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My secret slice of paradise on Mexico's Isla Mujeres

Escapes Under $500
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Dock Isla Mujeres (Photo: Mexico Tourism Board)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 6, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Anne Banas, destination, Escapes Under $500, Isla Mujeres, island, vacation package, weekend getaways.

On my way to dinner, hair down and slightly damp with saltwater, wind tugs at my wrap skirt. I ignore how my vehicle has no windows or doors and push the accelerator to its limits, a zesty 20 miles per hour that feels more like 60. A moped zips by, but it too makes little headway as it catches up with a speed bump, an obstacle placed intermittently on every road to enforce keeping things slow. After all, I'm on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and this is island time.

My not-so-speedy car is merely a golf cart, and the main drag is a quiet seaside path leading to the palapa-style restaurant where I will take in a sunset and an evening's worth of fresh seafood. Every night is like this, and every day brings understated R&R when anything truly important can happen mañana. But please, don't tell anyone. This piece of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is only as good as its secrets.

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What's the deal?

Located less than a 30-minute boat ride from Cancun's coastline, Isla Mujeres carries the dual benefit of proximity and distance at the same time. Visitors will have no trouble getting to a major airport, with frequent flights and affordable fares, while water separation prevents Cancun's hotel row from spilling over. As a result, Isla remains a convenient Mexican destination that's been able to preserve an honest local rhythm without the typical tourist crowds and hype. Hotels, mostly small inns, and businesses are family-run and thrive on family-run prices. Although its name means "Island of Women," anyone—girl or boy, first-timer or frequenter—can escape here for under $500.

Last October, Hurricane Wilma's wrath gave much of the Yucatan a beating it clearly did not deserve. But as the universe tries to maintain balance, this storm giveth what it taketh away. Where Cancun's beaches lost yards of sand, Isla Mujeres' gained length. Where high-rises felt the impact with shattered glass, the island's small facades were sandblasted clean, renewed.

Many islanders attribute Isla's quick recovery to its small island camaraderie, where the only signs of local chaos were a hardware store looted for paint and beverage distributor for beer. Men, women, and children helped shovel Cancun's sand off the streets and trimmed fallen greenery with machetes, working so intensely they mistakenly cleared downtrodden areas no one cared about before the storm. Within a couple of months, everything except a popular tourist snorkeling park was back in business, perhaps better than ever, just in time for peak season.

Getting there

With Cancun's recent hurricane troubles, reports on airline capacity seem to change constantly. As a result, flights haven't been as frequent and it's been difficult to gauge the going rate for fares. Nevertheless, I still found prices low enough to stay under budget easily. To get my $337 flight, I had to remain flexible with airport options and dates, flying out of Providence instead of my preferred Boston and departing before sunrise on a Sunday. As it turns out, staying under $500 is viable from most of the U.S. I tested fares from around the country, and my route was one of the most expensive of the lot.

  • $242 from Miami
  • $251 from Orlando
  • $252 from Tampa
  • $285 from Washington, D.C.
  • $302 from Dallas
  • $304 from Chicago
  • $314 from Detroit
  • $320 from Denver
  • $341 from Atlanta
  • $348 from Atlantic City

At $351, a New York City departure would pass the budget by $2, while flights from West Coast cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles would go over by $30 and $50, respectively. Of course, this is just a snapshot of fares, and current searches could yield better results. Similar or cheaper fares should be easier to find in the coming months as the area inches closer to it's off-season; hurricane recovery progresses; and the benefits of the U.S., Mexican Aviation Agreement, which allows more airlines to fly between the countries increasing competition, begin to show.

Getting around

Before sailing over to the island, visitors need to get from the Cancun airport to the ferry dock. I assessed every available option, from taxis to local buses, and found one that reigns supreme when considering convenience and price. Although taxis are humming right outside baggage claim waiting at your beck and call, they aren't cheap, especially for only one or two people. Several travelers I ran into claimed they had to pay about $40 to the dock and $20 on the way back for the short 20-minute ride. Buses are far less expensive at just a few dollars, but make frequent stops and can be unwieldy when you're juggling baggage and schedules.

Cost Breakdown:

For 3 nights and 4 days, including all taxes and fees, based on two people traveling together

Airfare: $337.04
Hotel: $100
Transfer: $17
Ferry: $7
Golf cart: $27.50

Total cost: $488.54

Price guide for Isla Mujeres:

Airfare: $$
Hotel: $ - $$
Ground transportation: $
Activities: $-$$
Food: $ - $$$

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