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Island Hopping in the Mexican Caribbean, Cozumel, Island of Swallows

Have you ever visited the island you can see from Playa del Carmen and The Royal Haciendas? It only takes a few minutes from cross the turquoise and indigo waters to Cozumel, Mexico’s largest inhabited island, and you’ll find incredible underwater beauty, beautiful beaches, rich history and traditions.
Most visitors to Cozumel are drawn by its spectacular coral kingdom, a chain of reefs off the west coast that was made famous by Jacques Cousteau and Mexican diver Rene Cardona. Magnificent coral buttresses and walls festooned by huge red, yellow and orange sponges and gently waving sea fans are honeycombed with caves and canyons and inhabited by 300 species of fish and other colorful marine life of all shapes and sizes. Water visibility is as high as 200 feet and the current enables divers to practice drift diving and literally fly past coral walls and drop-offs, keeping pace with sea turtles, huge groupers and schools of eagle rays.
Divers can spend a lifetime exploring reefs like Paraíso, Chankanaab, La Herradura, San Francisco, Yucab, Santa Rosa, Colombia, Maracaibo and the largest of them all, Palancar, famous for its coral pillars, caves and walls.
Some shallower reefs such as Chankanaab and Paraíso are great snorkeling spots and swimmers have their own up-close encounters with queen angelfish, parrot fish, blue tangs, sergeant majors and jacks. For visitors who would prefer to see the underwater world without getting wet, there are glass-bottomed boats and an unforgettable immersion on the Atlantis submarine, which dives to a depth of 100 feet.

Home of a Mayan goddess and a refuge for pirates
In ancient times, Cozumel or Cuzamil, “land of the swallows,” as it was known was held sacred by the Maya as the site of a shrine to Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Ancient temples still dot the flat, forested landscape and there are lighthouses and lookout posts on the coast, testimony to the days of Mayan seafarers.
San Gervasio is the largest of Cozumel’s 25 archaeological sites and during the pre-Hispanic period it was a bustling city and a center of maritime trade. It was also visited by pilgrims who would travel hundreds of miles overland and then make the perilous sea crossing from Xaman-Há (Playa del Carmen) and Pole (Xcaret) to worship at the shrine of Ixchel.
In 1519, a Spanish expeditionary force led by Hernán Cortés landed on the island. From Cozumel, Cortes and his band of soldiers sailed into the west. They crossed the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall on the coast of Veracruz. Lured by tales of gold, they moved inland, crossing the mountains and reaching Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now the site of Mexico City. By 1521, this ruthless band had defeated the Aztec army and overthrown a mighty empire, seizing its land and treasures.
During the Colonial period of Mexican history, Cozumel was largely forgotten and its deserted shores became a haven for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Miguel Molas. In the 1850s, refugees fleeing the Caste War on the Yucatecan mainland settled the island.
Located in island capital San Miguel, the Cozumel Museum has interesting exhibits on the ancient Maya, the coming of the Spaniards, pirates and the 19th-century colonization of the island. Other displays showcase local festivals such as the Carnival and the El Cedral Fair held at the beginning of May. Learn about the formation of the coral reefs and the island’s flora and fauna. The tropical forest and wetlands are rich in wildlife, including endemic creatures such as the pygmy raccoon.

Exploring the island
If you are not going straight out on a dive, snorkeling or fishing trip, why not rent a car, moped or a taxi for a tour of the island? The island’s sheltered swimming beaches are all on the west coast but the rugged windswept east coast has some beautiful, deserted stretches of sand for a stroll but not for a dip. Strong currents and undertow make swimming dangerous on the windward coast.
Other island attractions include Chankanaab, a nature park with a crystal-clear lagoon and reef for snorkeling, a cenote or sinkhole connected to the Caribbean by an underground river, a botanical garden and dolphin swims. Punta Sur nature reserve on the southern tip of the island and Isla de la Pasión in the north are also worth a visit and are rich in birdlife. Arrange a boat trip to El Cielo, a shallow reef and calm stretch of crystal-clear water where the seabed is covered with starfish. Take photos but don’t disturb these living treasures.

Thomas More Travel offers trips to Cozumel for diving or sightseeing or you can make your own way there at your own pace using the ferry from Playa del Carmen.

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