Isla Mujeres: One Island, Many Adventures
by Lesley Sauls
It has been almost 20 years since the siren's call from Isla Mujeres first beckoned me to this Island of Women off Cancun, Mexico. Initially my heart was drawn to the romance and heartbreak that defines the island, but on this visit I delved into new layers that have me already planning my next visit.
The island is named after the women who would visit the Mayan temple of Ixchel located on its southernmost tip, where powerful waves crash in from the Gulf of Mexico. This easternmost spot of Mexico where dawn's first light plays on the Quintana Roo coast is also the spot where women would pray and make offerings to the fertility goddess, Ixchel, for pregnancy or safe births. Spanish explorers found them doing just that when they first discovered the island and christened it Isla Mujeres.
The island also boasts an awkward romance in which a pirate attempted to woo a beauty half his age by building a vast estate for her in the middle of the island. It was all to no avail. La Triguena (the brunette) married a fellow her own age, and the pirate Mundaca's empty grave stands in a local cemetery with one final dig at the young girl he loved. "As you are, I was. As I am, you will be." His actual grave is in the cemetery on the north end across from Jax but he still got his point across, and she slipped -- perhaps contentedly -- into forgotten history. What remains of his property is open to tour in the center of the island.
Around those two colorful stories, however, the island has developed pockets of varied personalities that I have seen evolve over the last two decades. On the eastern side of the long island is a craggy, windswept coast peppered with little beaches where sea glass is the treasured find among sharp rocks and coral remnants. Strong winds from Cuba whip up wild waves, and the breeze stirs hammocks where visitors dig into books and watch frigatebirds hover overhead as they forget the snow back home.
On the leeward side of the island, the energy is less wild and often a bit more swanky. Calm seas between Isla and Cancun invite yachts to dock and come ashore for oysters and champagne. Sandy beaches become an afternoon playground for Cancun visitors who come to the island for the day on a local ferry. Families picnic on homemade ceviche, and bikini-clad women sun themselves with tropical drinks in hand. This is a more serene paradise, and there are plenty of resorts and restaurants from which to enjoy it.
Taking a golf cart -- most visitors' favored mode of transport here -- for an inland spin reveals another layer of this island's colorful personality. The stacked and brightly painted concrete cubes that are home to the island's workforce create an exciting neighborhood in the middle of the island. Red, white and green tissue-paper banners stretch across the street in memory of a recent celebration. A cluster of neighbors grill something that smells delicious and chat over blaring music while their children play in the street with stray dogs. A taqueria's sign promises icy cerveza near a playground where local children squeal with delight.
The northern part of the island, far from the reverential southern tip, is a festive blend of cafes, vendors and tourists. Cobbled streets, some just wide enough for walkers, mopeds and more golf carts, boast tiny shops with broadly smiling proprietors who invite every passerby inside for a look at their varied wares. I succumbed to one and am now the owner of a locally made jellyfish lamp. Once a gourd that was emptied, dried, and artfully carved with swirls and patterns, it now has colored glass and dangling shells that transformed it into an art piece that will forever recall the many layers of magic that make up Isla Mujeres.
Windward: Villa La Bella is an oasis of calm on the windy side of the island: www.villalabella.com.
Leeward side: La Joya's terraced bungalows cascade down a cliff side in a jumble of colors and flowers: www.villaslajoya.com.