The Maya are believed to have first settled in Cozumel by the early part of the 1st millennium AD, and older Preclassic Olmec artifacts have been found on the island as well. The island was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya Moon Goddess, and the temples here were a place of pilgrimage, especially by women desiring fertility. There are a number of ruins on the island, most from the Post-Classic period. The largest Maya ruins on the island were bulldozed to make way for an airplane runway during World War II. The ruins of San Gervasio are located approximately at the center of the island and are the largest remaining ruins.
The first Spanish visitor was Juan de Grijalva in 1518 , and in the following year Hernán Cortés came with a fleet and destroyed many Maya temples.
Some 40,000 Mayans lived on the island then, but the smallpox disease devastated them, and by 1570 only 30 were left alive. In the ensuing years the island was nearly deserted, just used as a hideout by pirates from time to time. In 1848, the Caste War of Yucatán resulted in resettlement by refugees escaping the tumult. A plaque at the Museo Cozumel states that Abraham Lincoln as the American President came close to purchasing the island as a place to send the freed slaves. The continued war in the Yucatan caused him to change his mind.
In 1959, Jacques Cousteau discovered the extent and beauty of Palancar, the coral reefs at the south of the island and publicized it as one of the best places to go scuba diving in the world.
Although the original airport was a World War II relic and was able to handle jet aircraft and international flights, a much larger airport was built in the late 1970s. This resulted in much greater tourism to Cozumel.
Scuba diving is still one of the island's primary attractions, mainly due to the healthy coral reef marine communities. These coral reefs are protected from the open ocean by the island's natural geography. In 1996, the government of Mexico also established the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, forbidding anyone from touching or removing any marine life within the park boundaries. Despite the importance of healthy reefs to its tourist trade, a deepwater pier was built in the 1990s for cruise ships to dock, causing damage to the reefs, and it is now a regular stop on cruises in the Caribbean.
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