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Adventures in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

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A Mini-Vacation on Isla Mujeres

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 14, 2007

View of the Caribbean from Isla MujeresIsla Mujeres is often marketed in the tourist industry as Mexico’s Caribbean island, causing visions of lush tropical mountains and deserted beaches right out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And the name, “The Isle Of Women,” can create even more fantasy for the unsuspecting traveler. The reality is that Isla Mujeres is a quaint Mexi-Caribbean town on a flat, largely underdeveloped piece of land not far off the beaches of Cancun. Exotic it is not. However, it is peaceful, nice, friendly and relaxing.

When our friends from San Francisco, Jan and Eric, were in town recently they wondered if there might be some part of the Mayan Riviera they hadn’t seen yet. After several trips down here they knew Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum pretty well. They wanted to see something new. We suggested a few days in Isla Mujeres.

We left early in the day and drove up to Puerto Juarez, the ferry dock to Isla Mujeres located just north of Cancun. When we first started visiting this part of Mexico many years ago the ferries to Isla Mujeres were small little outboard motor affairs taking 12 or 15 people to the island. Now they are large, powerful double-decker boats carrying many more people for the 15-minute ride across the straits between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. We parked the van in the secure lot at the front of the ferry building for only $60 pesos. The cost of the ferry was $65 pesos round trip per person—a real bargain.

Once we got to the island, we rented a golf cart so that we could see some of the outlying areas. Scooters are also readily available to rent. There are a number of streets in the little town and a surprising amount of traffic, mostly taxis. If you’re just planning on going to the beach and strolling around in town, you can do it on foot. Golf carts aren’t cheap – $550 pesos for 24 hours – but they are fun. They also move easily through the narrow streets, along the bumpy beachfront roads and even right onto the sand.

The sandbar on Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres, MexicoThere are two main beach areas, both within walking distance from one another. One is the waterfront which faces Cancun and has several boat docks (the western side of the island). During the day party boats from Cancun deposit day trippers to soak up the sun and tequila at the many beach clubs which line the shore. The water is pretty but the swimming area is small and roped in as currents and boat traffic make the deeper water dangerous for swimmers. The other beach area is Playa Norte (North Beach) which faces north towards Holbox Island and the Gulf of Mexico. This area is perfect for swimming as the natural sea bed is very shallow for many yards out into the water. Better still, a sandbar twenty to thirty yards wide sits just off the beach and stretches for much of the length of Playa Norte. You can easily wade out to the sandbar from the beach and literally sit in the blue-green Caribbean Sea. The shallowness of the water makes it bathtub warm.

The beach itself leaves a little to be desired. This is not Playa del Carmen or Tulum with beautiful clean white sand beaches leading down to the sea. Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres is a more natural setting. The beach is narrow, and the shoreline is lined with seaweed which flows in with the tide. In some places it piles up and can create a bit of an odor problem. However in most of the areas by the beach bars, the effect is minimal and a few steps into the water carry you past the vegetation. Swimming is discouraged on the eastern side of the island because of the strong currents.

Sunset on the CaribbeanWe went looking for a hotel and found again this is not Playa! Rooms were simple to the point of being sparse: no drinking water provided and no refrigerator…with a cost of over $200 USD!!! We found some rooms a little cheaper, but truthfully everything we saw on the beach was very overpriced when compared to Playa hotels. However, we did see some very nice reasonably priced accommodations a block or two off the beach. Next time we will check some of these out and report back. This time we chose the Na- Balam resort. We thought the rooms were extremely overpriced, but the hotel surrounds a beautiful beach style garden with palm trees, rock walkways, and well-groomed sand. There are also two restaurants (one open in the day, the other at night—also very expensive) and two bars. It was beachfront, but the beach was pretty dirty with seaweed so we would walk a few yards north to cleaner areas to go swimming.

When on the beach we hung out down by Buho’s Beach club and another little beachfront restaurant next door. Buho’s is very nice with traditional swings at the bar. The day/evening we were there we saw a lovely sunset wedding ceremony at the water’s edge. Very romantic. Of course, this being the tropics, as soon as the “I do’s” were finished it started to pour. From a picturesque sunset to rain shower in a few minutes. The wedding party handled it with much laughter and ran to join all of us under the palapa bar, carrying the wedding cake with them! In a few moments the rain passed and the wedding continued.

Eric on the sandbar in the rainWe also got some rain the next day when we were swimming. We sat in the two foot deep blue Caribbean water out on the sandbar and suddenly were drenched by a downpour. It was fun, although the rain was colder than the sea and we kept lying down in the water to warm up.

At night we went out to explore Hidalgo Street. Most of the in-town streets are filled with brightly colored Caribbean style wooden shops selling various souvenirs. However, Hidalgo is mostly restaurants. At night the street closes to traffic and becomes a pedestrian mall. We walked along looking at various menus and listening to music (a number of places have live music). Eventually, we stopped and tried to reach a consensus on what we wanted to eat. We all agreed Italian sounded good. At that moment the sky opened up with a bright flash of lightning, a roar of thunder and a deluge of a downpour. We looked up and saw an Italian restaurant directly in front of us. It was fate. We ran in and grabbed a table under the palapa awning. It was Angelo’s and it was TERRIFIC! As the rain poured down for the next two hours we sat and had one of those magical tropical evenings.

The food service and ambiance at Angelo’s was perfect. The pasta was as good as we have had (and coming from San Francisco where pasta is an art form, that says something). We drank great Argentinean Malbec wine and topped off the meal with cappuccinos and Cuban rum. The cappuccino machine was in a sister restaurant across the street so when anyone ordered a coffee drink, Antonio our waiter would don a plastic garbage bag raincoat, roll up his pant legs and hold a tray over his head as he stepped into the flooded street and dashed over to get our drinks. He received much applause (and tips) for his bravery.

A pelican looking for brunch on Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres, MexicoThe next day was another beach day and then off to the ferry dock for the ride home. As we had time we stopped at the Miramar restaurant next to the ferry dock and had lunch. Again, a real find. Tables overlook the little marina while the efficient staff serves excellent seafood accompanied by two musicians playing Latin jazz. Very nice! And Miramar’s menu had some of those wonderfully hilarious translations to English that don’t quite make sense. Living here in Mexico, we’re always on the lookout for such things, and this was one of the best. “Snails to the butter,” “Fingers Fish” and “Octupus to the I garlic wet” were some of our favorites. Finally, lunch was over and the boat was boarding. In less than an hour and a half, we were back in Playa del Carmen. We will surely return. Isla Mujeres is a nice break from the big city of Cancun and even from the quieter Playa del Carmen. It’s a little slice of laid back island living.

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