Death and rebirth of the Maya World in Cozumel

by Paul Stafford  |  Published December 21, 2018

Cozumel is known primarily for its excellent coral reef diving and pristine beaches, but towards the centre of the island, surrounded by dense forest, are the ruins of a once-significant pilgrimage site for the Maya people. A place of birth, hope, fertility and, unwittingly, the beginning of the end of their empire.

Columns and walls of a major temple at San Gervasio (Photo: Paul Stafford)

Struggling along empty, potholed tarmac, drenched in shimmering heat waves, I passed through the gates of the archaeological site of San Gervasio. No public buses visit the ruins from San Miguel de Cozumel. They lie too far off the main road, connected only by a basic track, and if this track didn’t lead to the ruins, it would lead to nowhere.

Nobody was manning the front gate. From somewhere close by in the dense jungle, there was an electric hum of a beehive. Above one of the trees the little insects were busily coming and going, perfectly suited to the heat and environment. The native bees don’t have a sting, and the Maya have long harvested their rich, floral honey. The hive was the only noise besides the occasional bird call in the languid midday heat. The air, viscous as molasses.

I passed through an empty courtyard, wondering if perhaps it was closed for the day. If there was a giant pyramid or an exquisitely carved temple complex at San Gervasio, the road would be packed with tour buses and a veritable united nations of tourism. Instead, one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in the Maya world (at the time the Spanish arrived) was a ghost town. The calm was particularly striking, where once the site would have been teeming with visitors of a very different kind.

Looking along the sacbe road towards El Arco (Photo: Paul Stafford)

A Place for Pilgrims

Before contact with Europeans, The Maya empire stretched south, through Mexico into Belize and Guatemala as far as the borders of modern-day El Salvador and Honduras. When European explorers were expanding towards the West, looking for a new trade route to India, the Maya were moving East, believing that to be closer to the sunrise was to be closer to the source of all life. The start of a new day heralded the rebirth of that hope and, not surprisingly, became woven into their religion with not just agrarian, but also human fertility connotations.

Women across these lands were thought to have made a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime to San Gervasio. They came to seek good fortune in marriage, fertility and childbirth at the seat of revered goddess Ixchel. Cozumel, the eastern extreme of the Maya empire, and therefore closest to the sunrise, was the ideal spot for such a temple.

“Ixchel”, came a voice behind me, startling me in the stillness. I turned around to see a young woman wearing bright purple lipstick, as though she had recently been eating fresh blueberries, holding her hand out. Taking her cue from my perplexity she said “that is what they should call this place. Not San Gervasio. Not any Spanish name. Ixchel, after the goddess.” I nodded agreement, although I had read elsewhere that the official pre-Hispanic name was Tantum Cuzamil.

“Don’t worry, I work here,” she said. “My name is also Ixchel. Let me show your around.” We passed through the entrance and wandered over to an arch, through which passed a sacbe road. El Arco, as the arch was known, marked the entrance the centre of the settlement and was surrounded by small temples and the remains of the houses of dignitaries.

The main square of temples and important houses at San Gervasio (Photo: Paul Stafford)

Bases of pillars and various structures formed a large square. “This is where the elites would have lived,” said Ixchel. “Over on that dais is where the religious leaders would have given speeches to people who gathered here,” she smiled wryly “they probably made many of the same false promises and claims that politicians today make, but in this case, they would pretend to talk with the Gods.”

The ruins all around were the result of something that none of the religious leaders could have predicted: the arrival of much more advanced, greedier and more militarized civilization on their shores. That empires from the two great continents of Europe and North America would meet was inevitable; both possessed an enterprising spirit typical to all humans. Yet it was the Spanish and their succession of expeditions following Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landfall in the Caribbean, who were the first to consciously seek to colonise this new territory under royal order.

The jagged fringed of a cenote in the forest (Photo: Paul Stafford)

White Roads

Returning to El Arco, the forest now seemed to be teeming with life. Iguanas littered the sacbe sunning their scaled hides. Nowadays most sacbes are lost beneath dense webs of foliage, but sections here were excavated. These Maya constructs connected key towns and religious sites. Like rudimentary roads, their rough rocks created a uniform path through uneven jungle, filled with large sinkholes. Ixchel pointed out one of these cenotes, as they’re known.

Iguanas scarpered as we passed. The chasm in the ground could have been hazardous if it weren’t for the sacbe’s safe route around it. Cenotes were once the only source of fresh water on Cozumel and across the Yucatán Peninsula, where not a single river flows over the porous, low-lying limestone. Thus, cenotes were a key component for the formation of towns, and the reason that the temples here were ensconced in forest, rather than on the coast, where the water is too brackish to drink. A high-pitched squeak of bats could be heard from within.

A lizard suns itself on a rock (Photo: Paul Stafford)

Ixchel pointed into the dank forest. “There are many more out there, but nothing big enough here to feed a great city like Chichén Itzá or Cobá.” Those cities grew grander due to their strategic locations and important religious and political roles, but their existence would not have been possible without their vast cenotes.

It was getting hot, but I wanted to follow the sacbe deeper into the forest. Ixchel wished me luck as she returned to her post at the entrance gate. The way led to a squat, robust temple whose exact function was no longer clear now that I had lost my guide. It then veered at a right angle into the forest. I continued on to the next cluster of excavated temples.

A temple in the forest at San Gervasio (Photo: Paul Stafford)

A coati scurried across the path and back into the forest looking for food. Yet more lizards and iguanas fled my approach, which was taken with care, navigating thick buttress roots and uneven stones. I walked for another kilometre, peering at occasional protrusions in the forest, trying to work out whether I could see the foundations of a former temple of Ixchel, waiting to be excavated. Solemnity filled the emptiness.

Normally the peace would have been a relief; many of the more popular archaeological sites in Mexico are overrun. This time though I felt sadness at the loss of a whole system of belief and that this, the very place the Maya viewed as sacred in matters of birth, was the site where the Maya Empire began to die.

When the Spanish arrived, first under Grijalva in 1518, then under Cortés in 1519, on an expedition that would later lead to the destruction of the Aztecs, they found peaceful people on Cozumel. In the diary of Bernal Diaz, one of the soldiers on that expedition, he rarely had positive things to say about the natives. Cozumel was different. The locals were even given a letter to hand to future expeditions, written in Spanish, confirming that the islanders were good people and should not be harmed. Letters don’t inoculate against small pox however, and by 1520, most of the islanders were sick or deceased by this foreign disease.

The pyramid at San Gervasio in Cozumel (Photo: Paul Stafford)


The path led me to the site’s largest structure, a five-storey pyramid in a grassy clearing. Although it was not in the best repair, it was possible to imagine people gathered around, listening to a sermon, laying their fears for their families at the foot of the pyramid and leaving them there, like heavy burdens, having walked long sacbes through seemingly interminable forest. I wondered how many, years after their pilgrimage, would tell the younger women in their towns (or their own daughters) that their prayers had been answered; their blisters worthwhile.

Back near the central complex of temples was Las Manitas. Red hand prints covered the walls of a small building, misunderstood by so many visitors to signify human sacrifice, but simply a decoration placed there to once again signify fertility. “See the fingers of the hand all point upwards,” said Ixchel, coming back over to me. “They represent the maize, growing up. The Maya called themselves the people of the maize.” Indeed, this was widely adopted imagery across Mexico.

Partially rebuilt Maya ruins in Cozumel (Photo: Paul Stafford)

Despite the destruction, something new was born with the Spanish arrival. Although it would have happened under duress, or enforced on the Maya women, people here in Cozumel were among the first to ever intermarry with Spaniards in Mexico, bringing about the first of the country’s proud mestizo race (and culture). Today the mestizo is considered to be truly Mexican. That Mexico was first born here in Cozumel, growing from the ashes of the Maya empire and later adopted by the various indigenous groups scattered across the country.

The Maya still exist today, they still have many of their customs and beliefs. They may not make a pilgrimage to San Gervasio (or perhaps Ixchel, as it should be known) but their own culture informs what people around the world value as Mexican culture today. It is changed, yes, perhaps reborn, but never dead.

Reptiles of all colours scattered around San Gervasio (Photo: Paul Stafford)