Bounced around the Caribbean by a storm in 1517, three Spanish ships wound up at the tiny Maya island of Ekab at the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The foreigners inked it on their maps as Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) after the female figurines discovered by the sailors in an ancient shrine on the island.
The Spanish conquistadores, who'd set out to capture husky slaves to work the mines and sugar plantations of Cuba, found few good candidates among the handful of Maya fishermen living on the skinny, four-mile-long island. 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), the Maya love, fertility, rain, medicine and moon goddess and a super-deity in the Maya pantheon.
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 the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite is used to bring such business to her home island of 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 near the ruins of Templo Ixchel, believed to have been the goddess' main shrine on the island.
The 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. 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 strewn 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.
Photo credits: Overhead view of the island courtesy of Isla Mujeres Tourism Office. Other images by Bob Schulman.