Friday, May 4, 2012

The Isla Chronicles: In the Beginning

Talk about a light bulb moment!  Lying in bed early this morning mulling over my disinterest in posting on my blog, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be fun to tell our entire Isla Mujeres saga, especially since it's the 10-year anniversary of our return from our first trip to the island today. 

Our Isla love affair began in April/May 2002.  Doing the research for that first trip, I researched posts on the old message board,  I followed the saga of Heat and Sun Sue and her adventure buying and remodeling her new casa on the island.  Captain Tony was the man if you wanted a snorkeling tour or a trip to Contoy Island (and still is)!  Posters debated hot topics like the wild Convention Center dogs, swimming with the dolphins, and whether high prices at the new Hotel Secreto would ruin the island.  I got a huge laugh out of that since we couldn't rent a room at the Seattle airport Travelodge  for $75 a night.

But let me digress a little.  What led us to Isla Mujeres?  We had a lot of Alaska Airlines points burning a hole in our pockets.  At the time, I was a gym rat and worked out daily on a Stairmaster next to an Alaska Airlines pilot.  He suggested if we were going to use our Alaska miles, we might as well go for the gusto.  Why fly to Puerto Vallarta when you could visit the Mexican Caribbean for the same number of points?  Alaska had just added flights to Cancun, and he said the water on the Caribbean side of Mexico was vastly superior to the Pacific side of Mexico.  And Bruce was right!

Another Stairmaster devotee overheard that morning's conversation and jumped right in.  He and his wife had visited the Cancun area in the late 1980's.  He suggested we steer clear of the Cancun Hotel Zone and make our way to a little island off the coast.  He described Isla Mujeres as a small island with an amazing wide white sand beach on the north end lined with coconut palms.  You could wade out forever in calm crystal clear turquoise water before it ever hit your knees.    Ron noted the island probably wasn't for everyone, but thought we'd love it since it possessed a funky flavor similar to our favorite Hawaiian destination, Kauai.

I went straight home and booked the free flights to Cancun.  I then started researching the island online looking for lodging in the last half of April.  I found the message board, stumbled across the silly Hotel Secreto controversy, and looked the hotel up on Yahoo.  The place looked absolutely amazing, especially for $75 a night including tax and continental breakfast.  Sold!

The ferry to the island in 2002 left from the old Puerto Juarez  dock, just north of today's Gran Puerto Ultramar dock.  The boats were the older Magana ferries with enclosed seating and the dusty blue curtains that masked the windows and sea view.  We'd spent a few nights at the Omni in Cancun before going to the island, so we arrived at Puerto Juarez in a taxi.  It was mayhem.  The minute the cab pulled up, the trunk flew open and a porter seized the baggage from the trunk and ran with it before we could pay the driver.  We were off on a dead run following him.  I'd done a little research on the message board, so I knew tickets were sold on the ferry, not on the dock.  We were immediately hit with hawkers trying to sell us bogus ferry tickets on our way out to the dock.  Soon, we were inside the claustrophobic boat and took seats on the remaining bench at the very back of the boat.  I fought back nausea on the trip over.  I rationalized that I'd only be breathing the diesel fumes for 20 minutes.

Emerging from the ferry boat on the Isla dock, a malatero offered to transport our bags.  I repeated Hotel Secreto several times until my mangled pronunciation of the word finally computed.  And then we were off down the cobbled paver streets winding our way through El Centro to the back side of the island.

By the time we reached the Secreto, we were pouring sweat.  Seattle to the Yucatan is a major climate adjustment.  A nice young guy in a turquoise polo shirt at the desk checked us in and showed us to our room.  It was a gleaming white tropical oasis with shells in the floor tiles.  Very chic!  Opening the drapes, I felt like a guest in a rock star's cabana at the edge of the infinity pool with its outdoor living room.  I was hooked!

We spent that week in slow mo, flip flopping our way to and from Playa Norte, lying on the white sand, wading and swimming in the turquoise water, shuffling the few blocks to and from restaurants in the evening, taking short morning walks around El Centro with a little weiner dog we named Pepe who adopted us in hopes of scraps from the breakfast table, and just floating in the Secreto pool gazing at the infinity scene.  I remember eating at the French Bistro (Victor was grilling on a Weber behind a glassed off area on the side), Rolandi's, Bucaneros, the upstairs restaurant at NaBalam, and Casa O's.  We rented a golfcart one day and mainly stuck to the outer roads of the island with stops at Playa Lancheros for the famous fish and the old Hotel Garrafon for snorkeling.  The colonias looked a little scarey to me.  My eyes were definitely still in the Third World adjustment period.

We arranged a long daytrip to Chichen Itza through Prisma in a private car.  The driver met us at the old ferry dock in Cancun.  My initial thoughts were what the hell are we doing?  We're getting in a black sedan with a complete stranger in Mexico to speed off down the highway to God knows where.  Back then, the news was all about tourists in Mexico being kidnapped in taxis and taken to remote locations to be robbed.  Soon, we were flying down a humpbacked two-lane road towards Valladolid at a speed I don't even want to think about with our unknown driver.  My only thought was Go With God.  Being a highly anxious person, I knew I had to suspend my fears or the day would be a nightmare.  If we crashed and burned, at least we'd had a glimpse of heavenly Isla before we died.  The driver spoke very little English and my Spanish skills definitely sucked!  At one point, I thought he was telling us that he'd lived in Iceland.  (His pronunciation of Isla sounded like Ice-luh?)  I babbled back to him that it must have been extreme culture shock to move from the jungle heat of the Yucatan to a place as cold as Iceland.  Craig jabbed me sharply with his elbow and whispered that he thought the guy was talking about Isla.  Oh -- my bad.  Silly me!  Fortunately, his English wasn't good enough to understand my idiocy!

We literally flew down that road.  In my occasional glances at the speedometer, the numbers read upwards of 110 kilometers per hour.  Gabriel only braked for the occasional bike, trike, or roadside pedestrians.  He had this weird greeting he'd extend to his fellow drivers on the road of life.  A beep beep beep on the horn followed by a dramatic pointing of his finger at the oncoming driver.  Somewhere before Valladolid, the driver stopped the car at a military checkpoint with armed soldiers.  He told us to stay in the car and he'd take car of it.  Eeeee gods -- as my grandmother used to say.  One of the armed men opened the back car door and looked in while Gabriel opened the trunk so they could look at the contents.  Back in the car, he got the point across that they were checking for guns.  I'm not sure if those checkpoints are still in place, but at the time, I was told it had to do with stopping the flow of weapons to the Zapatistas in neighboring Chiapas?  

I remember looking at the houses in the little villages thinking of The Three Little Pigs.  The wolf could have definitely huffed and puffed and blown some of the houses down. The dwellings seemed to vary between tree poles with thatched palapa roof construction, concrete block bunkers, and the focal point of every village -- the church.  At some point before Valladolid, Craig needed a bano.  The driver made several stops trying to find a place where he could pay so Craig could use the facilities.  I could have gone, but waited to see Craig's reaction when he emerged.  When he got back in the car, he said it was the basic hole in the floor (I'm still not sure if he was kidding?), so being a woman equipped with an iron bladder, I declined.

We made stops at Valladolid to tour the church and square, Chichen Itza, an older hacienda style hotel for the lunch buffet, a cenote, and a few other villages on the return trip home. It was an amazing tour, and since our driver drove like a bat out of hell on the backroads, we were in the Secreto pool chilling out by 6:30 p.m.

Here's the punchline.  About six years later, I was lounging on the beach at Playa del Sol one day.  A new waiter came up to see if I was ready for a drink.  He said his name was Gaby.  I looked at him. He looked at me.  We were both puzzling when he finally said -- I drove you and your husband to Chichen Itza!  Sure enough.  Gaby was Gabriel, the man I feared could be our El Dangeroso back in 2002!  Gaby's English skills were greatly improved, and I'd discovered something very important along my Isla journey -- trust!  I'd finally learned to suspend my suspicious nature and quell the stranger danger alarm.  Vaya con Dios.
In a nutshell, that week was the most relaxing vacation we'd ever had.  It was our first trip to Mexico and we both learned so much.  The food didn't kill us, no one robbed us, the people were friendly, the stray dogs didn't attack us, and life was so much simpler than our hectic world in Seattle.  I could go on and on. Simple was a good thing.

I searched back on Picasa and found some photos from that first trip in 2002.  Please excuse the quality since my laptop recently crashed and all I can find are these pictures that I put through a Kodak editing watercolor filter. 

The Bellamar when it was a little newer.

Notice the cemetery has a clean background with no buildings behind it.

The controversial beach dogs.

Craig at the Hotel Secreto pool.

Craig standing by the old Fisherman's Cantina.  Mogagua is in that location now.  And there was a panaderia next door where we bought rolls.

The colonial cathedral in Valladolid.

Cenote swimming.

Craig in front of El Castillo.

Me on top El Castillo.  

The old Hotel Garrafon dock before its demise.

Labor parade on May 1.

Maria del Mar entrance to Playa Norte.

The Shellhouse way out there all by itself.

The paper maiche shop on one of the side streets.  The original Cool Ice Cream eventually occupied that location.

And that was the beginning of our love affair with Isla Mujeres.  It took a few years before we returned to the island.  Stay tuned for the 2004 trips. 


Ann said...

This is great! Our first trip was either 2002 or 03 & we stayed in one of the suites at NaBalam--thought it was a real bargain--each year since we've stayed in less expensive & nicer places!

Anonymous said...

Such a GREAT story! Secreto was so beautiful back then before construction of the next door monstrosity. My first trip to the island was in 1995 and I've loved every minute of each trip. Love the old pictures. You forget what "used to be" after a while - thanks for the memories. Helen

Life's a Beach! said...

Ann, we've stayed all over the island since then. That's one reason I thought it might be interesting to do a little series of trip reports based on my bad memory. LOL

Helen, it has changed so much. That ugly abandoned mass of concrete next to Secreto needs to be torn down, just like the Perla. Thanks for posting!

krisla said...

wow Beck..this was just fascinating. You really have some history there, & those fotos--priceless (well, your recounting of the story too is priceless...) the Shell House--awww
but, time moves on...
Nice you have those memories. -kris

Janet said...

LOVED this post Becky!! Your history with the island and the great pictures, just wonderful.