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Beyond San Gervasio, there are more fascinating Mayan ruins on the island of Cozumel

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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, a major draw for tourists, is home to several Mayan ruins that even most locals are not aware of. 

San Gervasio is Cozumel’s largest and best-preserved Mayan archaeological site, but despite what many tour guides will tell you, it is not the only one. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But this island is also home to several Mayan ruins most visitors, and even most locals, are not aware of. 

The backside of a Mayan temple in a small village just a few miles south of Cozumel’s main ferry terminal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A few weeks ago, we covered the ruins of San Gervasio, Cozumel’s largest Mayan ruin. But San Gervasio is just the tip of the iceberg. 

A map of Cozumel shows the location of a handful of its most interesting archaeological sites. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeologists have discovered roughly 30 archaeological sites on the island, though most of these have been severely damaged by development and centuries of hurricanes.

Most Prehispanic settlements on Cozumel were built on the eastern shore of the island, which faces the open Caribbean Sea. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Evidence of Maya settlements on Cozumel, which the Maya knew as Kosom lumil, or land of swallows, dates back to the 2nd century CE.

When arriving in Cozumel via ferry, one is greeted by a large sculpture depicting the swallows which give the island its name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But it was in the 9th century that construction on the island appears to have boomed and brought with it a major increase in population. 

A contemporary statue of a pregnant Mayan woman at the site of the badly eroded ruins near Rancho Buenavista. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Cozumel was an important pilgrimage site for the worship of the Mayan fertility goddess Ixchel, who was also adored for her connection with the moon and flowing water. 

Temples to Ixchel can also be found on other islands in Mexico’s Caribbean, most notably Isla Mujeres. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Next, we will check out some of Cozumel’s most impressive yet little-known archaeological sites, though keep in mind that some are not easily accessible.

El Castillo Real

Meaning “royal palace” in Spanish, El Castillo Real is a large temple just south of the northeast of Cozumel.

The temple at El Castillo Real’s main chamber is built atop a mound that was once presumably an artificial platform or step pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Getting to El Castillo Real is not for the faint of heart. I had heard that the best way to get there was to rent a 4×4, but being stubborn and not wanting to spend the money, I decided to make my way by bicycle, following the northeastern coast. 

A side view of the mostly abandoned El Castillo Real in Cozumel. Photo: Courtesy

A local man who identified himself as Don Goyo was the only other person I saw in the area. He claimed that El Castillo had long been abandoned as the roads were so poor and hardly any tourists ever came to visit  — which is frankly understandable. 

The temple shares several similarities with El Castillo at Tulum and was likely built at around the same time in the 10th or 11th century CE. 

El Caracol

El Caracol is a small complex of structures at the very southern end of Cozumel within Punta Sur park.

The main structure at El Caracol faces the open ocean and is believed to have possibly been used as a lighthouse or beacon for canoes in danger of venturing too close to the rocky shore. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The architecture at El Caracol is a variant of the Costa Oriental style found at other coastal sites like Xelha or Xcaret. Given these structures’ tiny dimensions and points of access, they were likely used primarily as shrines or ceremonial niches. 

The remains of a collapsed secondary structure at el Caracol in Punta Sur. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

El Cedral

Located in a tiny community of the same name, the temple at El Cedral is extremely interesting, given its location directly next to a small Catholic chapel. 

Historically, Prehispanic structures such as the temple found at El Cedral would have been demolished to build churches or chapels, but at El Cedral, this was not the case. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

El Cedral local Manuel Pech said that both Prehispanic and Catholic traditions are of great import to those on the island to this day, which is why the locals have always taken measures to protect their ancient heritage.

The temple at El Cedral is said to contain a jaguar throne similar to the one found inside the Pyramid of Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá, but unfortunately, I was not able to gain access. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Near this temple at a collapsed structure, archaeologists in the 1970s discovered an Olmec jade artifact dated to at least 600 BCE, which suggests Prehispanic occupation on Cozumel likely goes way further back than previously believed, though no architecture dating to this period survives. 

Cozumel’s network of sacbes and shrines

These days, modern roads cover roughly half of Cozumel’s coastline, with the north of the island being mostly limited to sandy paths. But during the time of the Maya, the entire island was connected via a network of sacbes or white roads.

Mayan sacbes were essential to life and trade during the time of the Maya as they offered safe and efficient paths across large distances. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But in Cozumel, several sections of this ancient road network are accompanied by what appear to be surviving rest stops and ancient markers or shrines. 

A small altar or distance marker sits to the side of an ancient sacbe in Cozumel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Being unsure of the true purpose or origin of these tiny constructions, I consulted with several archaeologists, but the consensus regarding these small structures or markers is basically, “who the heck knows?” 

A circular stone marker near the sacbe leading to San Gervasio in Cozumel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While some of these markers or shrines can be quite large, others appear to be put together rather haphazardly in recent times. If you have any information on this topic, we would be more than happy to hear you out!

If you go

To get to Cozumel, you will have to take a ferry from Playa del Carmen, though flights directly to the island take off at several international and domestic airports. 

Ferries between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel run every day and run every half hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you are interested in visiting Cozumel’s archaeological site, you are best off renting a car for a couple of days or a bicycle. if you are feeling particularly ambitious.

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