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bineba Isla Mujeres - A travel report by Sabine
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Isla Mujeres,  Mexico - flag Mexico -  Quintana Roo
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bineba's travel reports

Isla Mujeres – Sun, Sand & a Caribbean Vibe

  13 votes
Page: 1 2
On a cold and damp day here in London and I found myself thinking back to the days I got to spend on beautiful Isla Mujeres in May 2008. Looking at my photos the memories came flooding back and I realised I hadn’t yet written a report. Here it is.

Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is only 13 km off the cost from Cancun but could be on another planet. Where Cancun is high rise after high rise; loud, brash and in your face, Isla Mujeres is laid back, colourful and definitely moves at a different pace.

We left the car in Cancun and took the boat from Puerto Juarez, 4 km north of Cancun, and I have to say, it is such a nice way to travel. Sitting on the open deck, listening to Mexican music, anticipating our arrival.

Isla Mujeres was first ‘discovered’ in 1571 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the first time a Spaniard set foot on Mexican soil. That’s rubbish, of course, as the Mayan’s where there long before him, as the temple he Punta Sur proves. He also found clay figurines of women, thought to be of the fertility goddess Ixchel, hence the name he gave the island: Isla Mujeres – the Island of Women.

For a long time the island remained deserted apart from a few fishermen until it was discovered again by pirates in the late 18th and early 19th century as an ideal hideaway. The brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte from Lousiana, by many considered the last great Caribbean pirates (and I thought that was Jack Sparrow!), had their head quarters on the island until they were attacked by the Spanish navy in 1821 and both died.

In the 1970’s Isla Mujeres became a stop-over on the hippie trail and since then tourism has become the main source of income for the island. Hotels and condominiums are being built at an alarming rate; luckily they are not on the same scale as the ones in Cancun. Day-trippers are arriving in their hundreds every day during high season, but if you go off season, like we did, it is very pleasant and Isla, the only town on the island, still has a small fishing village feel to it.

Favourite spots:
One of the many colourful houses in Isla
One of the many colourful houses in Isla
I loved Isla town and spend many hours, especially in the early morning, before the sun got too hot and when the light was perfect to take photos, walking along its few streets (it’s only 4 by 7 blocks big). There is a definite Caribbean vibe to Isla, houses are painted in every shade of the rainbow with contrasting verandas or balconies and it’s a photographer’s paradise (see my album ‘Colours of Isla Mujeres’). I’m also a big cat lover, and there is no shortage of cats in Isla!

There is something new to discover around every corner: fountains, statues, shrines to saints; even a lighthouse and the massive Madonna atop Isla’s Catholic church.

The tiny harbour is also a great place to while away the time, watching the fishermen coming home with their catch whilst sipping a Margarita in one of the many bars.

Manana is a nice café and bookshop in the centre of town, selling mainly second hand books but also a few new ones in many languages.

What's really great:
Turquoise Caribbean Sea near El Garrafon
Turquoise Caribbean Sea near El Garrafon
The island itself is very small, 8 km long and between 150m and 800m wide, so no need for a car and the rental of golf carts is relatively cheap. Even the people who live there seem to prefer this mode of transport and who needs to get anywhere fast on the island? And the air conditioning in one of these is fantastic ;-).

So, get one and explore the island for a day. We took to the road and drove down to Punta Sur, the southern tip of the island, taking in some of the sights on the way there. You drive along the coast for most of the time, past El Garrafon National Marine Park. You can see the reef in the clear water from the road and if you need an adrenalin fix (we didn’t, going 10 km/ph in our golf cart was exciting enough) you can zip-line from the cliff to the beach.

At the end of the road is another lighthouse and a park with modern sculptures and the ruins of a Mayan temple to Ixchel, a femal goddess, which was destroyed by Hurrcican Gilbert, but has been restored.

Isla's tiny , but colourful graveyard
Isla's tiny , but colourful graveyard
Hidden behind a wall at the end of Avenida Juarez, near the Playa Norte, is Isla’s tiny graveyard, which, like the town itself, is a riot of colours. You get the feeling that this is a place where people honour and celebrate their departed loved ones’ lives, not a place of mourning. Strangely, going there cheered me up.

One place to give a miss is the Hacienda Mundaca about halfway down the island. It has a romantic history (Slave trader & pirate falls in love with a young woman, builds a big hacienda to woo his beloved, she marries somebody else her own age, pirate goes mad and dies (his grave is in the graveyard, adorned with skull & cross bones)), but there isn’t much left of the original buildings and the little zoo in the park, is, I think, a disgrace. Animals are held in tiny cages without much shade and you just itch to find the keys to set them free.

We can’t usually afford to stay in a place like Hotel Secreto, a boutique hotel which has been voted to be one of the 100 Sexiest Hotels in the world, but as luck would have it, with the off season prices and a further discount due to a building site next door (which we hardly noticed), it became affordable.

It only has 12 suites and is built in a very minimalist style. The suites are huge and each one has a big balcony with a king size day bed. There is an infinity pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea and a pool-side bar. There is also direct access to Playa Secreto.

Breakfast was continental and self-service and you could either eat in the breakfast room or load up a tray with goodies to take back to your room. There was no restaurant, but staff would happily order food in for you from one of the restaurants and serve it in your room.

Service was impeccable and we felt thoroughly spoilt.

There are many cheaper and more basic options available on the island.

'Our' bar on Playa Norte
'Our' bar on Playa Norte
There are quite a few bars and clubs in the centre of town, but I have to admit I didn’t go to any of them.

We had quite a few late (and interesting) nights hanging out at one of the beach bars on Playa Norte, which was only 5 minutes walk from our hotel. The evening usually started with people coming there to watch the sunset as Isla Mujeres is the only place on the Mayan coast where you can actually see one, everywhere else you’ll get magnificent sunrises instead. The bar itself consisted of a wooden hut, the bartender standing in the middle, around him the bar and the customers either sitting on wooden chairs and benches or on swings (and no, this was not a swingers’ club!). The drinks came in plastic glasses, but the content was delicious and only the highest quality ingredients were used. We met some lovely fellow travellers there and often talked (and drank) until long after the sun had finally set.

Beach in Isla
Beach in Isla
It’s the beaches – simple as that. If you don’t like beaches, you are in the wrong place.

The main beach is Playa Norte and is quite lovely and only 10 minutes walk from Isla town. Palm trees, white sand that doesn’t get hot underfoot, turquoise waters. When we went, there was still some hurricane damage to be seen from Hurrican Dean in August 2007. There were some sand bags on the beach to prevent further erosion of the sand. There was also talk about sand being moved from Isla Mujeres to Cancun to rebuild the beaches there, but I’m not sure if that is true.

The other beach worth going to is Playa Lancheros about 4km from Isla. Maybe not as pretty as Norte, but less crowded this is where many locals go.

The eastern shore is very rocky and doesn’t have beaches, but is very scenic.

If you try only one local dish make it the delicious Tikin-Chic, a fresh fish filet, spiced with achiote, which gives it its red colour, and grilled over charcoals right on the beach. The place to go is Playa Lancheros. The restaurant is basic, but the food is tasty and plentiful, the cervezas are cold and the beach isn’t bad either.

Most of the restaurants in Isla are on Avenida Hidalgo, the emphasis is on Mexican and Italian food, and they are mainly frequented by tourists, but the food is generally good. If you are lusting after a pizza, try Pizza Rolandi.

Go along the side streets and you’ll find many little places, just holes-in-the walls really, without a name, selling barbecued chickens, pork, rice, tortillas and salads.

There is also quite a good supermarket on Zocalo, the central square, if you fancy a spot of self-catering.

Other recommendations:
Baby turtles
Baby turtles
Avoid the many shops selling typical tourist souvenirs and head to Emilio Sosa near the cemetery. He creates wonderful sculptures of animals and mythical beasts as well as masks out of paper-mâché, each one unique and the larger ones selling for hundreds of dollars. Photography is not allowed in the shop so you’ll have to take my word for it, but the pieces he creates are absolutely stunning. I couldn’t resist buying one of the smallest masks even though it set me back US$ 45.

Another interesting place to go is the turtle sanctuary on the island. Turtles have been a protected species here since the 1970’s and since the 1980’s this refuge helps turtles to find a safe environment to lay their eggs. Newly hatched turtles stay here for about a year before they get released into the wild, increasing their chances of survival. You can see dozens of turtles in special tanks, some of them weighing up to 300 kg, and there is also a small aquarium.

Published on Sunday February 21th, 2010

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Thu, May 05 2016 - 10:44 AM rating by doryce

Thank. Heading there soon

Fri, Mar 12 2010 - 03:48 PM rating by eirekay

We considered going here when we went to Cozumel - looks like we missed out! Great report on what looks like a terrific beachy vacation!

Sat, Mar 06 2010 - 05:22 PM rating by krisek

Great report, Sabine. Great capture of sunrise, and graveyard touring, huh?

Sun, Feb 28 2010 - 06:29 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Wonderful report and nice pictures.

Thu, Feb 25 2010 - 07:15 AM rating by louis

I just read with the pleasure your sunny report. Very good work as always.

Mon, Feb 22 2010 - 05:31 AM rating by pesu

Sabine, I just love your entertaining island reports! Your album is absolutely stunning and now this report gives another chance to feel the 'vibe'. Sipping a Margarita after a day full of colours and a beautiful sunset isn't a bad idea at all... :)

Mon, Feb 22 2010 - 02:35 AM rating by porto

Colourful houses, colourful graveyards,sun sea and sand? It definitely sounds like another planet indeed, Sabine.:) Excellent report and pics.

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