Magazine For Isla Mujeres Charities

Photo by Tony Garcia

A Trip Report From 1876 with excerpts & photos by Augustus & Alice le Plongeon

By Ronda Winn Roberts

   In 1876, Augustus le Plongeon, 50 year old eccentric, visited Isla Mujeres with a 25 year old beauty he had married in London two years earlier. (Their marriage lasted 37 years. He lived to be 83, Alice died 2 years after him, when she was 59.) He is known for his early photographs of Mayan ruins. However his bizarre theories about interconnections between Mayas & Egyptians & "the people of Atlantis", as well as his articles about "psychic archeology" & the occult,  left him discredited among the scientific community.

   In the mid 1800's, the Caste war between the native Maya and the people of European descent raged across the peninsula, driving Europeans and Creoles from their towns and haciendas.  By 1855, an estimated half of the population of the Yucatan had died or taken flight.
     Isla Mujeres was founded in 1850 by people fleeing the war, who were given permission by the Mexican government to settle on the isle, provided they farmed the land for six years, built their own roads and infrastructure, and expected no protection or services from the federal government.
     In 1876, the le Plongleons took a boat from New York to Cuba, where they hired a boat to the Yucatan. Augustus hadn't mentioned the war to Alice, nor the yellow fever epidemics that left them quarantined on the boat in many of the port cities.  When they finally arrived in Isla Mujeres, Alice described the pirate Mundaca and commented about the towers left behind by the pirate Lafitte.
 Augustus describes downtown,  aka "Dolores":

     The village of Dolores is built on the beach of a pretty little bay. where the fleet of fishing smacks from Havana find a sure shelter.from the violence of stormy northers that dash the waves against the iron-bound shores of the eastern side of the islet, producing a terrific and deafening noise.
     The houses are snugly ensconced in a thick grove of coco trees, whose evergreen foliage shields them from the scorching rays of the tropical sun. Three streets run north and south, parallel with  the beach of the bay, and are crossed at right angles by others leading from the bay to the ocean. The principal street,the middle one, half a mile in length, covered with deep sand, as are all the others, leads in a straight line to the necropolis.
  The dwellings, with but very few exceptions, are mere thatched huts. The walls are formed of palisades of trunks of palmetto trees called chut, that grow in great abundance on the island and on the main land opposite. They are stuccoed inside and out with cob and then whitewashed. Amongst the five hundred houses of which the village is composed, a dozen may have their walls of stone and mortar, but all are covered with the leaves of the palmetto tree. Each hut is separated from the next by a court-yard. In some, the owners, with great patience and labor, try to cultivate in the sandy soil, a few rose bushes and other flowering shrubs of sickly appearance, of which they are very proud.
  The village boasts a Square. The south side is occupied by a neat little church. The west side is adorned with a long, narrow shed, surrounded by a rustic balustrade. In the rear of it is a large room--this is the barracks; two cells--these are the jail. The whole form the City Hall, for the reunions of ""El consejo municipal"--the common counsel--when that honorable body meets, and during ever day of the week it is converted into a school-room. Private dwellings fill the north side of the Square.
  The interior of the houses is the same for the rich as for the poor. It consists of a large single room, which serves during the day as parlor and reception room. It is converted at night into a common sleeping apartment by hanging hammocks from the rafters which support the  guano  roof. Oftentimes an old sail hung across the room divides it into two apartments, and serves in lieu of a curtain. In several houses, whose owners have been so fortunate as to pick up stray pine boards from wrecked vessels that have been  wafted in the neighborhood of the island, or from the coast of the main land opposite, the old sail has been replaced by a wooden partition.
  The articles of furniture are few and old-fashioned--some wooden chairs and tables, trunks, supported on trestles to isolate them from the damp floor of betun (Maya for concrete), in order to preserve their contents from humidity and mould, and the shrine of the Penate, containing the wooden statuette of the patron saint of the family, before which is constantly burning a small lamp. A coarse hammock or two, together with fishing nets, oars, poles, masts, sails, and diverse other tackle, complete the list, not forgetting a few cheap colored lithographs of the Virgin Mary and some saint or other.
  The inhabitants are, as a general thing, a fine set of people.. The men, mostly of Indian race, speaking among themselves the Maya language, are sinewy and athletic. They forcibly recalled to our minds the figures of warriors so beautifully portrayed on the walls of the inner room in the Chaacmol monument at Chichen-Itza. It is surprising to see them handle their canoes--so similar in shape to those used by the ancient Mayas, as seen sculptured on the stones of the queen's room in Chichen. Hardy, fearless and skilful in their own craft, they are said to be worthless as sailors in larger vessels. The women, of medium height, are handsome, graceful, not over shy, and rather slovenly.
  It is a fact, patent at first sight, that the Indian blood is fast disappearing from amongst the islanders. The blue eyes, fair, rosy skins, and light blond hair of the rising generation bespeak their direct descent from European blood.
  Salt is found in large quantities in the centre of the island. It is deposited on the shores of an extensive pool of salt water, connected by an underground passage which communicates at certain epochs of the year with the sea on the east side of the islet.
  A large portion off the interior of the island is occupied by a most picturesque lake, which opens on the south side of the bay by a narrow channel, through which the waters of the ocean enter, and is very nearly three miles in length. The lake is consequently subject to tide.
    When they visited the ruins at Punta Sur, the villagers followed them, and seemed disapproving of them digging around in the temple, so they returned another day to dig. Agustus found and took away an Ixchel incense burner which had been buried, hidden within the temple. It was broken by the shovel used to dig it out.

Alice describes the temple and the South Point (Punta Sur):
The shrine stands on a platform 2 metres high, 
and is itself 3 metres in height (9 feet, 9 inches) 
with a frontage of 6 metres. The doorway faces 
south, and the walls are nearly three feet thick. 
The interior was divided in two rooms, the altar 
being in the smallest. 
The lintels of the doorways are sapote wood. 
On them various names have been carved at differ- 
ent times. Among others we saw that of Mr. 
Goodall, with the date 1841. This gentleman is now 
President of the American Bank Note Company in 
New York City. 
In the floor of the largest room there was a big 
hole that was made by some one searching for a 
certain treasure. The rocky elevation upon which 
the shrine stands is a wild and romantic spot, its 
base surrounded by crags against which the roaring 
billows constantly dash their white foam. On each 
side the rocks are yielding to the unceasing action 
of the waves ; already part of the platform, and the 
east wall of the shrine, has been carried down into 
the sea. Atom by atom, the entire structure will 
thus disappear in the course of time. 

Alice described their arrival:
On the tenth day after leaving Progreso, about 
nine o'clock at night, we sailed into the beautiful 
Bay of Dolores, at Mugeres Island, or Women's 
Island, as the Spanish conquerors called it, because 
they found in the temples of the natives many 
images of women. The water of the bay was as un- 
ruffled and crystaline as a sheet of emerald ; and the 
village of Dolores made a charming picture, with its 
thatched cottages, boats hauled up on the white 
beach, and tall palms waving like feathered cano- 
pies above the dwellings ; while the perfect stillness 
made usalmost imagine that we beheld an enchanted 
island awaiting the touch of a magic wand. That 
wand was the first golden sun-ray that shot from 
the east, calling every creature to life and action. 
Doors were thrown open; faint columns of smoke 
wreathed their way to the cloudless sky ; children 
ran to the beach to float their toy ships ; fishermen  
launched their boats ; women passed to and fro, and 
feathered songsters warbled their sweetest lay. 

She wrote about the Caribbean coast:
The east side of the island presents a complete 
and beautiful contrast to the west. Rocks and crags 
run from one end to the other, the never-tiring 
waves ceaselessly dashing against them. What 
scope for the wildest fancy on this rocky shore! 
with its millions of periwinkles and other shell fish. 
A lilliputian world miniature caverns, shells of 
every shape and color, tiny tunnels, rivers and lakes, 
filled with sparkling bubbles of foam and the sea 
eternally roaring.

She described the pirate Mundaca: 
We found a strange character livmg on the island 
apart from every one except two men who serve 
him. With them he makes houses, stone walls, and 
statues of himself. He calls himself Spanish Con- 
sul and has large plantations of vege- 
tables, and plenty of cattle, yet will neither give 
nor sell anything to anybody, not even a little milk 
for any one who is sick. Vegetables and fruits ri- 
pen and rot, while his cattle roam everywhere and 
spoil all that other people plant. He works like a 
slave, and only allows himself one scanty meal a day. 
No one knows why he lives such an austere, isolated, 
selfish existence. It is understood that in his 
younger days he was engaged in the slave-trade on 
the African coast, and the people believe he must 
have committed some heinous crime that keeps him 
a prey to remorse, which he tries to stifle by doing 
penance. Some say he is haunted, and others that 
he is looking for the treasure, because he frequently 
changes his place of residence, building a new hut 
each time. He has plenty of gold ounces, yet sel- 
dom approaches the village. When he passes along 
the beach at twilight the friendly chat is suddenly 
hushed, and some one exclaims, in an awe-struck 
whisper: "There goes Mondaca!" 

She describes harvesting salt at Salina Grande:
Our next expedition was to the salt pits in the 
middle of the island. By an underground passage 
these large pools communicate with the sea on 
the east side. At the beginning of the fishing 
season, men and women go to collect the salt 
that is deposited by evaporation on the shore of 
the pools. They seem to regard it as a kind of 
picnic, though the work is laborious, especially for 
the women, who stand up to their waists in muddy 
water all day long, putting the salt into large turtle 
shells that serve instead of vats. It would be 
almost impossible to transport the salt by land to 
village Dolores; the only roads are narrow pathways 
through the thicket, and the soil is so rocky and 
uneven that it is tiresome to walk, much more so to 
carry a load. A great extent of the interior of 
the island is taken up by a most picturesque lake 
that opens on the south side of the bay by a narrow 
channel through which the water of the ocean 
enters. The lake is consequently subject to tides, 
and it is navigable for the majority of the canoes 
used by the fishermen. 
    The channel is crooked and scarcely more than 
nine feet wide, having dense thickets of mangroves 
on each side. It takes about half an hour to go 
through it, then the lake suddenly opens to our 
view, truly a charming scene ! It is surrounded by 
banks twenty feet high, covered with verdure ; sea- 
gulls soar overhead, filling the air with discordant 
screams, while pelicans, herons and storks, are 
perched here and there, half hidden among the foli- 
age, motionless, wistfully watching the water, to 
catch the unsuspicious fish that venture within 
their reach. 
    The lake is nearly three miles long; its southern 
end reaches to within a hundred yards of the salt 
pit ; thus the labor of transporting the salt is made 
comparatively easy. 

Alice describes the importance of turtles to the Islanders:

THE air was exquisitely soft and balmy, the 
moon so brilliant that every fleeting cloud 
was reflected in the clear water of Dolores Bay, 
while the white sand of the shore glittered under 
our feet as we sauntered along enjoying the beauty 
of the scene. In this peaceful bay, six miles 
from the eastern coast of Yucatan, the Spanish 
ships anchored nearly four hundred years ago. 
The principal industry of the villagers is fishing, 
and from the month of April to August, all their 
attention is given to turtle-catching. So, on that 
moon-lit night, as we strolled along the beach, men, 
women, and children also wended their way to the 
north end of the island, where all was silent as the 
white tombstones in the village grave-yard by which 
we passed. A few hastened their steps as if they 
feared a departed friend might stalk forth in wind- 
   Reaching a place where thick shrubs grew, not 
far from the water's edge, all concealed themselves 
behind the bushes or in the shadow cast by them, 
and from their hiding-place watched silently for the 
turtles. These prolific creatures come to lay their 
eggs in the sand, never failing to select a spot above 
high-water mark ; consequently at low tide they have 
to go a good way up on the beach. 
     Having chosen a place, they quickly make a hole, 
and deposit therein about one hundred eggs, over 
which they again put the sand, leaving the spot in 
appearance as they found it ; so that no one would 
discover the nest but for their tracks. The turtle im- 
mediately returns to the water, leaving the eggs to 
be hatched by the heat of the sun ; in due time the 
little ones make their way out and go straight to 
the sea. 
    When the turtle begins to cover the eggs the 
people creep from their hiding-place and cut off her 
way to the water; then, when she starts toward 
them, they capture her and turn her over, not with- 
out trouble, for some weigh as much as five hundred 
pounds. The flaps are tied, and a mark set on 
the shell, so that when morning comes each party 
may know which they have captured. The family 
that catches two or three in a night is well satisfied. 
The turtles have formidable jaws, and it is neces- 
sary to keep one*s hands well out of their reach, for 
they can break a man's limb as we can a match. 
As for conchs  most abundant in those waters 
though the shell is hard to break with a hammer, 
the cahuamo easily cracks it, to eat the delicious 
   The cahuamo, or hawk-bill, is the largest kind of 
turtle, weighing from 200 to 500 pounds. Its flesh 
tastes like good beef, but is generally left on the 
beach to rot and be consumed by buzzards, the 
people not being numerous enough to eat it all, 
though large quantities are dried and salted to be 
sold as jerked beef. Speculators once went to 
considerable expense to try and preserve this meat, 
but we are told it turned bad in the cans. 
    The catchers gather the eggs, the fat, and shell, 
though the last is worth so little that they do not 
always take the trouble to lift it from the beach ; 
many are scattered over the sand. The eggs are 
considered a great delicacy, and taste very rich, but 
have a strange sandiness that is unpleasant to the 
   The carey {Chelonia imbricatd) is smaller and of 
more value. The least the islanders will take for 
the shell is two and a half to three dollars a pound ; 
rather than accept less they will keep it in their 
house from one year to another. The carey, as well  
as the green turtle, is caught with harpoons and 
nets. The green turtle is carried to British Hondu- 
ras, where they are worth from one and a half to 
three dollars each, the shell not being used. The 
poor creatures are transported in small sailing ves- 
sels, where they lie on their backs on deck exposed 
to the scorching sun, and once a day have buckets 
of water dashed over them to keep them alive. 
  Large pens are built at the water's edge to keep 
the turtles in until shipped for the market. When 
they become lean, from being kept thus too long, in 
order that they may fatten again, they are set free 
in the lake that is in the interior of the island after 
being branded with the mark of the owner. They 
never multiply there, nor make their way through 
the channel out to the ocean, but owing to the good 
aliment that they find, are soon again in fine con- 
dition for the market. 
 Note...The loggerhead, or Cahuma,  is the biggest of the sea turtles that visit Isla Mujeres. The hawksbill, or Carey, is the smallest, whose pretty shells were once made into combs & fashion accessories.  The most abundant type is the Green, called "Blanca" in Spanish.

 The temple to Ixchel at Punta Sur was a pile of rubble by the 1980's, even before Gilberto hit. Before that it looked like this:
Punta Sur. Tolbert Mahler.  1891
Punta Sur by Mexican photographer Casasola Pachuca  1917
By Willie Gibson 1972

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