ISLA MUJERES, Mexico -- These are the names you hear: newbies, or first-time visitors; day trippers, here from Cancun for an afternoon of shopping and less crowded beaches; and Islaholics. The urge of an Islaholic is to return to this tiny island paradise as often as possible, even to retire here someday.
My husband and I had been on Isla Mujeres (pronounced EES-lah moo-HEH-res) once before, with our daughters in 1996, so we couldn't call ourselves newbies. Day trippers? Never. And it didn't take us long to become intoxicated with this tiny slice of Caribbean coast, about five miles off the shores of Cancun, and the most eastern part of Mexico. So call us Islaholics.
Here's proof of my Isla addiction: I read the Isla Mujeres message board on the Internet daily.
High season hadn't started yet on ''the Island of Women" when we arrived in October. But throughout the Playa Norte area, signs of life were everywhere: a candlelight wedding on the beach, starting with a guest procession led by a mariachi band; an army of ''amigos" haggling for business on Hidalgo Avenue, the downtown area's main street; a plethora of inviting cafes, taquerias (places for tacos, burritos, and other Mexican food), and open-air dance floors and bars. Soon we remembered what we like best: friendly people and a relaxed pace; soft, white sand beaches and spectacular sunsets; the authenticity of village life and Mayan culture; and the extraordinary value of a vacation here.
Meet Jean Chandler from New Mexico, who has been vacationing on Isla Mujeres for three decades.
''This is a live-and-let-live kind of place that hasn't changed much in 30 years," Chandler said. ''Isla has a charm that Cancun does not."
Arturo Herrera, who lives on Isla Mujeres, contrasted the places, saying, ''Cancun is 90 percent tourists. You have tourists on Isla, but many people live here, and there is island life."
I have only passed through Cancun on the way to Puerto Juarez, in the north part of the city, to board the Isla Mujeres ferry. But I know that comparing Cancun and Isla Mujeres is like comparing avocados and mangoes. Cancun, with a population of 500,000 and Mexico's premier tourist destination with more than 2.5 million visitors a year, is Americanized with chain hotels, and Hard Rock Cafes. Isla Mujeres, population about 13,500, is low rise with quaint hotels, romantic bistros, and mom-and-pop taquerias. Cancun is glitz, hustle, and bustle. Isla is rustic, bohemian, and laid-back. Cancun is ''new," barely 30 years old, transformed into a travel mecca from an unpopulated stretch of coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula. Isla Mujeres was a thriving fishing village 100 years ago and has been taking in tourists since long before Cancun was built.
In ancient times, Isla Mujeres was thought to be a sanctuary for Ixchel, Mayan goddess of fertility. Centuries later, fishermen and pirates left their wives on Isla for safekeeping while they went out to sea, hence its name.
Ironically, Isla Mujeres has a reputation as the poor man's Cancun, but it isn't for lack of natural beauty or the generosity of its people to share themselves with visitors. Still, prices for food and lodging on Isla average 30 to 40 percent lower than in Cancun.
Most of the activity on Isla Mujeres takes place in two spots: Playa del Norte, a large expanse of beach on the north tip of the island, and along El Centro, the main tourist strip, about six blocks by four blocks, also on the island's north end. Most hotels are in these areas, as are most restaurants and shops. A short walk from El Centro is the zcalo, or central square, where authentic island life flourishes around a picturesque plaza flanked by a Super Express market, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, City Hall, and police station, as well as a much-used public basketball court. Be sure to stop on Sundays, when island women cook Yucatan specialties and sell them around the square.
You cannot rent a car here, but mopeds, bicycles, and golf carts are available. Carts cost around $45 a day and are a good way to get to the south part of the island, where a number of new hotels and condominiums have been built in the last few years. Taxis are readily available and cheap. If you stay near Playa Norte, you can walk to the beach and downtown.
Most Isleos connected with tourism speak some English, although Spanish predominates. The peso is the currency, but many businesses accept US dollars. The island has several banks and money-changing kiosks; credit cards are not accepted in many hotels and restaurants.
The Isla Mujeres message board keeps me connected to a special place. I log on, dreaming about my next visit here, and Ann from New York posts her trip report, which I read. I scan for messages from IslaRick, an expat from California who now makes the island his home, because he always shares useful information for my next trip. Last summer, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Caribbean, the board provided pictures and news, letting Islaholics all over the world know everything was OK on their beloved stretch of paradise.
I'm logging off, for now. It's Monday, time to leave Isla Mujeres and get back to work.
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.