Quintana Roo, Riviera Maya, Mexico
This is where time passes slowly, the sea is shallow, tranquil and turquoise and the ambience is low key. You will fall in love with Isla Mujeres. I did. It is easy to become an Islaholic.
It is my favourite island, mainly for its wonderful North Beach (photo above). You will not want to get out of the sea. If you stay for the evening, you may get one of the most beautiful sunsets.
The island is about 13 km off the Yucatán Peninsula coast and you can reach it by ferry from Cancún. Playa Norte (North Beach) is considered one of the best beaches in the Caribbean and it deserves the honour. The soft white sand, palm trees; a true paradise. It is walking distance from the ferry (about 10 minutes).
You can also go to Playa Posada, which runs along the west side of town, it is usually less crowded but the water is not as shallow and clear. The more secluded beaches, such as Playa Paraiso, Playa Lancheros and Playa Indios are located on the west side of Isla Mujeres facing Cancún, mid-island near Hacienda Mundaca. The rest of the beaches on the east side are rocky and dangerous for swimming because of the strong currents.
Isla Mujeres has a lot to offer, not just its beaches. At the south end (Punta Sur) there is a lighthouse and the Temple of Ixchel, Maya Goddess of fertility and medicine. Very close to the temple is the 'Tortugranja' or sea turtle sanctuary. If you want to snorkel, kayak and zipline over the Caribbean Sea, go to Garrafon Natural Reef Park or the adventure park Parque de los Sueños (Dream Park). You can take private catamaran cruises, fishing trips, snorkelling boat trips. A lot of choices for a perfect day out.
Another great adventure is the Underwater Museum, located at Manchones Reef in the south. Four artists made hundreds of sculptures, which are now sitting 7-8m below sea level. The sculptures provide a base for renewed coral growth (which is slowly dying). The museum may be viewed by diving, snorkelling, or glass bottom boat. You won't be able to see much just from the boat because of the depth.
Between June and September, you can swim with whale sharks, who come here from the north on their way to the South American Seas. The whale sharks arrive, in greater numbers here than anywhere else on earth. It is a unique experience! Swimming with sharks may sound scary, but these plankton-eating fish are very gentle and playful. You swim alongside, struggling to keep up despite their majestic slowness. As the largest fish in the sea, you'll be amazed at their size and grace. I loved it, although our captain pulled me straight in front of an open mouth (about 1.5m wide), just for the experience, and also put me on top of the whale shark. I had to keep telling myself that they are companions. But on reflection I would not do it again as I think that so many people descending on the poor whale sharks is just not ethical. (And they say they come here when they are pregnant). For the same reason I don't recommend the dolphin place here on Isla, as I believe that it is torture (so many dolphins die just on the way to Mexico, when transported by large ships).
I usually come here from Playa del Carmen, with my husband and friends, just for one day but on a couple of occasions we stayed for the night. Our first stay was at the Hotel Cabañas María del Mar, located on the North Beach, which overlooks the bay towards Cancún. They have cabañas but also standard and very comfortable rooms upstairs. All rooms are equipped with a balcony or terrace (and a/c). Their beach restaurant has average food and not the best service but it is OK for lunch snacks and the location is perfect. We had a great drinking night in their Buho's beach bar, sitting with friends on the swing chairs. The barman stayed beyond his hours, when he saw our appetite for tequila. If you are after budget accommodation, there are plenty of other options, including hostels.
In the evening we often stroll the pedestrian street, Avenida Hidalgo, lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. Our favourite restaurant here is El Patio. Behind the modest façade is a charming and rather big place with tables outside, in the inner courtyard and on the roof top terrace. The venue is beautiful in every way, dimly lit by fairy lights, pleasant decor, good vibe, welcome breeze, live music but not loud. There are pillow-covered benches on a raised platform if you prefer the laid-back seating to a table. We had great mojitos here (Margaritas on another occasion), truly good, not watered down. Our meals were always good: coconut shrimps, chicken mole, chile relleno, grilled meat, fresh fish, great choice. Whenever we come to Isla with visiting friends, we always take them here.
The streets of Isla are narrow and often crowded with mopeds, golf carts and taxis. With the exception of Avenida Rueda Medina (the main street in front of the ferry docks), all the streets in town are one-way. If you want to go and visit places, or just get a taste of the island, golf carts are your best bet, although they are not cheap. The island is 7km long and 650m wide, so in essence it is walkable as well. There is a navy base on the island. Don’t be surprised to see them at the ferry dock with their drug detection dogs (please do not try to pet them), patrolling the beaches and streets.
The history of the island is interesting too, known mostly for its pirates. But before the pirates came here, it was a Mayan settlement, dated between 564 – 1516 AD, when it was part of the Maya province called Ekab. There were four Maya provinces in what is today the State of Quintana Roo. The Maya also exploited the salt that the island produced in the 'salinas' (small inland lagoons). The salt was used not only for the conservation of food but also as a currency for commerce of along the whole Maya coast.
Isla Mujeres was discovered by Spanish conquistador Francisco Fernández de Córdoba, who left Santiago, Cuba, in 1517 and arrived at Isla with 110 men (to procure slaves). They named the island 'Isla Mujeres’ (Women Island). They found no signs of settlement on the island. What they found was a lot of idols of the goddess Ixchel (Isla was the place of worship of this goddess). The female icons inspired the name of the island. They broke them, however, replaced them with an icon of the Virgin Mary, and moved on.
In the 1840s, the island was deserted, except for a couple of shacks used by Cuban fishermen. Between 1847 and 1855, the Caste War of Yucatán cut the population of Yucatán in half. The first town on Isla Mujeres was founded by refugees from that war, who learnt to make their living from the sea with assistance from the Cuban fishermen. It remains a fishing village till today.
While Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte are said to have walked the shores of Isla Mujeres and buried treasure there, Isla’s most notorious resident was Fermín Mundaca, a slave trader who transported African slaves to the Antilles. Mundaca was a native of the Basque country. He also rented out his boats to the Yucatán Government to capture rebel Maya natives along this coast who were then sold into slavery on large Cuban sugar plantations. In 1858 the British Navy started cracking down on the slave trade and Fermín decided it was time to retire.
Fermín fell in love with a local Maya girl Martiniana Gomez Pantoja. She was not interested and so he needed to impress her. He purchased about 40 per cent of the island and to win the girl, he built a hacienda with gardens and graceful archways (and plantations). But he built it with the stones of the Mayan ruins so Martiniana was not impressed. No wonder. She married her childhood sweetheart and Fermín grew isolated, lonely and heartbroken. To be near his lost love, he built a tomb, which remains empty and is to be found in the island's crowded cemetery, one street before the North Beach. Some say it is empty because he died during a visit to Mérida and was buried there. Today Hacienda Mundaca has some walls and foundations, a large central pond, some rusting cannons and a partially rebuilt house. If you feel like a change from the beach, it is worth visiting. The house is now in a deteriorated state, neglected, but the shady grounds make for pleasant garden strolling. The ruins are at the south end of the island.
Another interesting place is Joysxee, the Floating Bottle Island. It was built by Richart Sowa from England on the inland Makax Lagoon. He built it with recycled materials. Richie, as he is locally know, lives on this island, a real-life Robinson Crusoe.
So how did he do it? He collects plastic bottles, packs them into recycled fruit sacks, creating a floating platform. Palettes are placed on top of the full fruit sacks, then plywood, and carpeting on top. Then, finally a covering of sand, dirt, rocks, plants and trees. Mangroves are very helpful in the process as their growing roots wind through the mesh bags – tying everything together. Today Richie has a house, two ponds, a solar-powered waterfall and river, a wave-powered washing machine and solar panels. If you go and visit, there is a donation fee. When we visited, Richie was not at home. We bravely used his boat and by pulling the string, we landed on his island. An interesting experience to see somebody else's eco paradise!
How to get there:
You can take the ferry from Puerto Juárez terminal in Cancún. Try getting a round trip ticket, to save you time on the way back. The Ultramar ferry is 146 pesos per person round trip (price of 2017). Bring cash; it is not easy to find an ATM machine on the island. The boats leave every half hour from 5am until 9pm and every hour after that. The crossing takes about 20 minutes and always has live musicians playing for you.
There are actually three terminals to choose from. You can use Playa Tortuga Terminal in the hotel zone but Punta Sam terminal is further north and more complicated to get to.
If you are coming from Playa del Carmen, take a colectivo (minibus) from Street 2 to Cancún ADO station (for 35 pesos). There you cross the road for the bus stop opposite the ADO station. The bus will take you to Puerto Juárez terminal (for 13 pesos). Taxi drivers will also be offering you rides (for about 60 pesos).
The map of the island on the left: cancun-map.com.