An hour from Cancun brings you to another world-quiet and unpretentious, authentically Mexican
The next time there's a cheap flight to Cancun, grab it! But don't even slow down for Cancun itself. Take a shuttle van directly from the airport to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal and sail on to Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women). This small island (approximately five miles long by a half mile wide) has all you need: comfortable accommodations, calm beaches, good food, and inexpensive prices. Forget Cancun's high-rise hotels, expensive meals, and crowds. Isla Mujeres is within eyesight of that gaudy hotel strip but many miles away in ambience and price. Despite the boatloads of Cancun tourists who come on quick tours for part of the day, the island retains its relaxed atmosphere. English is widely spoken and American currency is accepted, although paying in pesos instead of dollars is often cheaper, and it is always courteous to learn as much of the language as you can.
Arrival and orientation
The shuttle trip from the Cancun airport to Puerto Juarez (on the northern edge of Cancun) takes about half an hour and costs 77-144 pesos ($8-$15) depending on the number of people sharing the van. Buy your ticket at the kiosk in the airport. The fast ferry from Puerto Juarez to Isla Mujeres takes 15 minutes and costs 35 pesos ($3.70) per person.
The island is long, narrow, and nearly flat.
The town of Isla Mujeres itself is on the north end and is only about 24 blocks. Most restaurants, shops, and small hotels are in this area. Moving south, the island narrows near a small airport and then widens into a residential area, and the south end of the island is the highest, widest, and least developed.
When you arrive on Isla Mujeres, you will be in the downtown area on the north end of the island. The tourist bureau is across the street to the left. Taxis will be waiting to take you anywhere on the island for 7-20 pesos (75¢-$2.10). You are within walking distance of many downtown hotels, but for mid-island or south-end lodging, you will want a taxi. During the day, buses make the circuit around the island for three pesos (30¢). If you are staying in the residential area in the middle of the island and you like to walk, you can go on foot from the middle to either end in about 40 to 60 minutes.
Rental vehicles on Isla Mujeres run heavily to golf carts or mopeds. Both are perfect for transportation around the island, and discount coupons for them are found on the island's Web site (www.isla-mujeres.net). A golf cart rents for about 400 pesos ($42) per day, with bargaining permitted.
Beaches and picnics
Most island visitors will spend their time on the beaches, visit the high-quality crafts shops (hidden among the T-shirt shops) downtown, eat in a different restaurant each evening, and relax in the warmth of the air and the people.
Playa Norte has to be one of the country's best beaches. It is a public park right on the edge of downtown and it spreads its white sand along the beach and out into the clear, calm water. On my most recent stay, there weren't many people on the beach, although on Sunday afternoons there were small pleasure boats anchored in the area so a few more people were around. If the wind is too strong on the north side, just move around the corner to the west to Playa Caribe where the beach continues and locals congregate.
Other beaches are found on the south end of the island in Garrafon National Park, somewhat beyond the end of the bus line. It consists mostly of beach, and since it is run by a concessionaire, there is an atypically high entrance fee of 144 pesos ($15). Don't pay it. Right next door is the Playa Garrafon de Castilla resort. For an admission charge of 20 pesos ($2.10), there is access to a small beach with good snorkeling around the pier and the artificial reef. There are chairs, tables, changing rooms, bathrooms, a snack bar, and a gift shop.
Mexican beaches are very civilized. Little restaurants dot the edges, and tables and chairs and/or lounges are usually free or nominally priced. As long as you buy soda, drinks, snacks and/or meals, waiters are happy to serve you and (if it is not too busy) will watch your things while you swim.
Where to stay and dine
My own favorite, Villa Chiquita (998/888-0173, firstname.lastname@example.org), is about in the middle of the island in a residential area. The bus line runs half a block away, so it is convenient to everything. Owners Jose and Zandra built the four one-bedroom apartments only a few years ago, and they are spotlessly clean, well furnished, and extremely practical. (Having an apartment makes it possible to fix occasional meals and lunches for beach trips.) Units rent for 2,345 pesos ($245) per week or 335 pesos ($35) per day in high season (mid-December through April), and 239 pesos ($25) per night at other times (May to mid-December), with discounts for longer stays or small groups. A bonus: The local softball, baseball, and soccer fields nearby seem to have games every evening, and the local people are welcoming.
Closer to the main activities is Hotel Roca Mar (998/877-0101, email@example.com), perched on a rocky, windward cliff with great views on the edge of downtown. While rooms on the ocean rent for 660 pesos ($69), you can get a town-side double room for 431 pesos ($45) in high season and still enjoy the lovely garden, pool, and restaurant, which also have views. Other recommendable downtown hotels include the family-run Hotel Osorio (998/877-0294), one block from Playa Norte and with a small courtyard. A double room is 258 pesos ($27). Que Barbara Studio Apartments (to book, contact Mornings in Mexico, www.sundreamers.com/mim/home.htm) is two blocks from the beach downtown. It has rooms with kitchenettes for 287-431 pesos ($30-$45) per night and 1,914-2,776 pesos ($200-$290) per week.
Finally, toward the south end of the island, Mar y Sol Beachfront Apartments (also book through Mornings in Mexico) has three efficiency units right on a secluded beach just past the end of the bus line. They each rent for 287 pesos ($30) per night or 1,914 pesos ($200) per week year-round. Villas Punta Sur (998/877-0572, firstname.lastname@example.org), set amid palm trees and tropical vegetation, has six apartments renting for 431-479 pesos ($45-$50) for one bedroom and 622-670 pesos ($65-$70) for two bedrooms (high season, less by the week).
Budget meals Your most memorable low-cost meal will be a tiken-xic (fish fry) at Playa Lancheros toward the south end of the island, where fish is caught fresh during the night, cleaned, split, and scored, then rubbed with salt and spices and placed in a handheld grate for grilling over an open wood fire. You watch the cooks in action. Fifty pesos ($5.25) brings enough for two to eat, along with seasoned rice and cabbage. Meals are served on Mexican time in early afternoon.
La Cazuela M&J, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, is located next to the Roca Mar Hotel on Avenida Nicolas Bravo at the edge of downtown. Sitting at outside tables watching the sun and waves crashing on the rocky east coast is a really good way to start the morning. Breakfast specials include a fruit plate with yogurt and granola, cazuela mexicana (a baked dish of tortilla, ham, and refried beans covered with a fried egg and mild salsa), and omelettes, all served with coffee and all costing 35 pesos ($3.70), less a 10 percent discount with the coupon found on the Isla Mujeres Internet site.
At Balcon de Arriba on Avenida Hidalgo, on a balcony overlooking the downtown street, you can have red snapper in a mild salsa, cole slaw, and rice with a cinnamon seasoning for 60 pesos ($6.30), or beef fajitas with spiced potatoes and cole slaw for 50 pesos ($5.25)-both of them memorable dishes, in my experience. And at Jardin de Delicias, a small French restaurant on Avenida Matamoros, two of us recently split a salad Nicoise (30 pesos/$3.15) and an order of filet of fish in garlic sauce (40 pesos/$4.20), which made for an entirely filling meal of tasty food. Walk along Avenida Hidalgo downtown and look at the menus posted in front of other restaurants. Pick one that looks good and enjoy.
Excursions and visits
Apart from beach-lolling, swimming, and dining, the top thing to do is visit the Tortugranja (turtle farm) at the south end of the island, where loggerhead and green turtles are protected while they lay their eggs, and their babies are then kept in tanks until they are released. Turtles of different sizes are also displayed in shaded pools for educational purposes, and there is a small museum/aquarium. The short guided tour here costs 20 pesos ($2.10), and you can spend the rest of the day on the nice beach.
Because there are so many cheap fares to Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a real bargain. From luxury to budget, everything is available-and it's all superbly described on the island's Web site, www.isla-mujeres.net, which contains numerous recommendations to add to my own. Get there quickly before the word spreads!