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Beyond Cozumel’s beaches are fascinating Mayan ruins to explore

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Cozumel is world famous for its stunning beaches and as one of the busiest cruise destinations in the world. But this Island is more than just beaches and margaritas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Yucatán’s great Post-Classic city-states entered a period of sharp decline.

The Ka’na Nah pyramid at the San Gervasio ruins, as seen when approached from the south. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But while Chichén Itzá and Uxmal suffered from a rapid loss of influence and population, much of the Mayan world’s attention shifted to the resource-rich coastline of today’s Quintana Roo.

The causes behind the fall of the great city-states of the Yucatán Peninsula in the late Post-Classic period remain highly debated, with explanations ranging from climate change to politics. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The area had already long been home to settlements and cities like Chunyaxché, but during this time, the population along the region known as Costa Orienta (eastern coast) began to take off.

Example of Costa Oriental architecture within San Gervasio ruins in Cozumel, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the city-states that saw the most growth during this time is on the Caribbean island of Cozumel, roughly 10 miles from Playa del Carmen, or Xaman Há, as it was known during antiquity. 

San Gervasio’s main temples, open to the public, are spread over a relatively small area but extend far beyond. Map: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Yucatán Peninsula’s largest island, Cozumel, is home to several Prehispanic ruins, but the largest is San Gervasio.

San Gervasio’s ancient name remains uncertain, but some scholars have inferred it to be Tan-tun, meaning “on the rocks.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

By the time Cozumel saw its population explode in the 10th and 11th centuries, San Gervasio had long been established as an important pilgrimage site dedicated to the goddess Ixchel. 

Ixchel is a Maya goddess of fertility and childbirth who was worshiped across much of the Maya world but whose devotion was particularly intense in the Costa Oriental region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The oldest examples of large-scale megalithic construction at San Gervasio date to the 3rd century C.E and can be found at the site’s core. However, much of the architecture seen today was extensively modified in the following centuries. 

Access to San Gervasio’s acropolis via a sac-bé or Mayan white road. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

San Gervasio’s main acropolis or square comprises eight structures, including El Palacio, the Temple of Columns, and the Ossuary. 

Several caves and cenotes dot the landscape surrounding San Gervasio ruins in Cozumel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This acropolis likely served as the city’s most important civic and ceremonial center, with priests and the ruling elite taking center stage.

A ceremonial platform sits across from El Palacio at San Gervasio. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Although faded, red paint remains on Structure O, commonly known as The Murals. 

Accounts by the Spanish in the 16th century describe the beauty of Cozumel and San Gervasio as well as the splendor of its murals which have mostly been lost to time. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Migrants from the mainland brought with them their own takes on religious art and architecture and dramatically altered the layout and feel of Costa Oriental sites like San Gervasio. 

The Temple of Columns shares many hallmarks with similar structures found at sites like Chichén Itzá, Mayapán, and even Tula in the state of Hidalgo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Adjacent to the acropolis, it is possible to see the remains of structures thought to have been the residence of San Gervasio’s elite ruling class. 

Several of San Gervasio’s residential complexes still possess remains of the stucco which would have once covered the entirety of these structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Away from the core of the site, following the path of ancient sac-bé, it is possible to encounter some of San Gervasio’s most beautiful ruins. 

Exploring San Gervasio along its sac-bés is extremely pleasant, thanks to the abundant tree cover the surrounding vegetation offers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Slightly to the north of the site’s core, it is possible to see a Maya corbel arch, though it is much more deteriorated than its counterparts at sites like Uxmal or Kabah. 

San Gervasio’s corbel archway has suffered the ravages of time, yet still stands with a little help from INAH. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Murcielagos (bats) complex toward the north of the ruins of San Gervasio features some of the site’s most sophisticated architecture. 

The Murcielagos complex is made up of two principal structures atop an artificial platform and was likely a site of worship to the goddess Ixchel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To the northwest of the site is one of San Gervasio’s most impressive structures, the Ka’na Nah, which translates from Yucatec-Maya as “the tall house structure.”

The Ka’na Nah pyramid resembles several other structures of the terminal post-classic, such as those found at other nearby sites on the mainland, including El Miguelito. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

San Gervasio is also home to several species of birds and mammals, including bats living in the site’s many caves.

A bat hangs upside down inside a cave in San Gervasio on the island of Cozumel in Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

To get to San Gervasio from Cozumel’s largest city, “San Miguel de Cozumel” (roughly 10 miles apart), opt for a taxi, rental car, scooter, or even bicycle.

San Gervasio is on the Island of Cozumel, just off of the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Google Maps

But the best way to see San Gervasio and the rest of the island is to rent a car, as taxis in Cozumel are expensive and likely to leave you stranded.

Elevated sac-bé’s or ancient Mayan roads are of great use to move around San Gervasio’s ruins, especially during the rainy season when the rest of the ground is wet and muddy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

General admission to San Gervasio is 85 pesos and free to students and teachers. On Sundays, entry is free for Mexican nationals and residents with ID. 

San Gervasio has better-than-average onsite services, with clean bathrooms and a handful of shops with drinks and snacks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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