Isla Mujeres. That little gem off the coast of Cancun lying peacefully in the Caribbean Sea, beckoning you over to experience her magic.
“Magic” is precisely how you will hear isleños — island residents — and visitors alike describe her. Mystical, healing, and rejuvenating are also words which have been associated with the island. Until you go, you’ll never know.
Although there are many activities and sights to experience, there are six that always stand out. Once you build on these, you’ll begin discovering how she is indeed, “magical.”
If you are visiting Isla for only one day, you’ll not be able to enjoy all six. So plan on three to four days and nights… and remember to ask if you can extend your stay — everyone does. Those that can be done in a day are indicated with an asterisk.
In one day, you can visit each end of the island and enjoy your first “taste” of Isla.
* 1. We start with Punta Sur. Rent a golf cart and enjoy a breathtaking drive along the Caribbean side of the island. At land’s end you’ll arrive at Acantilado at Punta Sur.
Take a very short walk onto the outdoor patio where you’ll find half a dozen tables adorned with beach umbrellas. Get out your camera and have a seat. From here you can see the entire coastline of Cancun which makes for an outrageous backdrop for some incredible photographs.
You’ll be greeted by a waiter who will gladly provide you with cold sparkling adult beverages and a menu.
Tip: If you’re hungry and ready to taste the freshest, most succulent Caribbean lobster on the planet, order it. While you’re in awe of what you’re eyes and memory are taking in, do not forget to take photos.
Tip: Many banks will allow you to upload a photo to be placed on your credit or debit card. What a great way to forever remember this place, make your friends a bit envious, and plan for your return trip.
Once sufficiently hydrated and stuffed, go back to Centro again via the Caribbean highway. This time, it will look even more beautiful as the sun now makes the water even more colorful than before. It will also feel more familiar, thus allowing you to see more of what you may have missed.
Once back in Centro, head over to Playa Norte. Once there, park your cart in the powder white sand next to Buho’s.
Grab your towel and just start walking. You’ll find, your mind knows exactly where it wants to go. Pick out a nice plot of earth in the open or under an inviting palm tree. Then. Just. Sit.
Your goal here is to be present for the most magnificent sunset you will ever witness. You’ll tell yourself, “It doesn’t get, it can’t get, any better than this.” I promise you, it does, and it can.
People come from all corners of the globe just to see these sunsets and they can only be seen to believe.
Have your camera ready. These photos alone could bring Kodak out of bankruptcy.
Once the sun sinks behind the horizon, return your golf cart and make your way to the ferry where your only thought will be how you wish you could have stayed longer. And that next year, you will.
Swim with the whale sharks
2. Professional photographers traverse the continent to swim with the whale sharks, to actually be in the water with them and capture the most brilliant, breathtaking photos of these giants of nature.
If you’re a thrill seeker — not a danger seeker, or an adrenaline junkie — this is the one. Parachuting? Downhill speed skiing? Drag racing? Nope. Not even close.
When there’s a ten ton fish with a mouth that could literally swallow a Smart Car® swimming inches away from you, that kind of flirtatious interaction is the ultimate rush. You, your little mask, fins and snorkel are in the middle of the Caribbean Sea — triangulated between Cancun, Isla and Cuba, bobbing around like a cork while these monolithic creatures of the sea pay you zero attention. Now, if your name happens to be “Plankton,” you may have a problem.
On Isla Mujeres, they call this a job. You can call it incredible! © Louie Frias, 2013
There are a number of qualified, highly professional dive adventure shops on Isla for unforgettable, unbelievable diving adventure. The typical price is around $200 USD for a half-day trip leaving in the morning. After your excursion, you be served freshly prepared ceviche from fish caught that morning. The stories you’ll share with your friends and fellow divers will be mind-blowing.
Snorkel in crystalline waters
* 3. Current snorkeling. For about $60 to 80 USD, the same companies that offer whale shark excursions can also take you on a half-day exploration of the outer waters of Isla with morning or afternoon departures. If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, they’ll even rent it to you. Every place you’ll visit is no more than 15 meters deep.
You begin with a leisurely walk from your dive master’s location with your guide, making your way to the docks where your captain, first mate, and vessel await. Once introductions and safety checks have been covered, everyone finds a seat.
This is, by far, the best way to enjoy the beauty of Isla from the water. Your guide will typically take you to “Manchones Reef,” “Musa Isla Mujeres,” that is, the Underwater Museum and the Lighthouse reef.
The Lighthouse reef is incredible, as you literally do no more than float with the current while you are amazed at the water temperature and clarity, allowing you to relax and enjoy seeing the most brilliantly colored fish, barracuda, lobster and starfish.
Tip: Buy a $25 disposable underwater camera and bring back photos that will have people nodding their heads in amazement.
After your snorkeling adventure, you’ll typically enjoy a leisurely cruise around the entire island and enjoy an authentic Caribbean or Mexican lunch before your safe return.
Yes, you can participate in this miracle of nature, volunteering to work with endangered sea turtles on Isla Mujeres © Louie Frias, 2013
The turtle farm
* 3. Tortugranja (turtle farm) is a government-sponsored hatchery for endangered sea turtles. The turtles come to Isla Mujeres beaches in the summer late at night and into the early hours of the morning to lay their eggs. A sea turtle is capable of laying more than 100 eggs at a time.
Authorized and trained volunteers from the turtle farm scour the beaches on the Caribbean coastline and collect their eggs for a 60-day incubation period. The participation fee for the farm is $3 USDand offers the ability to see how man protects nature.
Easy to find, the turtle farm is located on Sac Bajo (North of Playa Paraiso).
Isla Mujeres hosts four types of endangered migratory sea turtles — the green turtle, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback. In fact, a sea turtle monument erected and dedicated by the government proudly overlooks the Caribbean sea just East of the Palacio Municipal.
Isleños are extremely active and proud of their role in protecting of this air-breathing creature. If you can stay awake until late at night and get to the Caribbean side of the island, you will be invited to witness a spectacle rarely seen by the typical tourist. When you see your first one, your adrenaline pumps, your heart races, your eyes squint in the dark in disbelief and you will never be the same.
If you’re lucky enough to be on Isla in October, you can take part in the liberation of the turtles held all over the island, where thousands of baby turtles are released.
Talent shows and fashion shows
4. That’s right. You’ll be blown away with what this island can produce. Isla is highly supportive of the arts, the education and the advancement of its youth. On a Friday or Saturday night, if you’re in Centro enjoying a fabulous meal and you hear unusually interesting music from “over there,” you might be so inclined to pay your tab and seek it out.
If it originates from the Palacio Municipal, it’s your best shot at seeing what Maya culture, talented children, young adults and dedicated educators can produce together. The beauty of the Mexican dance, music and colorful cultural attire fill and inspire the soul. Don’t be surprised when you arrive and find it’s literally standing room only.
Tip: If you weren’t having dinner and stumbled upon Palacio, there are incredible cheap eats being grilled up right before your eyes. Tacos with arroz, and frijoles and a multitude of toppings can be bought for only 15 pesos each.
Swim with whale sharks on Isla Mujeres of the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula © Louie Frias, 2013
Tropical fish in El Garrafon de Castilla
* 5. The Garrafon de Castilla is not to be confused with the pricey “Garrafon Park.” Your golf cart will get you here.
Although it’s not a “secret,” it’s secret. Hardly any tourists seek it out or visit it. The locals, both from Isla as well as Cancun like it just for that reason. A great family beach, it charges an entry fee os less than $5 USD and has a fully stocked bar.
The best reason to visit is the protected snorkeling area. You can practice with your new gear. To make it interesting, buy some fish food, stand still or float, then let ‘er rip. Hundreds of friendly colorful fish will envelope you looking for lunch for another camera opportunity.
Tip: If you don’t have snorkel gear, they’ll rent it to you.
Between swims, you’ll find a number of lounges in the sand to sit in under an umbrella and enjoy some food and beverages while you marvel at the sight of Cancun in the horizon.
You can get there by cab for about 40 pesos, or take your golf cart. Start by driving out of Centro. Stay to the right of the airport, drive through the Colonias, pass Chedraui, then continue deep into the Isla jungle. Keep your eyes open — it’son your right. If you pass The Joint, you’ve gone too far.
Catch a fish
6. If you enjoy fresh fish for dinner, go fishing.
Most restaurants will grill your fresh catch for you, provided you have it prepped to do so prior to arriving. Check with a few first so you can be assured.
Tip: Once you’ve secured a spot on a boat, ask your captain for his recommendations. Offer him some of what you catch for his “hook up.”
Any day of the week you can find — rather, be approached by — a local offering you a half to full day of deep sea fishing. Typically for less than $50 USD you can hire a boat with a few other enthusiasts and be taken out. If you want some cold adult beverages, your captain’s first mate will fetch some for you to put in the onboard cooler.
The ride out is relaxing and allows you to see more of Isla from afar while you bask in the warm sun and breathe in the ridiculously, unpolluted, fresh salt air.
About a half an hour into the trip, you’ll be given a “spool” of fishing line with a baited hook. The captain will let you know when to toss it out. Pay attention. Either you’ll be moving to another spot or you’ll be working that line like a tuna wrangler. If that happens, you’ll be el jefe and friend to all upon your return.
When you get back to the dock, someone is sure to approach you and ask if you’d like your catch prepped for eating. Negotiate the fee, give him a token of the day’s catch and head to your new chef and present your offering. This, is a great way to make friends on this little slice of heaven known as Isla Mujeres.
Ultimately what you’ve discovered is that although the sights and activities are all incredibly illuminating and rewarding, the magic of Isla, is her people. For without people who are genuine, giving, friendly and engaging, there can be no magic.