I first visited Isla Mujeres 10 years ago and really liked the place. It’s a small island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, 10km north of Cancun. Isla (as the locals call it) and its better-known neighbour Cancan were both quiet fishing villages at one time but not any more.
The Mexican government began developing the Cancun hotel zone in 1974 and today it is one of the most popular tourist resorts in the world. There are more than 150 hotels in the zone so it can accommodate the millions of visitors that go there each year. Not a great surprise, perhaps, that the Mayan word for Cancun is “pot of gold”.
I’ve stayed in Cancun but I’m not a fan of big resorts. Isla is more my kind of place. There is more than one theory behind its name, which is the Island of Women in English, one being that pirates left their women there for “safe keeping” while they were out doing their stuff on the high seas. It was a hippie hangout in the 1970s.
The Yucatan Peninsula, of course, is famous for its beaches, Mayan archeological sites and proximity to the second largest coral reef system in the world. I’ve been down its coast and what I like most about Isla is that it’s ‘real’. It’s an island where locals live, shop and attend church. The beach at Playa Norte is perfect for swimming: it’s shallow and protected from the sea; you can do lap after lap in these crystal blue waters.
When I was there a decade ago I spent two weeks on my own and two with “the girls”. We stayed in El Centro where there are lots of restaurants, shops and Internet cafés. We rented a golf cart for a day and explored the whole island; took a local bus down to Tulum, the only walled city that the Maya built and one where the setting is more spectacular than the ruins; did an overnight trip north to Holbox Island, which is less developed than Isla. It was a good month.
I’d heard rumours that Isla had changed, that more hotels and condos had been built, that an increasing number of day-trippers were coming over from Cancun because of the direct ferry service that is now in place.
I decided to counter this by staying in one of the original hotels, on Hidalgo, the crowded pedestrian strip where there is no space for ‘newness’. There was a fridge in the room along with dishes, a coffee maker and electric frying pan. Hippies probably stayed there in 1975 and you’re still asked to put your toilet paper in the wastebasket. But the price was reasonable, included an ample breakfast, and besides, it was air-conditioned.
After checking in I walked El Centro, which is not difficult since it takes 10 minutes to cross the island. I no longer had to go through an undeveloped area (sometimes with barking dogs) to get to Playa Norte for it’s paved the whole way. I loved this beach–it was an all-time favourite–and I must say it has changed. It is stuffed with chairs and umbrellas; big black berms are now part of the shoreline because of erosion. But the water is just as calm and the sand still a stunning white.
If you walk a little west you’ll come to Playa Sol and here the beach is much the same as a decade ago. Wharfs add interest as do the fishing boats that line the shore. You’ll see fishermen mending their nets under the shade of nearby trees. As before, this is where you’ll find the simple restaurants serving fish but now you can choose to sit on a chair placed on a deck instead of one with its legs in the sand. It’s still the best place to watch the sun set.
The central plaza is painted a rather shocking blue but the place has a Caribbean vibe, perhaps more exaggerated now. Still, houses, shops and restaurants were always painted every colour of the rainbow. The grocery store is still there, across from the plaza, and at noon they offer very affordable take-out meals such as chicken with rice and beans.
Isla is an island where Happy Hour is celebrated. Lots of people also go snorkeling, scuba diving or take a boat to Isla Contoy, which is a nesting place for sea birds.
It’s a destination that is particularly suitable for families. Every evening I watched as toddlers, parents and grandparents filled the tables along the strip outside my hotel for what seemed to be a special evening together. The age or budget of the guest did not seem to matter for all were unequivocally welcomed. That’s Mexican hospitality at its best and what makes Isla a feel-good sort of place.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013