This article is from the November 1996 The Mexico File
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Isla Mujeres, A Perfect Name for This Island
by David Simmonds
There seem to be two theories about how the island got its name, Island of Women. The more romantic rendition has it that the plundering pirates of yore used this location to stash their women for safe-keeping while they were away at sea, not unlike the relationship our modern day U.S. Navy has with San Diego.
The prevailing and more likely theory concerns the numerous female terra cotta figurines found by the explorer Hernandez de Cordoba in the Mayan ceremonial sites. I imagine a sort of ancient Barbie Doll manufacturing plant. All the young girls who weren't sacrificed to the fertility God would be rewarded with their own Ba-Ra-Be.
The beauty of Isla Mujeres is that its name is so relevant centuries later. Only maybe it should be changed to Isla Mujeres de Frauleins. Perhaps I arrived during a particularly European vacation period, because there were people from all over. The Germans (majority), French, Italians, Swiss, and Japanese were all there and it really made for an interesting trip. And the female portion of the population was much greater than the male. This says something about this island...it's a safe feeling place, safe enough that women of all ages sunbathe topless in spite of a few slobbering, knuckle-dragging guys who cruised the beach from dawn till dusk. Let me amend that. Eighty percent of the women were topless, and the rest were American. (Please, no letters focusing on sexism here: I'm only offering an observation!)
Getting to Isla is easy enough, even though you must come close enough to Cancun to be exposed to the skyline of generic "resorts" which line the twelve-mile spit of land that was the brain-child of a computer some twenty-two years ago. I remember it back then with its one hotel and a few fisherman shacks along the beach. (I'll actually cover Cancun in a later issue...and try to show that you can go there and find charming in-town hotels to use as a stopping off spot while visiting the ruins and natural wonders of the Yucatan peninsula. But it won't be easy.)
The Island Shuttle
The ferries from the mainland leave Puerto Juarez, just north of Cancun, every half hour and cost only a couple of dollars. There is a fast boat that takes twenty minutes and a slow boat that takes forty. If you are in no hurry you should take the slower one. The main reason for this is that you can sit outside, breathe fresh air, hang over the rail and look into the sea. It puts you in a better frame of mind for the ambience of the island. The fast boat has a blaring TV in a closed off air-conditioned room and curtains on the windows. I'd hate to be on it if it decided to sink with its two small doors for one-hundred people to escape from, many of whom would have been drinking since their plane departed from Miami.
The Island Shuffle
Don't go to Isla for all-night discos or majestic Mayan ruins. There are just a few things to do there, and most of them somehow include the use of a hammock. This is an extremely kick-back isle. For most of the visitors it's early to bed and late to rise, only then to shuffle to a spot on the beach or a shady hammock.
If you really want to do something, I suggest renting a moto (scooter) and motoring to the south end of the island. The town is on the north end and the island is only five miles long by one-half mile wide. On the way you can stop and spend some time at Garrafon National Park for some snorkeling on the only coral reef close enough to reach without having a boat. However, you can't actually swim over the reef. They have it roped off with buoys so all you can do is swim around the perimeter of the reef. And at most times of the day you'll see as many people as you will fish, so try to get there early before the boats start arriving from the cultural Mecca across the way...Cancun.
I applaud the effort to try to save the reef from further destruction, but in truth, I think they may be a little late. There were some beautiful fish in the area, but I think the reef might be mostly dead. It had that color, or, I should say, "lack of." It's not a large reef, maybe half the size of a football field. After one trip around it I left the horde and went down the coastline along the rocks for several hundred yards. This was much more pleasant and I saw more fish. Only one other person was doing the same.
The park itself is a pleasant little self-contained place. You can eat, drink, buy souvenirs, rent equipment and a locker, and grab a place to lie or sit between swims. The entrance fee, locker and the snorkeling gear will run you about $6.00US. There are showers and restrooms on site as well. All in all, I had a pleasant half-day at Garrafon. It was the off-season, so it didn't get too crowded, but I think it could during the high season.
There is also the east (windward) side of the island, which can have good snorkeling if the water is calm enough. This side is mostly rocky but the water can be pretty treacherous. The surge can throw you into the rocks before you know it. So unless you are very experienced, stick to the calm (lee) side . The west and north sides are calm and placid, perfect for a swim and a snorkel, but for the most part there is just sand. And fish don't usually congregate in places devoid of food and protection. That white sand and turquoise blue sea is a beautiful sight but unless you find a reef or rocks, the diving is a bore.
As you moped down the island you will pass a couple of more beaches where you might want to spend some time. Playa Pescador and Playa Lancheros are fine little spots with palapa restaurants for food and drink, but looking across to the west, the few miles to the mainland, you see the growing theme park of Cancun. And suddenly you lose that feeling of being remote, away from it all. Time to go find that hammock and a beverage! By the way, while swinging in that hammock, have a copy of the book Don't Stop the Carnival (Herman Wouk) with you. Although it is set on a fictional Caribbean island with a primarily black population (I think St. Croix was the model), its a great read about third-world island life. It is poignant, funny and engrossing novel. I have heard that Wouk and Jimmy Buffett are working on a play based on the book.
If you get real energetic, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing trips can be arranged at several places in town and near the marina where the ferry arrives. This town is real small, five blocks by ten blocks, so you'll have no problem finding the services you want.
You may have heard about the cave dwelling, sleeping sharks of Mujeres that were discovered by a local diver ten or fifteen years ago. If you have a fondness for being in a cave with large creatures that could potentially eat you (no, not your city council), then you might want to contract with one of the dive shops to take you. Not being real keen on sharks, I passed on this adventure.
The other two major tourist attractions on Isla are a pile of rocks and a house. The rocks are at the very south tip by the lighthouse and are actually a Maya temple...or at least it was until Hurricane Gilbert blew through in 1988, pretty much destroying what little there was to the site. The rocks have been somewhat reconstructed, but this is no Tikal. It does provide a nice view of the sea, which I believe is why it was built in the first place, as an observation point for the ancient Maya.
The house is called Mundaca, named after the slave-trader who built it in the early 1800's when he wasn't dealing in human flesh in Cuba and Belize (formerly British Honduras). If you are touring the island you should stop by for a look. It won't take long and spending all day in a hammock probably isn't a good idea. Although I'm not sure why.
What's Left?...Eat and Sleep
Hotels on Isla are fairly expensive compared to most of Mexico. I paid forty-three dollars for a room that was very similar to the one for sixteen dollars I had in Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca (April 1996 issue). I think the Yucatan prices are influenced by the rest of the Caribbean. They are priced in comparison to their competitors in Jamaica and Barbados rather than Mazatlan and La Paz. The peninsula gets a lot of traffic from the U.S. and Europe and it really isn't that large. The west coast of Mexico is primarily visited by people from the western United States spread out over 4,500 miles of Mexican coastline if you include Baja. The Yucatan coast is very small in comparison, trying to accommodate as many, if not more people. Cancun airport had the most tourists of any other in Mexico this past year.
I found three hotels to recommend on the beach, all in different price ranges. The most expensive, and really the nicest, is the Na Balam. Located on Playa Norte, the best swimming beach, Na Balam caters to a little older and wealthier clientele than you would find at the others. The spacious garden grounds contain thirty-one rooms, all large and very nicely furnished. The bungalow style buildings are two-storied and all have a balcony or terrace. The hotel's restaurant, Zazil-Ha, has some of the island's best food featuring vegetarian, Mayan and Mexican dishes, as well as the burgers and fries that I saw a group of about thirty Germans devouring. The palapa bar by the beach is a great gathering place for tourists and residents to gather and become acquainted. There are even yoga classes and massage sessions for hotel guests in this very serene and beautiful setting. In spite of these amenities, it is nothing like the garish resorts of Cancun.
Another fine choice is the popular Hotel Posada Del Mar. This isn't actually right on the beach, but across the street from the west beach facing the mainland. It is more of an in-town beach about three blocks to the left as you get off the ferry. The rooms are large and cost about one-half the price of Na Balam. The three-storied structure with ocean views are preferable to the bungalows located on the rear of the property. The pool is probably the nicest on the island with a waterfall-like feature at one end. The attached restaurant, Penguino, is an island favorite with live music on weekends. However, I have to tell you: they tried to overcharge me one night and it took a bit of an effort to have them admit their error.
My last choice is actually my first choice. I liked Cabanas Maria del Mar best of all, and not because it was the cheapest, which it was. It just had the "feel"...the feel of a Bohemian outpost far removed from a tourist center. The crowd is a little younger and really a little looser in attitude and joie de vivre. It wasn't loud and noisy, or anything like that, just less pretentious, and it made you feel very much at home. The selling point for me was that many of the rooms have their own hammock out front. Some of the second and third floor rooms don't have them, so if you call for a reservation, get a room on the first floor of the three storied building. The sand will be at your feet.
The rooms are small and not particularly well furnished, although they do come with mini-refrigerators, which is a real bonus. The palapa beach bar is the place to be for happy hour, which lasts until the sun sets. A friendly group of people congregates here and I met travelers from throughout the world. The location on Playa Norte, just down from Na Balam, is near the hostel, Poc Na. And although Poc Na is a hostel, there are no age restrictions. I met people staying there who were probably fifty, traveling alone, and wanting the hostel experience and the three-dollar beds. Many younger single females were also there, finding others to hang with and to become travel partners to other parts of Mexico. I talked to two Germans, an Italian and a Japanese who had all met each other there and were on their way to Mexico City, traveling together and becoming friends, probably for life. Now that is the kind of thing I like to see on my travels, not the sterile poolside scene at the Ritz-Carlton. This is a well run and clean establishment and should be considered by anyone on a budget or just for the experience.
Getting back to Cabanas Maria Del Mar, it also has a modest restaurant with surprisingly good food. Although none of the food on the island is great, I had a Pescado Veracruzana there that was excellent. I think it was about four dollars with a cold beer.
One other hotel I would like to mention can be seen hovering over the end of Playa Norte, the Hotel Del Prado. Actually, it has been closed since 1988, thanks to Hurricane Gilbert. All I can say is that it's too bad it wasn't leveled at that time. It is several stories high and is really an eyesore on this beautiful coast. Maybe its demise discouraged other similar structures from being built. Let 'em go to Cancun.
I like the town on this little island. The streets are very narrow and the shopkeepers friendly. It feels very European in character and is just a comfortable place to relax. Two popular open air restaurants on Hidalgo are quite good with pleasant ambience. Meson del Bucanero and Rolandi's offer similar menus with pasta, pizza and seafood as well as steaks and Mexican plates.
For a good street taco after hours, go to a stand at the corner of Mateos and Vicente Guerrero, near the Playa Norte. There are several open-air restaurants along the waterfront near the ferry, all with pretty good fresh seafood.
I met a couple from Washington, D.C., who have invested with a couple of guys from Texas in a new restaurant venture, Ya Ya's, that should open soon. They promised good food, music and a lively bar with satellite TV for sporting events. It is located just past the Hotel Posada del Mar, on the corner. (So Ralf and Christine...here's your plug that I promised over cervezas. Good luck in your enterprise.)
The town rolls it up fairly early. There is a late night dance spot at Palapa on the Playa Norte that goes until three or four in the morning. But most people spend their evenings having dinner or drinks at one of the restaurants. It provides an opportunity for the hammock marks to disappear on your backside.