bottom boat or mini-submarine to taking in a dolphin show, checking out resident crocodiles in their lairs and observing endangered sea- turtle hatchlings finding their way to the Caribbean waters where they will spend their lives.
Most travelers to Cozumel begin their visit in San Miguel, where the majority of island residents live. Once a sleepy village, it has evolved into a popular destination for cruise ships whose passengers patronize chain restaurants, jewelry stores and other shops near the docks. My advice: Venture a few blocks inland to find a more mellow setting that retains the heart and soul of the original community.
There, sidewalks are lined by small, family-owned stores and eateries where locals go. El Mercado, the oldest market on the island, houses a warren of tiny shops and restaurants offering traditional food.
Cozumel derived its name from the Mayans who settled the island some 2,000 years ago. They believed it to be the home of Ixchel, the goddess of love and fertility. According to legend, their temples dedicated to Ixchel earned her gratitude, and she sent her favorite bird - the swallow - as a token of thanks. The Mayan words kozom (swallow) and lumil (land) were compacted to kozomil and the name stuck.
More than 30 Mayan archeological sites are scattered around the island. San Gervasio was the most important setting. Sacbes (ancient elevated roads) connect several building complexes, including temples, an ossuary and ceremonial centers. Painted red handprints of unknown significance adorn the Temple of the Hands, and signs of a mural remain visible in another structure.
The name of El Caracol (the snail) relates to a conch-shaped building which, according to myth, acted as a whistle that sounded to alert people of an approaching tropical storm or functioned as a kind of lighthouse. However, those in the know insist that neither of those tales is true.
One of the least impressive archeological sites, the temple at El Cedral, was an important ceremonial place and the hub of Mayan life on the island. However, when Spanish conquistadors landed on Cozumel in 1518 they destroyed the structure, and the remaining portion provides little evidence of its past glory.
Like most Caribbean islands, Cozumel boasts a number of inviting beaches. There are gentle stretches of golden sand along the west side of the island, facing the mainland of Mexico. On the less-developed eastern Caribbean Sea side, quiet beaches are interspersed between rock-strewn areas, and the strong breakers and undertow discourage swimming.
Cozumel also is home to parks and preserves that show off Mother Nature's handiworks and man-made attractions. The Faro Celerain Ecological Reserve does both. The park protects a mixture of mangroves, lagoons, coastal dunes and reef systems that provide refuge for a variety of wildlife, including crocodiles, iguanas and resident and migratory birds.
Exhibits in a small museum on the ground-level of a towering century-plus-old lighthouse are devoted to topics that range from maritime navigation to pirates. In its past, Cozumel provided a safe haven for buccaneers who roamed the Caribbean, including the notorious Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte. Some cutthroats hid their ill-gotten treasures in the catacombs and tunnels of abandoned Mayan structures.
Chankanaab Park includes enough to see and do to fill many hours and satisfy many interests. Visitors may stroll through a lush botanical garden, study the colorful inhabitants of a natural aquarium and enjoy a close-up view of the only inland coral reef formation in the world.
The complex also recognizes the pervading Mayan influence, with dozens of replicas of archeological sites and a working Mayan house that brings to life daily chores such as cooking, weaving, and planting and harvesting crops. A more participatory experience awaits those who wish to take part in a temazcal, a Mayan sweat- lodge session intended to cleanse both body and mind.
One of the most pleasant surprises during my visit to Cozumel was how much I enjoyed the kind of attraction that I often go out of my way to avoid. Why, I wondered, should my wife and I spend time visiting a Mexican cultural theme park when the real Mexico is just outside? As it turned out I thoroughly enjoyed the aptly named "Discover Mexico" attraction.
The experience begins with a multiscreen video presentation that traces the country's history and describes its cultures, then takes in a collection of native art and crafts created by artisans from around the nation.
This is followed by the main attraction: Our stroll through a setting of coconut palms, banana trees and other tropical vegetation along pathways shared with turtles and iguanas would have been reason enough for me to be glad we dropped by. But that was just the beginning.
The trail leads to more than three dozen detailed scale models of famous Mexican archeological sites and buildings. Replicas of structures from the Mayan, Aztec and colonial periods stand near contemporary architectural treasures.
The park's snack bar serves up a variety of regional food — and where there's food, there's drink. In Mexico that often means tequila, which locals refer to as "Mexican water." Visitors to the theme park have an opportunity to learn how tequila is made, then sample several different brands.
Sipping tequila is about as Mexican as it gets. So, too, is much about the island of Cozumel — which, at the same time, offers many attractions associated with the islands of the Caribbean. Certainly that presents visitors with the best of both worlds.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.cozumel.travel.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.