Monday, March 21, 2011

Home Ports: The Island Of Women

Isla Mujeres, off the Caribbean coast of Mexico, may seem inconsequential when one is looking at a map. It’s relatively small, particularly when compared to its southern neighbor, Cancun. It is long and thin, shaped something like a finger, and it is almost entirely at sea level. The location it occupies, however, jutting out from the Yucatan peninsula at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, made it the perfect place for keeping an eye on shipping in the waters near by. The perfect place, in other words, for pirates and privateers.

The incredibly lush, topical island was originally part of the Mayan principality of Ekab. Isla Mujeres was sacred to their goddess of fertility, healing and death, Ix Chel. The Mayans built temples to her on the island, which they did not populate but only visited for rituals dedicated to the goddess whose totem was the rabbit. When the Spanish arrived and explored the island they found the many shrines to Ix Chel with numerous statues of the various forms of the goddess, from maiden to crone. They called the place the Island of Women because of this and the name stuck.

Like the Mayans before them, the Spanish did not populate the island but did exploit its resources including an abundance of fish and the ponds known as “salinas” that produced salt. For centuries the island was a fishing spot for natives of the Yucatan and as European trading vessels began to ply the waters in the straight between Mujeres and Cuba now known as the Yucatan Channel, they began to sell their catches to ships that had put in to the island to refresh their water. With the dawn of the buccaneers, and the raids undertaken at Vera Cruz and Panama by Captains like Laurens de Graff and Henry Morgan, Mujeres became a favorite stop. Ships would drop anchor and men would go ashore not just for food and water but to clean up, rest and divvy up booty from the last raid.

The Golden Age of Piracy saw the same kind of traffic on Mujeres. Some household names probably called at the island, including Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy and Calico Jack Rackham to name just a few. Both Woodes Rogers and William Dampier mentioned the place in their journals. It was also a destination for the runaway slaves known locally as maroons whose word-of-mouth network had it on good authority that they could find help at Mujeres from friendly natives.

The privateers of the early 19th century used Mujeres extensively. Many of them travelled almost constantly from Louisiana, Texas and/or Florida to South American destinations like Cartagena and Caracas, making Mujeres a handy stop. The only known freebooters to take up residence on the island were the Laffite brothers. After they abandoned their Galveston operation in 1820 they moved to Mujeres hoping to establish another privateering stronghold. Their accommodations would have been meager since they apparently never built any proper structures. Jean returned to the sea as a legal privateer for Bolivar and Pierre remained on the island. Native fishermen would later recall him as a friendly gentleman who told good stories. He would die of fever on the mainland in 1821.

Today Mujeres is a tourist destination. Less crowded and built up than Cancun, Mujeres boasts only a few luxury hotels, the remnants of a temple to Ix Chel and beautiful beaches. Day trippers come from the mainland but at night things settle down and a visitor can still walk the broad, Caribbean beach where Pierre Laffite told stories and kept an eye out for his brother’s return from the sea.

Header: Isla Mujeres today


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another one for the bucket list...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's a very pretty place. That said, Mexico is not one of my top travel destinations right now given all the unfortunate things going on there right now.