Isla Mujeres is about a half-hour ferry ride from a dock called Puerto Juarez in Cancun.
According to my preferred guide book, Lonely Planet, there are other ways to get there from resorts in and around Cancun, but since I've never been to Cancun resorts, I only know how to get there on the ferry from Puerto Juarez.
Speaking of the resorts, though, Isla Mujeres is a standard day trip for Cancun tourists, some of whom buy the snorkeling package and some of whom just want to shop. I can't speak to the snorkeling, having never done it there, though I have heard less than wonderful anecdotes about it from tourists I've met on flights to Toronto from Cancun.
What I can speak to is the bizarre bazaar atmosphere that happens on that stretch of a few blocks on either side of the ferry docks – including restaurants with less than mediocre fare – with vendors selling three-for-ten-dollars T-shirts, cheezy jewellery and the usual other bric a brac, which is what tourists who go to the island to shop experience.
What lies beyond all that is one of the places I love most on this earth. I fell in love with the island when I made a solo trip there in the summer of 2006. Why that happened is another story.
The summer of 2007, I decided to take my three children for a month-long trip to Mexico. I figured we'd start with Isla Mujeres and stay there as long as it worked for us. A friend of mine, Carole, joined us along with her son, who was a close friend of my two sons. We all flew to Cancun, made our way to Puerto Juarez, took the ferry across to the island and spent the first night in the hotel I'd stayed at the previous year.
The following morning, while Carole took the kids for breakfast, I wandered through the town looking for an apartment we could rent. I found a building on the north end of the island that had only studio apartments, which meant we would have to rent two units instead of one in order to house the six of us, but otherwise met our needs perfectly. I worked out a daily rate with the owner, a gregarious man named Luis.
My apartment was an extension built on the roof on the building. Carole's was a unit on the ground floor. The window of my living room/dining room/kitchen looked out – past the balcony where Carole and I would eat our dinner every evening after the children had been fed, past the bougainvillea and palm trees, past the hints of white sand peeking out among the foliage - on a vista of what I consider the single loveliest thing about that island: it is the place where three bodies of water meet, and from my window I could see the green of the Caribbean Sea blend with the aqua marine of the Gulf of Mexico and both mix with the almost-navy blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
The following day, the six of us established a routine that worked for all of us. The children would wake up and meander between Carole's apartment and mine, each one opting for which of the two breakfasts offered that morning he or she fancied. Carole and I would then pack towels, sun block, water bottles and snacks for the beach, while the children got into their bathing suits and covered up with T-shirts, after which the boys would romp in the courtyard while my daughter would play with Juancito - the son of the building's maid, Susie - who, like she, was five years old.
Then Carole, who would have lived on a beach if she could, and who didn't speak Spanish and therefore preferred not to be helplessly wandering around the town, would take the children to a gorgeous little nearby bay to spend the morning. I, on the other hand, did speak Spanish, and while I loved the visuals of beaches, would have been bored to distraction if I had had to spend an entire morning on one let alone also having to monitor the safety of four children in water.
I would shower and dress and head first to a coffee shop I had discovered the year before. The coffee it served was exceptional, and one of its owners was a sweet, quirky woman from Vancuver named Janine. Almost inevitably, I would there run into Luis, the owner of the building where we were staying, and some of his buddies, including Jorge, nicknamed 'Toro” (bull) for his stocky build, who was the head of the fisherman's co-operative on the island and who owned his own boat.
If the men were in a raucous mood, usually because they had been drinking all night and were there before going to bed, I would greet them politely and chat with Janine. If they were mellow or sad – during the ten days we were on the island, two of them lost close friends – I would wax philosophical with them while I went through a cup or two of coffee.
I would then go to the supermarket at the town's plaza to get our meat, cheeses, beer and fruit juices for the day before going to the market, a couple of blocks from where we were staying, to get our fruit, vegetables and the fresh tortillas which I could literally watch coming hot off the presses. In between the two stops, I would pick some wild flowers, usually bougainvillea and hibiscus, to place in a vase at the centre of our dining table.
I would make my way back to the apartment around the time Carole and the kids were returning from the beach. While they showered and changed, I would prepare a simple lunch, after which I hung out with the kids while they watched cartoons on the TV in my air-conditioned bedroom and/or crashed on my bed for a siesta. Carole would either nap in her apartment or wander the town.
Once the day's heat had ebbed, I would accompany Carole and the kids back to the beach where they had spent the morning or to the one at the southern end of the island, where the ferries docked. After a couple of hours, I would leave to begin preparing our dinner.
The first time we were on the southern beach, we met a Dutch woman, named Justa, who had moved to Mexico with her Dutch husband about twelve years before. The two of them had set up a hostel, called the Travel 'In, which appeared in the Lonely Planet for Mexico. It was, she told me, a spot that catered to campers and to travellers who liked to sleep in hammocks, in Mahajual, a place on the Mayan coast between Cancun and the Belizean border. The place had become hers when she and her husband divorced. She was on vacation on Isla Mujeres with her two sons and her Mexican boyfriend.
Her sons were blond, blue-eyed Northern Europeans who spoke fluent Spanish with the courtesy and cheekiness of Mexican street kids. Whenever we showed up on the southern beach, Gustavo, the elder one, romped with Carole's son and my sons, while Bram, who was six, collected shells and rocks which he would bring as offerings to my daughter.
Carole judged Justa for leaving her children with us since we were complete strangers. I figured that a woman in love – and one much more familiar with child safety as it worked in Mexico than we were – had made a reasonable decision that worked for everyone involved.
They left Isla Mujeres before we did, their short vacation having ended long before ours did.
Justa, her lover and her children and I with my children would accidentally meet again about a week later in Valladolid, where we had gone inland ahead of Hurricane Dean. That, however, is another story.
After about five days of our idyll on Isla Mujeres, Carole began to get restless. It was her first trip to Mexico and she didn't know when she would be back, especially conveniently accompanied by someone who spoke Spanish. Maybe we should be checking out other places, she wondered, like Tulum, which had both beach and Mayan ruins. In theory, I agreed with her. I wanted to see Tulum, too, and in fact would make a trip there a couple of weeks later with my children, but long after Carole and her son had returned home.
At the time, however, the thought of packing up a life we had so quickly eased into, ripping four children from a place and a routine with which they were completely content, in order to lead – as the only Spanish speaker – us with all our luggage, back to the ferry, back to noisy, polluted Cancun to hop a bus in order to visit some ruins – beachfront notwithstanding – was beyond overwhelming to me.
I'd never been to Tulum, I pointed out. What if it didn't speak to us the same way Isla Mujeres had?
I was a much more experienced traveller than Carole was and I knew what she might only have suspected: as wonderful as travelling can be on its upside, it can flip to a corresponding disaster on its downside. That equation was exponential when children were involved.
I understood, though, that what she really wanted was to do more and see more. I suggested we explore further what Isla Mujeres had to offer. She suggested snorkeling. I agreed, but didn't have it in me to consider doing it with the Cancun tourists. I promised her I'd find a way we'd both be happy with.
The next morning, I talked to Luis at the coffee shop, who talked to Jorge later, who came to see me that afternoon to propose – for a modest price of twelve hundred pesos, or less than a hundred andtwenty dollars – that he and a guide would take the six of us snorkeling the next day. He would even include lunch at a restaurant on the far eastern end of he island.
The following day, we showed up in the early morning at the dock. Jorge stopped by to apologize for the fact that he had to be somewhere else that morning, but would meet up with us when we stopped for lunch. He introduced us to Ivan, a reedy, muscular man who would drive the boat, and to Cristian, a large, young easy-going man, who would be our snorkeling guide. We fitted ourselves for flippers, except for my daughter who was too little. Then we sped off with Ivan bouncing the boat on the waves for about an hour before throwing down anchor at a place where the water was shallow and where here was a patch of rocks about a hundred feet away.
Carole, who had been snorkeling before, guided our boys and me to falling backwards off the boat once we had on our gear, while Cristian placed my daughter in an inner tube, from where he would guide her to dunk her head in the water to see the fishes when we swam to the patch of rocks where those fishes gathered.
Once in the water, however, I resisted the head gear. I didn't like the plastic goggles and I couldn't find a rhythm to breathe with my mouth through the nasty-tasting rubber tube. Cristian assured me he would be right by my side until I was comfortable, but I was concerned that if he was taking care of me, he would take his attention off my daughter, who did not yet know how to swim. I opted not to join them.
I spent the time swimming in the delicious water while Ivan took a nap. It would be two years before I would go snorkeling for the first time in my life at the coral reef off Caye Caulker in Belize and would understand then what I had missed that day, but at the time I was as content as I had been on any other day on Isla Mujeres.
When the six of them returned, Carole was gushing joy and gratitude to Ivan and Cristian for what she had just experienced, I confess that made me relieved that I would likely hear nothing more from her about a sortie to Tulum.
The place where we stopped for lunch was a beach front location where fishermen set up stalls to clean and sell their catches for the day. The way it worked was that one selected the fish for one's meal from a fisherman; the restaurant would grill the fish on an open barbeque and serve it accompanied by rice, tortillas, salsa, guacamole and salad. Carole and I understood that Cristian and Ivan needed to select the appropriate fish since we didn't know the pricing and since lunch was included with our trip, but we were happy to cover a side tab for beer for the adults and lemonade for the children.
Jorge showed up, as promised, and asked me to go for a spin on his motorcycle to show me other spots on the island we might be interested in visiting. I asked if my daughter could come along so Carole and the boys could head back on the boat and stop to swim along the way without having to tend to her.
My daughter stood on the part of the bike between Jorge and the handle bars and I slid into the seat behind him. As we rode down the highway, it occurred to me that we resembled any one of the typical Mexican families crowded on a motorcycle riding along the highway that day.
We stopped at one point at a beach where Jorge told me about the sea turtles who came on land to bury their eggs in the sand. People on the island had come to consider those eggs a culinary delicacy and would dig them up to consume them. Then a grassroots, environmentally-conscious movement got the community involved, including schools which set up field-trip days for their students to participate,in rescuing the eggs.
The following afternoon, Carole and I took our kids to the Tortugranja (Turtle Farm) that had been the result of those rescue efforts. The place was crisply organized to show the development of the sea turtles starting with the sand where they hatched. From there they were moved to a tank and then moved to others as they grew. A row of tanks showed the turtles at their various stages of growth. The final stage, as we observed it from a pier – around which the endearingly timid turtles were clumped –was for them to be released into the ocean.
Jorge's next stop was a roadside cantina where he and I downed beers while my daughter sipped on a lemonade. He told me about the ruins of the hacienda of Spanish pirate who, during the eighteenth century, when pirates were doing regular forays into Isla looking primarily to capture slaves for the sugar plantations in Cuba, fell in love with a Mayan woman he happened to meet while hiding out on Isla Mujeres after running afoul of the law and having to abandon his piratical activities.
Two days after our snorkeling expedition, the six of us spent the afternoon munching on sandwiches and sipping on bottled water as we wandered the ruins of the Hacienda Mundaca where Fermin Antonio Mundaca y Marecheaga, the pirate, had built a once-fabulous home in the hope of seducing the Mayan princess, Prisca Gómez Pantoja, nicknamed la Trigueña – who would have nothing to do with him.
Our children, as they edged up the narrow stone staircase between the two floors, were fascinated by how what was so basic to them was once considered luxury, but they were much more engaged by the terrain, which had pretty much returned to nature, and which served up a generous presence of iguanas and monkeys.
The last stop Jorge made with me and my daughter was at a look out place displaying tiny islands with pristine beaches. They were unknown to tourists, he pointed out.
“I'll take you all there next week when I have a day off,” he promised. “All I ask of you and your friend is that you pay for my gas.”
I guffawed at the excessiveness of his generosity. “Not a problem.”
We never made that trip. Hurricane Dean began threatening four days later and Jorge, as did everyone else who worked with the sea, had to focus on finding safe harbours for their boats, on finding safe housing alternatives for their families and on stockpiling safe food.
The island had only two years before been ravished by Hurricane Wilma, and the trauma from that was still a part of the consciousnes of everyone who lived there.
Tourists, as the news informed us, began exiting the Cancun area en masse. Carole and I agreed to not panic, but to wait until she and her son were scheduled to leave anyway in a couple of days before we all left Isla Mujeres.
One of my dearest memories of that trip is of Tropical Storm Erin, which landed on Isla Mujeres before Huricane Dean on our second last day on the island. That evening, despite Carole's protests at the ridiculousness of the suggestion, I insisted that children, who had been locked inside all day because of the storm, deserved ice-cream. Carole stayed behind at my apartment reading books to my daughter while the three boys and I waded through streets with knee-to-thigh-high water in order to treat ourselves at the Italian gelateria we had come to favour.
The morning of the day before we we left, Carole wanted to do some last-minute shopping, so instead of her taking them to the beach they usually went to, I took the children to the beach on the southeren end of the island. My sons got into an argument about a boogie board and my elder son, then fourteen years old, stormed off. I was concerned he would get lost, but reminded myself that he had spent three years in a Spanish immersion program when we lived in Pennsylvania, and that had left him better equipped than anyone might have suspected from looking at him.
People on the island who had met him referred to him as a 'casi hombre' (almost man), which he liked and maybe needed to prove he was.
Within minutes of his storming off, random people, many of whom I didn't recognize, began calling out to me. “Hey, I just saw your son at walking up that street.” “I saw your son in a cyber cafe.” “Your son was at the artesan market on the north end of the island. “ “Your son was at the apartments, but there was no one there to let him in.”
Pretty much the whole time my kid was wandering solo through that day, I knew where he was. A child alone, even a casi hombre, was neither unnoticed on that island, nor ever unsafe.
Before we left the following morning – Carole and her son to return home while I and my three children went inland to Valladolid to wait out the hurricane – I assumed that my children and I would return to Isla after the storm had passed. However, once we had ridden out the drama of the hurricane safely inland, and while I could gauge from the news reports that it was safe to return to Isla Mujeres, I couldn't get enough of an accurate read on the damage done to the island to not worry about how it would affect my children's memory of the trip.
I decided that we would spend the rest of our time in Mexico by the ocean, but in Playa del Carmen not Isla Muheres.
I returned alone two years later.
In April of that year, 2009, what was first known as 'swine flu', and then as the H1N1 virus, surfaced in Mexico City. Its impact on the international travel and tourism industry in Mexico was a disaster of proportions I could not have imagined until I arrived on Isla Mujeres.
I checked into the hotel I had stayed at my first time on the island three years before.
Then I headed to Luis' apartment building. On the way there, I passed Janine's coffee shop. It had shut down. Luis was sitting on the steps outside his office reading a newspaper. After we greeted each other, he called Jorge to tell him I was in town. While we waited for Jorge, he told me that not a single one of his apartments had rented that summer.
“Hurricane Dean wasn't so bad. But four years ago, we had Hurricane Wilma. That one was bad. But I tell you, I would take a hurricane like that any day over this virus. What this virus is doing to us, no hurricane has ever done.”
When Jorge showed up on the motorbike I remembered, Luis passed on our invitation to join us for a beer. I slid into the seat behind him and he drove out of town, on the highway, to the restaurant where Carole, our children and I along with Ivan and Cristian had had our post-snorkeling lunch two years before.
From the way Jorge's hand shook when he lifted his glass of beer to his mouth, I suspected he was hungry. I apologized for showing up suddenly and asked him if he'd had lunch. He assured me he had eaten. I ordered a few appetizers for myself and insisted he keep me company.
He then confessed that he hadn't worked in two months. He was worried he might have to sell his boat.
I asked him about people I had known on our ten-day visit two years ago. Susie, the maid at Luis' building had returned with her son, Juancito, to Oaxaca, where she was from, after her husband began using drugs and sank into the habit past the point where she could tolerate it. Ivan and other men who worked on the boats had gone back to Merida, where they were from, as were many people who worked on Isla Mujeres. Jorge pointed out that he was an anomaly in that he was actually born andraised on the island. He assumed Janine from the coffee shop had gone back to Canada, but he wasn't sure.
“And Cristian?' I smiled at the memory of the gentle giant who indulged my daughter wth exaggerated ducks and dodges as she kicked water at him from her inner tube while he tried to help me get comfortable with my snorkeling gear,
Jorge's eyes filled with tears. “Falleció.” He passed away.
“How?” I almost screamed.
“Thrombosis of the lungs.”
I had no idea what that was. I never looked it up. Knowing what killed Cristian would not change the fact that he was forever gone.
When the bill came, neither of us bothered pretending that Jorge would be paying any part of it.