Isla Mujeres, Yucatan's Magical Paradise
Posted on 07/19/2017
“You must visit Isla Mujeres,” a Mexican friend told us. "It’s a magical place.”
Spanish for “Island of Women” Isla Mujeres is a small archipelago in the Mexican Caribbean just 12.5 miles from Cancun.
Accessible by ferry or boat from Puerto Juarez, a day trip to this captivating island and its bountiful nature is a must-do for those vacationing in Cancun or Riviera Maya.
In Pre-Columbian times, the island was sacred to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, fertility, childbirth and medicine and wife of the Sun. Mayan women canoed to the island on yearly pilgrimages seeking her help and wisdom.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they named it "Isla Mujeres" because of the many images of goddesses found throughout the island. The small and slender sliver of land is only 5 miles long and just 400 yards across at its widest point.
Transportation on the island is primarily by golf cars and scooters. Arriving at the pier, we chose to rent a golf cart with friends giving us access to all there is to see in this charming Pueblo Magico. As we explored, we quickly fell under the Isla’s magical spell that beguiles its visitors and beckons them to return again and again.
Beaches are some of the most beautiful in all of Mexico. Playa Norte is palm-fringed with white powdery sand leading to calm crystalline waters. There’s virtually no current so swimmers can wade out for a good bit and still only be waist-deep. Beach chairs and umbrellas can be rented for a very reasonable fee.
Snorkeling is also spectacular here.
Our tour began at El Farito (The Lighthouse) Reef teeming with hundreds of colorful tropical fish and varied coral formations. Guides instructed us to be the lookout for a small statue of the Virgin Mary on the ocean floor placed here by local fishermen after being found in a shipwreck.
The coral reef sites in the Cancun region have received a huge influx of visitors over the years, and this has taken its toll on natural areas and ecosystems. But art and nature are now being balanced in the most elegant and visually attractive way at the Manchones Reef where an underwater sculpture museum containing more than 500 impressive permanent life-sized statues is fixed to the seabed. The sculptures are made from specialized materials used to promote coral life and marine life breeding.
Famished after our snorkeling trip, we headed to Isla’s Centro area for lunch. For such a small island, Isla Mujeres is a surprising foodie paradise.
Our rule is to trust the locals on the best places to eat, and that's what we did here. The tropical fish tacos at Mango Café Isla proved to be some of the best we’ve ever eaten-anywhere, and the mango jalapeno margaritas were out of this world.
Only four by six blocks, the colorful town center is easy to navigate. Filled with a multitude of delightfully colorful and unique craft, jewelry and boutique shops, the district is compact and walkable. We found silver prices here much more reasonable than Cancun or Riviera Maya—bartering is acceptable and expected.
Townsfolk are friendly, easygoing and there’s a feeling that people here know how lucky they are to live in an island paradise.
On the southern tip of Isla Mujeres, Punta Sur sits 60-some feet above sea level, where the rising sun first touches Mexican soil. Its rocky cliffs, crashing waves and multi-hued azure waters of the Caribbean Sea make for some of the most spectacular scenery on the island.
The highest elevation in the Yucatan was once home to an ancient temple honoring the Mayan Goddess Ixchel. Archeologists also believe it was the site of a lighthouse guiding Mayan trading vessels safely to shore.
For thousands of years, the beaches on Isla Mujeres have also been nesting grounds for marine turtles. Tortugranja (turtle farm) is a government-sponsored hatchery started in the 1980s by local fishermen for these endangered sea turtles.
For a small fee, marine specialists will gladly conduct a guided tour of this vital turtle sanctuary. From May through October, the farm invites visitors to participate in the release ceremony where hundreds of small turtles are tenderly and safely transported to the water’s edge, thereby increasing their chances of survival.
Heading back to the mainland after an incredibly wonderful day on the island, margaritas in hand, wind whipping through our hair, we’re reminded of a quote by Martin Buber that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
Thankfully, we followed the advice of our wise friend.
PHOTO: Shoreline scene at Isla Mujeres, Mexico. (photo by Noreen Kompanik)