Movies and cartoons often depict a pirate as a gallant swashbuckler with a parrot on his shoulder, saying "Arrrr!" and ordering people to walk the plank. In truth, most were ruthless thugs, licensed by various ­European governments to target Spanish galleons on the high seas.

The Golden Age of Piracy lasted roughly from 1690 to 1730, and during this time, pirates, or privateers, as they were called, kept busy by attacking ships on the trade routes between South America and Europe.

TO DO...

Garrafon Reef Park: www.garrafon.com

Dolphin Discovery:  www.dolphindiscovery.com/islamujeres

Xcaret historical theme park: www.xcaret.com

Ziplining: The best ziplining in Mexico is at the Selvática ecoadventure park, an hour south of Cancun. 011-52-998-898-4312


FOR THE PIRATE BUFF...

Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum: Donations accepted at the door. In Puerto Aventuras, 43 miles from Cancun.
www.rivieramaya.com/eng/en-Puertoaventuras.htm

La Posada del Capitán Lafitte:
A beachfront resort 38 miles south of Cancun along the Mexican Riviera.
www.capitanlafitte.com

Pirates favored the Caribbean for its central location and lingered in seventeenth-century haunts like Petit-Goave in Haiti; Port Royal, Jamaica; and the island of Tortuga. Along the coast of Mexico's Quintana Roo, buccaneers would lie in wait for galleons coming up from Colombia. By setting lanterns along the Chinchorro Reef, pirates would fool the ships' captains into thinking the treacherous undersea shelf was easily navigable. When the vessel ran aground or sank, the pirates pounced.

Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard, and Jean Lafitte are familiar to anyone interested in pirates. Fermín Mundaca de Marechaja is lesser known, especially to Americans.

Mundaca made a fortune shipping slaves from Africa to the New World. He also worked the opposite direction, selling kidnapped Mayan slaves to plantation owners in Cuba. The Spaniard was technically not really a pirate, but he insisted on referring to himself as such, because, some say, he thought it was more respectable than calling himself a slave trader.

When the British Royal Navy started cracking down on slave trading in the mid-1860s, Mundaca thought it prudent to retire and purchased nearly half of a tiny ­island off the coast of Mexico.

To the Mayans, this island was sacred to their moon goddess, Ix Chel, who watched over the fertile women of society. The Mayans created statues of pregnant women throughout the island and built a temple to Ix Chel on its southern tip (where ruins still stand today). When the Spanish first arrived in the sixteenth century and noticed all the goddess images, they named the patch of land Isla Mujeres, or "the Island of Women."

Roger, who is half Mayan, tells me the name also came about because visiting Spaniards saw only women and children living on the island. The men were frequently off fishing or doing business, so it seemed like the residents were exclusively women. There's still another story that it got its name because pirates would stop by and stash their women on the island to retrieve later - which, of course, only adds to the folklore.

After moving to the island, Mundaca wasted no time in throwing his money around, building a lavish hacienda named Vista Alegre and stocking the grounds with birds, livestock, and exotic gardens. Sometime after arriving, a beautiful young local girl caught his eye. Her name was Martiniana Gomez Pantoja. Her dark hair prompted him to call her La Trigueña, "the Brunette."

I realize that you can't really blame him - the Mayan culture is filled with beauty. They were the first people in the Western Hemisphere to keep written historical records. Their art, architecture, mathematics, agriculture, and astronomy developments were highly advanced. The Mayan sport of hip-ball, in which players moved a rubber ball down a court using only their hips, predates many modern sports like soccer, rugby, and hockey (an excellent re-creation can be seen nightly at the Xcaret ­ecocultural theme park in Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun).