Cozumel, a major draw for tourists, is home to several Mayan ruins that even most locals are not aware of.
But this island is also home to several Mayan ruins most visitors, and even most locals, are not aware of.
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.
Archaeologists have discovered roughly 30 archaeological sites on the island, though most of these have been severely damaged by development and centuries of hurricanes.
Evidence of Maya settlements on Cozumel, which the Maya knew as Kosom lumil, or land of swallows, dates back to the 2nd century CE.
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.
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.
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
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 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 is a small complex of structures at the very southern end of Cozumel within Punta Sur park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.