Isla Mujeres New Year

Deborah Thompson

© Copyright 2002 by Deborah Thompson 

Photo of Sunset on the Isla Majeres, Mexico.

This tiny island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico has always fascinated me, and when we decided to try celebrating New Year's in an exotic location, this place came immediately to mind. It certainly remains one of my most memorable New Year's Eve celebrations ever!

Night descends quickly in the Caribbean, dimming the turquoise swells into a frothing blur of charcoal. For tourists visiting tiny Isla Mujeres, the cloak of darkness is actually a blessing in disguise; allowing eyes mesmerized by the shimmering beauty of the ocean to finally focus on an island rich with charm and character. Shaped like the fragile needle-fish which skim the surface of the island's more tranquil shores, "Isla" is long and thin, only eight kilometres long, and a mere 400 metres at it's widest point. In mere minutes it is possible to saunter from the calm aqua seas of the ferry dock to the frothing splendor of the windward side, to watch frigate birds dip, dive and soar in an aerial ballet.

New Year's Eve in my world has always had a few key ingredients; bone-chilling gusts of an icy north wind, the sound of boots crunching on a hard-packed sidewalk of snow, the burning sensation of frozen cheeks and fingertips. Other years, the welcome taste of a hot rum toddy stirred with a cinnamon stick would soothe the disappointment of cancelled celebrations as swirls of endless snow built high, white fences of pure silence between neighbors for miles around. This New Year's Eve though, things would be different.

Succumbing to our longing for a tropical year end celebration, December 31st found me sighing in delight as a warm breeze blew tendrils of hair off my hot forehead, my toes wiggling happily in strappy sandals. There was a burning sensation on my cheeks, but this year it was caused by a little too much sun, and my biggest worry of the day was pondering the fate of my sapphire blue cocktail dress should I surrender to the urge to leap into the cooling ocean depths at the stroke of the new year.

The Hotel Cristalmar, situated on the south side of the island, about a ten minute drive from downtown, was our hotel for our first of two weeks on Isla Mujeres. We had decided not to attend their gala dinner festivities in favor of celebrating with the locals in "El Centro", or the downtown area of Isla. Upon inquiring, we had been told the Central Plaza, or "Zocolo" was the place to taste the authenticity of a Mexican New Years Eve, and best of all, it was free. Dressed in our tropical "New Year's Eve best", we took a taxi into "El Centro" for the usual $2.00 U.S., the cab driver refreshingly unaware of the cosmopolitan practice of quadrupling the price of anything and everything on this extra-special night. We had the driver drop us at the foot of Avenida Morelos around 9:00, leaving us time to explore a little around town, find a place for a lovely dinner, and then wind our way back to the Central Plaza for midnight. First we decided to check out what preparations had been made at the plaza for the midnight fiesta.

Bordered on one side by Avenida Morelos and Avenida Hidalgo on the other, the large central plaza on Isla Mujeres is hard to miss. Adjacent to the local City Hall/Police & Traffic Building, it is bathed in a benevolent glow from the beautiful stone Immaculata Concepcion Church. We wandered about, inhaling the aura, sights, scents and sounds of New Year's Eve in the Caribbean. Attesting to the spirituality of the island residents, a life-size nativity scene had been assembled near the church. It seemed that every statue and ceramic figurine on the island had been rounded up to help out the cause, and baby Jesus was being watched over not only by large statues of donkeys, cows and angels but also a few turkeys, some chickens, and a little dog with only one ear that greatly resembled Toto from the Wizard of Oz. Even a Dorothy look-alike was present; complete with red shoes and a little basket containing fruit on her arm, she stood in askance next to a lone, three-legged deer. A few reindeer and a headless pig completed the motley crew. We paused to take some video, charmed by their effort and creativity. The zocolo itself was vibrant with the excitement of welcoming in the New Year. "Feliz Ano 1999!" announced a gaily printed banner which rippled over a large, wooden stage set up at one end. Strands of Christmas lights flickered from trees and buildings, dancing on a gentle breeze. The soft chords of Trios musicians poured from doorways, competing with a strong Latin beat from further down Avenida Hidalgo.

The crash of the ever- restless surf echoed down Avenida Morelos, carried on night air heavy with the tang of the sea, sweetened by tropical blooms, and laced with the pungent fumes of hand-rolled Cuban cigars. Laughter and the excited cries of children came from a small arcade set up a block away, where children bounced on a large trampoline and ate small packets of sweet treats and deep fried dough concoctions sold by wizened, toothless street vendors. Dozens of rugged wooden tables and chairs bordered the "zocolo", flickering candles highlighting small cards which announced they were reserved by certain families or parties. The grand midnight fiesta in the plaza would be hosted by a seven piece Cuban band who would welcome the drinking, dancing revellers into 1999. Little girls, bright eyes shining with the excitement of it all, resplendent as brides-to-be in gowns of silk, satin and lace, played flirtatiously with boys stiffly uncomfortable in their best Sunday suits beneath a sky of black velvet. Overhead, stars sparkled and pulsed, seeming to gather close to once more witness this timeless celebration. I couldn't imagine a more romantic, refreshing place to welcome in a brand new year.

Tummies rumbling, a stroll down Avenida Hidalgo found us at a gaily decorated restaurant called "El Sombrero de Gomar". Appealing aromas wafted out over the flickering, candle-lit tables, the ambiance beckoning us to enter. The second level was romantic and secluded; yet a good place to watch the festive activities and strolling musicians on the street below. Excellent service and friendly staff contributed to the appeal, and soon we were enjoying delicious Camerones con Riz (sautéed shrimps on a bed of rice), and sizzling Fajitas con Pollo y Rez (Chicken and Beef Fajitas) accompanied by freshly bakes nacho chips and home make salsa, and a deliciously rich guacamole dip. A frosty "grande" margarita for me and a chilled Corona for Steve got us in the celebration mood as we toasted the waning hours of 1998.

Halfway through our meal we noticed two musicians making their way from restaurant to restaurant, One was dressed very oddly for such a festive night, in a ragged black suit with a black hat and a ratty, fake white beard. They were chanting, rather than singing, a rather catchy refrain, one banging on a drum and the other tapping a tambourine. One held out a small basket for donations, and I threw some change in as they went by our table, though I had no idea what this was all about. Our attentive waiter was only too happy to explain.

The old man dressed in black, he said, was their "incarnation" of the "old year". If we went for a walk later, he said, all over Isla Mujeres people would have put out effigies of "the old man", or "the old year", which they would make out of straw and old clothes, like a scarecrow. At midnight, with great excitement and gusto, everyone would set their old men on fire, a symbolic gesture to usher out the old year and bring good luck in with the new.

Our delicious meal finished, we decided on a leisurely walk around El Centro to see some of these "old men" and perhaps stop for coffee with liqueur before making our way to the central plaza. As we strolled amongst the revellers; it seemed every restaurant and bar was full, yet there was never the sense of over-crowding. Our stroll brought us to the windward side of the island, and we walked the malecon, or sea-wall, welcoming the exhilaration of the wind, watching the belligerent surf throwing itself against the sturdy breakwater, as though roaring its desire to join in the fun.

We walked slowly, noting now with interest all the mangy, hay-stuffed old men outside the little houses and stores, amazed that we had not really noticed them until now. As we walked, a small, enchanting restaurant caught my eye. It was tiny and set back off the dirt road, chairs and tables set up in captivating abandon outside the actual restaurant. An open air bar with a few seats available fronted right onto the street itself, and a perspiring server grimly manipulated an espresso machine as he mopped his brow. The Restaurant/Bar El Cuba Ro was packed to the open-air seams with delighted clientele, and we grabbed the last two high-backed bar stools while we had a chance. We sat down and were immediately asked what we wanted. Feeling a tug of weariness, I asked for a coffee. "Cuban coffee?" asked the waiter. I shrugged my approval, and ordered a mojito, a concoction of rum, soda water and mint leaves made famous by Ernest Hemingway for my husband.

Just as our drinks were served a large group of beautifully costumed men arrived in a tiny car, unloading a dizzying array of instruments. We were amazed when they proceeded to set up in a minuscule area to the side of the bar/restaurant area. Moments later, our ears were being treated to the hip-swinging, toe-tapping beat of a live, seven piece Cuban band. I couldn't believe our luck as these talented musicians sang their hearts out to a tiny audience who sang along and danced in ecstatic oblivion.

Steve was enjoying his tall, cool Mojito, and once I got over having to almost chew my thick, black Cuban coffee, I found pleasure in the strong yet smooth flavour, positive, though, that I would not be able to sleep for days from this caffeine rush.

The band was obviously enjoying itself; and my feet itched to dance as they broke into a catchy Cuban rumba. I felt as though we had accidentally stumbled into a local Cuban family's home and were being treated to a private concert given by one of their own. I don't think I was far from the truth. Between sets the band members hobnobbed with the people at various tables, seeming to know everyone. As they began a sweetly melodic love song, I tugged my husband off his bar stool. We swayed together on the hard-packed dirt road to the rhythmic, Cuban beat, etching this moment indelibly into my mind.

Too soon our watches crept closer to the midnight hour and it was time to make our way to the Zocolo. As we paid our bill, the Cuban band began putting away their instruments, obviously finished for the evening here. It was then that we realized they were probably the band which would be playing for the masses at midnight in the zocolo. We felt very privileged that we had been able to hear them in such an intimate venue.

The stroll to the plaza took only a few minutes, and it suddenly seemed that all of Isla Mujeres had congregated in this one spot. The reserved tables groaned with the weight of entire families, little children played hide and seek, their faces reflecting the warm glow of Christmas lights. Balloons and streamers festooned the trees like exotic flowers. Liquor was flowing freely, and music played over loudspeakers as the Cuban band arrived and began to set up. An air of anticipation hovered over the crowd as the band took their positions. The moment the Cubans struck their first chord, the square became a seething mass of writhing, dancing bodies, the "cha-cha-cha!" beat impossible to ignore. Even toothless, droopy diapered babies grinned in pleasure as they danced on tabletops, held carefully in the brown, weathered arms of their white-haired "abuelas".

There was no point in trying to squeeze into the gyrating throng of people in the central plaza, so we found a spot with a little breathing room on the edge of the street, content to simply watch the spectacle before us. A glance at my watch showed me it was two minutes before the turn of midnight, and the tempo of the band picked up even more. We waited for someone to start a countdown, but suddenly the moment had arrived without one; as the loud report of firecrackers exploded and champagne corks flew, and people yelled from balconies down Avenida Hidalgo. Everywhere we looked, people were kissing and hugging, not only their loved ones but everyone around them as well.

We exchanged our own kisses and hugs, savouring this unique experience, knowing we would remember this moment for many years to come. Mumbling "Feliz Ano!" to anyone in sight, we made our way down towards the ferry dock, where the beach is wide and the water warm and calm. Every restaurant and tiny café and bar we passed was overflowing with singing, laughing people. Only a few other couples were on the beach, and we strolled along enjoying the intimacy. Somehow I convinced my wary husband that wading in the ocean during the first moment of a New Year would bring us luck, even if we were in our good clothes. Shedding his shoes, he rolled up his pant legs and I kicked off my strappy sandals, and we waded giddily into the gentle surf, laughing at our silliness and loving every moment of it.

Unwilling to test the fragility of my cocktail dress in the salty ocean, I decided we had best make our way back to Cristalmar Hotel. A cab was easily available near the ferry terminal and the driver told us with endearing and welcome predictably that it would be $2.00 US for the ride back. As we drove, the rich velvet canvas of night was afire with the leaping flames and burning embers of countless straw mannequins outside almost every door. The Mexicans had burned their old men, and with the charm of their traditions, had ushered two very happy tourists into a New Year.

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