by Hae Yuon Kim

I was at a conference in Cancun at a self-contained resort when I decided to tack on a three-night stay in Isla de Mujeres. After the relatively sanitized stay at the Hyatt, I wanted a more “authentic” Mexican experience. Well, be careful what you wish for…

I traveled a lot in Mexico when I was younger and the great bargains for a just-out-of-college budget made Mexican vacations a real deal. Fast-forward ten years or so and I realize that my tastes have changed and I prefer to spend a little more money to have some small luxuries.

The cab ride to the ferry takes you through some of the poorest-looking parts of Cancun. It can be a shock to your sensibilities. Alas, when you dock at Isla de Mujeres, it’s a relief to feel that you’ve arrived at a destination where there isn’t such a horribly glaring contrast between the tourists and the local folk. Isla de Mujeres is pretty small, and most people stay right in town on the northern side. There are a number of places to stay to fit all budgets—from beachside resorts to apartments to in-town bed and breakfasts. I chose to stay at a condominium complex that I had read about on the internet. I checked in at the office and was shown to
my condo. I wasn’t thrilled with the cheesy decor—polyester bedspreads and plastic flower arrangements—but, it was all they had, and it would do for the first night.

The condos are owned by individual proprietors, so it’s a crapshoot whether a unit will appeal to your tastes. The complex probably had about forty condos that faced a swimming pool in the courtyard. On the plus side, beyond the courtyard is the beach! I loved being just yards from the sand. All the units had a master bedroom with a queen bed, and a second bedroom with two singles. There was a small balcony overlooking the pool and bar. The kitchen was fairly rudimentary but sufficient. And there was air conditioning, which was very nice. At any rate, plenty of space for just me. After my first night, my request to move was accommodated, and I got another unit that was more to my liking.

The beach on the north side of the island is flat and the water is very shallow—good for taking a cooling dip, but not great for swimming. It seemed most people were here to sun themselves. I found myself on a lounge chair under an umbrella at the Hotel NaBalam beach every day. You have to pay to sit there and you are expected to buy drinks from the waiters that bring refreshments to you. Definitely worth the small cost if you want to get out of the sun.

In the mornings I got breakfast at one of the numerous little storefront restaurants in tourist section of town, which consists of an area that is about four blocks by four blocks. There are the usual restaurants and shops that cater to vacationers—nothing particularly special, but good for picking up some decent souvenirs.

One evening after dinner in town, I wandered south beyond the tourist section and ended up in the central park. All the locals were out for an evening stroll. A church across the street was having some sort of event and people were dressed in their Sunday clothes. (Come to think of it, it may have been Sunday, but I’d already lost track of time.) I bought a popsicle and hung out with the families and children—it was a really nice evening.

One of the days, I met up with a fellow-conference attendee and his brother. They invited me to join them on their rented golf cart to spend the day at a water park, Garrafon, which featured snorkeling. The park is on the south side of the island, and for an admittance fee, you have use of their beautiful grounds, swimming pool and locker rooms. We were all interested in snorkeling, which we had heard was spectacular.

Unfortunately, the days of great snorkeling seemed to have passed. Damage to the reef and overuse seemed to have chased the fish away. There was hardly anything to look at. And the only activity was generated by the park employees throwing fish food into the water. Although that was disappointing, the park was beautifully tended, and it was a nice spot to spend the afternoon. We tooled back up the other side of the island, making stops at some spectacular vistas for pictures.

The people I met on Isla Mujeres were very nice. But, there’s no avoiding being accosted at the beach by people selling jewelry and beach wraps. Remember that bargaining is expected, so never pay the first price you are told.

One online resources that was very helpful in planning my trip was I also read about other people’s experiences on the site’s bulletin board, and got to know the island a bit before I got there.