Sunday, May 22, 2005

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres: Juan Gomez Chan and his Family
Juan, su esposa Paola, sus niños Manolo y Paolina, y el autor delante de la iglesia donde Juan y Paola se casaron en 1987
Juan, his wife Paola, his children Manolo and Paolina, and the author in front of the church where Juan and Paola were married in 1987
Nan and I just returned from a ten-day vacation to Isla Mujeres, a tiny island five miles off the coast of Cancún in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. It was our fourth trip to the island in the last seven years, so it goes without saying that it is one of our favorite vacation spots. In the past we have stayed twice at the Na Balam hotel and once at the Hotel Playa La Media Luna. This time we tried something different, a wonderful, fully equipped one-bedroom apartment above the Color de Verano café and boutique ( We stayed in the third-floor apartment and had great views looking out over the beach at the northwest corner of the island.

Our daily routine quickly evolved into an early morning walk on the beach followed by perfect cappuccinos and muffins at the café while we checked our email messages using the café's free Internet access. Then it was off to the beach to read and relax, or bombing around the island on scooters to see the sights too far away to walk to. The island is only five miles long and a half-mile wide, so exploring it is easy. There are several places of interest along the west coast. This time out, we stopped at Playa Indios, a beach club that caters to visitors catching a ferry over from Cancún, but it was crowded so we just sat in the shade and drank Cokes to avoid the mid-90s heat of mid-day. Then is was off to Punta Sur.

Isla Mujeres: Paolina and Manolo at Amigos Restaurant
Paolina travieso en Amigos después que metiendo accidentalmente a su hermano en el ojo
Mischievous Paolina at Amigos after accidentally poking her brother in the eye
The recent influx of tourism dollars to Cancún has osmosized to Isla Mujeres, and the improvements are dramatic. The first time we visited Punta Sur, all there was to see were the ruins of the Mayan temple to the goddess of love, Ixchel, an old man selling shells and starfish from under a tarp, and a small lighthouse. Now, in addition to the over-developed Garrafon Reef Park, there is a sculpture garden, a restaurant, a museum, a gift shop, nicely manicured grounds and paths, and the nicely rehabilitated temple and lighthouse. The old man is still there, and he looks to be prospering.

The best part of our visits to Isla Mujeres is the people we have befriended there. Many of them are Mayan and most are from the mainland. The story we've heard is that when the island was being developed for tourism, the developers recruited masons from the Yucatan peninsula to build the hotels. Many of them liked the island so much that they stayed on after the work was completed, taking jobs in the hotels and restaurants they had built. Our friend Juan was not one of these early arrivals, but he came to Isla Mujeres from a town south of Tulum on the east coast of the peninsula and has made a good life for himself and his family working as a waiter at the Na Balam's restaurants. Juan was the first person we met on our first visit to the island, and although his English was not great and our Spanish was considerably worse, we were able to communicate well enough to make each other laugh and form a friendship. During our third visit, Juan invited us to his home to meet his wife Paola, his sons Juan Jr. and Manolo, and his baby daughter Paolina. They live in what is locally known as a "colonial," one of several tiny villages scattered around the island to the south of the main town, which is not normally referred to as anything but "downtown." Juan's family lives with his wife's family in a shared house. Their accommodations are simple--they sleep in hammocks they put up at night--but they have every modern appliance plus a good computer with Internet access. Juan typically rides a scooter to work, but he also owns a car that his family uses for trips to their hometowns on the mainland, taking the car ferries that make the passage several times a day.

Isla Mujeres: Nan with Juan at the Na Balam Restaurant
Nan con Juan en el restaurante de Na Balam balcón romántico de primer piso
Nan with Juan on the Na Balam restaurant's romantic second-floor balcony
The highlight of our visit this year was our dinner out with Juan's family. We belatedly celebrated Manolo's twelfth birthday by going out for pizza to Amigos, a restaurant partly owned by Paola's brother-in-law and located on Av. Hidalgo, the island's main street for restaurants and shopping. Paolina brought the little red Beany Baby with the Mexican flag on its chest that Nan had given her when she was a baby four years before. Now she was a rambunctious five-year-old with a shy but mischievous smile. After pizza we had ice cream and sang feliz cumpleaños (happy birthday), then walked up and down Hidalgo until the kids were tired and ready to go home.

We promised Juan that we would put some pictures of our visit on the Internet for his family to see, so here they are with the captions in both Spanish and English. Juan, we hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed spending time with you and your family. Readers, if you ever get a chance to vacation in the Cancún area, be sure to take the ferry across to Isla Mujeres, Mexico's best-kept secret.

No comments: