By Jay Hardwig
JUNE 1, 1998: Some husband I am. My wife of five days is back in the hotel room, red rear end thrust high in the air to ward off the debilitating pain of acute hindside sunburn, and here I am floating face down in champagne waters, hobnobbing with the parrotfish. Languidly casting my limbs about, I meditate to the sound of my own heartbeat and idly ponder my next serving of cold helado from the snack bar. I soak up paradise while she faints from pain on a lonely subtropical bed. Is this to love and to cherish? Luckily, I married a big-hearted woman, who has insisted that I explore Isla Mujeres without her, even as she whiles away the hours in a convalescent stupor, floating in an aloe-fed delirium and reading the latest in a string of stark romantic tragedies. She wants me to enjoy the island even if she is unable. She also wants, I suspect, to heal in peace without being subject to a constant torment in the form of my various jokes, entreaties, and fumbling assaults upon the Spanish language. Take lots of pictures and think of me often, I imagine her thinking, just get the hell away from here.
Which I have done, courtesy of a rolling wreck of a mountain bike, rented in town for 50 pesos, a sum that seemed reasonable this morning but has become increasingly outrageous as the bike inflicts one malfunction upon another upon my sorely-tried soul. But it is hard to stay angry for long on this tranquil isle, even at obstinate machinery, and it's certainly nothing a little swim with the fishes can't cure.
Tranquilo. Peaceful. It is a word you hear often on Isla Mujeres, from waiters and cabbies as well as guide books. It is the island's call as well as its curse: as greater and greater numbers of international turistas (and their marks, yen, and greenbacks) descend on Isla Mujeres in search of that elusive tranquilidad, there is less and less tranquilidad to be found. Yes, Isla Mujeres is growing - there was hardly a patch of the island that wasn't piled high with anticipatory cinderblocks during my visit - but it is far from overrun, and it is still quite easy to find peace, love, and yes, happiness on this small, seafaring isle. At least during low season.
It was the promise of tranquility that lured us in the first place, as nearly every guidebook we checked raved about this small (five miles by one mile) island off the coast of Quintana Roo, described variously as a "peaceful island retreat" and a "poor man's Cancun."
We stayed at the swank Na-Balam hotel, and for a while it seemed very possible that we would not find cause to leave the hotel grounds, stocked as it was with luscious tropical gardens, a postcard-perfect strip of beachfront, and a plate of pescado con ajo bordering on the sublime. We dug our toes happily into the fine white sand of Isla Mujeres' celebrated Playa Norte, and all of our worries vanished. We lulled about, aimless and happy, for better than a day, but by the second afternoon, armed with a wad of devalued pesos and some serious gringo sunblock, we set out to explore the world beyond the hotel walls.
There is not much to downtown Isla Mujeres (which might outsize Euless but is clearly dwarfed by Waco). Brightly painted storefronts and cobblestone streets give downtown Isla a relaxed, autentico feel. It is pretty to look at - especially if you like looking at dive shops, trinket hawkers, and moped rental agencies.
There is plenty of good food on Isla Mujeres, some of it criminally cheap. Local specialities include ceviche (raw marinated seafood salad), pescado estilo tikinxic (charbroiled fish brushed with an achiote sauce), and the traditional Mayan hamburguesa con queso. While in general my attempts at the Spanish language were a personal embarassment as well as an unqualified affront to an entire culture, it was only a matter of days before I was speaking near-to-flawless Spanish in the restaurants (albeit with an inexplicable Italian accent). Mas pan de ajo, por favor.
You can hardly walk down the calle in Isla Mujeres without some kind soul telling you of the wonders of the neighboring Isla Contoy. Not coincidentally, any of those kind souls are willing, even happy, to arrange your passage to the island. These pitchmen will tell you that Isla Contoy is a thickly green, uninhabited isle and a bird sanctuary as well, complete with pelicans and comorants. What they will not tell you is that you can see the same birds at the Isla Mujeres boat docks, but there is no crime, I suppose, in telling partial truths. Still, we booked ourselves onto a small boat heading for Contoy the next morning. For all the haggling and hullabaloo, it was magnificent.
We began the day on the hard plastic benches of a small powerboat, surrounded by a gaggle of seafarers speaking strange and enchanting tongues - a veritable United Nations assembly (if the United Nations only let in rich white countries). Before you could say fromage!, papparazzi!, or Nutella!, we were speeding out over the brilliant turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean. We slapped happily along the waves and imagined ourselves as latter-day Hemingways, except that it was already 9:30am and we weren't drunk yet.
Halfway to Contoy we stopped at an isolated reef for a round of snorkeling, spending 30 blissful minutes chasing beautiful and exotic sea creatures through the coral before we were summoned back on board for a breakfast of fresh fruit. A half-hour later, we were docked at Contoy, frolicking with manta rays and traipsing about the island's biological research center in our bare feet.
We then strapped on the rubber booties for another bit of snorkeling, and here I must pass along one piece of snorkeling advice, courtesy of my wife: When applying sunblock, be both assiduous and thorough, and don't forget to get the backs of your thighs, because you will be floating ass-up in the ocean for the better part of an hour. (In many cases this advice is useless, because the use of sunblock is prohibited around the more sensitive reefs - it kills them. In this case, she advises the fair of skin to take the dip in shorts and a T-shirt, for the Mexican sun is nothing if not unforgiving.)
By eight o'clock that night we were in the farmacia, desperately seeking aloe.
And so it was that the following day I left my scorched bride all alone. The perfect day, I reasoned, for a bicycle tour of la Isla.
There are several competing theories as to how Isla Mujeres - the Island of Women - got its name, but travel-guide writers, at least, seem to favor two. The first and considerably more romantic version suggests that when Spanish conquistadors first arrived on the island, they found it populated with terra-cotta figurines in the likeness of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, perhaps left there by pilgrims on their way to Cozumel. The second, unhappier version has it that the dreaded pirates of the Caribbean used the isolated island as a prison for their female captives: one can only imagine the horrors. In either case, the fact that the name Isla Mujeres draws titters from certain stateside types is inane; unlike neighboring Cancun, there is little in the way of serious exhibitionism on the island's beaches, with the exception of European males who insist on wearing Speedo swim trunks.
With high spirits I set out to discover Isla Mujeres, although it took me considerably longer than it might have if, say, my gearshift worked. Or my pedals. Perhaps I should be grateful to the two-wheeled beast for giving me time to stop and smell the... putrid swamps that dot the island, but at the time I was not so forgiving. I found suitable diversion touring a sea-turtle conservatory, snorkeling at Garrafon National Underwater Park, and brooding dramatically on the wind-whipped far southern point of the island, a high and lonely spot that is alarming in its oceanic beauty.
My return bike ride was uneventful, although it was on a shallow rise heading into town that I fell madly in love - not with some local senorita, but with the island's beautiful baseball park. I shall count it as my gravest misfortune that their colorful ballyard was never in use during my visit; at times I am sure I would have given my last peso to see nine innings on that lovely diamond.
The view of the park was not my only brush with the Latin American love of beisbol. When night fell on the Isla Mujeres neighborhoods, the streets took on a muted glow - not from the moon, which shone rather predictably from its spot among the stars, but from the fact that every television set on the island was tuned into the Florida Marlins' first postseason appearance in franchise history. The local passion for the Marlins was evident, and I wish I could have been there the night Edgar Renteria slapped his game-winning single over the outstretched glove of Charles Nagy to claim the series for the Fish.
Do not feel too bad for my sunburned wife, as unappealing as her day on the hotel mattress must have been. I am a thoughtless man but not a heartless man, and the very next day a very much revived newlywed and I repeated my tour of the island, although this time on golf cart (I may be dumb enough to rent a crappy bicycle once, I am not dumb enough to rent one twice). Rental golf carts are a booming business on Isla Mujeres, and I must report that our tour was much easier on four wheels than on two, although I was constantly plagued by the urge to judge distances by the length of iron I might need to hole out from where I was standing.
The trip was a success. We returned to Garrafon for a final fling with those ridiculously beautiful fish, and replayed the previous day right down to the cold helado between dips and the brief run-in with the affable mongoose that seemed to have the run of the place.
No joke; there really was an affable mongoose that prowled the small grounds of Garrafon National Park, drinking from Coke bottles and generally behaving like a spoiled beagle. To this Tennessee boy, it looked like a late-model possum - with a suppler frame and a larger helping of brains.
We topped the day off with lobster tails and agua frescas - ah, sweet life - before returning to the Na-Balam for a cold beer and then bed.
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