Isla Mujeres: A Kinder, Gentler Cancun
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
I admit it, I hate Cancun. And believe me, it doesn’t take very long for even the most astute drinker and shopper to be disgusted by Cancun’s malls, tourist traps, and general atmosphere of idiocy and deteriorating brain cells. Why not slightly increase your IQ and hop on a nearby ferry to Isla Mujeres? While I can’t promise a significant decrease in deteriorating brain cells, I can promise you a more relaxed vacation, AND you’re also 20% less likely to be injured by an out of control taxi!
View from the Mayan ruins
Just a half hour journey through the Caribbean’s blue waters lands you on this tiny tourist island. You won’t be charting new territory and you’ll still be annoyed by vendors and guys promising “official guide services,” but at least there are no malls and the views are stunning and the water’s warm. Basically, Isla Mujeres is much more contained, relaxed, and colorful than anywhere in Cancun. It’s also very small, about three and a half miles long, and always less, much less, than half a mile wide. The name, Isla Mujeres, means “island of women,” and refers to the island’s ancient Mayan ruins of a fertility temple, which contained hundreds of clay figures of women. You can still visit what is left of these ruins, encountered by explorers traveling with Cordoba in 1519.
When you arrive from the mainland, you’ll disembark at the main boat dock, surrounded on both sides by beach, sunshine, and rich scenery. You’ll find the fishing lanchas and their nets scattered on the sand here, painted bright colors and appropriately scratched and worn from use. The streets around the center are busy with golf carts, scooters, and taxis, any of which are almost too easy to hire. In the middle of town the streets become cobbled and closed to all street traffic. This is where you can buy a tropical drink “to go” and wander among the sidewalk cafes and restaurants, thinking ahead to your next meal.
The days here offer many worthwhile activities: snorkeling and diving, nature excursions to local national parks, sunning and swimming at the beaches, or even a self-guided tour of the island by scooter. Ideally, you should plan to spend two nights and three full days on the island. This will give you enough time to really know and enjoy Isla Mujeres.
The itinerary I used to explore the island included a snorkeling trip on day one, a tour to Isla Contoy on the second day, and on the third day a scooter trip to explore the ruins and sites of the rest of the island. It is very easy to spend more or less time here, so go with the flow and enjoy whatever amount of time you have here.
How to Get There
From Cancun’s main bus terminal, a taxi to Puerto Juarez (where you catch the passenger ferry) should cost you about 30 pesos. From here, you must make a choice between taking the fast public ferry (35 pesos one-way) or hiring a private boat to take you to the island. If you have a car, go to Punta Sam, 2 miles north of Puerto Juarez, and take one of six daily car ferry departures (check locally for times).
If you take the passenger ferry, be sure to head upstairs to the outside area and sit on the steps on the front of the boat. You’ll be blown away (literally) but the sensation of gliding over perfectly blue water like a bird is excellent, especially for sunset. The ferry runs about once every 30 minutes, but sometimes more frequently during peak hours. Check locally for when the last ferry will run so you don’t get stuck on one side or the other.
If it’s only the start of your day however, I would recommend hiring one of the many jovial, friendly local boatmen to take you across. It’s more expensive of course, but they’ll take you exactly where you want to go on the island and you can snorkel (equipment provided), sun, and relax your way across the ocean. This is the ideal introduction to Isla Mujeres, as you’ll probably want to snorkel these reefs anyway.
Depending on the number of people in your group, the price decreases significantly. For two people, it was $30 each for the crossing, but with more people the price will decrease exponentially. You do the math. The trip includes visits to three different reefs to snorkel (deep ones available too for all of you free divers), local information, and the freedom to decide where and how long to stay or go, finally ending up on the island. The first two reefs are shallow ones, with lots of schools of reef fish, barracuda, corals, and your odd statue of the Virgin Mary. The third reef, if you request it, is called Machones. Here you can snorkel down to 40-50 feet and check out the eerie submerged statue of The Cross. This is fun as it irritates the scuba divers by sinking to their level without the benefit of a tank of air.
Tourist agencies on Isla Mujeres charge about the same for a snorkeling trip ($25 and up), but you won’t be alone, and the captain probably won’t listen to your requests!
If you decide to go for a private boat, make sure you discuss all of these arrangements (three different reefs, time limit, equipment, drop-off point) with the captain first, and make clear the full price before boarding. Don’t leave anything up to chance because you might be disappointed later. Also, if you can, look for a short, smiling Mexican man named Andres (or “Perico” locally) with a parrot tattooed on his shoulder. He’s a great captain, with a lot of character and energy. He even took us to Isla Mujeres so we could buy beers and ice for his cooler before we went snorkeling! And he was open to any other crazy suggestions or ideas we had about the area. A highly recommended guide.
After you’ve finished snorkeling, having enjoyed the sun and sea, you’ll probably be very hungry. No problem! We were fortunate enough to have our captain, Perico, offer to cook dinner (or lunch) for us for an additional 100 pesos. This was without a doubt the best bargain in Mexico! We sat on the beach with cold beers, and waited patiently while watching the big fireball of a sun set, waves lapping at our feet. In only moments, we were served a huge slab of fresh fish right from the ocean, BBQed to perfection and large enough to serve a family of 12. With it came tortillas, salad, rice, and various salsitas. And man, was it delicious! I’m pretty sure that most captains, not just ours, will offer this meal service, and I can’t recommend it enough.
After dinner, we were dropped off near the center of town, and started looking for a place to stay.
Where to Stay
Depending on your budget and the time of year (April-November is lower season) you won’t have too much trouble finding a good, cheap place to stay.
The least expensive place to lay your head (outside of setting up a tent) is at the POC-NA Budget Hostel, where $6 or less will buy you a bed (with no bedding) in a dorm room, with locker for your stuff (bring your own lock). This place is definitely the backpacker hangout. Find your fellow travelers here.
Another good option is the hotel on the courtyard directly across the island from the boat dock (5min) called Hotel Perla del Caribe ($30 each night/double) where you can sneak onto the roof to watch killer sunsets in peace. Friendly reception, and a pool in high season. Go for the top floor and be prepared to hear the constant lulls and crashes of ocean waves. Highly recommended.
Also, there are other recommended hotels, all within the very small central hotel district. Some of these are Hotel Caribe Maya (Calle Medero 9), Hotel El Caracol (near disco, Matamoros 5), Hotel Marcianito (Abasolo 10), Hotel Isleño (Madero 8). Use your judgment and ask to see the room first to check for mosquito netting, amenities, etc before accepting it. The rooms in these hotel range from $16-35 a night for two people.
Where to Eat
Just like anywhere else in Mexico, the most economical option for food is with the local comedores or cocinas economicas serving tacos and tortas from carts near the main plaza. Cheap, good, and local, these places will get you closer to the Mexican way of life and allow you to interact and practice your Spanish with isleños.
If you’d rather sit down in a restaurant, you have a whole street worth of choices. Most have their menu and prices on display for you to peruse before sitting down, so do one lap of the options, narrow down your preferences and just choose one. There are so many tourist restaurants here, that it’s hard to recommend one over another. They may have different themes, music, and menus, but somehow they’re still all the same. If you walk towards the end of the main street to the north, you’ll find some more restaurants where the locals go to eat. Arriba, Chen Huayo, and Lomita are all also excellent Mexican restaurants.
Some other recommendations include Café Cito for coffee, Café El Nopalito and Pizza Rolandi for breakfast, La Langosta and Cielito Lindy for seafood and view, and La Peña for happy hour.
There is also an excellent bar right on the beach, surrounded by swings and hammocks, which has a daily happy hour and great music and atmosphere. It’s the only bar right on the beach, and popular with just about everybody who comes to Isla Mujeres. Don’t worry, you’ll find it. Recommended.
What to Do
The beach closest to the dock on the north side of the island, Playa Norte, is the most popular and lively of the tourist beaches, but there are some other beaches, Playa Lancheros and Playa Indios further away along the west side of the island heading down towards Garrafon National Park. You can reach these easily by rental bike, scooter, taxi ($2) or car. Public buses are unpredictable. Take lots of sunscreen!
I already mentioned a great snorkeling trip in the “HOW TO GET THERE” section of this article, which you may chose to do on your way to the island from the mainland. If you decide to take a snorkeling trip from one of the many operators or captains on the island however, just be sure of exactly what you are getting for your money. I can’t recommend one over another, but be advised that sometimes the boats are overcrowded and disorganized. Use your head and shop around to get exactly what you want. A private boat is still your best option if you get 6 or more people together.
There are some well-known dive sites on the reefs of the island, but diving here is not cheap ($55-$100 for one or two tanks), and if you’re planning on diving somewhere in Mexico, do it on the island of Cozumel rather than here. If you have the extra cash though, try diving Sleeping Shark Cave, a cave featured in National Geographic magazine, where numerous sharks “sleep” due to a lack of oxygen in the water. There are also many good reefs, including Machones, Cuevones and La Bandera.
Day Tripping around the island:
Bikes, scooters, taxis and cars are available for rent from just about everybody, or if you like, you can walk to the far end of the island in about two and a half hours. Check prices and hours of all the competing rental agencies the night before you decide to go on a day trip around the island. We used Rentadora GOMAR II, on Madero 65. Prices should be around $25-$35 for scooters for a full day, $8-$12 for bikes, and more for cars depending on the equipment and deposit policy. Make sure your tank is full, you know who to call if you break down, and that your tires have enough air.
An early start will give you the most relaxed time tooling around. While you fill out your paperwork (you’ll need a valid driver’s license) why not have a fresh squeezed glass of orange juice from the carts on every corner? A good start to what will be a long day of exploration.
The rental agency will hopefully give you a map pointing out all of the local attractions, and since the island is so tiny, you’ll have plenty of time to do everything there is to do if you want to.
Here’s a suggested Itinerary for one full day:
First ride out of town and around the lagoon Makax to see dolphins, sharks, and turtles in various stages of captivity. The dolphins can be found at the end of the lagoon road at “The Dolphin Experience” signs. They may be “hired” to swim with you for only $100 for 15 minutes, (whooo…what a bargain!) Further back along the same road, there are some bars and restaurants that have nurse sharks trapped in little water pens. It’s pretty depressing, but if you’ve never seen these beautiful creatures up close, go take a look with a grain of salt for the circumstances.
By far the most impressive and spirit lifting organization along the lagoon is the Turtle Sanctuary. For a small fee (25 pesos), you have access to a nice little aquarium with species on display from around the world. There is also an enclosure containing hundreds of young baby turtles trying to grow, who will someday be released into the wild. Outside of the aquarium, there are large ocean water pens where you can see some of the biggest and oldest turtles around, some aging over 100 years and measuring 6-8 feet across! There are naturalists and turtle experts wandering around ready to answer any questions or give you a free impromptu tour. Skip the dolphins and sharks and support this organization instead.
After you cruise around and see what there is to see around the Laguna Makax, just take the only other road left to take and head straight past the tourist-hungry Garrafon National Park. Highly touted as wonderful snorkeling, the creatures you’re most likely to see here are probably wearing snorkels too. Overpriced and over-rated, Garrafon is beautiful for a photo stop right outside the entrance ($10 per person entry fee), and to marvel at just how many daytrippers from Cancun can fit into such a small area. If you still want to pay the entrance and check it out, make sure you go as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds. Open from 8am-evening.
You’ll pass many restaurants, pueblitos and tienditas on your way to the southern tip of the island, where you’ll find what remains of the Mayan ruins which gave Isla Mujeres its name. Park your scooter, buy a cold coconut to quench your thirst, and hike down to the temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility and the moon.
Templo Ixchel isn’t what it used to be, thanks to hurricanes, looting, and tourism, but the views from this windy southern point are astonishing. There is a little stairway that leads down and around to some rocks which you can climb, but be careful, as most people will think you’re crazy for climbing them.
After you’ve had your fill of the local history and information from the guides at the ruins, it’s time to head back towards the other end of the island. This road runs right along the edge of the turbid, dangerous ocean side of Isla Mujeres. Sharp craggy rocks and high seas beckon a blustery exhilarating stop to watch the Caribbean magic. Just pull over anywhere and sit down and enjoy the sea air and surf for a few moments.
Conch shell house
Along this road you’ll also see one of the most remarkable architectural projects in the area: a house in the shape of a conch shell. You can’t miss it, and it’s definitely worth a photo stop.
When you’re done with these main attractions, you’ll probably have time to do them all again before bringing the rental back to town. It really is a tiny island, so take your time with everything and “go slow.”
Day Trip to Isla Contoy
Your other free day should definitely be spent on a day trip to the nearby national park and bird sanctuary on Isla Contoy. Home to over 100 species of birds, Isla Contoy is populated with colonies of pelicans and frigate birds, and occasionally even flamingoes. Established by the Mexican government in 1961 as a National Park, the island is less than four miles long and 40 feet wide at it’s most narrow point. A tall observatory, where you can watch the island’s natural life unfold before you, is easily climbable. Happily, you will only be joined by fellow travelers from Isla Mujeres, as all other trips from Cancun or other ports have been suspended to preserve the animal and plant life of the sanctuary.
The friendly park rangers (the only humans permitted to live here permanently) are ready to point you in the right direction or tell you all about the many species of flora and fauna. There is also a small museum discussing the animal life and geology of the island. Use the handy map to explore the island’s pristine beaches, rocks, lagoon, reefs, and nature trails on your own. In the summer, turtles come to lay their eggs on the beaches here, so be sure to ask if they are around. Don’t forget the sunscreen and mosquito repellent, as both the sun and the insects can be vicious here.
Lunch feast, Isla Contoy
This trip takes most of a full day and costs 350 pesos per person. The price includes coffee and fruit in the office before you depart, the opportunity to snorkel several different reefs with a local guide, snorkel equipment, admission to the national park, fishing, and an absolutely exquisite fresh fish BBQ lunch, complete with guacamole, salad, rice, sodas and beers.
All in all, it’s an excellent deal for a day’s worth of entertainment and sightseeing.
The main Isla Contoy office is located on Madero in the center of town across from the La Reina Bakery, and all of the boats depart from the end of this street every morning around 9am. You can buy your tickets the night before, or go early in the morning to arrange the tour. Enjoy!