Cinco de Mayo: Postcard from Islas Mujeres

Isla mujeres sunrise

Isla Mujeres sunrise as recommended by local restaurateur, Rene

Sometimes confused with Mexican independence day (which is in September) May 5th is the anniversary of the 1862 defeat of French occupying forces by the Mexican army at the battle of Puebla.

The anniversary, which is no longer even a public holiday in Mexico, has become a day to celebrate Mexican culture, identity and cuisine, initially in the U.S, that in recent decades has spread across the world to include events in Canada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Australia.

Now, I need little excuse to celebrate to Mexican food, the only time I ever considered getting one of those Amazon subscriptions was for the crates of Cholula hot sauce that are liberally doused over the stream of chilli, enchiladas, tacos and huevos rancheros that leave my kitchen every month.  So, tonight we will celebrating Cinco de Mayo with  fish tacos.

These are not the fried breaded fish style ones that are found on most British Mexican restaurant menus (although I am partial to those too – Thomasina Meirs’ restaurant chains serve very agreeable versions – with cheaper canteen style DF Mexico pipping those at Wahaca for taste, although Wahaca has far superior accompanying margaritas), but flaked marinated white fish on little corn tortillas adorned with beans and red onions.

Tonight’s meal will be another attempt to recreate the perfect little gems we found at Rene y Renee –  tucked on a side street away from the seafront on the sleepy  Mexican island of Isla Mujeres.

This husband and wife team provide a proper, home-style eating experience, with Rene the avuncular host, gesticulating wildly whilst extolling the virtues of the island’s sunrise, shuttling back and forth across the room to where his wife, Renee deftly whips up  corn tortillas to order.

The tacos that arrive are tiny and perfect. Little three-bite sized corn tortillas, topped with savoury refried beans, soft fish and red onions rendered a vivid pink by lime juice.

 Che Guevara house front , Isla Mujeres

Che Guevara house front, Isla Mujeres

 

I still dream about those tacos, and the island itself;  it’s slow pace and quiet colourful, narrow streets and rickety seafront bar shacks are a blessed relief from the noise and bustle of nearby Cancun.

 

 

But there is something else about Isla Mujeres, that I find my thoughts returning to frequently, and it lies beneath…..

Despite the near thirty metre visibility, they somehow still manage to take you by surprise. Appearing out of the blue, their arms outstretched as if reaching for help. The scale of it is astonishing – four hundred silent sirens pulling you closer.

Some of their faces are ravaged by time and tide, gnarled by coral growth, or eaten away.  Perverse seaweed hairstyles ripple from their skulls. Others are inexplicably untouched by the time that has passed – their sharp features frozen clearly in expressions of happiness, pain or acceptance.

A heavily pregnant woman cradles her belly, eyes closed, face upturned to the warmth from the bright light that penetrates from the surface. Beside her, another raises her arm in front of her face, shielding her eyes from its glare.

Just a few minutes boat ride from the day-glow hum of Cancun’s beach-front with its spring  breakers, weekenders  and all-inclusive honeymooners; down here, where the only sound is the metronomic rhythm of your own breath, the MUSA  underwater museum are an arresting, colourless exercise in stillness.

Silent Evolution underwater sculpture, Mexico

Sculpture and Photo © Jason deCaires Taylor

 

The four hundred drowned souls of ‘The Silent Evolution’ are just one exhibit in a fusion of contemporary art and environmental science designed to protect and rejuvenate the Mesoamerican barrier reef off the coast of Mexico.

Made from a special porous concrete that encourages coral growth, the sculptures are designed to  create an artificial reef whilst also providing a distinct attraction designed to alleviate some of the impact on the fragile natural reef from the 750,000 visitors a year to the stretch of water between Cancun and Isla Mujeres.

Every single one of the almost 800 and growing figures that are now litter the sea floor  is a life-size likeness of a real person, created by James deCaires Taylor, a Mexican based British artist and conservationist.

The scope and detail of deCaires work is made all the more remarkable in that its ultimate destruction is not only inevitable, but also necessary. The more coral growth disfigures his sculptures, the greater marine life is attracted to them, enhancing and regenerating the eco-system.

Spread across two sites, the sculptures are sunk at different depths, so the museum can be enjoyed by both divers and snorkellers.

Snorkellers have to wear life vests and are not allowed to duck dive the shallower exhibits, so to really interact with the sculptures, to look them in the eye, and get amongst them, you need to be a certified diver.

In recent years Mexico has made great strides in protecting its vast natural heritage, undertaking a number of measures to slow environmental degradation. Whether they will continue to be prioritised, as investment floods in to develop coastal areas, remains to be seen.

As we approach the end of the dive, a curtain of vibrant angel fish passes to reveal ‘The Banker’. Dressed in a suit, his briefcase discarded at his side, he kneels on the ground as if in prayer. As I slowly drift overhead, it becomes apparent that his head is literally buried in the sand.”

 

'The Banker' photo and sculpture © Jason deCaires Taylor

‘The Banker’ photo and sculpture © Jason deCaires Taylor

Getting there: Isla Mujeres is easy accessible by a  ferry  from Cancun or Puerto Juarez.

A number of local dive operators both in Cancun and Isla Mujeres offer packages for divers and snorkellers to visit MUSA.

 

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