When I first started reading about Cozumel I knew I wanted to go visit the small Mayan ruins on the island. I also knew I did not want to do this with a group of fellow cruisers. When J-Mo and I got off our ship we made our way through the thousands of tourist trap shops on the pier and found a taxi to take us to San Gervasio, the largest and most remote ruins on the island. Now, the ONLY industry on Isla Cozumel is tourism, no matter what you do you are going to get ripped off a little bit, but it’s these people’s way of life, so try not to be too bitchy about it, okay? Jorge, our taxi driver, agreed to take us to San Gervasio, wait while we toured, and bring us back to the downtown area for $70 USD. We climbed into his lovely, air conditioned car and off we went.
Jorge showed us around the downtown area a bit and then headed to the interior of the island. Pretty soon there were no more neighborhoods or road-side stands, just leafy jungle trying to take back the road. In a little while Jorge took the turn to the ruins and we went another couple of miles on a very rutted road with the island’s main water line running along side. Apparently, the Maya built San Gervasio on one of the only fresh water well sites on the island and the inhabitants of Cozumel still use that well for most of their fresh water. It is $8.00 to get into the ruins, and J-Mo and I paid a little more to have a personal tour guide, Mike, show us around and give us some of the history of the place, the people who worshiped here, and the restoration efforts. Totally worth it.
San Gervasio is no where near as large or as impressive as say, Chichen Itza, but it was fascinating to learn more about the rituals and rites of the ancient Maya, and to see the leftovers of their buildings and podiums. The site was built to honor and worship Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, medicine, and midwifery.
Did you know that the reason the Maya ruins have such narrow, steep stairs is not because the Maya had super tiny feet, but instead because they believed it was disrespectful to approach their temples directly. It showed humility to wind your way up the staircase in a switch-back fashion–like a snake–and to not ever look directly at the entrance.
Temples had two columns at the main entrance (as opposed to homes or education buildings which did not). These two columns represent the Mayan version of yin and yang, or balance and harmony in all things. This particular temple never had a roof, just walls, and the curators have replaced the thatch hut that provides shade and shelter in the same way it was originally built.
Looking a little closer, you can still see some of the original paint in vibrant colors and you can see hand prints of long-dead Maya adorning the walls. So awesome!
Mike took us around to several buildings, pointed out trees that were over 800 years old (they are absolutely enormous and so entertwined in the ruins it would destroy both to try and remove them at this point), and explained how the ancient Maya used this particular site for worship and rituals and whatnot.
After he finished his schpiel (about 45 minutes), we were left to our own devices to wander around the ruins and take pictures. There weren’t many plaques or signs describing the ruins or the civilization that built them, so if you go I would highly recommend enlisting the services of a guide, he really did have a lot of fascinating information.
This guy. Let’s talk about this guy for a minute. San Gervasio (and the whole of Isla Cozumel) has several different breeds of indigenous iguana. Iguana will not attack people, they don’t eat meat, just leaves and small bugs. They mostly like to be left alone to sun themselves on camouflaging rocks. Mike pointed out several on our walk around San Gervasio. J-Mo and I were admiring a good sized, well preserved ruin when out of NO WHERE two enormous iguana started shrieking and dodging and heading right for our ankles. I squealed, closed my eyes, and stood on one foot (because that will somehow protect me…?). J-Mo was super manly, but when this 2-foot monster got within inches of his feet I’m pretty sure there was a small squeak coming from his general direction. I can’t be sure it was him, my eyes were shut tight. There were a few people milling about who turned to see the what the ruckus was–have you ever heard two big lizards fighting? I imagine this was what the Jurassic era sounded like most of the time, perhaps on a slightly smaller scale. I haven’t been that scared of Nature in quite a while, nor have I been that close to a mostly wild reptile in, um, ever. Needless to say, it took us both a few minutes to get our heart rates back to normal.
After we finished at San Gervasio and poked around the gift shop (meh), we were greeted again by Jorge, our taxi driver, who took us back downtown where we could get some lunch. In chatting with him, we discovered that the day we were in port, Cozumel had two other cruise ships on her shores. He said in the slow season they usually have 6 or 7 boats a week. Now, Isla Cozumel is a very small island, about 30 miles long and less than 10 miles wide, located off the Yucatan Peninsula about 90 miles south of Cancun. There are 80,000 people who call Cozumel home. Again, tourism is the only industry. Try and imagine this: during the busy season this very small island hosts up to 30 cruise ships per week! The boats in the harbor are taller than anything on the island; think 2-story museum vs. 15 story cruise boat plus smoke stacks and fins and towers. The boats absolutely dwarf the island. There are 2,000-3,000+ people on each of those ships, not to mention another 1,500+ in crew and staff. It boggles my mind. The citizens take full advantage of these tourists, as they should. Unless you are underwater on a SCUBA adventure, there is not much to do downtown except wander around the hundreds of shops selling pottery, T-shirts, vanilla, rum, cowboy hats and boots, jewelry, and tchotchkes.
So, we wandered. We stopped for some delicious Mexican food and a live marimba band. I picked up a few souvenirs, J-Mo thought about buying black alligator cowboy boots, we wandered some more. We came upon the Museuo de la Isla de Cozumel and decided to check it out. There were some cool exhibits about the geography of Cozumel and the various coral reefs that make the island such a popular diving destination. There was some paintings and sculptures from local artists.
One room was dedicated to the Maya that used Cozumel as a sort of religious pilgrimage location, there was a small exhibit about the Maya ruins on the island which included San Gervasio and others.
Upstairs was a lovely patio that overlooked the beautiful, turquoise sea where you could enjoy a drink or some chips and salsa. It was really too bad my belly was already full of chips and salsa or I would have insisted we stop for a little while. As it was, we wandered around the shops, sat and watched the boats and the horse-drawn carriages for tourists, and I thought what it would be like to live on this tiny little spot. (Conclusion: too much tourism, too much humidity, too many hurricanes, not enough mountains.)
Soon enough, it was time to make our way back to our port, you could tell this because the shops started to close, or eager salesmen started offering really low prices. J-Mo and I both scored a deal or two on our way back to our port (which makes me realize that those salesmen are STILL making a profit, even if they offered me an item at 50-60% off the sticker price. Not that I mind supporting their livelihood, but goodness, I’m glad I am not afraid to haggle a bit!)
Goodbye, Cozumel. Thank you for the lovely day!
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