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Opinion

Exploring the homeland of an ancient civilization in Cozumel

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November 11, 2011

Before I begin this week’s travel column, I would like to wish you a happy Veterans Day. I want to extend a personal “thank you” to all veterans, both past and present, dead and living, who have fought for our country and have kept it safe. Now, let’s turn our attention to Cozumel, Mexico.

The island of Cozumel was first inhabited by the Mayan Indians around the 1st Century AD. The Mayans built temples and the island soon became a popular place of pilgrimage. They lived peacefully until the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. Hernando Cortez set foot on the island in 1519, destroying many Mayan temples, and those who didn’t die during the destruction succumbed to smallpox. For many years, Cozumel was deserted, save for pirates who sought shelter there.

Life on the island didn’t pick up until 1960, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited Palancar Reef, home to beautiful coral reefs and some of the best scuba diving in the world. By the 1980s, tourism revived the once deserted isle, becoming a routing stop for cruise ships. Despite a dismal 2005 Hurricane season, which saw Hurricane Wilma destroy much of the entire island, tourism has continued to bring in a steady stream of revenue.

The best place to scuba dive or snorkel is on the southern tip of the island, near the city of San Miguel. The Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park is protected, but tourists are free to explore this unique underwater park. Cozumel is close enough to the mainland where you can take a ferry to check out Tulum, one of the ancient Mayan civilizations which is also the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico (after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza). It has been preserved well, especially having survived the first few years of when the Spanish occupied Mexico and when Tulum served as a prominent trading post, mostly for obsidian. Besides exploring the temple ruins, you can check out some of the local wildlife, particularly the sea turtles found on the beach.

Of course, there is plenty to do and see in the main plaza of San Miguel. Shopping is one of the staples of the city, where you can purchase jewelry, tequila, t-shirts, and other knick-knacks for next to nothing. In fact, there is one mega outlet mall on the main strip that could be compared to our dollar store chains here in the States—you collect it, they have it. If your stomach is rumbling there are over 300 restaurants on the island, so there is bound to be some cuisine that catches your eye. If you need a break from shopping or eating, the main plaza puts on a Mexican folkloric dance, incorporating Precolonial, Colonial and Modern cultures. Traditional Mayan attire, with their exceptional footwork will make you feel as if you’re back in ancient times! It’s a perfect way to cap your day in Cozumel. We’ve spent plenty of time looking at the American and Spanish areas of the Caribbean. Check back next week to see what the French have to offer.

Michael Leonard is a Spanish major at UW-River Falls.