By Bob Schulman
You don't run across many islands with a legendary hometown goddess. Cyprus is one, thanks to the storied birth of the Greek love goddess Aphrodite there. So is a tiny speck off the shores of eastern Mexico called Isla Mujeres, where Mayan women once worshipped at a shrine of their goddess of love, fertility and the moon.
Spanish conquistadores from Cuba stumbled on the island in 1517 while they were sailing around the Caribbean looking for slaves to work their sugar plantations. The foreigners inked it on their maps as Isla de las Mujeres (Island of the Women) after the female figurines they found scattered around the skinny, four-mile-long island.
They didn't find many good slaves among the handful of Mayan fishermen living there. So after planting a huge cross on the beach and reading “El Requerimiento” – a proclamation (in Spanish) telling the uncomprehending villagers they'd become subjects of the Spanish king – the invaders sailed on to what they hoped would be richer shores.
The foreigners didn't know it, but their latest conquest was one of the sacred islands of Ixchel (eee-shel), a super-deity in the Mayan pantheon. The little statues were of the love goddess and her three daughters.
Fast-forward to today, and – after centuries of mainly being home to a few fishing families and occasional pirates – Isla Mujeres now hosts divers, whale-shark watchers, off-the-beaten-track vacationers, campers, locally stationed sailors and a fast-growing expat art colony. Also seen darting around in rented golf carts are hordes of day-visitors from the mega-resort at Cancun about a 20-minute boat ride away.
The island's powdery, white-sand beaches are dotted by 73 inns and hotels with a total of around 1,400 rooms. Sometimes it's hard to find an empty room, but more often than not there are plenty of vacancies. But that may change soon.
Local officials plan to cash in on Ixchel's presence on Isla Mujeres by branding the island as a wonderful spot to get married, enjoy a honeymoon, celebrate anniversaries and otherwise bask in the romantic aura of their hometown goddess – much like Aphrodite is used to bring such business to Cyprus.
Isla Mujeres Tourism Director Eyder Jahil Hoth said Ixchel's temples and statues are “natural attractions” for visiting couples. A particularly popular place for weddings, he noted, is on a clifftop overlooking the ocean near the ruins of Templo Ixchel, believed to have been the goddess' main shrine on the island.
(Cyprus' most popular spot to tie the knot is on a clifftop overlooking the place where stories say Aphrodite came to life by popping up out of the ocean, fully grown.)
Isla Mujeres' weddings and romance theme is echoed in marketing programs by a number of local hotels. The 117-room Ixchel Beach Hotel, for instance, offers a choice of non-denominational, spiritual or civil ceremonies on a beach covered with rose petals and lit by tiki torches. White doves or butterflies are released at the end of the ceremony. Optional extras include fire dancers and a mariachi band.
Another hotel, the Privilege Aluxes, lures couples to its 124 rooms with this pitch: “Just imagine... turquoise Caribbean waters...a white sandy beach...an oceanfront wedding gazebo...champagne...flowers...”
Among promotions at the high end is the Ixchel Dream Wedding Package at the Dream Luxury Villa (www.dreamluxuryvilla.com). For a flat $14,900, a couple and up to four guests can have exclusive use of the four-suite villa overlooking the Caribbean for three nights. The tab includes rides from Cancun to the island and back on a private yacht, all meals – prepared by the group's own chef – and with dinner by candlelight. The couple's bed is sprinkled with rose petals in a room lit by aromatherapy candles.
Also included is the wedding ceremony and a champagne reception at the villa for up to 35 guests staying at any of the Dreams' four sister Real resorts in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
For the record: According to Isla Mujeres cronista (historian) Fidel Villanueva, the local shrine of Ixchel is one of 32 such shrines on islands off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and also on the mainland. The goddess' principal shrine is on the island of Cozumel.
Another woman and a lovelorn inscription: Look around the island and chances are you'll come across a pirate's cemetery and a statue of Martiniana Gomez Pantoja, aka “La Triguena” (the brunette). Their story starts 300 years after the Spanish slavers came ashore on Ekab when another scoundrel showed up on the island. His name was Fermin Anonio Mundaca.
Said to be a pirate, and perhaps also a slaver, Mundaca was loaded. So rich he was able to foot the bill for a sprawling hacienda that at one time covered nearly half of Isla Mujeres. But the prize he most coveted was La Triguena, described in the history books as “a willowy brunette with green eyes and white skin bronzed by the Caribbean sun.”
Also, their pairing was not to be. Martiniana, who was 37 years younger than Mundaca, fell for a lad closer to her own age, leaving Mundaca to pine away for his remaining years. An inscription on his empty tomb on Isla Mujeres (he actually died on the Yucatan mainland) bears his biting words for Martiniana: “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.”
More Info: Visit the Isla Mujeres Tourism Office at www.islamujeres.gob.mx.
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