Earlier this winter I suffered through a most unpleasant bout with the flu. It took me completely by surprise – I thought I was just getting another cold, but it turned out to be much worse. It had been seven years since I’d been that sick – long enough for me to forget just how serious the flu could be.

I missed a week of work. Still feeling weak and occasionally dizzy, I made it through another ten days. But then, thanks to some fortuitous advance planning, I left for a weeklong vacation in the Mexican Caribbean. I was well enough to board the plane, but not without many precautions to avoid a relapse.

Some ten months prior, my parents had planned a vacation for themselves, my sister, my husband and I, and two other couples on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the coast of Cancun. Our agenda for the week was simply to relax – lounging under palm trees, reading, swimming, napping, sunning ourselves, and eating lots of great food — your typical tropical vacation.

My folks have been vacationing on Isla Mujeres nearly every winter since 1988. It feels like a second home to them. At this point, many of the hotel staff and restaurant workers know them by name.

This was my fourth visit to the island, and I was content to do as little as possible. At home, we didn’t get much sun this past spring and summer (Remember the endless rain?). I’m not usually one for tanning, but this time I wanted to soak up as much light and warmth as I could. I felt as if the sun was healing me, chasing the flu out of every cell. That combined with daily swims in the warm, Windex-blue, extra salty ocean water was the perfect prescription.

Less content with the idea of basking in the sun all week, my husband rented a moped so he could explore the 4.5 mile long island, take pictures, and shoot video. Usually at the end of the day, he would take me for a ride so we could cool off and I could see something other than beach sand and palm trees. However one morning we set out right after breakfast.

Driving from one end of the island to the other you see quite a variety of landscapes. The relatively busy downtown area, which includes a military base and commercial fishing piers, yields to more rural residential areas, long stretches of coastline with waves crashing over reefs, and swampy sections where the jungle still rules. The roads were paved only in the last 10 years or so, and they’re in pretty good condition. But there are sizable speed bumps everywhere.

Much of the island is residential; concrete and corrugated metal shacks are the norm, but there are also some unique upscale homes and resorts. In the more populated areas, just about every corner hosts a “mini-super” bodega. They all seem to stock soft drinks, beer, snack food and bottled water, but each also has a few other, more random items — like toilet paper, or roasted chicken, or band-aids.

At the southernmost tip of the island is El Garrafon National Park, which has two distinctly different sections. One is comprised of a series of terraces – complete with umbrellas, beach chairs, restrooms and a snack bar — overlooking (and with access to) some reefs reserved exclusively for snorkeling. The other, Punta Sur, is a small village of shops and a café, a cliffside sculpture garden, and a series of walking trails that boast some of the best views on the island. Most of these developments have been made in the last five years or so.

On my first trip to Isla Mujeres, in 1998, El Garrafon wasn’t yet a National Park. Instead, it was a private snorkeling club, and a pleasant place to spend a day when visiting Isla Mujeres. When we returned a year later, it was closed for renovations. Punta Sur was not part of the park back then – in fact it was pretty unremarkable, a dirt path leading out along a cliff to some crumbling Mayan ruins.

Two years ago, on my third trip to Isla Mujeres, we decided not to visit El Garrafon at all. But we did take one moonlit ride on the moped, and were surprised to see construction underway at Punta Sur. But we didn’t pause to look it over. So this year, when we pulled up on the moped midmorning, we were astonished at how much the south point of the island had changed. We decided to explore.

After paying a nominal admission fee, we followed a concrete path across the top of the cliff through the sculpture garden, which contains 23 mostly metal artworks in varying colors and themes. There were several trails to choose from, but they all seemed to lead, in one way or another, to the edge of the cliff or some terraced walkways beneath it. As we made our way toward the ocean, we saw a number of iguanas, some tiny, some more than a foot in length.

At the edge of the cliff were the ruins of an ancient temple honoring the Mayan goddess, Ixchel. Associated with the moon, water, health, sexuality, childbirth and death, Ixchel is considered the greatest Mayan goddess. Apparently this was one of the few remaining shrines to Ixchel on the island; originally, there were many more. It is said that in the sixteenth century, when Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba sailed from Cuba in search of new lands, he came upon an island filled with statues of bare-breasted women, and named it Isla Mujeres, or “Island of Women.”

The ruins intrigued me. On previous visits, there was no information available to explain the temple or the goddess for whom it was built. But this time I was able to learn all about Ixchel. It seemed fitting that wellness was considered among the things she influenced, seeing as I had traveled there in part to restore my health.

We ended up spending the entire morning at Punta Sur, following the paths along the bottom of the cliff, and watching waves crash over the black reefs. When we met up with our fellow travelers on the beach at lunchtime, we had lots of stories to tell about our discovery at the southern end of the island. They too were intrigued. So the next day all nine of us piled into a couple rented golf carts and spent a few more hours at Punta Sur.

I didn’t make any direct entreaties to the goddess Ixchel – I didn’t ask for health or healing in any way – but I’m not surprised that by the end of our week on Isla Mujeres, I was feeling completely well again. Was it all that time I spent relaxing? Was it the warm ocean water? Was it the healing rays of the sun? Certainly all of those elements can facilitate healing. Maybe Ixchel had something to do with it. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. But it was a delight to return home rested and restored . . . and grateful.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
February 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.