Ecotourism in Cozumel: Discovering Protected Parks and Mayan Cultural Sites

Pueblo Del Maiz
Pueblo Del Maiz

Cozumel, a sand-swept island located off the coast of Northeastern Mexico, is renowned for its rich sea life within the world’s second largest barrier reef. But the preserved landscapes and ancient Mayan cultural sites are spectacular as well.

These spaces include four goverment-protected eco parks and five major architectural marvels scattered throughout the 300-mile sized enclave.

Not only will you find Mayan ruins in Cozumel, but a centuries-long maritime history and a vibrant Mayan culture as well. This cultural preservation is very much alive thanks to ejido, or land designated to the Mayans by the Mexican government.

Cozumel island officials have embraced ecotourism in an effort to protect its natural wonders and cultural heritage. Visitors who respect nature, history and indiginous cultures will have an exceptional travel experience exploring this stunning enclave.

An Itinerary of Cultural Sightseeing 

One hour south of the crowded hotel and cruise ship scene on the Central East coast of Cozumel, you’ll reach Punta Sur Eco Park. This protected nature center features unique features. Those include a Banyan-tree studded crocodile lagoon, Mayan ruin and snorkeling reef.

Not only are cruise ships conspicuously absent from the area, but you won’t see so much as a fishing boat within sight. Peaceful waters reflect efforts by the island’s park system to protect the fragile sea life.

As you enter the park, you’re immediately struck by the drastic change from crowded beaches and cruise ship crowds. You feel transported to a remote desert-like ecosystem with long stretches of prickly cacti, spiky drought-tolerant shrubs and pristine, glowing ivory sand. 

Celarain Lighthouse at Punta Sur

Upon entering Punta Sur Eco Park, you immediately arrive at the Celarain lighthouse. Peer up at the towering monolith structure made of white-washed stone and studded with emerald-toned shutters. Once fully functional and managed by a local family, the local goverment converted lighthouse into a museum in the 1980s. 

You get to the top one way—by pounding the pavement up its 127 perilously narrow, steep interior cement steps. Once you arrive, you have to duck through a small square opening. There, you reach the crescent-shaped deck featuring the best panoramic views of Cozumel.

You view a vast stretch of banyan tree mangroves from the backside of the deck. The, catch the breathtaking expanse of the Caribbean Sea from the ocean-facing side. Peer straight up and you’ll see the classic N-S-E-W four-point iron compass atop an aged maroon iron dome that caps the lighthouse rooftop.

The views themselves are spectacular. Cozumel’s shallow beaches frame soothing repetitive white caps. The gently crashing waves stretch for miles to the north and south in a kaleidoscope of green blues: aqua, teal, turquoise  and rich navy.  

El Caracol Mayan Ruin at Punta Sur

A short drive away along the dusty unpaved section of the road within the park, you reach El Caracol. The quaint Mayan ruin served that function for the local pre-colonial Mayan population is fascinating in its own right.

This stone rectangle structure some 10 by 13 feet (3 by 5 meters) in diameter, constructed between 1200 and 1400 AD, has two levels. The bottom main building features a narrow doorway and hollow interior, and a smaller, steeple-like structure on top with a square opening.

The peep-like hole actually functioned as a dog whistle of sorts for the local community. If the wind picked up and dangerous storm conditions neared the island, it would rush through one end of the peel hole then exit from the other end, creating a whistle sound.  The sound would warn both sailors and residents of high tides and dangerous weather conditions. 

El Cedral Ruins and Town 

Find El Cedral, Cozumel’s oldest Mayan ruins, located within the eponymous town situated on the southwest side of the island, a few miles inland from the coast. The structure and town both date back to 800 A.D.

The El Cedral ruin is similar in shape and orientation to El Caracol—rectangular with a central doorway. It appears more striking, perhaps because it’s situated atop a cobbled-stone platform with six steps leading to the entranceway.  El Cedral also served a decidedly different purpose than El Caraco; it was a revered ceremonial site and temple. 

The ruins are situated in the town of El Cedral, a charming Mayan village that is one of the island’s earliest Mayan settlements. Vestiges of the original settlement can be discovered throughout the new town—standalone abandoned sections of buildings and faded patches of paintings on walls. 

San Gervasio Ruins

Located in the far northern corner of Cozumel, the San Gervasio Ruins are arguably the most impressive on the island. They are certainly the largest and oldest. The site, which dates from 100 to 1,600 AD, includes a series of architectural structures and temples. These sites are connected by a network of sacbés, or “white roads”—raised paths that served as sidewalks of sorts.

A visit to the San Gervasio Ruins will give you insight into the routines and values of the Mayans, from their religious habits to their daily life activities.

During their childbearing years, women would visit one of the temples to worship Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility, medicine and weaving. In fact, San Gervasio acted as a Holy Land for ancient Mayans. Pilgrims would arrive from other parts of Mexico to pay homage to their many Gods of natural forces. 

You could easily spend a day wandering around, absorbing the magnitude of the site’s cultural and spiritual importance for ancient Mayans. 

Pueblo del Maiz

For a decidedly more hands-on, visceral experience, pay a visit to Pueblo del Maiz, a replicated ancient pueblo where local Mayans donned in traditional ritual attire provide an exciting tour filled with drumming, food preparation and dance.

One could argue that taking a guided tour of a site that is a modern replication contains an element of voyeurism. In fact, during the tour our guide emphasized the importance of having visitors. The entrance fees and tips paid for by visitors are invested back into the local Mayan community, helping to sustain their local economy and culture.

The tour itself is an action-packed hour of sumptuous sounds, smells and tastes. You are met by a young Mayan woman dressed in a ruby huipil, or loose fitting tunic, framed along the neckline with earth-toned feathers.

She leads the tour group into the pueblo, past a knotted wood shine complete with mock skulls, a series of paths and a young man in traditional attire drumming rhythmically. Another guide wearing an impressive, feathered headdress recites in an animated fashion the history of the pueblo, and importance of their local culinary traditions.

The group is then led to a small hut, where the staff demonstrates ancient chocolate and tortilla making.

The tour culminates with a powerful ritualistic performance on a stage surrounded by forest, where drummers pound and chant loudly in the background as two women perform an okot, or an ancient Mayan dance, done rhythmically in unison, and an impressive fire ceremony completed with their hands. 

Planning Your Cozumel Eco-Themed Itinerary

Dedicate three full days to visit Cozumel’s protected parks and cultural sites. These awe-inspring destinations feature natural wonders, ancient ruins and modern replications of traditional practices.

Yes, ecotourism is thriving in Cozumel. By protecting Mayan land and culture, these precious wonders can be enjoyed for many centuries to come. 

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