• Image about Mundaca
Steve Giralt

Adventure, love, betrayal, a broken heart. Sounds like a bad soap opera. But in reality, it was just the life of Fermín Mundaca de Marechaja, the legendary pirate of the rural yet enchanting Isla Mujeres.

Photos don't do the Mexican Caribbean waters justice. Up close, the color seems almost bluer than blue. During my 40-­minute ferry ride from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, a small island about nine miles off the Yucatan coast, one of the crew members materializes with a tray: "Two beers, yes?" I'm on the trail of Fermín Mundaca de Marechaja, the region's most famous pirate. Drinking in the morning does seem appropriate. Okay, why not?

Bob Marley tunes blast out from unseen speakers. Normally, I'd be suspicious of any pirate who sang along with "No Woman No Cry." But it's the perfect theme for Mundaca, because it was here on this island that a local Mayan girl broke his heart.

Unlike most pirates, who gleefully pillaged their way across the oceans - collecting diseases and watching their teeth fall out from scurvy - Mundaca was a sensitive swashbuckler. In a very unpiratelike moment of weakness, he allowed himself to fall in love. And then she dumped him for a local guy.

It's an incredible tale of passion and rejection, like one of those Mexican soap operas on Telemundo. I can imagine Mundaca standing there in his pirate gear, pleading for her love, his eyes watery and sad. She turns her back defiantly, her hair blowing up from an unseen wind. A door opens; there stands a handsome Mayan fisherman. She runs to his arms, and we see Mundaca trembling, a single tear trickling down his craggy pirate face. Has this been done already?

The Isla Mujeres coastline soon comes into view. The island is small and narrow, only about five miles long. Our ferry docks at a harbor on the west side, in front of the dolphin facility. Tourists can get their photos taken while swimming with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins or, if they're more adventurous, bull sharks.

Isla Mujeres offers your basic tropical paradise experience with palm trees and white sand. Once you leave the beaches, though, the landscape turns into quintessential rural Mexico - a few expensive homes, but primarily sunbaked cinder-block housing, with laundry hanging from windows. There's an unfinished patina to everything. Around 15,000 people live here. Most of the industry is fishing, as it has been for centuries.

Tourism is relatively new to Isla Mujeres. People come for the excellent snorkeling and diving among the coral reefs, and families gravitate to the ecofriendly Garrafon Reef Park, at the island's southern tip. A small beachfront hotel advertises "beer so cold, it'll make your teeth hurt."

To attract more visitors, travel brochures have absorbed the local pirate history. Mundaca has unwittingly loaned his name to a Mundaca travel agency, a real estate firm, and a diving company, as well as to one of the trained dolphins. From Cancun's harbor, the Captain Hook Pirate Cruise takes tour groups out on a lobster-dinner sail, complete with sword-fighting actors dressed as rogues.

Down the coastline, La Posada del Capitán Lafitte beachfront resort carries on the tradition of Louisiana pirate Jean Lafitte, who supposedly also roamed the area. The Cedam museum in Puerto Aventuras features artifacts collected from nearby shipwrecks, some dating back to the 1600s.

But it's Mundaca's history that holds the most intrigue - and it's why I'm here. With me on my visit are Carlos Mora Vega and Roger Ricardo Sauir Aguilar, two locals who work as historical guides. We climb into a vehicle and hit the few paved roads of Isla Mujeres to seek out the Mundaca legend firsthand.