A forty-kilometre-long island directly off the coast from Playa del Carmen, Isla Cozumel caters primarily to the mainstream tastes of the cruise-ship passengers that put ashore here – during the high season, up to twenty liners a week dock at the piers south of the main town of San Miguel (often called just Cozumel). But you can escape to the wild, windy eastern shore – or underwater, as the island offers the best diving in Mexico, with spectacular drop-offs, walls and swim-throughs, some beautiful coral gardens and a number of little-visited remote reefs where you can see larger pelagic fish and dolphins. The island is also good for bird watching, as it’s a stopover on migration routes and has several species or variants endemic to Cozumel.
Over the years, island culture has developed distinct from that of the mainland, with cozumeleños relishing their lifestyle, which is somehow even more easy-going than on the rest of the coast; San Miguel hosts a particularly colourful celebration of Carnaval, the decadent week prior to Lent.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the island appears to have been a major Maya centre, carrying on sea trade around the coasts of Mexico and as far south as Honduras and perhaps Panama. This ancient community – one of several around the Yucatán coast that survived the collapse of Classic Maya civilization – shows evidence of large-scale trade, specialization between centres and even a degree of mass production. A US air base, built during World War II, has erased the ancient city, however, and the lesser ruins scattered across the roadless interior are mostly unrestored. (The airfield did bring a degree of prosperity; converted to civilian use, it remains the means by which many visitors arrive.)
After about 1600 Cozumel was virtually deserted. In the mid-nineteenth century, though, as the Caste Wars made life on the peninsula unstable, the island became a place of refuge, and by the 1880s, the town of San Miguel was established as a home for the growing population.