In 1967, Cancun’s history was changed forever when a computer search chose it as the ideal spot for a Mexican beach resort. Before the Mexican government decided to transform a strip of sand inhabited by about hundreds of birds, iguanas and a handful of Mayan fishermen into a major tourist resort, Cancun was a peaceful, isolated paradise. Construction began in 1974 and the current city of Cancun rose out of the sand and jungle as a city with no past, populated by people who were born someplace else. By the mid-1980’s Cancun had become one of the most popular tourist destinations. A mere 25 years old, it has mushroomed into a vibrant city with 50,000 inhabitants and two million visitors per year.
Prior to its birth as a resort, Cancun did not have much history. The Maya settled the area during the Preclassic era (200 BC) and remained until the 14th or 15th century. But the few ruins in the area, discovered in the 19th century, have not revealed much about Cancun ancient history. It doesn’t appear to have achieved the kind of commercial and political powers found at other Maya sites. Other explorers, such as the Spanish and British, seem to have overlooked the barrier island as well– they never established any permanent settlements and the area does not even show up on early navigation maps. Its lack of population was likely due to the voracious mosquito that bred in the numerous mangroves and marshes. However, Cancun has more than made up for lost time by becoming one of the most famous beach resorts in the world.
No one remembers how this little island got the name Island of Women. Popular legend claims Francisco Hernández de Córdoba named it, when he landed on the island in 1517. One version tells how he arrived on the island and saw nothing but women – the men were all out fishing. Another mentions how he found hundreds of female clay figurines scattered on the beaches. These figurines were dedicated to Ixchel, the Maya goddess of childbirth, fertility, rainbows, bodies of water, and wife to the god Itzamná. Since Isla Mujeres was a religious center for Ixchel, Maya women from all over Mesoamerica journeyed to worship at her temple. Apparently, this temple was filled with gold statues and was ransacked by Córdoba’s men when they discovered it.
Another legend claims the island did not get its name until the 17th century when it became a favorite hideaway for pirates who would stash their women on the island before heading out to ransack the high seas. Isla was a favorite of buccaneers for several hundred years. Its most famous rogue was the 19th century slave trader Fermín Mundaca who built a grandiose mansion on the island. He had settled on the island after the British navy began cracking down on slavers. While there he fell in love with a local beauty, nicknamed "La Triguená" (The Brunette) and, convinced the woman would soon be his, he built the majestic Hacienda Mundaca as a present for his bride-to-be. La Triguená chose to marry a young island man instead. Mundaca went slowly mad waiting for her to change her mind, watching as she bore the other man's children and settled into a happy family life. He finally died in a brothel in Mérida.
After its popularity waned with pirates and smugglers, Isla became a small fishing village, populated by only a few families. In the 1950s it was a favorite vacation spot for rich Mexicans. Americans hippies and backpackers discovered it during the late 1960’s and early 70’s. As Cancun developed into a beach resort, tourists began visiting the island. Today Isla remains a favorite spot for day-trippers from the mainland and those looking for an idyllic paradise vacation.
Cozumel is Maya for “Ah-Cuzamil-Peten – land of the swallows." The Maya first built up the island during the Late Classic period (600 to 900 AD) and Cozumel became an important trade center along the coast, exporting salt and honey. It was also an important ceremonial center for worshipping the goddess of fertility and childbirth, Ixchel, often depicted with swallows at her feet. Pilgrims from all over Mesoamerica would make the perilous journey from the mainland to Cozumel to worship at the temples dedicated to Ixchel.
In 1518 Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva arrived on Cozumel in search of slaves. His tales of treasure drew the interest of Hernán Cortés and one year later this Spanish explorer landed on the island. While there he met Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzales Guerrera, two Spanish men who had been shipwrecked on Cozumel for over ten years, living as slaves until the Maya accepted them. Aguilar eagerly joined forces with Cortés, helping him to wage war against the Maya. Guerrera on the other hand, died defending his adopted community and now is considered a hero by the Maya. His offspring, known as the Mestizo are considered the founders of the Mexican race. By 1570 most of the Maya islanders had been massacred or killed by disease. By 1600 the island was abandoned.
During the 17th and 18th centuries pirates discovered on Cozumel. The notorious Jean Laffite and Henry Morgan favored the island's safe harbors and hid their treasures in the tunnels built by the Maya. The reefs proved a perfect spot for these pirates to laid siege to the numerous cargo ships, sinking many just off the coast. They can still be seen today and are a popular attraction for scuba divers. By 1843, Cozumel had been abandoned. In 1847, twenty Maya families fleeing the brutal War of the Castes on the mainland resettled on Cozumel. Many of their descendants still live on Cozumel.
At the turn of the 20th century, Cozumel developed into an important commercial port. It began exporting chicle, sap from the zapote tree. (Chicle is the main ingredient in the chewing gum Chiclets.) Its deep harbor made it a perfect spot for large ships to dock. While the chicleros (men who found the chicle) were harvesting the forests, they began discovering ancient ruins. Soon archaeologists began visiting the island, making note of the ruins. When the chicle industry failed due to the invention of synthetic chewing gum and airplanes, Cozumel’s importance as a port also diminished and it slid back into obscurity. It became a quiet fishing village where locals hunted, fished and worked on coconut plantations. During World War II, the US army built an airstrip and submarine base on the island. Unfortunately while building the base, they dismantled many of the ruins before realizing their importance. One the few remaining sites is San Gervasio constructed during the Early Classic period (AD 300- AD 900) and occupied well into the Post-Classic period (AD 900 – AD 1500). In the 1950s Cozumel became a fishing and summer resort for wealthy Yucatecans. In 1961, Jacques Costeau visited the island and was amazed at the island’s incredible coral reefs. He spread the word among other scuba divers and the island grew to become one of the most famous dive destinations. Today hundreds of people visit the island as stopover on their cruise while others come to scuba dive, snorkel and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
The region known as the Riviera Maya was an important commercial and religious center for the ancient Maya. The small village of Puerto Morelos was a launching point to the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. During the Post-Classic period (1000-1500 AD), Playa del Carmen, known as Xaman-há and Xcaret, known as Polé, were both important coastal trade centers. One of the largest cities along the coast was Tulum. First known as Zama (city of the dawn), it was a ceremonial site for worshipping the sun. From AD 987 to 1194, it was a principal city in the ancient League of the Mayapán gradually becoming a major trading post and military outlook point. It was also the first city spotted by the Spanish Conquistadors who were so intimidated by the vivid 25-ft-high blue, white, and red walls that they were reluctant to land. Although abandoned 75 years after the Spanish Conquest, it remained independent for 300 years becoming a symbol of freedom for the enslaved Maya. During the 1847 War of the Castes it was one of the last outposts held by rebel Cruzob Mayas until 1935. Inland from Tulum was the colossal city of Cobá, a powerful economic center controlling most of the region. A giant highway (at least 16 sacbé – white limestone roads – have been found) linked the city with sites as far north as Chichén Itzá and south to Tikal in Guatemala. Archaeologists estimate there are 6,500 structures in Cobá but only 5% have been uncovered. Other important ruins along the coast include Muyil, Oxtankah, Kohunlich, Dzibanche and Kinichná.
Further south is the Maya town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, named after the man who became governor of Yucatán in 1920. Felipe Carillo became a local hero after passing a series of reforms that returned land to the impoverished Maya campesinos (farmers or peasants). He was allegedly assassinated by opposing party in 1923 but remains a popular figure to this day. The town, formerly known as Chan Santa Cruz, played an important role in the 1847 War of the Castes. When the rebels were defeated in Valladolid and Mérida, the Indians fled to the jungle where they built the secret city of Santa Cruz. The Mexican government, thinking there were less than 300 hundred Maya left after the rebellion, were shocked to discover this city of 10,000 in the jungle. In the late 1800’s the famous cult of the Talking Cross took hold. This was a holy cross appearing on the trunk of a cedar tree that talked to the Maya in the voices of the gods. In this instance the cross appeared urging the Indians to keep fighting. The voice was actually an Indian priest and ventriloquist, Manual Nahuat, hired by the rebel leader José Maria Barrera. Soon representations of the sacred cross were then placed throughout neighboring villages as a symbol of resistance. The Mexican Army tried to destroy this symbol whenever they discovered it but it continued to reappear throughout the area. The Cruz Indians continued fighting until 1915 until the Mexican army declared Quintana Roo an independent state. In 1935 the Cruzob Indians agreed to Mexican rule. There are still some old timers in Felipe Carrillo who believe the Maya will rise up again. Its noble past is remembered with a small monument in the town park. The church where the Talking Cross was housed also remains.
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