Escaping to the ultimate hideaway haven
Barely five miles long and less than a half mile wide, this enchanting island is a speedy 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun. Despite its boutique size, Isla has ample restaurants and night spots plus a slew of sultry, white-sand beaches. And better still, the island manages to hold onto its quaint fishing-village ambience.
Isla has generated a huge cache of historical legends, lore and fact. Even the genesis of its name is up for grabs. Centuries ago, the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula designated it a sacred spot devoted to the worship of Ix’chel, goddess of the moon and fertility. (The remnants of her temple stand at the southernmost tip of the island.) In 1517, the Spanish Conquistador Fernando Hernandez de Cordoba set sail from Santiago de Cuba in search of slaves. Blown off course he stumbled upon the triggerfish-shaped island. Seeing only women and temples filled with female deities (all the men were out fishing, the story goes), he dubbed his serendipitous discovery Isla Mujeres, literally “island of the women.” In the 17th century, buccaneers and swashbucklers deemed the island a handy place to stash their loot-and their women-while they continued playing on the open seas. While some of these historical details are in dispute, the charm of the island is uncontested.
First things first: It’s too darn hot to explore this pint-sized tropical island on foot. Cruise around by moped, golf cart or, if you’re feeling like a kid, in a crayon-colored Kawasaki jeep (the latter offers the ease of a moped with the safety and comfort of four wheels). A one-day rental is about $60 (US). And there’s no need to fret about theft insurance. As one operator noted, “It’s a small island. If the cart gets stolen, we’ll find it.”
On an island this compact, bewitching sights and scenery abound. In the center of town, on the north side of the island, stores painted banana yellow and lime green with scalloped balconies line the narrow cobblestone streets of the shopping district. Comparison-shop and hone your negotiating skills. While the merchandise is similar, the quality varies. At the Mercado de Artisanias, the local crafts market located off the Calle Matamoros, you can pick up unique locally made objects. If your tastes lean more to Van Cleef & Arpels, you’ll find one on Ave. Morelos. But, really, shopping isn’t the reason to visit this island. It’s all about water.
Garrafon Park, on the easternmost end of the island, is an ecological preserve, aquatic playground and a superior spot to spend a long, leisurely day in and out of the water. Kayak, snorkel, scuba, float in an oversized inner tube, catch a cable ride out over the water or take it easy just swinging in a hammock on the grassy knoll overlooking the park. In the afternoon, a local band convenes outside the ice cream bar. On occasion, a parrot family that resides on a perch nearby seems to sing along. The avian quintet, their iridescent blue and green feathers sparkling in the sun, makes up in enthusiasm what they lack in vocal styling. And, before you exit this Eden, stop at La Tienda, a boutique stocked with locally made Caribbean/Mexican clothes.
Passionate scuba divers sign up for a trip to the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, discovered years ago by Jacques Cousteau. In an underwater cenote, reef sharks gather in groups to feed on microscopic sea creatures. If you prefer close encounters minus the diving gear, head for Dolphin Discovery, where you can spend a half hour getting up close and personal with a pair of dolphins. The dolphins glide around you, beside you, vocalizing, snacking on seafood provided by their trainer and generally readying themselves for some amazing antics. Kissing, nuzzling and other dolphin behaviors, including that irresistible Flipper-like giggle we humans find so enchanting, are not learned responses but rather behaviors these amazing creatures routinely exhibit in the wild. With hand gestures and rewards, the trainers prompt the dolphins to repeat those behaviors on cue. Short of skydiving, few experiences equal the thrill of shooting through the water, propelled by the dolphins’ snouts gently pressed against your instep.
What can top a ride with and a kiss from one of these amazing, irresistible creatures? Nothing much, though nuzzling a nurse shark at Playa Paraiso isn’t a bad follow-up. A trainer keeps watch as visitors enter the sharks’ cordoned off seawater pool. Make sure your traveling companion has the camera ready before the trainer places one of these spongy creatures in your outstretched arms. They’re docile, slippery and very heavy.
If these close encounters of the aquatic kind leave you thirsty, head for the beach bar at the Hotel Na Balam on the Playa Norte, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. The regulars show up at three for the two for one cocktail hour. (The lunchtime grills, selling lobster and local fish by the ounce, are also worth a detour.) Park yourself on one of the wooden swings or pull up a beach chair facing the water and wait for the sunset while sipping your tequila sunrise.
Entry requirements: passport or original birth certificate
Language: Spanish and some English
Currency: Mexican Peso
For more information: isla-mujeres.net
Dolphin Discovery: DolphinDiscovery.com
Garrafon Park: garrafon.com
Na Balam: nabalam.com