Quintana Roo, Mexico
Museo de la Isla de Cozumel is right on the waterfront and has a lovely restaurant with sea views. A display of artefacts from both the ancient and colonial times of the island.
I came to Cozumel island in 2018 and only spent a couple of hours here and could have spent more time but the museum closed at 4pm (although the online sources claim the opening hours are until 5pm). I was pleasantly surprised by the professional displays and the number of original artefacts, from both ancient times and the Spanish conquest.
There are four exhibition halls. Displays begin in two rooms on the ground floor with the island's natural history. Examples from the coral reefs are a must for snorkellers and divers eager to learn more about Cozumel's undersea attractions. Two rooms upstairs deal with the ancient times of the Maya and the era of Spanish galleons and British pirates. I will focus on the displays from these two rooms.
The PeopLe: The ancient Maya
The exhibition room upstairs focuses on the life of the ancient Maya.
In ancient times, Cuzamil (the Land of Swallows, as Cozumel was called then) was a Maya settlement from the 1st millennium AD. There are at least 32 sites where remains of ancient Maya constructions still stand.
There is a useful museum map showing those ancient sites. The map (on the left) shows all the ancient sites on the island. For more detail see my post San Gervasio. Each site served a different function; some were navigation posts for the seafarers, others served as trading posts. Here I learnt that San Gervasio was the commercial seat where salt and honey were produced.
This was also the place of the cult of Ix Chel and the cult of the Oracle. Ix Chel was the Goddess of the Moon, childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving, and pilgrimage journeys were taken here from all of Mesoamerica. Some sites served as pilgrim places where the priestesses observed the rituals, but also healed infertility and taught sexual techniques.
El Cedral (originally Oy Ib) was the centre of wax and honey production, fishing and shell collecting. Agriculture played an important role alongside chicle extraction. All the sites were interconnected with elevated sacbé roads (white roads), filled with layers of lime and coarse gravel and covered with level cement. The goods were carried by bearers on their backs as the Maya did not have horses.
An important share of fishing took place in San Miguel (originally called Xamancab, meaning Northland). Buena Vista at the south end of the island was the port where traders were arriving from the southern lagoons. All other sites were given Spanish names.
Trade played an important role from about 900 AD when Putún Maya coasted the peninsula of Yucatán. Around 918 AD they had taken over Chichén Itzá, the ancient city that gained a new life under their rule. Their influence spread over the northern area of the peninsula and with it the cult of Kukulkán (Feathered Serpent).
The Putúns transported cotton, honey, cacao beans, salt, obsidian, jade, jaguar skins and quetzal feathers. Their boats were either made of wooden planks or hollowed out from trees. Here at the museum there is a canoe on display in the upstairs room and another one in the yard downstairs, as well as images of canoe making. It is not clear how old these are but the stone anchor dates back to Prehispanic times. The paddles have a straight shaft without a grip. The canoes accommodated several paddlers and passengers, and the stern was high and decorative. Canoes in Maya art depict the Paddler Gods paddling them, the most famous the Jaguar Paddler God and the Stingray Paddler God (found on bones in a burial in Tikal, Guatemala). The museum also displays Chac, the God of Rain, paddling his canoe.
The reproduction of the wall painting from the Temple of the Warriors in Chichén Itzá possibly represents the coast of Cozumel, hence it is displayed here, since the Putún and Itzá people have origins on this island.
Some of the ancient structures along the coast would have served as leading marks for navigation. This could have been the Caracol Temple near Punta Celarain, with a peculiar dome similar to a beehive. The masonry included snail shells. It could have served as a lighthouse.
The museum has a lovely display of ancient sculptures and stelae, although they are so eroded that it is not possible to read the names of the island's rulers.
The FOCUS: The Spanish conquerors
I was expecting more focus on the fertility cult of the goddess Ix Chel (I deal with it in detail in my posts San Gervasio and Xaman Há). Instead, I found a lovely display of Spanish relics and some informative maps.
In 1518 Juan de Grijalva landed on Cuzamil island from Cuba. He landed here on 3 May, the day of the Holy Cross for the Spaniards, so he named the island Santa Cruz. The second group of European visitors came with the Hernán Cortés expedition, which stopped by the island on the way to Veracruz in 1519. Cortéz and his men destroyed many of the Maya temples on the island.
Then the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition arrived in 1520. Several of the expedition’s crew members were sick with smallpox. The sickness ran rampant across the island. Three mass graves have been discovered at San Gervasio where these smallpox victims were buried, along with their glass trade-beads given to them by the Spanish. Francisco Montejo 'Adelantado' (crown representative), who had travelled with Grijalva and later helped Cortés with the conquest, was ordered in 1527 to take possession of Cozumel. He named it San Miguel de Xamancab. A Catholic church was built here but at that time there was no resident priest on the island; they would have visiting padres (who feared crossing the sea; the rumour has it that the Maya drowned the priests on their way in).
In the 17th century pirates took advantage of Cozumel's isolation and used it as a base for operations. French corsair Pierre Chultot took residence here in the Catholic church in 1571 but was caught by Spanish troops and turned over to the Maya folks who hanged him.
The Mystery: the recovery of the island
As I already mentioned, the island was partially depleted of its inhabitants through smallpox brought by the Spaniards. In 1650, many islanders were moved to the mainland town of Xcan Boloná to avoid the buccaneers' attacks. In 1713 four ships of English buccaneers burned most of the buildings on the island to the ground. Belizeans occupied woodcutters' camps where they cut logwood for shipment to England and America.
So how did the island ever recover back to normal life?
The island was re-inhabited in 1848, when refugees from the mainland (from Valladolid, Chemax and Tizimín) sought refuge here from the Caste War of Yucatán. It was these families (about 20 of them) that founded El Cedral on the south, and San Miguel to the north-west. Upon the request of these families, by 1849 the Government and Congress of Yucatán authorised the foundation of the town of San Miguel in honor of Archangel Michael, adopted as patron saint of the island. A cotton plantation was established at San Miguel by Miguel Molas. Hacienda Colombia in the south of the island had 500 acres under cultivation. Another cotton plantation began nearby, using 30 convicts from Mérida prison. Miguel Molas was apparently a slave trader although Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. Other slave traders were coming to the island, although always in disguise.
For example, Cuban trader Francisco Martí y Torrens (known as Pancho Martí) had a special concession from the Yucatán government to fish in the waters here. But on his journey back he took Maya slaves to Cuba, to be sold to the sugarcane plantation owners. Feliciano Peraza was the captain of the boat called Sol, which was shipwrecked here in 1852, with a cargo of nine slaves (described as 'servants' in the wrecking report). In the same year, four 'servants' escaped from another boat that stopped here overnight. We don't know the overall figure for the slave trade in Cozumel.
Such hacienda lands were given to the Spanish captains for their military achievements. The local Indians had to serve the new masters for life, like in the European feudal system. The workers' salaries were paid upfront so they were actually always in debt and could not leave. The museum depicts in drawings this bitter part of the island's history, including brutal treatment of the Indians.
Don't miss: Cozumel in modern times
The more recent history in the exhibition room upstairs shows the modern development of Cozumel. I loved the photos from the 1940s. And then Hurricane Gilbert struck in 1988. Today Cozumel is a bit sleepy, when compared to Playa del Carmen. I hope it will stay like this as this coast is undergoing too much construction, killing the flora and fauna around. Recently the island has become a port for cruise ships.
The yard at the back of the museum has a typical Maya hut. The structure is of pole and thatch, with an earthen floor. There are also some sculptures by the artist Carlos Pacheco. If you have time, do peep into the garden.
Last but not least, do not miss the restaurant on the veranda; it is really pleasant. Good food and great sea views. You can go to the restaurant even if you are not entering the museum, without any charge.
How to get there:
The museum is located on the waterfront, in Avenida Rafael, between 4th and 6th Streets North, within easy walking distance of either the pier or the Plaza del Sol shopping district.
The entry fee is 72 pesos (2018 prices).
There are hourly ferry crossings from 6am until 10pm from Playa del Carmen and the single ticket is about 120 pesos per person (discounts for locals; 2018 prices). There are two ferry companies, Ultramar and Mexico Waterjets; you can check the schedules online. Once in Cozumel, you can just walk to the museum (about a three-minute walk).
If you want to see the rest of the island, you can rent a car (a Bocho, a nickname for the Volkswagen Beetle, is popular here on the island) or a bike and take the cross-island road (Avenue Juarez) to the San Gervasio access road; follow this road north for 7km. Otherwise you can take a taxi. If you want to cross with a car, the car ferry is run by Transcaribe out of the Calica port at Punta Venado, just south of Playa del Carmen. The trip takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.