Off the coast of Cancun lies the tiny Isla Mujeres
Mexico’s Island of Women may be just a thirty minute ferry ride from the mainland but it feels completely separated from the resorts that comprise much of Cancun’s tourist area.
Since the island is less than 5 miles long and 400 yards wide at its widest point, the “downtown” area is extremely easy to navigate. Downtown is more like a village filled with dozens of restaurants, bars and artisan vendors. A grocery store, several pharmacies and banks surround the town hall area, all easily walkable from the hotels on the north third of the island.
Getting there is simple: after leaving Cancun’s airport, hop in pre-reserved airport transportation and less than an hour later (even with traffic), you’ll arrive at the ferry station. Tickets can be purchased at the dock.
When we visited Isla last year I was nervous that we would have trouble finding our way around. Online maps were scarce and renting a car on the island isn’t really an option. Instead travel is done by golf cart, bicycle, moped or foot. Taxis are available but but not commonly used. We took one from the ferry to the rental office just a few blocks away. The condo was a few blocks further. It was so close that we made the return trip by foot pulling suitcases behind us.
We stayed at the Ixchel Beach Hotel where the main pedestrian street, Hidalgo, dead ends into the North Beach (Playa Norte). The hotel also has condo units that can be rented through Airbnb or VRBO. Renting through a third party means that services like the gym are unavailable but we still had use of the pool. We couldn’t charge items to our room from the poolside bar but we simply ran a tab and paid at the end of each day.
Renting a golf cart isn’t necessary – certainly we could have walked to everything if we only planned to lie on the beach, drink piña coladas and dine at a different restaurant every evening. Yet having a golf cart allowed us to explore the entire island from north to south, a journey that took more than half a day. We began our journey following the main north/south thoroughfare on the west side of the island. Avenue Rueda Medina is a divided highway that holds many cart rental shops, souvenir shops and the ferry terminal. The road continues past a Mexican Naval Base before curving into a more residential area. It eventually leads to a turnoff for the Turtle Sanctuary and Dolphin Adventure where you can respectively feed turtles and swim with dolphins.
The road south leads to the southernmost tip called Punta Sur, which also happens to be the easternmost point of Mexico and the first place the sun’s rays hit the country. A walking path runs along the shoreline 60 feet above sea level. The path meanders past the few remains of a Mayan temple to Ixchel (the goddess of the moon and fertility), a few sculptures and dozens of iguanas.
The main western road follows the coastline for the most part, weaving past more homes and a few hotels, restaurants, artisanal shops and a small airstrip used on occasion by the Mexican Armed Forces. There are several public beaches along the eastern shore and it’s simple to park a golf cart on the side of the road and explore.
Some feel that Isla is too quiet, too (dare I say) boring for a decent vacation. They feel that a week is too much time there. I’m not a beach vacation person; sitting with my toes in the sand and a drink in my hand is wonderful for about two days, then I’m ready for something different. Isla provides that without cultural overload.
There are plenty of other activities and tours available through Airbnb or numerous booths along Hidalgo and other streets. Yoga on the beach, learning to salsa dance, a walking tour, or snorkeling along the coast can easily fill a week. We enjoyed a cooking class discovered through TripAdvisor.
For those who enjoy diving, the Museo Subacuático de Arte/Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA) is one of a handful of underwater sculpture gardens in the Caribbean. It’s possible to view sculptures by snorkeling but the view is far better for divers.
From June to September snorkelers can swim beside an animal the size of a school bus. Whale sharks congregate in an area near the island annually. There are specific rules surrounding interaction with the gentle fish. The odds of seeing at least one are very high; businesses list a 99% success rate in spotting whale sharks.
In December the town square hosts nightly Christmas festivities. Though these are primarily for the local community, there is plenty of dancing and several food vendors that could be enjoyed by anyone. Later in the month parades of boats, horses and golf carts pass through the town.
Snappers sports pub on the north end of the island is has plenty of screens for sports, but also has pool tables and shows family-friendly movies certain nights of the week.
Eating & Shopping
Food variety is not scarce on Isla Mujeres: coffee shops, ice cream, pasta, upscale steak house, an ice bar, plus resort restaurants. Street vendors sell tacos, coconut milk and popsicles.
Rooster Cafe serves three meals a day and was the ideal place to enjoy breakfast. A drive to La Arrachera was worthwhile. It was probably the least expensive meal we purchased (roughly $25 for five people plus margaritas) and one of the most delicious.
Some restaurants do not accept cash. One-time ATM fees are generally lower than credit card transaction fees. Food overall is quite inexpensive.
Unless you’re shopping at a high end store like one of the many jewelry shops or a chain store, cash is required at many of the artists’ booths. Bartering is anticipated and sometimes encouraged but most won’t budge on prices of certain handmade items. Whether a beautiful wool lion, a beaded iguana or a pottery dish, quality items are all carefully and lovingly created. Examine details like stitches and thread. When purchasing pottery for use with food, make sure “lead free” is written on it. Silver should be marked .925 or .950 to ensure it’s not silver plated. Anything gold should be free of scratches.
The north beach, Playa Norte, is beautiful but as a result can be very crowded on weekends with local families. It’s also a big destination for tourist boats that anchor off shore. Playa Sol is a short walk from the ferry and is extremely popular with day trippers from the mainland. The area is surrounded by souvenir shops, massage tents and food carts.
The best option is to simply stay at a hotel along the beach and know that those just visiting for the day will eventually go home. Everyone has access to vendors hawking shirts, jewelry or popsicles but only those renting rooms can use the beach chairs and pools.
Staying in a condo also opens the opportunity to cook or grill food from the local grocery. Everything we needed was found at the Super Aki at the end of Hidalgo.
Although there are reports of petty crime Isla Mujeres, the feeling is very safe. A jewelry store owner pointed out that children can explore unencumbered by parental supervision and summed it up nicely. “It’s an island. Where are they going to go?”