Kicking Back in Isla Mujeres

get ready to kick back

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.

sunset near garrafon

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.

strolling down Isla Mujeres

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.

sandy beaches and the opportunity to explore

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.

feeling a bit peckish

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.

friendly neighbors

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 and its zip line

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.

cleaning shells

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.

this isn't so tough

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.

not fish, but chicken getting the achiote and banana leaf treatment

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.

Kentucky Fried Chicken?

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.

fishy business

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.

Perfect Christmas fare

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.

bring on the bacon

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.

looking back at Cancun


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28 comments for “Kicking Back in Isla Mujeres

  1. January 15, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    This sounds like an amazing vacation! The sheer variety of delicious, refreshing and exciting flavors of the local cuisine would have me interested. Pollo Kentucky sounds awesome and funny that they would label fried chicken as such, I guess that Kentucky Fried Chicken is a global brand. I do wonder, why is it that you did not visit Dolphin Discovery? I watched a documentary The Cove recently, so if the reasons are related to the ones outlined in the film, I would respect it.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Rustic Caramelized Onion and Chanterelle Quiche

  2. OysterCulture
    January 15, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    We had loads of fun, it really exceeded my expectations and who knows it might become an annual event. I fixed the Dolphin Discovery, its a combo of why mess with success, and it just seemed a bit too contrived for us. We were just having too much fun with everything else we were doing.

  3. January 15, 2011 at 11:15 PM

    I had always planned a trip to Isla Mujeres and from there to Cuba but it has been 10 years now and I have yet to make it! sounds like a lot of fun and I adore all this fresh Mexican food so much,ceviche and fish tacos with margaritas is my idea of heavenly dining!
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Beoreg stuffed with onion and cheese

  4. January 16, 2011 at 5:24 AM

    Love the beach there! Fantastic color! Sounds like a great vacation at this time of year. I love its name too. Putting it on my travel list. Hope I can go there one day.

  5. January 16, 2011 at 8:58 AM

    The island looks so beautiful…and the sunset photo is just stunning.
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Caramel Walnut Slices

  6. January 16, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Sounds like a wonderful vacation!

    The fried chicken experience sounds unique. Glad you were brave and everything went well! :)
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Weekend Fun and Barley Soup

  7. January 17, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    Go for the beaches? Stay for the food? Park there for the warmth? It was a nice escape for me to sit and read this. The dining experience in a family home had me smiling. I mean – it’s a trend in Europe? Island dining is just more laid back.
    Claudia recently posted..Vintage life- vintage lamb- vintage pasta- vintage soup

  8. January 17, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    A wonderful place to relax and try new dishes! It looks like you had a lot of fun there.

    Cheers,

    Rosar

  9. January 17, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    Oh lucky you! This brings me back in time. The shrimp ceciche over there is to die for. And I remember how warm the water was. We visited Isla Mujeres a year ago. http://www.phamfatale.com/id_791/title_Our-5th-Wedding-Anniversary-in-Cancun/
    Jackie (Phamfatale.com) recently posted..Vegetable Honey Tofu Stir-Fry Recipe

  10. OysterCulture
    January 17, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    ToB – Definitely check out IM, it was so not what I was expecting, very relaxing, friendly and beautiful as I hope you can tell from the photos. The food, just delicious.

    Zerrin – I hope you are able to make it, a perfect relaxing place. It reminded me a bit of one you introduced us to on your blog in Turkey.

    Angie – It was/is an amazingly beauiful place. It made you slow down to appreciate its unique charms.

    Andrea – Alas we never tried the Kentuky chicken, but our grilled chicken, ah that was heaven.

    Claudia – I heard about the weather you are having, and I think those island diners have it right. Stay and linger for the food and beauty.

    Rosa – It was a great place, I’d just not heard of it before and wanted to alert others to it as it was really special.

    Jackie – How fantastic! I can see why you went for your anniversary, very special.

  11. January 17, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    You go to the best places! Looks so relaxing and beautiful. And I love all that seafood — prepared fresh and simply.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..Food Gal Giveaway — For Anyone Who’s Ever Been Mystified In Asian Markets

  12. January 17, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    I love visiting Isla Mujeres – super mellow and relaxing. What a perfect holiday vacation. Yes, I remember the food being delicious. Great highlights, I must agree.
    lisa recently posted..Holiday Pear Tartlets and an Easy Shortbread Pecan Crust

  13. January 17, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    Hi, Louann. I enjoyed reading about Isla Mujeres, as we had visited 11 years ago (cheap fares to Cancun on Jan. 1, 2000 – remember Y2K hysteria?). It was a wonderful spot, without any need or desire to see the Cancun “strip”.

    I do recall a superb red snapper grilled and eaten on the beach.

    Thanks,

    Dan
    IslandEAT recently posted..Spinach-Celery-Turmeric-Lemon Soup- A Wee Taste of Scotland

  14. January 17, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Wow, what a glorious trip…Sorry about your camera, hope it it OK.
    Amazing where you can find Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I am for the tacos :) And the seafood…yes!
    Magic of Spice recently posted..Whats for Dessert Cocoa Mousse with Grand Marnier and Awards

  15. January 18, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    Looks like a wonderful getaway on this island! The beaches are gorgeous and sounds like there are lots of delicious eats here too, especially the seafood. Lovely sunset!
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Fish Sticks of Sole- Chanterelles and Sun-Dried Tomatoes- Pinot Noir Reduction- and Baby Arugula Foam

  16. January 18, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    What a wonderful trip, I have always wanted to visit Isla Mujeres as I have heard great reviews and yours only adds to the the excitement…we have not traveled much recently with hubbys full schedule, but after this year all will return to normal..thanks for sharing your perfect holiday! take care
    sweetlife
    sweetlife recently posted..Livin’ the Sweet Life Chicken Tacos

  17. January 18, 2011 at 9:04 PM

    Can’t wait to move back and explore the Americas a bit more! Sounds like the food was really great and glad to hear the local joints were tasty. I love the spices used in yucatan food so think I would love eating in isle mujeres, and the lovely beaches…what a perfect way to spend Christmas…
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Banana Nut Monkey Bread

  18. January 19, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    oooh what i would do for some sun on my face, sand between my toes, and a fish taco in my hand right now!
    Steph @Lick My Spoon recently posted..Black Bean Soup Cilantro-Lime Yogurt Crema

  19. January 19, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    Sounds like you had a great vacation.

    The last time I was in Mexico was 14 years ago, when I was 21. I was on a very tight budget and couldn’t really explore much of the country, so that meant I was limited to Mexico City.

    I miss Mexican food, decent fish tacos and would love to explore more of the country’s cuisine.
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Meringue-Making On A Manic Monday- Silvanas

  20. January 20, 2011 at 2:51 PM

    Isla mujeres is the place for men haha! Incredible the beach and the dishes – Lot of Spanglish there on the posters :)

    Cheers,

    Gera
    Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog recently posted..CSN Stores Giveaway- All Modern – Win Gift Certificate 75 – Free to Enter!

  21. January 20, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    Your authentic dining experience sounds so adventurous! I don’t know if I would have gone for it, but it sounds like you made a great decision. The fish tacos sound lovely too. Thanks for this virtual trip to Isla Mujeres this afternoon!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..The Ultimate Winter Couscous

  22. January 20, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    Oh thank you for posting about your glorious vacation and fabulous food finds. It just started snowing outside, again and I needed a shot of sunshine and fun!
    Louise recently posted..Happy Fig Newton Day!

  23. January 21, 2011 at 10:05 AM

    Just looking at the pictures of the small restaurants make me hungry for some fresh fried fish with warm tortilla and a fresh salsa. Or maybe a Pollo rostizado with rice.

    Thanks for this great post, brings back good memories.

    Saludos

  24. January 23, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    I went on a vacation here 35 years ago! It sure looks like it has changed a lot. I’d love to go back to and to what Beirut is suggesting – go on to Cuba.

  25. OysterCulture
    January 23, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    Carolyn – I agree, the simple preparations really allowed the flavor to shine through.

    Lisa – Given its proximity to Cancun, I was surprised to find it so relaxing and coupled with the delicious food, it proved the perfect break.

    Dan – How could I forget the Y2K hysteria – a good trip to a quiet place would have been mandatory. I bet your snapper was delicious.

    MoS – Alas the camera bit the dust, got a new one soon after and am up and running.

    5 Star – Not sure there are any 5 Star restaurants, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will find some delicious food none the less, and with some incredible atmosphere.

    Sweetlife – Definitely go, and when everything settles down for you and your family it would make a great getaway. We stayed in a wonderful place for kids (there were 13 of us!) If you need ideas, let me know.

    Gastro – The food was delicious, and while there was definitely some Yucatan spices, it was not as plentiful as I would have thought. Not complaining though as everything we tried was great.

    Steph – You and me both!

    KM – This place would not break your budget, so if you are looking for a place next time you are on this side of the world, you could definitely do worse.

    Gera – I agree, Spanglish was everywhere, and men were plentiful, which also did not make it bad for us ladies =)

    Lisa – I am not sure I would have done it again, but I was so hungry I was willing to risk a lot and it paid off.

    Louise – Oh, I hope you get a break soon, I know what those long wintery days are like.

    Mely – Thanks for stopping by! I could go back in a heart beat, everything was just so tasty!

    Tammy – I bet it has changed, we saw a lot of damage from the last hurricane and I imagine there are plenty of previous ones that left their mark.

  26. January 24, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Love this gorgeous recap. You had me stumped at the title though. The word for women is similar in Portuguese and I could never pronounce it correctly! I’ve decided that most good foods of the world come wrapped in a banana (or similar) leaf. That meal looks amazing!
    Lori recently posted..Cocoa-Coffee Brownies- A Feast for the Eyes

  27. March 23, 2011 at 11:58 AM

    Beautiful photos and the food looks amazing. You do some really great things – keep it up!
    Crystal recently posted..Supper with Susie and Eddie

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