On the trail of Mundaca, the Yucatan’s lovesick pirate.
Photos donâ€™t do the Mexican Caribbean waters justice. Up close, the deep blue color seems almost bluer than blue. Itâ€™s a 45-minute ferry ride from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, a small island three miles off the Yucatan coast. One of the crew members materializes with a tray: â€œTwo beers, yes?â€ Iâ€™m on the trail of Fermin Mundaca, the regionâ€™s most famous pirate. Drinking in the morning does seem appropriate. Okay, why not.
Bob Marley tunes blast out from unseen speakers. I would be suspicious of any pirate who sang along with â€œNo Woman No Cry.â€ And yet itâ€™s the perfect theme for Mundaca, because it was here on this island that a local Mayan girl broke his heart.
Unlike most pirates, who gleefully pillaged their way across the oceans, collecting diseases and watching their teeth fall out from scurvy, Mundaca was a sensitive swashbuckler. In a very un-pirate-like moment of weakness, he allowed himself to fall in love. And she dumped him for a local guy.
Itâ€™s an incredible tale of passion and rejection, like one of those Mexican soap operas on Telemundo. I can imagine Mundaca standing there in his pirate gear, pleading for her love, his eyes watery and sad. She turns her back defiantly, her hair blowing up from an unseen wind. A door opens, itâ€™s a handsome Mayan fisherman, she runs to his arms, and we see Mundaca trembling, a single tear trickling down his craggy pirate face. Has this been done already?
The Isla Mujeres coastline soon comes into view. The island is small and narrow, only about five miles long. Our ferry docks at a harbor on the west side, in front of the dolphin facility. Tourists can get their photos taken while swimming with Atlantic bottlenose dolphines, or for the more adventurous, bull sharks.
Isla Mujeres offers your basic tropical paradise experience with palm trees and white sand. Once you leave the beaches, the landscape turns into quintessential rural Mexico â€“ a few expensive homes, but primarily sun-baked cinderblock housing, with laundry hanging from windows. Thereâ€™s an unfinished patina to everything. About 16,000 people live here. Most of the industry is fishing, as it has been for centuries.
Tourism is relatively new to Isla Mujeres. People come for the excellent snorkling and diving among the coral reefs, and families gravitate to the eco-friendly Garrafon Reef Park, at the islandâ€™s southern tip. A small beachfront hotel advertises â€œBeer so cold itâ€™ll make your teeth hurt.â€
To attract more visitors, travel brochures have absorbed the local pirate history. Mundaca has unwittingly loaned his name to a Mundaca travel agency, a real estate firm, and a diving company, as well as one of the trained dolphins. From Cancunâ€™s harbor, the â€œCaptain Hook Pirate Cruiseâ€ takes tour groups out on a lobster dinner sail, complete with swordfighting actors dressed as rogues.
Down the coastline, La Posada del CapitÃ¡n Lafitte beachfront resort carries on the tradition of Louisiana pirate Jean Lafitte, who supposedly roamed the area. The Cedam Museum in Puerto Aventuras features artifacts collected from nearby shipwrecks, some dating back to the 1600s.
But the real Mundaca history is much more interesting. With me on my visit are Carlos and Roger, two locals who work as historical guides. We climb into a vehicle and hit the few paved roads of Isla Mujeres to seek out the Mundaca legend firsthand.
Movies and cartoons often depict a pirate as a gallant swashbuckler with a parrot on his shoulder, saying â€œArrr!â€ and ordering people to â€œwalk the plank.â€ In truth, most were ruthless thugs, licensed by various European governments to target Spanish galleons on the high seas.
The Golden Age of Piracy lasted roughly from 1690 to 1730, and during this time pirates, or â€œprivateersâ€ as they were called, kept busy attacking ships on the trade routes between South America and Europe.
Pirates favored the Caribbean for its central location, and lingered in 17th century haunts like Petit-Goave in Haiti, Port Royal, Jamaica, and the island of Tortuga. Along the coast of Mexicoâ€™s Quintana Roo, buccaneers would lay (lie?) in wait for galleons coming up from Colombia. By setting lanterns along the Chinchorro Reef, pirates would fool the shipsâ€™ captains into thinking the treacherous undersea shelf was easily navigable. When the vessel ran aground or sunk, the pirates pounced.
Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard, and Jean Lafitte are familiar to anyone interested in pirates. Fermin Mundaca de Marechaja is less known, especially to Americans.
Mundaca made a fortune shipping â€œblack ivoryâ€ slaves from Africa to the New World. He also worked the opposite direction, selling kidnapped Mayan slaves to plantation owners in Cuba. The Spaniard was technically not really a pirate, but he insisted on referring to himself as such, because, some say, he thought it was more respectable than â€œslave trader.â€
When the British Royal Navy started cracking down on slave trading in the mid-1860s, Mundaca thought it prudent to retire, and purchased nearly half of a tiny island off the coast of Mexico.
To the Mayans, this island was sacred to their moon goddess, Ix Chel, who watched over the fertile women of society. They created statues of pregnant women throughout the island, and built a temple to Ix Chel on its southern tip (some ruins are still here today). When the Spanish first arrived in the 16th century, and noticed all the goddess images, they named the patch of land Isla Mujeres, â€œThe Island of Women.â€
Roger, who is half Mayan, tells me the islandâ€™s name also came about because visiting Spanish noticed only women and children living here. The men were frequently off fishing or doing business. So it seemed like the residents were exclusively women. Thereâ€™s still another story that it was named Isla Mujeres because pirates would stop by and stash their women on the island, to retrieve later, which adds to the folklore.
After moving to the island, Mundaca wasted no time in throwing his money around, and built a lavish hacienda named Vista Alegre, stocking the grounds with birds, livestock, and exotic gardens. A beautiful young local girl caught his eye. Her name was Martiniana Gomez Pantoja. Her dark hair prompted him to call her La Triguena, â€œThe Brunette.â€
You canâ€™t blame him. The Mayan culture is filled with beauty. They were the first people in the Western hemisphere to keep written historical records. Their art, architecture, mathematics, agriculture, and astronomy developments were highly advanced. The Mayan sport of hip-ball, where players moved a rubber ball down a court using only their hips, predates many modern sports like soccer, rugby, and hockey (an excellent recreation can be seen nightly at the Xcaret eco-cultural theme park in Playa del Carmen south of Cancun).
Even today, the woven-grass palapas that shelter bars from the sun, are built by Mayan construction crews using ancient techniques. And donâ€™t even get me started on Cochinita Pibil, an amazing local pork dish prepared with Mayan spices.
Maybe Mundaca also liked the Pibil, history doesnâ€™t tell us. But he did fall madly in love with La Triguena, and in her honor, named the entrance arch to his hacienda El Paso de la Triguena, â€œThe Step of the Brunette.â€
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, money canâ€™t buy love, especially between a young girl and a middle-aged guy trying to impress her with his money. La Triguena would have nothing to do with Mundaca, and instead married a local Mayan closer to her own age.
Dejection festered in his heart, and by all accounts he went off the deep end. While La Triguena raised her family on the island, the jilted pirate puttered around his garden and walked the beaches, stuffing stones in his pockets. If metal detectors had been around, he probably would have had one.
In 1880 Mundaca left Isla Mujeres for the town of MÃ©rida, approximately 200 miles to the west, and passed away that same year at the age of 55. Some guidebooks suggest he died alone in a brothel, others claim he succumbed to the plague. Roger tells me that Mundaca did eventually marry another woman, so who knows what really happened.
Mundacaâ€™s hacienda ruins are located near Playa Lancheros, on the southern end of the island. A brochure describes some gardens and pathways, with a small zoo. Carlos tells me weâ€™ll drive by, but thereâ€™s nothing really interesting to look at. A few stone foundations, some cannons propped up to give it that pirate feel. â€œItâ€™s not that old,â€ he says.
We pull up to a crumbling brick wall, and realize the gate is locked. Closed for the day.
The Mexican Navy established a base on the island in 1949. Underwater conduits brought fresh water and electricity from the mainland. An elderly taxi driver tells me that Isla Mujeres became modernized as Cancun underwent aggressive development in the mid-1970s.
We pull into Isla Town, the main village, and walk down the narrow streets of shops and restaurants. Unlike Cancun, there are no thundering discos, or chain restaurants with a giant frog perched on the roof. The pace is refreshingly laidback. Brightly colored crafts and curios, racks of Che Guevara T-shirts, and owners muttering â€œCuban cigars, guys?â€ Locals sit languidly on steps, chatting in the shade. A teenager whizzes by on a Segway scooter, dialing a cell phone.
Italian food is very popular, and Carlos tells me that in general, Europeans prefer Isla Mujeres to Cancun because they want a more authentic Mexican experience. Except for the Italian food, I suppose. On the other hand, Americans gravitate to the more commercialized Cancun, where more English is spoken, especially in restaurants with a giant frog on top.
We walk through a sun-baked plaza filled with pigeons, cats, and squealing children. Some youths are playing basketball. Carlos says the local team is the best in all Yucatan. When I ask why, he smiles, â€œThereâ€™s nothing else to do.â€
The town hits the ocean at Playa Norta, a well-known beach with palapas-covered bars looking out over crystalline waters. After Hurricane Wilma blasted the Yucatan in October 2005, the government spent $25 million to rebuild Cancunâ€™s beaches with tons of sand dredged from the ocean. Carlos says that here on this beach, the storm actually brought them more sand.
We come upon a fishing contest in progress. Vendors are selling food and drinks, surrounded by large inflatable beer cans. Pescadores stand in a line on the pier, dead fish at their feet, waiting to have their catch weighed. First prize is a Ford F-150 pickup.
Behind a food booth, two women are drinking cans of Modelo and hacking off the head of a barracuda that looks about six feet long. They smile and wipe the sweat from their foreheads.
â€œTry some of this ice cream,â€ says Carlos, pointing to a woman behind a cart. â€œItâ€™s homemade.â€ Heâ€™s right, itâ€™s some of the best Iâ€™ve ever had. We watch the contest for a bit, then head off to find Mundacaâ€™s tombstone.
A pock-marked stone wall rings the municipal cemetary at the north end of Isla Town. I sidestep a young couple from Chicago, squinting at their maps, and enter through a creaky metal gate.
It feels like the 1700s, except for the electricity cables snaking in between the crypts. Carlos motions me down a narrow pathway to one tomb which looks older than the rest. Two out of four pillars are broken off. Symbols of trees and a cross are chiseled into the top.
Mundaca carved this tombstone for himself, with his own hands. He added the date 1877, which would have been three years before he left for MÃ©rida. On one side he etched the pirate skull and crossbones symbol, hoping to be remembered as something other than a slave-trader. He also inscribed a special message for La Triguena.
â€œOn this side,â€ Carlos points, â€œIt says â€˜As you are, I was.â€™ On the other, â€˜As I am, you will be.â€™â€
We donâ€™t talk. The graveyard is totally silent, and I think, my God, he really was crazy about her.
Unless you were looking for it, nobody would notice this strange monument to love of a Mayan girl. Mundaca did not engrave his name anywhere on the tomb. He didnâ€™t need to. She lived her entire life on the island, knowing his final words were right here in the cemetary. A goodbye note for eternity from Fermin Mundaca, the lovelorn pirate of Isla Mujeres.
(A version of this story first appeared in American Way magazine)