Imagine sitting on a breezy ferry, attempting to cool down from the melting Mexican humidity. You’re nearing a beach lined with marinas, fisherman pulling in nets from their paint-chipped wooden fishing boats, men dressed in full suits playing guitars on the beach and red plastic tables and arm chairs resting under canopies in the sand, the perfect beach-side restaurant setting. This is Isla Mujeres.
An island only 8 kilometers in length, Isla Mujeres, what used to be a quiet fishing island is now a booming tourist hotspot. We were thankful to visit during the low season, avoiding the mass of tourists but taking in the low September sun.
Sea Hawk diving resort was our home for the week, an 8-room suite hotel. It’s located just a minute walk from Playa Norte, a white sand beach wrapping the northern end of the island, only a five minute walk from the city center. We loved Sea Hawk. They provided beach chairs, hammocks, WiFi, air conditioning and there was a small kitchenette to store food and make coffee. We were more than comfortable. At the end of the week our lovely hosts felt more like friends.
Besides the typical beach vacay activities (sleeping, beach, food, repeat), we tried our best to leave the comfort of our air conditioned private zone to take in what the island has to offer. Our first snorkel trip was another check off the bucket list; swimming with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. Just off the Isla Contoy, the full moon three days prior resulted in an abundance of phytoplankton (it’s when they reproduce) so the whale sharks were out to dine. Such gentle creatures, we were arms-length in distance, swimming along with the current of their gills. The best part is these whale sharks are in their complete natural habitat and the crew was very diligent on not feeding or touching them. It was also the last week that this tour was available due to government regulations on allowing them to be left alone for a certain amount of time. We chose a good week. Click here to see some under water footage!
Our second and third diving/snorkel tour (also organized with Sea Hawk divers) took us to the Manchones Reef, a twelve kilometer-long reef full of exotic fish, flora and underwater life. I was the only snorkeler so I felt pretty special to have my own personal guide. Tito, a marine biologist, didn’t stop pointing out barracudas, sting rays, eagle rays, a few different kinds of sea turtles and a wide variety of fish including trumpet fish, the princess angel fish, cow fish and the parrot fish. His passion for the ocean is admirable and contagious, making my experience that much more memorable. I would go back every day if I could. My boyfriend also loved his diving experience, an up close view of the rainbow-colored corals and accompanying exotic fish and sea life.
If you’ve been to Mexico I’m sure you’re already salivating at the thought of the local food. If you haven’t, then start planning your trip. Typical Mexican plates were part of our daily diet – ceviche, tortilla, guacamole, fish tacos, nachos, rice, beans and hot sauce. We made sure to try the catch of the day and some special treats as well, the red snapper being one our favorite fish. Just outside of the city centre are all kinds of food stands, which is where we indulged in crunchy, homemade crepes filled with Nutella and cheese, our favorite dessert, lime sorbet following as a close second. Ice cream and sorbet shops are popular all over the island but since they use local ingredients the flavor is more authentic than any other sorbet I’ve had.
Though Isla Mujeres is pretty touristy it’s pretty easy to find some hidden gems, so long as horizons are expanded beyond the depths of the city center. We found a few delicious, family-owned restaurants that were the cheapest and most mouth-watering, in walking distance. We loved La Lomita and Abuelos, two smaller, off the path restaurants specializing in local, home made dishes. The experience as a whole is better as well, shaking hands and laughing with the owner with local tunes in the background instead of listening to other tourists gabbing about their vacation.
Though my initial impression of Isla Mujeres was that it is a huge touristy hub, I realize now that it is so much more. Once we got away from the over priced shops of beach wear and Mexico imprinted souvenirs, we found delicious food, breathtaking scenery, learned history and saw real culture. We had a blast touring the island on our golf carts and bicycles, swimming and practicing Spanish. It’s a great option for travelers who like to get away for a few days to basque in the sun while learning about a different culture.