Isla Mujeres (Spanish for “Island of Women”) is a place to go if relaxing in the sun and surf is a priority. This suited my family perfectly as we wanted to spend Christmas in a place that was warm and friendly for ages between six months and well a lot older. This island is a short ferry ride away from Cancun, and I have to say that traveling over the tranquil clear turquoise waters only caused the feelings of anticipation to mount. Coming for San Francisco with its harshly beautiful Pacific facing beach with chilly winds and churning grey waters, Isla Mujeres was the yin to its yang.
Theories abound as to how the island acquired its name, some say pirates kept their female captives here while they trolled the Caribbean, others suggest a more benign story. The island was a stopover for Mayan pilgrims on their way to Isla Cozumel to worship Ixchel the female goddess of fertility. When Spanish explorers set food on the island, they discovered large numbers of female shaped idols and so the name for the island appeared obvious.
The island is about 5 miles long and no more than a quarter mile wide, with three primary forms of transportation were the most common: taxis, golf carts and mopeds. Two parallel roads run up either side of the island, that are heavily punctuated by some serious speed bumps. We positioned ourselves near the southern tip of the island and if we wanted supplies, we knew where to go in the main town, also known as Isla Mujures or centro (center). Between us and the main town, on the center part of the island was a smaller, significantly less touristy community.
This island as with Cancun was hammered by Hurricane Wilma and the damage can still be seen, some of the beaches, such as Playa Norte have sections with severe sand deterioration leaving them rocky and along other parts of the island, damages to buildings or public works are visible. However, it is obvious that the repair work is in progress.
Stuff to Do:
(from north to south on the island) We found that as you head south the number of tourists drops off precipitously. We stayed on the southern part of the island and found it perfect for our desire to spend quality family time.
Playa Norte (North Beach) as might be surmised is on the north part of the island, just a few blocks from where the ferry deposits its visitors. It is famous for its white sand beaches, and shallow water, with very little waves, there is no surfing here my friend. Most visitors to the island stop here as it is also adjacent to the ferry stop in Centro, filled with shops and restaurants catering almost exclusively to tourists.
Note, after humans, iguanas are probably the second most popular species on the island, and some can get to be good size. This one was unusually inquisitive, as most were content to bask in the sun.
Playa Sol is the beach adjacent to Playa Norte, and not as crowded as its convenient and comely neighbor. The water here is deeper and less tranquil, and not as conducive to hanging out, however it is the must be spot for watching the sun set over the water.
Tortugranja (Turtle Farm) is a great place to take kids (of all ages) as it is a sanctuary and government sponsored hatchery for the endangered sea turtles. They have a variety of tanks so you can see the turtles developed. For about $3US it is certainly worth the price of admission to support this worthy cause.
Dolphin Discovery offers interaction between the swimmer and the dolphin with prices dictated by the amount of interaction required. We did not stop here as we had four kids under 6 and any and all could head in different directions at any given moment. Plus we were having such a good time exploring and snorkeling that it did not seem right to mess with success. We’ll just have to come back and check it out on another occasion.
Hacienda Mundaca is a 19th century hacienda build by the Caribbean pirate Fermin Mundaca. The hacienda includes exotic plants, bird breeding, and an orchard.
Garrafon Park is one of those all inclusive places that have you covered for snorkeling, dining, zip line, kayaking; this was an all inclusive spot, and gets a lot of business from day trippers from Cancun. Just to the north of this park is Garrafon de Castilla which requires an entrance fee of about $5US but has over 300 meters of coral reef just asking to be discovered.
Punta Sur – has a small ruin that was once a lighthouse and a temple to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. Leading to the ruins is a modern art sculpture park. During business hours there is a nominal fee to get in and there are stalls selling shells, jewelry and any number of souvenirs. On our last day there, we ran here at dawn and watched the sunrise which was spectacular. This point is the eastern most tip of Mexico, so we were the first people to see the sun in the country that day. The view was just spectacular as the sun turned the waters and sky pink to blue. Close to the water is an old walkway, that while somewhat dilapidated offered some beautiful opportunities to explore.
The ritual we quickly found ourselves immersed in was to walk from our accommodations to a nearby beach and plant ourselves on recliners. The beaches that we visited on the southern part of the island also had shallow areas that were perfect for the little ones practicing with their snorkels among the schools of fishes. The warm waters with their coral reefs offer plenty of opportunities to encounter scaly and equally curious underwater dwellers. If you ventured out a bit farther, you would find octopus, rays; just an amazing assortment of sea life in its natural habitat that was a wonder to behold. The beaches typically charged the equivalent of $5US for the day, but might waive the fee if you ordered food and drinks from them. The food was delicious and the prices might be more American than Mexican, but still not outrageous.
Stuff to Eat:
As might be expected on an island renown for its fishing opportunities, seafood is the specialty here. Cervices was on about every menu we encountered, pescado tikin-xic was also popular – achiote marindated fish grilled, and served atop a banana leave with pickled red onions and rice.
Our first food stop as we literally got off the boat was Pita Amore Isla Mujeres. This place is a must experience. The prices are very reasonable and the food is absolutely delicious. Its not a big venue, just a few tables, but the sandwiches are simply delicious. How many times can you say you’ve had a sandwich that costs less than $4US made by a French Culinary Institute in New York trained chef who worked with at Jean-Georges and Le Cirque? (I thought so.) The menu is heavily edited; a handful of options with each more delicious than the last. Trust me here.
We came across this sign that offered “Pollo Kentuky” but could not find the restaurant, so could only assume that it was fried chicken. A quick Google search confirmed this assumption. We had one thoroughly authentic meal here, but unfortunately I have no photographic evidence as my camera decided to bite the dust at a critical moment. In our search for Pollo Kentuky and being in the less touristy area, we were finally just darn hungry, it was in the middle of the afternoon, just about any place would do. We saw a place with potential, but were not altogther convinced, and at that moment the proprietress stuck her head out and said she had food and ushered us in. As our eyes adjusted to the light we realized we were in their family room, they pushed toys and papers off the dining table, pulled out the chairs, lowered the volume on the television and shooed the kids playing outside. There were boxes stacked behind us, so once you settled in you were not inclinded to shift around.
Their primary business appeared to be fixing take out food for the workers nearby, but mom and grandma quickly set to work preparing our lunch of grilled chicken, beans, salad (which we avoided as we were nervouce about the raw vegetables) and their son ran to a local convenience store to grab us a beer. This place would have been quickly closed given America’s restaurant hygiene standards – dirty dishes were stacked high, and some cans of paint were on one corner of the counter, but I watched them prepare the food and they took every precaution that I would have in my kitchen, and we braved and braced ourselves for what was to come. My husband sent me a mute message with his eyes, “what have you gotten me into now?” However, that first bite was amazing, and each subsequent nibble only improved our opinion of the meal. The chicken had just the right amount of seasoning was juicy and the sides just complimented and improved upon the meal. When we returned to the family fold, Mr. Oyster was quick to say he offered me a truly local dining experience.
Roasted chicken marinaded in achiote was the focus of our Christmas dinner. We picked up our birds and fixings on a trip to the town on the northern part of the island. Typical sides included rice, tortillas, beans, pickled onions, all to make perfect tacos.
Fish tacos were the defining food for us on this trip. Previously, I’d always associated fish tacos with San Diego/Tijuana – the Pacific side of Mexico famous for their flaky white fish, crema, wedges of lime and crispy cabbage all ensconced in a corn tortilla. Some of the tacos were similar, and they were all stellar, from fried grouper with a vinaigrette of mango and habanero, to a sauteed fish with slivers of pepper in a light and spicy salsa that caused my lips to go numb. I cannot tell you what made them spectacular, but they were. It may have been the scenery, the appetite I worked up snorkeling, the wonderful company, the cool beers, or most likely a combination of all of the above. It will be a long time before I disassociate these spectacular treats from beach side dining. Here’s some recipes that I found that come close to the versions we sampled. fish taco w creamy hot sauce or achiote fish tacos and with the achiote, you can see the influence of the yucatan in the cooking, but more on that later.
If you ever plan to visit, here are some other food suggestions.