The origin of the name Isla Mujeres is debated- some theories assert that the name comes from the statues of the medicine and childbirth goddess, Ixchel, found at a Mayan temple on the south of the island. Others say that the name comes from the fact that the Spanish explorers left their womenfolk on the island before heading into the Yucatán.
No matter the nomenclature, the island is truly beautiful. Sitting offshore, it has maintained its incredibly chill vibe despite the proximity of frenetic Cancún. It’s a decidedly Caribbean place, where the pace is determined by the sea and sand.
First, Playa Norte-
… it’s a gem of a beach. Just off the main town, it is very well appointed with bars and bathrooms nearby. For 150 pesos (13 dollars or so) you can rent a pair of lounge chairs and umbrella at the edge of the water for the entire day. You’d think there’d be a crowd here, but the place was wide open- at times I was the only one swimming.
The water is impossibly clear and blue, and very swimmable, despite a strong side current. Towards evening a school of thousands of tropical fish appeared, racing along at crazy speed around my legs.
It feels as though one could spend an eternity here.
As evening begins to fall and the heat becomes bearable again, people start lazily coming off the beach and into the town. In the narrow streets, small restaurants begin opening their doors while street vendors, selling everything from jewelry to plastic toys, try to snag would-be shoppers. Bicycles and golf carts (some packed to the brim) abound on the narrow, colorful streets filled with lazy markets and passers-by.
Outside the stores on the corner, people congregate for evening chats. There’s a certain endearing eccentricity to this place- at one point a beat-up old humvee rolled up, coughing diesel, driven by a huge shirtless guy with scraggly long hair. He stopped to talk a while and then moved on. Meanwhile, just out of view, local teenagers with a laptop were trying to tap into a rogue wireless signal…
It was a really nice ride back to the mainland-
The scene felt like one giant sigh that comes after a day at the beach- huge extended families covering 3 generations posed for pictures, while couples stared up and watched the stars begin to appear. The ship’s lights illuminating the bright blue water around us. At some point between Isla Mujeres and Cancún -the lights of both twinkling far in opposite distances- in the middle of the dark bay, a salty breeze kicked up. Above all the festivities and the blaring Mexican pop music and satiated joy, you could just make out the eternal serenity of a calm sea under moonlight.
There is a gentle magic on the hazy roads leading to Valladolid – For miles you travel through nothing but the flat, interminable expanse of the Yucatán jungle. The monotony, coupled with the heavy air, and brilliant clear sun, becomes hypnotizing. Wondrously amplified details begin to emerge from the feverish trance – small yellow butterflies float out of the trees, and huts of villages glance out from here and there, their presence revealed sometimes only by the smoke of cooking fires. Occasionally, in the middle of nowhere, a lone traveler stunningly appears on the side of the road, pushing a cart or riding a bicycle… going to who-knows-where.
Arriving in Valladolid abruptly snaps one back into reality. The narrow, brightly colored streets are a flurry of activity -stores specializing in leather and clothing; -food vendors selling strange fruits, medicines, and streetfood; -bicycles, cars, traffic cops swarming everywhere. The sun sears even more than it did out in the jungle. Once in while, you see women, often in pairs, wearing striking Mayan huipiles – dazzling white blouses decorated with intricate embroidery. An elderly woman or two sit in doorsteps, sewing. The Spanish here is accented by Mayan, and occasionally you hear pure Yucatec Mayan being spoken, as it is still the first language of many.
The ancient Maya had a town here called “Zací”, which was destroyed by the Spanish under a nephew of the conquistador Montejo (now the namesake of a local beer) family. They had established a town further away, but plagued by mosquitos, they arrived here and established Valladolid on March 24, 1545. The Mayans of the region, of course, did not take kindly to this invasion and, and in the face of horrific horrific exploitation, staged numerous revolts over the following centuries, culminating in the Caste Wars of the 1840’s, in which the town was sacked and many of the residents slaughtered. In other parts of Mexico, the tensions and fallout stemming from the Spanish colonial system still run very high, but here there seems to be some peace at the moment.
It’s a small town, and you seem to run into the same people over and over again. Due its proximity to some major archeological sites, it has begun to see more tourism over the past ten years- predominantly backpacker types- We twice bumped into some Germans who were traveling through the Yucatán and Central America. And as far as we could tell, we were the only Americans in town.
It’s a compact place centered around the zócalo, near which are a number of modest hotels and a handful of exceptional restaurants.
The food of the Yucatán is unique. To name a few dishes: pollo escabeche (chicken with a huge pepper and pickled onions in a vinegary sauce), cochinita pibil (pork rubbed with a red adobo, wrapped in leaves, and slow-cooked in an underground oven), Longanizas Valladolid (Valladolid style sausage, loaded with spices), sopa de lima (a chicken soup with lime, poc chuc (a sort of barbecue grilled pork), and the ever-present fresh tortillas.
Valladolid is near a number of archeological sites, including Chichen Itza and Uxmal. If you don’t have a car, there are “colectivo” vans that you can grab for very cheap. They may be hard to find, but if you ask a police officer, he or she can point you in the right direction – knowledge of basic Spanish is very helpful. The ride to Chichen Itza takes about 50 minutes and winds through the blank jungle, passing through smoky villages where little kids sell juice and trinkets by the roadside. Along the way, passengers come and go – We had a fun time with a party of Jehovah’s Witnesses for a number of miles.