- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Tourists were coming to Mexico’s Isla Mujeres long before Cancun began welcoming visitors big-time for vacation getaways. Back then, sons of local fishermen would take groups from the mainland to visit from a port near Puerto Juarez. Today, a regular ferry service makes runs to Puerto Juarez every half-hour.

Before the fishermen’s excursions, the Mayan Indians lived on the island. It served as their sanctuary for Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, reason, medicine and the moon. Remnants of her temple still stand at the southern point of the island, which also has been used as a lighthouse in which torches shone through holes in the temple walls to warn sailors at sea.

The Mayans also harvested salt from the lagoons in the area, and in wartime, the island was one of their refuges.

Let me tell you a tale of a wonderful trip to that secluded island in the Caribbean on the easternmost point in Mexico.

Isla Mujeres is about six miles north of Cancun and has fewer than 12,000 inhabitants. In recent years, tourism has continued to become a larger part of the island’s economy, along with fishing.

Beaches surround Isla Mujeres, which at its widest point is 41/2 miles by less than 800 yards. The most widely used ones are located on the north and west sides. I spent many hours sitting in the calm tide of Playa Norte, which is the most popular beach on the island. Each evening, the sun would appear above the horizon as an orange-yellow circle, as if painted in the sky. Even after the sunset, I enjoyed watching the moonlight dance on the water.

Although many Americans visit the beaches, the occasional topless European or South American woman also can be seen sunning herself. For other diversions, kayaks and snorkeling gear can be rented from Tarzan’s Water Sports. The eastern rocky shores with their strong currents are too dangerous for swimming. The Laguna Makax is used to house boats, especially during hurricane season.

The island’s name, which means Island of Women, was given by Francisco Hernandez Cordova, a Spanish explorer who stumbled upon the paradise in March 1517. He found many female-shaped figures on its shores representing Ixchel, her daughters and daughters-in-law, Ixchebeliax, Ixhunie and Ixhunieta.

For three centuries after Cordova’s visit, Isla Mujeres remained uninhabited. Infrequent visitors included fishermen and pirates, who often used the island as a place to put women in safekeeping while sailing. As legend has it, pirates Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte buried their stolen treasure on the beaches.

A small village began in downtown Isla Mujeres after Mexico won independence in September 1821. Mayan fishermen gravitated toward the island, and the village grew. In 1850, the village received the name Pueblo de Dolores from Don Miguel Barbacano, the governor of the state of Yucatan. A Mexican naval base was established on the island in 1949.

In 1969, diver Ramon Bravo discovered streamlined sharks while they were sleeping in an underwater cave on the island. For his contributions to the scientific community, he is honored with a statue on the southern part of the island and a plaque that remembers him as “Un Mexicano Universal.”

Isla Mujeres is the ancestral hatching ground for the giant sea turtles that lay their eggs in the sand from May through September. Although the turtles used to be devoured, they are faring better now under federal protection.

At the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm on Sac Bajo, turtle eggs are kept in pens to protect them from predators. Newly hatched turtles are held in tanks until they are released into the wild.

Garrafon Natural Park has an offshore reef that is relatively shallow and has calm surf. The park, on the southern part of the island, is the highest geographical spot in the Mexican Caribbean.

There are no hotels or motels nearby, but the park is reached easily by a rented golf cart, the most popular mode of transportation on the island. Taxi services and motor bikes also are available.

For a $10 entrance fee, visitors to Garrafon can take part in various activities, including swimming in an ocean-side pool, sleeping in a hammock or watching the parrots in the park. Other options, including snorkeling, scuba diving or swinging on a zip line across the water, require an additional fee; lockers, towels and snorkel gear are available for additional charges. The park also has gift and snack shops and a restaurant.

Catamaran trips around Isla Mujeres are offered through companies such as Contoy Express Tours or Kolumbus Tours. Fishing trips are available through Gaitan Tours, Sea Hawk Fishing and Guadalupana Boat Tours. The island hosts several international fishing tournaments, including the Barracuda Handline Tournament in January.

Dolphin Discovery on Sac Bajo on Isla Mujeres offers swims with trained animals.

Because I wanted to explore some of the Mexican mainland, I returned there and took a bus to Xcaret, an ecological park and Mayan-themed family entertainment center near Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun.

At Xcaret, I swam with the dolphins for an hour for about $115. The Mexican restaurant at Xcaret offers traditional Mexican fare with a mariachi band playing in the distance.

For about $30, I rode a horse through a tropical forest onto the beach. After trotting across Xcaret, it was refreshing to jump into the unique underground river system at the park.

Xcaret’s spectacular night show is included in the park’s entrance fee of $49. With a cast of 200, the show chronicles the history of Mexico, including the mysticism of the ancient Mayan kings.

It features the drama of the pre-Hispanic ballgame, which uses hips, legs and head to move the ball across a line or through a hoop.

I would have seen other features of Xcaret, such as the reconstructed Mayan villages, archaeological ruins, the aviary, the museum, the beach, the lagoon and the wading pools, and taken snorkeling and scuba tours. I also could have visited jungle cats, monkeys, bats and even a mushroom farm, but this would have taken another visit or two.

Back at Isla Mujeres, my villa awaited at the upscale Avalon Reef Club. It is a stunning complex with 140 rooms and offers whitewashed villas facing the ocean.

Guests also can stay in a hotel room in the resort’s pyramid tower that soars into the sky. The resort has a spa, a fitness center, four restaurants and the Castaway nightclub.

If tourists lack a five-star budget, there are 40 other hotels on the island, including the Hotel Belmar, which offers three-star accommodations in the heart of downtown in the northwestern part of the island. Some of the other places to stay on the island include Casa de los Suenos on the south end and Na Balam Beach Hotel on North Beach.

I could have stayed on Isla Mujeres for a long, long time, but the boat came back for me.

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