by Melissa M. Park
“Are you Italian?” Manuel asked. I was delighted by what I thought was a compliment to my rusty Spanish and replied, “No, Americanos”. “Haa” he said, “I thought you two are Italian. The Europeans they like to come and stay with us on La Isla, but the Americans, they only want to go to Cancun and party. I was about to object to Manuel that Americans are not just about resorts and parties when, in the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Cancun. Only eight miles across the turquoise sea, its concrete silhouette glittered in the sun. I could see Manuel’s point of view; daily flights from the United States disgorge hoards of tourists for the benefit of Cancun’s world-class resorts, Senior Frogs and Planet Hollywoods, while demurely lovely Isla Mujeres sits lonesome – a forgotten island of fishermen, Mayan ruins, pirate stories, turtles and dolphins.

A broad smile appeared on Manuel’s rich-chocolate-colored Mayan face. “I am glad you are staying with us”, he said understandingly. I left my objection unspoken and just relaxed in my chair. Manuel, my husband and I talked for several hours that morning, as we did most mornings. In front of us was a generous table of huevos rancheros and ultra sweet bananas. The morning air was hot and sticky, but a refreshing breeze blew in from the beach. Time flows at a different pace on Isla Mujeres; it did not matter that breakfast lasted until noon. From our table, we could see boats of day-tourists on discovery tours from Cancun race towards the docks of the nearby Dolphin Discovery Center, Turtle Farm and Garrafón Natural Park. How special we felt to be amongst the few for whom Isla Mujeres is a destination onto itself, not just a side attraction to the bars of Cancun.

There were only a handful of us, “special” tourists, on the island – a few tattooed, leathery boaters from Florida and Texas, a few Europeans and us, romantics in search of a hideaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary. After a few days, we all knew each other and the Isleños all knew us. The white sand beaches and the fishing village’s cobblestone walkways felt like home. When you stay on La Isla, you become family, regardless of nationality. As we walked along the restaurants and souvenir shops, waiters waved and shopkeepers called us in, playfully reminding us of promises we made about coming back for that blanket or that necklace.

Punta Sur and La Hacienda Mundaca
Isla Mujeres is quite small, but from its Mayan ruins to its beautiful beaches, there is always something to visit or discover. Since most day-tourists arrive around ten in the morning, a great way to see the island without the masses is to rent bicycles and start early. We peeled ourselves from our breakfast by the beach one morning and did just that. Our bicycles were rickety and our supply of adrenaline was kept replenished by the red taxis, which raced awfully close to us on the one-lane potholed road, but it was all part of the fun. Our first stop was at the ruins of the temple perched above the southernmost tip of the island. This is where, in 1715, the Spaniard Hernandez de Cordoba and his men came upon the little island for the first time. It was probably the sight of the temple at the edge of the jagged cliffs that beckoned them onto shore, but it was what they found inside that truly astonished them. The floor of the temple was littered with smashed female idols clothed only from the waist down, their breast uncovered. These were figurines of the Mayan Goddess Ixchel – the goddess of fertility and healing. As part of a ritual into womanhood, Mayan women from the main land fashioned these clay idols and traveled alone to the island to smash them onto the temple’s floor. Appropriately, Hernandez named the island “La Isla de Mujeres” (the Island of Women).

From the temple, the road continues along the east coast – which is all downhill – between long strips of unspoiled white sand beaches and low vegetation of cacti and brush. I remembered reading that after Hernandez’s visit, Isla Mujeres became a refuge for pirates and a place where they kept their women while they went out plundering and a-buccaneering. Famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte might have walked these beaches along which we were coasting, they may even have buried treasures there. Manuel had told us that the remains of a pirate’s hacienda could be visited on the west side. Dreams of tall ships, eye-patched pirates and treasures gave me the drive to pedal back along the west coast – which is all uphill – towards La Hacienda Mundaca. But Fermin Ananio Mundaca was not a pirate; he was a slave trader who fancied himself a pirate, and his was not a story of tall ships and treasures, but a tragedy of impossible love.

Mundaca arrived on Isla Mujeres in the late 1850s and fell desperately in love with a green-eyed local beauty. In hopes to seduce her with his wealth, he set out to build a grand hacienda. He called it “La Vista Alegre” (the happy view) and named its gates and various gardens of exotic and imported flowers after his love, “La Triguena” (the brunette). At its peak, the hacienda covered forty percent of the island, but today only a few ruins and gardens are left. Sadly, for all his wealth, Mundaca could not win the brunette’s heart. She married another and he slowly went insane. He died alone in Merida, on the main land, and was buried there. The tomb he had carved with his own hands lies empty in the Isla Mujeres cemetery. An inscription on it, meant for his love, reads, “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be”. Enigmatic words that seem to fit the island’s predicament as we look across the sea to Cancun and what could be.

El Centro
After a hard day on our rickety bicycles, we return to the El Centro (the center) for a well-deserved meal and cerveza. It was not until recently that tourism gave the island’s economy a little boost, but we found that in essence El Centro is still at heart a small fishing village. Nets hang between palm trees in front of wooden fishing boats all along the western beach. Every day, the fishermen leave at the break of dawn and return by mid-morning with enough seafood and fish to feed themselves and the day-tourists from Cancun. Mariscos y pescados (seafood and fish) are the main dishes on the menus of restaurants along the west beach, but both were so fresh and delicious that we ate there often and never wished for more. Sometimes, a little old lady sat nearby, meticulously detangling a fishing net spread over several tables and the fisherman himself came to our table to chat.

In the town itself, only two or three square blocks seem to have been sacrificed to the cause of tourism. The souvenir shops with their colorful blankets and hammocks, the restaurants, the tattoo parlors and the hair braiders, can all be found within these few square blocks. But only a few hundred feet away, the Isleños’ life continues undisturbed by mass-tourism: small streets of cobblestones lead to a daily market of fresh fruit and vegetables; others lead to the church. Schoolchildren wear uniforms, and music from TV Novelas floats up from open windows. A grandmother sits lovely in a floral print dress at the entrance of a house. The deep green of the house matches her eyes. As we walk by she looks up from her book and greets us with a generous smile and a “Hola!”.

La Playa Norte
By the late afternoon, after the day-tourists have all gone back to Cancun with bags full of souvenirs, the whole island is ours again. Shops close; beaches empty; scooters carrying entire families zip home. We return our bicycles and take a stroll along “La Playa Norte” (the North beach), a long strip of fine white sand and warm crystal clear water lined by palm trees – the kind of beach dreams are made of. We bury our feet in the warm sand and sip on a cool Mexican beer, enveloped by the smell of the salty seashore and the tunes from a nearby Gypsy King CD that skips regularly. As the sun hides behind the clouds, we watch the sky change from a gentle orange to a fiery red that spills onto the ocean.

We are alone on the beach for a perfect anniversary night. Then, the last rays of the sun pierce through the towering hotels of Cancun and slowly disappear. Dark covers the island and all falls quiet. Cancun parties; Isla Mujeres sleeps. How lucky we are to be on the tranquil side of this sea!

This originally appeared in the fall 2004 edition of Travelsearcher

Melissa Park is a professional photographer who specializes in off-the-beaten-path adventures and mountain sports. She writes stories when she finds one that wants to be written.