The name Isla Mujeres means "Island of Women," although no one knows who dubbed it that. Many believe it was the ancient Maya, who were said to use the island as a religious center for worshipping Ixchel (aka Lady Rainbow), the tide-controlling Mayan goddess of fertility, childbirth, and healing. Another popular legend has it that the Spanish conquistador Hernández de Córdoba named the island when he landed here in 1517 and found hundreds of female-shape clay idols dedicated to Ixchel and her daughters. Still others say the name dates from the 1600s, when visiting pirates stashed their women on Isla before sailing out to pillage merchant ships. (Reputedly both Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte buried treasure here, although no one has ever found any pirate’s gold.)
It wasn’t until 1821, when Mexico became independent, that people really began to settle on Isla. In 1847, refugees from the Caste War of the Yucatán fled to the island and built its first official village of Dolores, which was welcomed into the newly created territory of Quintana Roo in 1850. By 1858 a slave-trader-turned-pirate named Fermín Mundaca de Marechaja began building an estate that took up 40% of the island. By the end of the century the population had risen to 651, and residents had begun to establish trade with the mainland, mostly by supplying fish to the owners of chicle and coconut plantations on the coast. In 1949, the Mexican navy built a base on Isla’s northwestern coast. Around this time the island also caught the eye of some wealthy Mexican sportsmen, who began using it as a vacation spot.
Tourism flourished on Isla during the latter half of the 20th century, partly due to the island’s most famous resident, Ramón Bravo (1927–98). A diver, cinematographer, ecologist, and colleague of Jacques Cousteau, Bravo was the first underwater photographer to explore the area. He contributed to the discovery of the now-famous Cave of the Sleeping Sharks and produced dozens of underwater documentaries for American, European, and Mexican television. Bravo’s efforts to maintain the ecology on Isla have helped keep development here to a minimum. Even today, Bravo remains a hero to many isleños (ees-lay-nyos); his statue can be found where Avenida Rueda Medina becomes the Carretera El Garrafón, and there’s a museum named after him on nearby Isla Contoy.
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