Isla Mujeres: the island that has it all
By boat or golf cart, come and spend the day
Isla Mujeres is well-known and visited by the thousands of tourists a year, but it took us three before we decided to go. The primary reason was the split commentary from others we know and trust. “It’s just a tourist trap,” said a couple with teenage children, while the over thirty and single crowd gave it glowing reviews. Yet another demographic, the 60 and over, raved about the exclusivity and near-private beaches available to those fortunate enough to own vacation homes. Still, we weren’t convinced. It took a private excursion on a catamaran, seeing the island from the water to convince us Isla Mujeres was more than bars or private homes.
The first unique experience on Isla Mujeres was going to the tip of Centro on our golf cart. A storm on the horizon was no where to be seen on the other end of the island
First, the catamaran
Before jumping to the island, I’m going to touch on boating. Generally, we avoid boating in Mexico unless it’s fishing because the tour operators oversell, overstuff and overcrowd the boats with bodies. It’s misery. It’s also unsafe, and frustrating. Imagine spending money to go snorkeling off short (because that’s what most offer), only to arrive with to find five other boats, with all the occupants scrambling to get in as fast as possible. Most tours give riders 5-10 minutes in the water, then usher them out and on to the next venture.
Six of us guests had the catamaran to ourselves. It was superbly wonderful. And in case you are wondering, we paid full pop for this tour. It wasn’t sponsored or anything of the kind–which makes it all the better. The average tourist (us) can have the celebrity experience without paying the premium (e.g owning the boat).
We were lucky enough to sit by the owner of Caribbean Dreams at sushi one night at the Villa Del Palmar. We learned he spent a million on his French-made catamaran, and has a limit of 12 people on his boat (compare this to 30-50 for the others). We decided to spend the money and we spent nearly five hours (versus 2) snorkeling, then seeing Isla Mujeres. The experience truly spoiled us forever on the notion of a catamaran. The cost is higher, and justifiably so. From the food, quality of the boat, staff, length of ride and locations, it’s worth the extra $75.
Just compare and contrast the picture on the left; the standard bargain catamaran cruise, and our experience with girls on lush pillows and private snorkeling. Only one serves all-you-can eat and drink (ours). Which one would you take?
Now the Island
The owner/captain took us around the island, pointing out various sites on the island that’s only 5 miles long and 2,000 feet wide. We were able to see the primary beaches, so crowded the beach wasn’t super visible—but this was balanced with private beaches in front of hotels, which were less so. On the far side of the island, where the shoreline was rocky, visitors zip-lined from high treetops, kayaked in peace in the nooks for paddle boarding. At that point, we realized a lot more existed to this island than what was depicted in the brochures.
We stopped just off the shore for an hour or more, swimming, snorkeling and lounging in the clear, warm water. This gave us the best of the island without having to battle the crowds. The only annoyance were the other chartered boats that came up with booming stereos, killing the vibe. Don’t get me wrong; great music and drunken people have a time and a place, but it wasn’t our groove with kids. Our captain lifted anchor and we moved elsewhere.
A marina with seaside eating is right next to a corridor for yachts and larger boats. The bottom photo is a peninsula home rumored to be formerly (or presently) owned by Rickie Martin. That’s the kind of funny things you get on tours by the locals.
Getting their and around: the ferry and golf carts
Ferry services to Isla Mujeres are available from every port in Cancun. Staying at the Villa Del Palmar, we were fortunate, because the state of Jalisco invested $15M in a state of the art super shuttle ferry here. We walked the 500 meters from the hotel to the marina, paid the $5 per person and had a perfect ride over. The double decker ferry has a kids play area, food service, televisions and air conditioning, pretty much all that’s required.
Big, beautiful and inexpensive from the Isla Blanca ferry terminal
Once on the island, all passengers without cars must hail a cab or walk the 15 minutes in to centro, which is the local name for the city center. Along the way are a myriad of golf cart providers. We mistakenly thought the price would decrease if we walked clear to the end of town, through main street. While this was wrong, (they are all about $60 for an hour), we took a left on a side road, and paid $45 for a new golf cart and were on our way.
The first part of the walk….
The second part, which lasts about a mile–“centro”- or the center of the city
The island itself
Drones are not allowed, which we were bummed to learn as Roger tried to get his airborne. The island has a single airstrip, but it includes military planes, and therefore, the island is considered a no-fly zone. Save yourself the weight and leave the drone at home.
Local art was everywhere–colorful and eye catching. We do all we can to expose our girls to local culture and attitudes, appreciating the differences, talking history and present day.
Zipping up, down and around the main area of the island will take a solid ten minutes, then you head out. The city planners have made the island easy to navigate, because you can essentially ring the land by driving on a single road and it’s a loop. It doesn’t matter which way you head out of town, you are going to end up back in the same place. On your journey, you will encounter itty-bitty communities, lots of stray dogs and open-door homes, replaced with dirt ballparks, small churches and larger homes. This eventually gives way to stretches of beautiful and deserted sandy beaches, private driveways and at the furthest tip of the island, a restaurant and shops. This is the dead end-turnaround.
The end of the line–the turnaround with a few restaurants and shops. One of the colorful private homes dotting the shore.
Unless you are driving slowly, you will miss the roadside activities offered, such as the ziplining. We did the first time out, but caught more of them on the return trip. We also slowed to enjoy the cemetery, where I wandered and took pictures, while Rog and the girls bartered for conch shells.
The Isla Mujeres Cemetery….beautiful and unique
On that note, I can relate the conch shells are legal to transport back to the States. I can also tell you that they are $36 dollars on main street in Isla Mujeres, and $45 or more in Cancun, and we know, because for three years, our girls have been begging for the shell. The roadside stand where Rog and the girls stopped? Five dollars. Yep, count it out. That beautiful, perfect shell now sits on our stands of collectables at home. Our oldest daughter purchased a rough, pearl necklace for seven dollars which was forty-nine in town. Score!
The spa on the beach….
Spa is misleading, but this is what the brochures and tourist companies would have you believe. The only “spas,” per se are the ones attached to the hotels, and I’ve not been, so can’t comment. What I can relate is the experience of two couples we know who did afternoon trips which included getting a massage on a beach. According to one woman, a flight attendant for Lufthansa (who we met on the catamaran trip btw), she thought the 90-minuate beach massage at $50 US was a steal, because that same massage would have been $100-$200 on the mainland. She said she’d go again just for that.
Isla Mujeres offers different eco-climates. Dark storm clouds at one end, centro was right in middle while the sun shone on the least populated end.
We saw a ton of places to eat that looked good, but didn’t stop once, other than to purchase freshly cut fruit, which we did several times. It was so hot, even with the periodic rain shower, we weren’t hungry. Sorry!
What I liked most
The accessibility, freedom to roam, empty beaches and ability to stop roadside and pick up great deals. The Catamaran ride is a must, but that’s outside the island itself.
Stopping at any point on the road is perfectly acceptable. It’s also perfectly lovely
What I liked least
About the island, nothing really. It was lovely, and a fun day trip, which in reality, is more like four or five hours, unless you stop to take advantage of the recreational activities.