|By Logan Hawkes
Enchanting might be the best single word to describe Isla Mujeres, a tiny jewel of an island just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Isolated from the flashing lights and fancy hotels on the nearby Quintana Roo mainland, this secluded destination offers the best of many worlds, from ancient and historical to modern and high-tech.
It's been a number of years since I actually lived on the tiny Mexican island of Isla Mujeres - the Isle of Women, or Treasure island as it was called by a lot of the tour companies back in the 80s. But I have been back enough in recent years to know times are changing on "my little island" far too quickly for my nostalgic taste.
Change, of course, whether for good or bad, is always a difficult thing. But if you have never visited this tiny jewel, or if you didn't visit prior to 1990, then you probably can't feel the weight of that change like I do.
But enough of the nostalgia for now. The truth is, there are still many great reasons to visit La Isla, not the least of which, I must admit, is because it still holds the memory of Mexico's Caribbean-coastal-past in the cradle of its existence. Sure, there are more hotels and even a resort or two that have cropped up over the last few years. But the island village streets and the brightly colored buildings that line them are still very much pictures out of the past. Even the coastal waters, though not as clear as once they were, are still some of the most beautiful and clear in the western Caribbean. Snorkeling and diving remain primary reasons for a visit.
At five miles long and less than a half-mile wide, the island has long been a significant figure in regional history in spite of its small size. For one, it is perfectly situated between the Caribbean and the Gulf, once the perfect place to loot Spanish and French ships laden with treasures.
According to the State of Quintana Roo's Web site, Isla Mujeres has a long and colorful history. In Mayan times the island served as the sanctuary for the goddess Ixchel, the Goddess of fertility, reason, medicine, and the moon. The Temple was located at the South point of the island and was also used as a lighthouse. The light from torches filtered through holes in the walls, which could be seen by navigators at sea. The Mayans also came to the island to harvest salt from the salt lagoons.
In March of the year 1517, Francisco Hernandez Cordova discovered the island. When the Spanish expedition landed, they found many female shaped idols representing the goddess Ixchel, thus Isla Mujeres got its name, the Isle of Women.
"During Lent of 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba with three ships to procure slaves for the mines... (others say he sailed to discover new lands). He landed on the Isla de las Mujeres, to which he gave this name because the idols he found there, of the goddesses of the country, "Ixchel" and her daughters and daughter-in-law's "Ixchebeliax", "Ixhunie", "Ixhunieta", only vestured from the girdled down, and having the breast uncovered after the manner of the Indians. The building was of stone, such as astonished them, and they found certain objects of gold which they took." Excerpt from "Yucatan, Before and After the Conquest" written in 1566 by Friar Diego de Landa.
For the next three centuries Isla Mujeres was uninhabited. The only visitors were fisherman and pirates who used Isla as a refuge and left their women on the island "for safekeeping" while they sailed the high seas. Famous pirates like Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte walked the shores of Isla and as legend goes, buried their stolen treasure under the white sands.
After the Independence of Mexico, a small village began in what is now downtown Isla Mujeres. During the Chaste War, many Mayans took refuge on Cozumel, Holbox and Isla Mujeres. Mayan fisherman found the waters around the island to be a fisherman's paradise and the village slowly grew. In August of 1850, the governor of the State of Yucatan, Don Miguel Barbacano, named the village Pueblo de Dolores.
The Legend of Mundaca the Pirate
Fermin Antonio Mundaca y Marecheaga was born in October of the year 1825 in the village Bermeo of Santa Maria, Spain. After completing his studies he set out for the New World to make his fortune. He arrived on the shores of Isla in 1858 after acquiring his wealth selling captured Mayan slaves to Cuban plantations and, some say, pirating. Whether or not this is true, no one knows for certain, but Mundaca apparently cultivated and enjoyed his reputation as a pirate.
Mundaca immediately set out building a large hacienda he named "Vista Alegre" (Happy View) which eventually covered over 40% of the island. There were areas for livestock, birds, vegetables gardens, fruit orchards and exotic plants that were brought from all over the world. A special garden called "The Rose of the Winds" was constructed which served as a sundial telling the time of the day by its shadows.
In 1862 Martiniana (Prisca) Gomez Pantoja was born. She was one of five sisters and it is been said that she was a willowy woman with green eyes, white skin bronzed by the Caribbean sun and long, straight hair. Called "La Triguena" (the brunette), many men fell in love with her including Mundaca. The arches above the gates were dedicated to her, naming them "The Entrance of the Triguena" and "The Pass of the Triguena" in hopes his wealth and power would win the local beauty 37 years younger then himself. His dedication was in vain, she married a man closer to her own age and as legend tells it, Fermin Mundaca slowly went insane and died. His empty tomb still awaits him in the Isla Mujeres cemetery. Carved by his own hands are the skull and cross bones, in memory of his pirating days and these words, "As you are, I was. As I am, you will be".
Touring The Island
In the mid-80s, when I called the island home, Mundaca's "castle" was little more than a ruin in the short, thick forest on the south end of the island. You literally had to weed your way through the thicket to reach it. No longer! The forest has been by and large removed and the castle is now a major tourist attraction. For a $10 entry fee you can walk through the property and hear about his story in the same spot in the garden where I often ate lunch under heavy tree cover, fighting off the hermit crabs that swarmed there. But, before nostalgia sweeps me over again, let us continue with our virtual tour.
The island is small enough to make getting around a simple matter. During my days on the island, I lived on the west beach side more than halfway out to the southern tip, about a 3-mile trek back to the village on the north end. If you have the time and enjoy hiking, I would recommend using your feet and a good pair of tennis shoes to get from one place to the next. After all, on Isla, time passes very slowly.
If you're rooted too much in the fast lane, rent a bicycle, Moped or golf cart. You'll find the islanders are, for the most part, a friendly lot, especially the Native Maya.
And speaking of "native," you'll find an eclectic mix of cultures in Quintana Roo, especially on Isla Mujeres. This Hemmingway-type island is home to full-blood Maya, mixed Maya-Mexican, Mexican citizens (mostly who have migrated south for the "good life"), assorted expatriate Americans, extended travelers, a lot of Brits and a few Spanish. The end of summer brings the French and Italians - in large numbers, and the Japanese.
While the mix of cultures is both charming and intriguing, don't get lost in the melding pot of cultures on the island. Down deep it is a Maya stronghold, once allied with the powerful Empire that spanned the Yucatan and into the lowlands of Guatemala. It is a place of magic and power, and while it's easy to get carried away in the laid-back life and enjoy the warm trade winds under the warm sun, under it all lies ancient history and myth. Mayan Gods were said to have walked this island. It's shores have been graced by royalty and statesmen, pirates and politicians, refugees and castaways, criminals and kings. Most of the signs are gone, covered over by the passing of time and the settlement of man. But a short time alone on the island's white sandy beaches listening to a cacophony of ocean sounds and tropical whispers, you begin to sense the greatness of the place and its colorful past, almost as if it has its own voice that you can hear only when you listen intently. Listen carefully and you can almost hear it calling your name.
But don't kid yourself. If you have come to play on the island, you've got a full plate before you, starting with those same sandy beaches.
Isla has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Tall order you say? But it's true. In spite of tourism growth and commercial expansionism there are beaches on Isla that rate as some of the best, especially North Beach (called Nauti Beach when I lived on the island - which had little to do with me), if you don't mind the crowd.
El Garrafón National Park is, of course, one of the best places to snorkel and play in the water. Located on the Southwest end of the island, you won't find better reef and tropical fish action that you can reach without a boat.
Speaking of boats, there are plenty for hire on the island. The sea worthy Mayan boatsmen are experienced in these usually calm waters and know the best places to snorkel, fish and sight-see.
While a resident on the island, I was fortunate enough to have use of a boat, which subsequently sank during Hurricane Gilbert. But if you're spending a day or lifetime on Isla, you MUST get out on the open water.
If you're a diver, the famed Cave of the Sleeping Sharks is just off the east shoreline a few miles. There is a pirate ship wreck to dive, as well as great reef action all around the island. Isla Contoy, a 30-minute boat ride away, is a Mexican national wildlife refuge. You can take a tour with a dozen or more local companies that provide the service. You get to fish on the way and the crew will cook your catch while you explore across the island. The Survivor TV series would do well to discover this great hide out.
If you're into archeology or have interest in the ancient past, there's plenty to see all across the Yucatan peninsula. Tulum stands guard on the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean and is close enough to take a tour bus or rental car out of Cancun. Rent the car (Jeep) and go early before the buses arrive!
Chichen Itza, a couple of hours away, is a major site that shouldn't be missed, and nearby Merida is an ancient Maya center of culture that deserves a visit. And there are other commercial sites, like Xcaret and Xel-Ha, both which are commercialized visitor havens, but interesting enough to consider visiting if you have the time. More like theme parks, the sites do offer the type of service and amenities many U. S. travelers require.
Personally, I would recommend the road less traveled. Rent a Jeep, head into the jungle and proceed to get lost. That's always been my policy.
Lodging and Dining
You've certainly have a lot of choices here. You can opt for a room at a small Hotel for as little as $35-$45 a night, move up to a nicer hotel or lodge for less than $100, choose a villa or condo for a little more or a resort lodge for $130 and up. Hotel Cabanas, Maria del Mar, was one of my favorite resting places, with off-season rates around $70 a night.
As far as dining is concerned, the days of the $6 lobster are gone I'm afraid. But Caribbean lobster is delicious, and worth the $20-$30 you pay for it. Fresh ceviche is available most everywhere on the island, though I would recommend Las Brisas' palapa bar near the ferry docks. You can live on it, you know!
Otherwise, there are countless places to eat, most are good, a few terrible, and some are just great. Rolandi's Pizza in the heart of the village is another of my favorites - good pizza, cold drinks and big screen TVs, a great place to catch up with the Weather Channel, which - by the way - is on most of the summer months.
Catch a flight to Cancun, take a taxi to Puerto Juárez. The are two Ferry docks to Isla Mujeres. Puerto Juárez & Gran Puerto Cancun which is 15 minutes north of downtown Cancun. Express boats leave every half hour and the crossing takes about 15 minutes and the fare is 35 pesos. The first crossing from Cancun is at 6:30 AM. Then beginning at 9:00 AM the express boats leave every hour until 12 midnight. From Isla Mujeres to Puerto Juárez, the ferries run every 30 minutes from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM and last one out at 9:00 PM.
If you're arriving by car or have a rental, there is a car ferry from Punta Sam (another 10 minutes down the road from Puerto Juarez). The ferry runs from 8am till about 8pm.
The currency in Mexico is the Peso. There are $20.00, $50.00, $100.00, $200.00 and $500.00 peso bills. The coins are $.10, $.20, $.50 centavos and $1.00 , $2.00, $5.00, $10.00 and $20.00 pesos. US dollars are accepted everywhere, even the small neighborhood stores. We suggest you wait until you arrive on Isla before you exchange any travelers checks or cash. Be sure to bring plenty of $1 dollar bills for tipping!