A Different World
Story and Photos by Ken Walker
ozumel, just off the Yucatan's Mayan Riviera, is Mexico's top tourism
island. Throngs of visitors arrive by cruise ship and ferry in all seasons,
boosting the island's economy, enjoying its cuisine, crowding its beaches,
diving, snorkeling, and seldom venturing even a mile inland.
Only a handful of visitors really get inside Cozumel,
where history replaces hype and time loses its importance. If you're
not an inertial iguana or comatose cruiser, head inland by scooter,
rental car or taxi, and discover what's under Cozumel's skin.
About 11 miles toward the center of the island from
the main port city of San Miguel de Cozumel lies an important Mayan
site, not as eye-popping as Chichen Itza or Tulum, but spread out over
about as much ground. It's the ruin the Spaniards called San Gervasio,
named for reasons not now apparent for the Second Century Christian
martyr Saint Gervase.
Today, it is visited only by resident iguanas, tourists
with a yen for Mayan history, and the occasional maintenance worker.
Two thousand years ago it was a thriving religious center, dedicated
to the worship of the goddess Ixchel. Between 100 B.C. and the Spanish
invasion in the mid-1600s, Mayan women were drawn here to pay homage
to one of their favorite deities.
The entrance arch and altar.
Arrive at the ruins with plenty of bottled water, a
hat, rain gear, insect repellant, and $6 or so in pesos for the entrance
fee and state tax. As you enter, you face a stylized Mayan arch topped
by a flat capstone -- as opposed to a keystone, which was unknown to
the Maya -- , inside which lies an altar for initial offerings to Ixchel.
Past the arch stretches the sacbe (white stone road) leading to the
Ixchel, generally translated as "She of the Rainbows,"
was the goddess of midwifery and medicine. Some scholars believe she
also represented weaving, rain, and the waning moon. In any event, she
is represented in the Dresden Codex (one of a very few surviving Mayan
documents) as an elderly jaguar goddess with a coiled serpent headdress,
emptying a jar of water at her feet.
Ixchel (center) as drawn in the Dresden Codex as
"the red goddess"
The Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa, on whose orders the
conquistadors burned all the Mayan books they could discover as "instruments
of the devil." wrote of Ixchel in his History of the Yucatan as
"the goddess of making children." In her feast month, de Landa
wrote, shamans and healers brought forth divination stones and medicine
bundles containing small idols of "the goddess of medicine whom
they called Ixchel."
By the time the Spaniards saw Cozumel first-hand, it
was the custom for Mayan women to make a pilgrimage to her sanctuary
on Cozumel to plead for a fruitful marriage. Vestiges of more than 40
of her temples are spread out over the extensive site, and small personal
idols representing Ixchel are still being discovered.
The ceremonial center is entered through a narrow gateway
between standing stones. Today the stones are stark and bare, but in
Mayan times they were covered with plaster daub, which in turn was painted
with rich primary colors, predominantly red. Roofing was of thatch,
supported by wooden beams and poles.
Entrance to the center complex. Note remnants of
original plaster at lower right.
To the left as you enter the center stands the Round
House. Some locals will tell you it was the residence of San Gervasio's
lord, with the obligatory temple of Ixchel on top. Could be. But it
could also have been an astronomical observatory and temple to Ehecatl,
Mayan god of the wind. Structures almost identical to this are part
of the archaeological record at many other Mayan sites.
Initial staircase at the Round House.
Seeing all the ruins at San Gervasio involves a lot
of walking but no hills. As you wander among the structures, it is easy
to imagine the throngs of reverential Mayan women, expectant in both
senses of the word, whose footsteps preceded your own on the same ground.
You may also imagine the awe felt by the ancient visitors when they
heard (as many archaeologists believe they did) the voice of Ixchel
issuing from a giant statue of the goddess, articulated by a hidden
Back in town, in the small Museum of the Island of Cozumel
on Rafael Melgar Avenue, is a modern painting honoring motherhood, showing
a Mayan parent making tortillas with her daughter.
A timeless task -- turning the tortilla.
If you earn the confidence of modern Mayan women, you
may discover that despite honest acceptance of Catholicism, aspects
of the ancient religion have survived. Belief of the intercession of
Ixchel in modern Mayan life is more common than one might think, and
may still pass from generation to generation.
On an emotional and historical level, my visit to Cozumel
left me far more impressed than many trips to grander and more popular
sites. So do visit Cozumel, for the people, the diving, the beaches,
and the local food, but for a sentimental pot of gold, don't skip San
Gervasio's lady of the rainbows.