Isla Mujeres, once home to occasional pirates and Mexican fishing families, has become a popular off-the-beaten-path destination for tourists and divers as well as an expat art colony.
Many tourists visit the island as a day trip from the 20-minute boat ride from Cancun. The small island’s beaches are covered with white powdery sand and populated with 70 or more inns and hotels. The west side of the island (left) facing Bahia de Mujeres, with Playa Lancheros and Playa Tiburon beaches, is the more congested with souvenir stands and restaurants.
You can swim in a fenced pen in shallow water with somewhat-tame nurse sharks at Playa Tiburon (Shark Beach), or, if not so adventurous, take a photo for $2. Diving enthusiasts go to the Los Manchones reef beyond El Garrafón, where you can board a trip to the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
En route to El Garrafón, visit the marine biology station and turtle farm in the center of the island.
You have three ferries to choose from to get to Isla Mujeres: the Ultramar ferries from Gran Puerto Cancun at Puerto Juarez and Transportes Maritima Magana are modern, air-conditioned high speed ferries. They're fast and more expensive ($150 pesos or more) than the Naviera Contoy Vehicle Ferry at Punta Sam, a car-and-truck ferry and only 14 pesos. The latter takes 45 minutes, but the views from the top deck are breathtaking and allow more photo opportunities, and you don’t feel like a sardine in a can.
Those who prefer a day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen can take a sailing catamaran, which includes a lunch buffet on the boat and sightseeing around the island along with a snorkel tour. Prices range from $65+ depending on the season.
If you’ve had enough of Cancun and the west side of Isla Mujeres, stay a couple of day on the quiet, less-populated east side of Isla Mujeres at the Maravilla Caribe Bed & Breakfast, where the owners live on premises. They're equipped with beach chairs and laundry facilities so you save $, and it's handicap-friendly too.
Maravilla is like having your own private beach cottage. You can sit on the patio and watch the sunrise with coffee and fruit; later, take in the sunset with a beer or cocktail and enjoy your own private happy hour. Each cottage has a kitchenette, so you don’t need to spend a lot of money on restaurants. The cheapest (least-touristed) time to visit the island is the low season – April thru November – and you’ll find accommodations starting at $40/night. I prefer the last week of April and first week of May.
The weather is a bit warmer at that time, but you’ll be in the water anyway…right?