A rainy day on Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

It was a vacation we’d looked forward to all year. Seven days on a small, peaceful island in the Mexican Caribbean, seven days with nothing to do but eat, sleep, swim, read, and explore. From the day we returned from a similar getaway last year, my parents, sister and I had been planning our next visit to Isla Mujeres. And finally, stepping off the boat from Puerto Juarez, only an hour after leaving the Cancun airport, we had arrived.

Isla Mujeres (the island of women) was named for the goddess statues discovered there hundreds of years ago by European explorers. For the past ten years it has been my parents’ preferred vacation spot. Only seven miles from the mainland, “Isla” is a completely different world from the bustling tourist center of Cancun. It is quiet, uncrowded and inexpensive, and the only evidence of the corporate marketplace is a TCBY Treats shop tucked in among the locally owned, locally run shops and restaurants. You won’t find a McDonald’s on Isla Mujeres, nor a Hilton Hotel. Just about everything on the island is original and authentic.

In the ten years they have been visiting Isla Mujeres, my parents have watched the island grow from a tiny fishing village with only a single public telephone to a tourist friendly paradise where there’s a phone on every corner. Each year the local businesses cater more and more to American travelers: while a decade ago you’d be hard pressed to find a t-shirt bearing the name of the island, these days you can get any number of them, complete with everything from Hard Rock Cafe to Tommy Hilfiger logos. Ten years ago, you needed a Spanish dictionary in order to read a menu, but now they’re all available in English. This past year most of the restaurants and bars even acquired color televisions, complete with ESPN and MTV. Like every other “best kept secret” before it, Isla Mujeres has been discovered, and it won’t be long before it loses some of its charm.

Isla Mujeres is not the ideal vacation place for the person who likes to keep busy. There are a few alternatives to sitting under a palm tree all day — snorkeling excursions, fishing trips, kayak rentals and moped shops — but the typical daily activity, at least for everyone I know who’s ever visited there, is to walk to the beach in the morning, stay there until lunch (which can be consumed at any number of oceanfront cafes), remain on the beach until sunset, and then walk into town in the early evening for dinner and browsing in the shops.

My family traditionally stays in one of the small assortment of hotels located right on the Playa Norte, the cleanest, most beautiful stretch of sand on the island. Thus we have the luxuries of being just a stone’s throw from the beach, of sleeping and waking to the sound of waves lapping the shore, of enjoying the cool ocean breezes in the heat of the day. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” we’ve each said any number of times, lounging in our beach chairs, enjoying a cold drink, and soaking up some sun. “Can you believe it’s January?”

This year’s trip, like many others before it, got off to a great start: the hotel rooms met our favor, the weather was perfect, and we had managed to steer clear of all but the most insignificant family squabbles. We were relieved to be on vacation, happy to be together, and ready to spend an entire week doing as little as possible.

Bacon Family vacations customarily get off to a great start, but somewhere beyond half way, whether it’s a weekend trip to western Massachusetts or an 18-day tour of the California coast, something usually goes awry, and the remainder of the trip is spent — at least to some extent — tolerating each other’s moods and idiosyncrasies. I’ll probably never live down the pouting and sulking I did the day we spent at Alcatraz, nor will my sister be permitted to forget the night she slept on a motel closet floor because she could no longer bear to be in the same room with me. As a family our bond is strong, but — all fiercely independent souls — we aren’t always able to compromise and cooperate.

This last trip to Isla Mujeres was starting to shape into our typical end-of-vacation horror show. With someone special at home, I was anxious to get back; despite years of yoga training, I was unable to relax. My sister, not always the most confident traveler, was concerned about the boats, taxis, planes and buses we’d need to catch in order to make it back safely. My folks were basically content, but they were lamenting the latest modernizations on the island and wondering if this might be their last visit. We were all a bit preoccupied.

Walking back from town one night I realized that even though we’d sat as a group on the beach every day and had enjoyed nearly all of our meals together, we hadn’t been doing our usual family bonding. Long conversations had been few and far between, and had consisted mainly of debates over where we’d go for dinner or at what time we’d head over to the cafe for lunch. At least we’d managed to avoid arguments over whose turn it was to pay for the beach chairs or who was entitled to the last scoop of salsa. While I looked forward to getting home, I knew the vacation would not feel complete to me unless I spent some quality time with my parents and sister.

It’s funny how we get what we wish for. The next morning we awoke to strong winds. It was sunny though, and out of habit, with books and hats and sunscreen in hand, we made our way to our beach chairs by 10 AM. After an hour it felt like we’d been sandblasted. The wind did not appear to be letting up. After lunch my parents moved their chairs into a more protected palm grove, while my sister and I set off on mopeds to explore the southern end of the island. The wind grew stronger, and by nightfall the sky had filled with clouds.

The next day was miserable. The relatively warm weather did nothing to compensate for the dark skies, rain storms, and howling winds. What’s worse, we had nothing to do. The beaches were closed, we’d already explored the island, we were sick of shopping, and the lamps in the hotel were so dim that reading for any extended length of time brought more suffering than enjoyment. Eating and sleeping would take up a certain amount of time. As for the intervening hours, we’d have to make the most of them.

Luckily my mother was prepared for this. Pulling two decks of cards and several travel-size board games from her suitcase, she told us about a room near the hotel bar she’d discovered, one which offered comfortable chairs and better lighting. We packed our books and snacks and headed over. No one else was there, and for the duration of the day, with the exception of an occasional waiter passing through, we had the room to ourselves.

We spent the entire afternoon together, playing games, talking to each other, listening — something we probably would not have done had the weather been good. We looked back at the year that had passed, shared our memories, and told of our dreams for the years to come. The day passed quickly, the next morning as well, and before long my sister and I were boarding the boat that would bring us to the plane that would bring us home (my parents would stay another week).

I’m back now, and nearly every day someone asks me about my vacation. Last year upon returning I raved about the wonders of a midwinter escape — the restorative qualities of sun and heat and having nothing to do. But this year I’m more inclined to talk about the rainy days — it’s those more than anything else that stand out to me. I may not have gotten in enough swimming, I may not have gotten the rest I needed nor the sun I desired, but I did get to spend some quality time with my family. And that, more than anything else, is the reason we go on these trips together in the first place.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
January 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.