Today, Isla Mujeres has a reputation as a tropical playground for wealthy clientele who hide away in the five-star resorts lined uniformly along the white-sanded beaches overlooking the turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. The sultry smell of Mexican spices gently drifts in the Caribbean breeze as delighted patrons enjoy street vendor tacos, barbacoa, and micheladas.
As majestic as Isla Mujeres stands today, there is an underlying history that dates back as far as 300AD where a sleepy little fishing village thrived on the Quintana Roo mainland. It was most likely among these first inhabitants that the legend of the Mayan goddess of fertility, moon, happiness, and health began to explain how the earth and humanity formed which falls in line with other theological narratives. The five-mile island contained sources of self-sufficiency for the people on the mainland and the island because of underground fresh-water cenotes, salt lagoons, and coral reefs full of vibrantly colored tropical fish. Regardless of the motivation for visiting, people will leave with an impression of those who, long before, left their imprint on the island of women.
300 AD El Meco and Ixchel’s religious island
It is on Punta Sur (south-eastern tip of the island) where the remains of Ixchel’s temple lay. For centuries, it was a place of religious and cultural influence where only women resided. The legend of Ixchel flourished as she was known as a goddess who refused to live in an abusive relationship with the Sun God, so she left him and became a symbol of female strength. The island was her sanctuary where she nursed women through childbirth and sickness which is how she became known as the goddess of fertility. After her death, priestesses and female courts continued her legacy of worship and social significance. Today, many childless couples converge on the island to leave flowers and other small offerings in hopes of receiving fertility blessings.
Remnants of a temple and four other buildings that housed the other royal female members of her court remain in modern-day Isla de Mujeres. Each structure was man-made with stone tools that cut each block from volcanic tuff, sandstone, and limestone and burnt-cement to fuse the walls. Within her temple, an Ixchel priestess constructed a lighthouse with holes in the wall where fires continuously burned to beacon the sailors returning home from the tumultuous seas. The women would continue on century after century until the 1500s when the island of women was no more.
Explorers of Isla Mujeres
It is in 1517 that the lives of the Mayan people and their island changed as Spanish explorer Francisco Fernández de Córdoba sailed from Cuba and entered the Caribbean Sea on a, “slave-raiding expedition” (Saville 438). After landing on the island, the Ixchel priestess and her female court, dressed only from the waist down, greeted the explorers. Córdoba, in turn, entered the Mayan stone buildings that first attracted Córdoba to the island. Within the white-sanded stucco walls of the 13th-century temple, he found old skeletons presumed to be previous Ixchel priestesses and their female courts as well as idols of the goddess of Ixchel. As the remaining odds and ends inferred a history of past female populations, Córdoba named the island Isla Mujeres.
The remaining possessions of this vanishing Mayan dynasty declared to the Europeans that Isla was an island of wealth. Córdoba confiscated the jade, gold, and obsidian (volcanic formed glass) that they came across which also corrupted Ixchel’s existence and legacy forever. Their exploration of the island created a shift in the language, religious beliefs, and political sociology as more Cuban and Spanish explorers set sail for Isla Mujeres the following year. The landscape of the island soon transformed from a holy site to one of mystery as other Europeans caught on to Isla’s secrets.
Pirate Plunder and Isla’s Makax Lagoon
By the late 18th-century, Isla Mujeres had become a haven for pirates. The narrative of the island of women changed from a royal court to the kept workers, wives, and wenches of the Buccaneers and pirates who plundered the deep and dangerous oceans around them. The island lured Captain Jean Lafitte, Henry Morgan, and Fermin Mundaca because of the advantageous access to lightly-armed merchant ships weighted with gold and supplies. Isla’s secluded Makax Lagoon allowed the pirates to lay in wait for unsuspecting passing vessels. The slow-moving galleons were no match for the single-mast sloops and heavily-armed brigantines (Golden Age Of Piracy).
If it perhaps the pirate Fermín Antonio Mundaca who is best known for his architectural contribution of Vista Alegre (Happy View) that covered almost half of the island. His breathtaking hacienda modernized the area because he imported exotic fauna and flora. He also constructed a sundial within a botanical garden that cast shadows as each hour passed which infers that a social shift occurred on the island from the Mayan calendar to that of the Europeans. The legendary tales of pirate gold hidden in the thick Isla jungle still lures gold enthusiasts where they seem only to find the sacred Yaaxche trees and the aromas of exotic yellow Poch’il (passion fruit) and colorful Wob (Pitaya) fruit.
Modern Day Fusion of Religion, Exploration, and Pirate Culture
The happenings of the past significantly fused with modern Isla because of a blend of religious followers, international explorers, and contemporary pirates. On any given day, you will find modestly dressed Mennonites selling their homemade wares or foreign tourists seeking adventures on two and four-seater golf carts emblazoned with vivid insignias that consistently travels along the paved loop around the island.
Most tourists come across the present-day pirates who control the local scene without exception. Business owners charge tourists two and three times the rate of legal residents calling it a gringo tax. Taxes are billed additionally to tourists even though the business owners integrate the IVA (value added tax) into the product costs. Taxis have one pay scale for locals while the tourists get the extorted rates. If you happen to forget something on the mainland, you will pay three times the price for the product replacement on the island because you do not know any better. Need a ferry to the island? You have one, but you will pay 300 pesos while legal citizens pay $150. The local pirates are masters at their trade in overcharging tourists who come from high-priced first-world countries.
The three distinct social groups found on Isla Mujeres are every bit as fascinating as their rustic predecessors. The curious amalgam of the people, the adventure, and the cultural knowledge guarantees exclusivity when experiencing this alluring travel destination. It will only take one time, though, to have visitors coming back time and again to learn more about the secrets that were hidden in history.