I spent last weekend, quite unexpectedly, in Cancun. Specifically, for 24 hours, I was in Isla Mujeres.
Here’s how it happened: my boss told my team on Friday that one of us needed to go to Cancun for work the next week. Someone from our team had been working remotely with the team there, but for some reason, suddenly we needed some boots on the ground. Now, you’d think a bunch of people would leap at the opportunity for a work-sponsored travel to Cancun, but, well, life gets in the way sometimes. In the end, David gallantly volunteered to take one for the team.
It was 4PM on Friday and we looked at each other and said, well, how about we go there now? Spend the weekend? Then I could go home in time to work on Monday, and he would stay and work the week as planned. Wait, what? Who spends a weekend in Cancun, specially if coming from the west coast? Yeah, we’re crazy. The only way it was gonna work was because we were airline employees; no one should be buying a last-minute ticket to Cancun, ever. Plus, neither of us were experts whatsoever on where to stay and where to go and what to do. We hurriedly did our research, booked our hotel on Isla Mujeres, and off we went.
I’ll spare you the flight details (red-eye flights and a lot of praying to the non-rev gods were involved), but by noon of Saturday we landed in Cancun airport.
WHY ISLA MUJERES?
David had been to the Cancun area once before and stayed at Playa del Carmen. My quick search told me that staying in Cancun itself wasn’t the best plan. It’s very urban, and reminded me a little bit of LA: a city with some beaches. I’m sure it’s got some treasures, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
However, having only 2 days meant I didn’t want to spend too much time getting places. Playa del Carmen is apparently 45 minutes to an hour away. Also it seemed like the popular spot: all-inclusives, resorts galore… not really my scene. Isla Mujeres is a small island, only about 5 miles across, and you can see and do a lot in a couple days. The beaches looked beautiful. The hotels are inexpensive. And it was within fairly easy reach.
GETTING TO AND FROM
There is only one real way to get to Isla Mujeres: you take a ferry. The island is only about 15km (10mi) from Cancun. So, the only real question is how you’re getting to the ferry terminal.
From the airport, we decided to take a bus. The ADO buses are easy to find; there are signs at the airport pointing you toward ground transportation. There is also a booth right before you exit the airport that tells you where to catch the ADO buses: they’re at platforms 1 & 2. Head out of the airport, veer to your right, and you’ll see the platforms. You catch the bus to downtown Cancun bus terminal, and then a cab from there to the ferry terminal. The bus cost us 192 pesos (about $14 for us both, and they put luggage in a compartment on the bottom of the bus). It was a comfortable, if long-ish ride: didn’t seem that far but there was a bit of traffic.
At the bus terminal, we followed the exit signs and the cabs were right in the front. The ride to the ferry terminal was $6 and very quick; just tell them Puerto Juarez and you should be good to go.
The other option is to take a cab straight from the airport, or to book a private transfer. Both of these options would be costlier, but may be a smarter plan if you’re traveling in a group and can split the cost, if you’ve got a lot of luggage that you don’t want to worry about dragging around, or if you just want the quickest way possible.
The Ultramar ferry runs every half hour during the day, but check here beforehand to make sure. We bought our tickets right there; the cost was 146 MXN (about $10) roundtrip per person. Do NOT lose the ticket to get back! Isla Mujeres seems like a pretty popular day trip from the Cancun area, and for good reason, but the ferry wasn’t totally full and we easily got on.
Leaving was just as easy: my flight back was at 2:25 PM, so I took the 11:30 ferry from the island, then a cab from the ferry terminal. The cab was a bit pricey at 500 pesos, but I made it to the airport at around 12:30 PM, which was perfect.
WHERE TO STAY
I don’t really feel too qualified to give advice on where to stay, since I’ve only been once and didn’t really hang out for too long. BUT, I can say that I absolutely loved where we stayed.
There appear to be a bunch of options: hotels, smaller villas, condo-type places. Like I said, the island is pretty small, so you’d have a hard time finding a really bad place I think; I would guess that most places offer some sort of view and it’ll come down to amenities.
We chose the Rocamar Hotel. It’s a very short walk from the ferry terminal (2 blocks or so? 10 minutes) and almost all the rooms face the ocean. Granted, the sea is a bit rough on this side and the beach isn’t swimmable, which wasn’t a big deal for us but might be a consideration for some. We were in room 23, on the third floor, so we had an amazing view of the ocean, and the sound of it lulled us as we went to sleep. The hammock on the balcony was a wonderful way to relax as well. The rooms are pretty plain: king bed, fridge, TV (which we never even touched, as usual), safe. Bathroom was just as plain and the shower area didn’t even have a door, just a wall that separated it from the toilet. We had some issues with wifi (it didn’t work in the room at all for most of the stay, and then miraculously worked perfectly at the end) and the water pressure wasn’t the greatest… Small quibbles though and didn’t really ruin anything for us.
Its location is also pretty central and it was an easy walk to most food places.. then again, in an island only 5 miles long, everything is pretty much walkable.
There are five ways: walk, take a cab, rent a golf cart, rent bicycles, or rent motorbikes.
The most common (and the one we tried) is to rent a golf cart. They are all over the island; rentals are either for an hour, for the day, for the evening or for 24 hours. Our hotel offered a 24hr rental for $47, which was better than the $70 that a shop down the street was asking for. Just explore your options and choose the best for your needs. The golf carts are fairly easy to operate and can fit a maximum of four people (possibly five or six if the others are small children). Note that they are really pretty slow; roads on the island are usually two-lane so make sure to stay aware of other vehicles and let quicker ones pass.
WHAT TO DO
The best part! For such a small island, it’s got something for everyone.
EAT AND DRINK
There are a LOT of restaurants and eateries on the island. Most of it is Mexican, some a fusion of Mexican and some other cuisine. I’m not really a fan, but when in Mexico…
Oceanside eating is definitely available but somewhat pricey, of course. Most of these places are between Playa Norte and the ferry terminal. Do as we did and just walk along, checking out the menus and deciding on what strikes your fancy. One memorable place had some slightly higher-priced meals but included all cocktails, so that might be your spot if you want to get your drink on.
Since I had such a short time, I didn’t get to do very much, although I packed in what I could for sure! A lot of the time, we just strolled around town. Also below our hotel was a boardwalk that hugged the coast, and we walked along that path to the beach and back to the hotel, a nice relaxing stroll. The little beach at the end of the boardwalk had some super interesting sea life: bright pink snails and trilobite-looking creatures.
One thing I really aimed to do (and highly recommend) is the “turtle farm”. It’s called Tortugranja and is located south of the island; there is signage from the main road and it’s pretty well known to the locals. Essentially they are a turtle conservation effort. They have a large-ish building that has aquariums along the interior perimeter showing various creatures you can find around Isla Mujeres. And, in the middle, six pools that contain turtles of various ages and species: green, leatherback, etc. Outside there are even more pools and also a blocked-off section of the sea where they keep some turtles and sharks. They also have a sort of hatchery where turtle eggs are carefully buried in the sand to keep them from predators.
There wasn’t any sort of tour guide to explain things, so I’m making some assumptions here. But it definitely looks like the turtles “graduate” from one pool to the next as they grow. In October of every year they also release some adult turtles to the ocean.
I was perfectly happy paying my 30 pesos just to see the all the turtles, and help with the conservation effort. But, as we were checking out the tanks in the building, an older gentleman came out, plucked a sea urchin from the tidepool, and put it in my palm! Okay, I’ve never held a sea urchin before and was a bit freaked… what if it poked me, aren’t they poisonous? It tickled. I put it down pretty quickly. He also attempted to hand me a giant conch-looking thing and a crab. Yes, a live horseshoe crab. I actually ran away from that one, much to David’s amusement.
The excitement was not over though. The dude picked up a bigger turtle from one of the pools and offered it to me! Oh my god. I had, obviously, never held a turtle in my life. Is that even allowed? We tried to verify that it wouldn’t hurt the turtles, but he didn’t speak much English. He showed me how to hold the turtle, David snapped a photo, we swapped, and I was happy.
And then he gave me a baby turtle. Yeah… nothing is topping this one.
Even if you don’t get to hold turtles, I definitely suggest paying a visit to Tortugranja.
We headed off from Tortugranja to the southern tip of the island, appropriately named Punta Sur. Along the way, we caught the sunset at a little viewpoint off the side of the road. Beautiful view and super romantic. *wink, wink*
Punta Sur itself has quite a few different things on offer. You can check out a small park to the left, and there’s the Ixchel ruins at the tip. They’ve turned the area into a little outdoor sculpture park, which makes for a fairly nice walk. It’s 30 pesos to enter. Iguanas are all over the place here too! There are some amazing views here.
This post was long, sorry about that… as you can see, 24 hours is a lot in Isla Mujeres! A quick search will tell you that there’s so much more to see and do on the island. Or, you can just chill, which is one of the best parts about taking an island trip in the first place. It’s definitely on my list of awesome adventures and repeat vacations.