So before my amiga Sue-Lyn moved back to Chicago this week, we took a quick trip to Isla Mujeres, in the Yucatan. I love spur-of-the-moment trips, especially when they involve perfect turquoise-water-and-white-sand beaches, swimming with whale sharks, and half-off the price of an incredibly fun bed-and-breakfast, Casa Sirena!
I’ve already blabbed about the awesomeness of whale sharks, now it’s time to blab about Isla Mujeres. The little island — only about 7km long — is located off the coast of Cancun, but has somehow escaped the predictable and aggressive tourism found on the mainland. Sure, there are overpriced trinkets and bad food for sale along the island’s most popular beach, Playa Norte, but there’s also a refreshing hippie vibe to the place. (This may have been helped by the fact that many tourists have been scared away from Mexico because of the swine flu, leaving behind people like me, who don’t give a damn. Also, a new pet peeve of mine: Locals who won’t talk in Spanish with me when I visit touristy areas.)
A few Isla Mujeres must-do’s:
1. Eat lunch (I recommend the sopa de lima and shrimp cocktail, with a limonada) and then soak in the pools at zen-inducing Zama Beach Club.
2. After watching a rainstorm roll by, walk to the end of the pier at Zama, and dive in.
3. Rent a golf cart — hands-down the best way to get around the island. The top speed of 20 mph means you’re forced to “take it slow” and take in the sights. Definitely do a loop across the entire island. The windward Caribbean side — with its higher cliffs and land stripped of trees, thanks to all those hurricanes — has a stark beauty all its own. And it’s just sorta absurd to cruise around in a golf cart.
4. If you don’t go visit the whale sharkies (which will probably include a coral reef visit after the swim), then schedule a snorkel trip. There are several options on the island, like the overpriced Garrafon park or the next-door and much cheaper Garrafon de Castilla beach club. It’s a little downtrodden, but for $50 pesos, the price can’t be beat. The reef is pretty beat up in this area, but I did see elk coral, a grouper, barracuda and a huge queen parrotfish.
5. Or, pay a little bit more and take a boat trip to the reef north of the island near Isla Contoy, which is protected and in much better shape.
6. Eat traditional Yucatecan food at El Charco’s, located in the neighborhood where most Isla residents live.
7. Or, if you’d rather just drink beers, swim in calm shallow water (that seems to stretch across all the way to Cancun) and take in a little sun, then head to Playa Norte and rent a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella for 80 pesos or so. You may have to fight off some annoying beach vendors, and the food will be mediocre, but one can’t deny how pretty it is.