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My secret slice of paradise on Mexico’s Isla Mujeres

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.

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.

A small, and very-well organized outfit called Best Day charges only $17 round-trip per person and representatives greet you by name near a stand selling Coronas just outside the airport. I was able to reserve my private car online in advance, and Best Day orchestrated my direct route to the ferry by cell phone and pager.

Considering I was primed for a more “real” Yucatan experience, I assumed the ferry would be rugged but basically functional. Not so. Once I got dropped off at Puerto Juarez, I quickly bought my $7 round-trip ticket, then was escorted onboard Ultramar’s speedy dual-hulled vessel fitted with a sun deck, air-conditioned cabin, and TVs. Crossings take about 20 minutes and depart every half hour.

Shaped much like a dolphin, the tiny land strip that constitutes this island is only five miles long and a half-mile thick at its widest point. There’s no need for a car. In fact, only the locals and taxi drivers have them. For everyone else, either walking, moped, or golf cart is the chosen mode of transit. Which option is best depends on where you plan to stay and what you plan to do.

For hanging around the main town and North Beach, walking suffices. The area is so compact I was able to see the ocean in several directions from most places. When venturing south to explore the rest of the island—and this is a must—riding is much more fun. If you’re not a seasoned motorbike rider, go for the golf cart like I did. Expect to pay about $55 per day at a renter like Mega Ciros who came highly recommended.

Where to stay

Isla Mujeres is a haven for small, independently-owned hotels, inns, B&Bs, and vacation condos, with few buildings rising above four stories high. The vast majority cost well under $150 per night with most between $30 and $100.

Because my airfare was a bit steeper than usual, I opted for lower end accommodations for my two nights in town. Hotel Bucaneros, smack dab in the middle of the main street, Avenue Hidalgo, afforded me a clean room, onsite breakfast, and a welcome cocktail for $40 per night including taxes. I confess my guestroom was a little too cramped for two people, but a fellow lodger claimed the offerings get much more comfortable for just $10 to $20 more.

For my final night, I spent a bit more and stayed at Villa Las Brisas, about half way down the island on the Caribbean side. Opened three years ago by convivial ex-Pats, Ashley and Curtis Blogin, this oceanside B&B evokes the essence of laidback Mexican cool, with an open-sided living room and a welcome sign that reads “beer so cold, it’ll make your teeth hurt.” Fiesta-themed bungalows overlooking the pool and ocean start at $125, including taxes and hot breakfast, and come equipped with large baths, ceiling fans, and a charming conch showerhead. Palapa suites, with hammocks hung kitty corner across the room and floating beds, cost an additional $25.

Other Isla Mujeres hotels I liked

Isla Mujeres is getting noticed as a great place to buy real estate, mostly for private homeowners. Hotels are following suit by building small establishments that seem more like private beach houses. One of the newest on the block is Casa Ixchel, which maintains a trendy Asian “serenity” look and feel throughout. Rooms are decorated in calming cotton tones and come with large tubs and natural beauty products; some have kitchens or can accommodate families. I was taken in by the wellness-promoting concept, featuring healthy food, spa services including chakra pool and Mayan healing baths, yoga retreats, and relaxing spaces. The hotel has eight rooms, with surprisingly low rates from around $79 per night.

On the more upscale end, with rooms from $185 per night, the three-year-old acclaimed Hotel Secreto on North Beach is a pleasingly stark and airy boutique hotel with a private beach, infinity pool, and refreshing breakfast room. Although the hotel does not have a full-service restaurant, it has arranged a delivery service with the finest restaurants island-wide. In true Isla fashion, this nine-room property is the brainchild of someone, owner Scott Boyan, who came to the island from the States on assignment, then fell in love with a local girl and never left.

Visit Isla for a complete list of hotels.

Affordable activities

Isla Mujeres is a lazy island and the whole point is to not do too much. Nearly all activities have a relaxing pace, and luckily, doing nothing doesn’t have to cost a thing. The few things that charge are unique enough or chock-full of value to justify the expense. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Free – Walking around town: Some of the best action occurs on Avenue Hildalgo, which traverses just seven blocks. It’s the place for shopping, mostly for pottery, trinkets, and beachwear, as well as nightlife, where I found everyone at play, including children engrossed in hide and seek and adults like me absorbing margaritas and listening to south-of-the-border cover bands.
  • Free – North Beach: North Beach owns the island’s largest expanse of white sand, which plays foreground to the turquoise Caribbean Sea. When not lounging, there are volley ball nets and in-sand refreshments available.
  • Free – Butterfly viewing: Certainly not outwardly touted as one of the island’s main draws, butterflies flittering around were a sight to behold. I found myself the center of many spectacular black, yellow, and orange swarms, particularly along the coastline.
  • $ Turtle Farm: In an attempt to protect turtle eggs from predators, this small attraction supported by Mexican government and private funds is worth visiting, even if it’s mostly exciting for little kids. ($1)
  • $ Cocktails on the beach: There are several places on North Beach to enjoy happy hour and admire the setting sun. I loved the popular Buho’s, known as the “Swing Bar” because of it’s, well, swing seating instead of bar stools. The two-for-one specials really made me smile. ($4)
  • $$ Self-drive island tour: I spent one leisurely afternoon circumnavigating the island. Points of interest include the Shell House, which has been featured on HGTV for its quirky conch-shaped architecture (you can’t go inside, but it’s free to look at); South Point, which features Mayan ruins and a lighthouse overlooking the crashing surf (free); and El Garrafon National Park and snorkeling reef, which was closed due to hurricane damage when I was there, but will reopen on July 1 ($15). ($55 for 24-hour golf cart rental)
  • $$-$$$ Contoy Island and snorkeling: Contoy Island, a 50-minute excursion from Isla, is an uninhabited bird sanctuary teeming with frigate birds nesting and circling in a Hitchcockian display. It’s so protected that only few boats are permitted to dock. I met up with Captain Tony Garcia at his house on Matamoros Street in town, after hearing he gave the best excursions. His tour lasted six hours and included snorkeling, free time to explore the island, a visit from a friendly manta ray, and a BBQ lunch complete with fish caught that morning, homemade guacamole, and a cooler of Sol beer. ($50)

A note on dining

Food on Isla comes in many forms, from the expected Mexican and Caribbean delights to fine international cuisine. Most eateries, including street cafes, full-service restaurants, and beach clubs, charge very little—$4 enchiladas here, $10 shrimp dishes there— while others go all out with multiple-course meals. Here are my picks:

  • $ Cita: Cita is a great cafe on a quiet corner in town that serves smoothies, coffee drinks, lemonade, and snacks.
  • $$ Sunset Grill:
  • Sunset Grill is an open-air restaurant right on the beach. I knew I was in for something special, when the waiter picked up a sandwich board representing the daily menu and placed it next to me. That night was coconut shrimp.

  • $$ Casa O’s: This palm-thatched restaurant near the South Point has all the goods—manicured gardens, gorgeous sunset, outdoor seating, and fine menu and wine list—to create an enchanting evening. As a sundown breeze began to stir, one of the proprietors draped a Mexican wrap around my shoulders in motherly fashion, making me feel as if I belonged to her.
  • $$$ Zama: Zama’s, a beach club and day spa on the southeastern shore, is a perfect place to stop for lunch. Aside from a menu that includes lobster quesadillas and fresh fruit drinks, it invites visitors to stay all day, sunbathing on its aesthetically primmed beach, dallying with water activities, or getting some shade in its wooden pergola.

As my ferry first approached Isla Mujeres’ dock, I marveled at the row of small waterside buildings and wooden-roofed fishing boats colored in weathered shades, some primary, some pastel. Locals, and visitors who I assumed were frequenters, lounged together in harmony at seaside bars sipping Coronas and chatting about the catch of the day. Little did I know by the end of my short stay that islanders would call me by name as I walked by, letting me join their inner circle. From the very beginning of my visit, it was easy to claim I wasn’t in Cancun anymore. But by the time I left, I definitely knew.

To me, Isla Mujeres was the Mexico I hoped to see. But remember, try to keep this between us.

For my next column, I’m off to Holland to celebrate Rembrandt’s 400th anniversary and seek out spring tulips, all for under $500. I’m always on the lookout for new destination ideas. If there’s a place you’d like me to explore, please email me at

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