Quintana Roo, Mexico
Who can resist a remote tropical island? Just nature, the sea and you.
Just looking at Isla Contoy on the map gets you licking your lips. It's about 30km north of Isla Mujeres, off the north-eastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, and in reality, the sea is even bluer than on the map.
Nobody seems too sure where the name 'Contoy' comes from, but it's possibly the Maya for 'low shelter'. That would fit in with all the other unpretentious Maya names along this coast. It's a slender island (just over five miles long but very skinny) which would have provided shelter to Maya trading canoes rounding the point from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean.
What is there to do there? Well, the beauty of it is: not a lot. No shopping. No roads, for that matter; just sandy tracks. No noise, apart from the cry of seabirds and the sound of the sea. There's rather good food, though, grilled chicken and very fresh fish cooked by the boat captain and his crew, served from barbecues on the beach on long sociable tables with hermit crabs scuttering around on the sand beneath your feet. Worth looking above you as well; there's an osprey nest on the palapa roof.
These hermit crabs are worth wondering about. How does a crab, born without protection from predators and the sun, find a sea shell of the right size to carry around on its back? And what happens when it grows up and needs a bigger home? If you've never seen a crustacean house swap, watch this astonishing BBC video. Of course, not everything goes according to plan, and as yet there are no crab estate agents to smooth the way, but at least there's no paperwork!
The day trip to Isla Contoy follows a pattern. First, it's a day trip because you can't stay overnight. Second, because the island is a nature reserve, the number of visitors is limited to 200 a day. Therefore, unless you're planning to emerge from the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr No, you have to take one of the licensed tours from Isla Mujeres or Cancún. If you have your own boat, you can apply for permission to do the Ursula Andress thing from the Park Authority in either of those locations, but although I've been to the island a few times, I don't have my own boat so I can't advise on the process.
My own visits were always from Punta Sam port, just north of Cancún. I came about five times so far. One of the companies with a licence for this trip is Ocean Tours. They will collect you from given pick-up points and take you to Punta Sam. The trips included a snorkelling session (about 30 minutes) on the coral reef on the way out and the captain decides where that will be, depending on the wind conditions. The ride to Isla Contoy takes about 40 minutes, and you are likely to snorkel about 10 minutes away from Contoy island where the Mesoamerican reef starts. It's the second largest reef in the world. On a windy day, they will take you snorkelling about 10 minutes from Punta Sam, where you can explore the magical underwater statues that have been built to encourage the growth of threatened coral. The boat comes with a guide and all the crew go out snorkelling with you.
Then after the voyage, the captain cuts the motors and you glide towards the pier in a delightful palm-fringed bay. There's a 65-foot watchtower where you can gaze out over the bluest of blue seas, or you can take one of the short sandy paths, full of informative labels, to look out over the wider, northern part of the island, which is not accessible as it's a protected area. There are more than 150 bird species, including the Magnificent Frigate, Brown Pelican and Double-Crested Cormorant. There is a chance to observe hawksbill turtles, green turtles and loggerhead turtles, which nest on the shores during the summer. Manta rays feed close to the shore; they come here because the waters are rich in nutrients.
A charming little museum under the watchtower illustrates the abundance of protected wildlife. The museum is in a semi-open building that serves as lodging for the research biologists who at times stay here for the night.
You will not go straight back to Cancún, as the trip is always combined with Isla Mujeres, about a 40-minute ride from Contoy. Here you will be given an hour of free time. You can either walk the pedestrian street Avenida Hidalgo, with shops and restaurants, or go to the North Beach at the end of the street. It is one of the best beaches on the whole coast. Super-fine white sand, shallow calm waters and some great beach restaurants. Whichever option you choose, you will find this island busy and bustling, after the calm silence of Isla Contoy. But Contoy will stay with you; dreams of paradise!
How to get there: