Chilled Out Cancun: 48 Hours in Isla Mujeres
Cancun conjures images of neon nightclubs, daytime wet T-shirt contests, and thousands of sunburned and drunk college kids ‘wilding out’ for Spring Break. On the flip side, Cancun is an all-inclusive resort lover’s dream, where the rooms are $500/night, there are cheeseburgers on the menu, and everyone speaks flawless English.
Neither of these is really my idea of traveling.
Which was why I opted to spend the first couple of nights on Isla Mujeres, a small island 12 miles off the coast of the metropolis of Cancun city.
The Island of Women: Isla Mujeres
Any island that’s called “The Island of Women” already seems off to a good start (ladies, amirite?). But from the time I arrived to the low-rise, low-stress island, I knew I had found the perfect blend of amenities and authentic Mexican hospitality.
Isla Mujeres is everything Cancun is not. The highest building is five stories tall. There are few chintzy souvenir shops tucked onto the main road downtown, but they’re interspersed with hole-in-the-wall taco shops with menus solely in Spanish. The craziest party is a chilled out rooftop bar with live music, but they’re playing 80s classics, not electronic megahits.
You don’t come to Isla Mujeres to challenge your liver to unlimited tequila shots. Nor do you come to dance until the sun comes up. You come to Isla Mujeres to relax, eat, and enjoy the crystal clear Caribbean Sea. Perfect.
Day 1: Feel the Magic of the Island
Ultramar runs ferries between Puerto Juarez and Isla Mujeres every half an hour from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., then every hour until 11:30 p.m. Jump aboard, take a seat on the top deck, and let the warm Caribbean breeze flow through your hair while you listen to a musician strum a guitar. You’ll feel the frenetic pace of Cancun start to float away with the breeze, and by the time you dock 25 minutes later, you’ll be on island time.
There is no shortage of nice accommodation on la Isla, from ritzy and upscale Zoetry Resorts to super-budget Vistalmar. We opted for something in between — an apartment with a kitchen on the fringes of the main town. It was spacious, clean, and inexpensive for what we got. A great place to start our holiday.
Take a stroll down Avenida Miguel Hidalgo — the main drag through downtown Isla Mujeres. This pedestrian-only path is the craziest it’s going to get. Music streams from the restaurants, shopkeepers will urge to come in and buy their wares (or offer you some illegal ones under their breath), and delicious smells waft from the kitchens.
It’s worth holding off on sitting down until you reach Lola Valentina, on the north end of the road. Treat yourself to their Mexican Fondue, a heavenly mixture of Manchego and Oaxaca cheese, shrimp, and seasoned mini portobellos. Move on to one of their tacos — Lola’s Fish Tacos come with a sweet punch from a carribbean-eque mango salsa, and the Ranchero Tacos are a hearty and perfectly-seasoned savory treat. Wash it down with a Watermelon Jalapeno margarita, then roll yourself home to sleep off your food coma.
Day 2: Get Adventurous, Then Relax
The art of doing nothing is well worth a practice in Isla Mujeres — it’s white sand beach and bright blue seas are a perfect place to do exactly that. For the more adventurous type, there are a few exciting wildlife encounters worth checking out. But first…
No trip to Isla Mujeres is complete without breakfast at Rooster. They’ve made a name for themselves with a 2-page menu full of “Benedictines,” their take on eggs benedict. Everything from shredded chicken to lobster adorns these hearty breakfast dishes, so go big. The Caribbean Benedictine comes complete with the tail of the small, sweet lobster that are caught just offshore. With homemade molletes (the Mexican take on an English Muffin), perfectly poached eggs and a spicy hollandaise, it’s perfection on a plate. For those looking for a more Mexican slant on their morning meal, the Mexican Breakfast or Chilaquiles both rate.
Swim with Gentle Giants
From May to September, whale sharks frequent the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox. Book a tour to hop on a boat and swim with these amazing and peaceful creatures. If it’s not whale shark season, a few hours over on Isla Contoy, a wildlife and bird sanctuary, will still satisfy your wildlife craving. Plenty of dolphins, rays, and several specials of turtles call Isla Contoy home.
Relax on Playa Norte
This is Isla Mujeres’ star attraction, and you could make a holiday out of this spot all on it’s own. Pay to rent a chair with an umbrella or spread your beach blanket under the palm trees on the white sand and chill. When the Mexican sun gets to be too much, a refreshing dip in the pleasant Caribbean Sea will take the edge off the heat. Rinse and repeat the ritual as many times as you’d like.
When the sand and sun has become too much, wander to a beach bar. Sit on the swings, sip on a margarita or Dos Equis, and wait for the sun to sink behind that gorgeous water. You’ll wonder if there’s any other way to live.
Get Fancy at Sunset Grill
They may have white tablecloths, but the uber-friendly service and laid-back vibe keep this family-run restaurant from getting pretentious. Be sure to try their lobster quesadillas — the salty cheese and sweet seafood make for an excellent pairing. They also do a phenomenal coconut shrimp; the Caribbean influence on the local food is never more apparent.
Sip an Alfresco Cocktail on a Rooftop
Wander back to the main drag in Centro and pop up to El Patio, an outdoor bar with a rooftop lounge and live music just about every night. The band will play everything from local hits to 80s classics, but choose your cocktail wisely — many are weak. Come here for the ambiance more than to be blown away by the mixology.
Day 3: Say Farewell
Feel the Need for Speed
Well, at least up to 20 mph. Golf carts are the primary source of transportation on the island, so rent one (half day ~$30USD) and get to know the rest of Isla Mujeres for a morning. Make your way toward Punta Sur, on the far south side of the island. There you can hop off the cart and meander through Garrafon Natural Park, where a sculpture installation and even a small Mayan temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility await. You can snorkel or kayak for a fee, or just enjoy the natural scenery.
Say Hasta Luego
Get in one last late breakfast or early lunch at Rooster, then jump back on the Ultramar Ferry to Puerto Juarez. As you speed over the brilliant turquoise shallows on your way back to the mainland, you won’t feel like you just spent two days in Cancun. That’s because you really didn’t — Isla Mujeres is a land unto it’s own.
What’s your favorite off-the-beaten-path spot that’s in full view of the touristy attractions? Tell me in the comments!