The best part of undiscovered Cancun is the severely under-publicized jewel of the region: the nearby smaller island of Isla Mujeres (Women’s Island), only a short ferry ride from Cancun, but in another world of remote serenity.
Consider it perhaps “Cozumel Light,” what that area was like years ago with a low-key rural flair. Secluded beaches with hammocks, oceanfront dining and snorkeling are all available for a great price – free. Spectacular limestone cliffs, a sea turtle farm, lighthouse and a small Mayan ruin at the remote end, surrounded by a modern art sculpture garden provide an additional extraordinarily surreal mix for one place.
This island is amazing, so much so that I explored it twice. The ferry ride is fun and smooth, with entertainment, leaving from Cancun in two different locations: from the hotel zone and from downtown Cancun. When returning after sunset, the latter station will be the only one running, so spring for the cab at the arrival station back to the hotel. As a general rule, do not accept cab rides on the street in Cancun, but only from the hotel and ferry hubs. The hotel staff can give you details on how and where and what rates to expect.
Popular Isla Mujeres attractions include the dolphin swim and Garrafon water park for family snorkeling, tankless scuba with a hose, zip lines, pool and eateries, but it can be a bit commercial and overpriced if all that is desired is beach and snorkel time. I prefer exploring on my own as an adventure with a rented golf cart. Scooters are fun, too, but a roof for the sun and occasional downpour is an advantage. Make sure to rent directly from one of the popular and visible shops as you get off the ferry. Don’t rent one in advance from the Cancun ferry ticket agent at the departure station. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but they steered me to a lesser known vendor with dilapidated carts and bad service.
Good mid-day stops are the local public beach access areas at no cost. My favorite is quiet and secluded Playa Indios with beach chairs, showers, hammocks, a snorkeling pier and docking area with a caged nurse shark, delicious beach side food, and drink service from a local eatery. This island is actually superior to Cancun on many levels and considered by many to have the best laid back beaches in the Yucatan offering serene surroundings and a midday siesta.
The southernmost tip of the island at South Point is also the easternmost point of Mexico and where the sunrise is seen first, as noted on a sign along a spectacular limestone cliff hiking trail. Isla Mujeres “town” is at the north end of the Island and the main community has ample local interests and many shops and walking areas, including restaurants – and even very competitively priced clean and modern beachfront accommodations for those who reverse their stay to be on the island while ferrying to Cancun occasionally instead.
Don’t miss the less obvious local and historical cemetery; it’s of cultural interest, with intricate and lavishly detailed headstones and monuments – folk artwork all on their own. I challenged myself to find the grave of Mundaca, the pirate, from an obscure guide book and actually found his headstone, crammed away between others; but this one is supposedly empty. Longing to discover my own off-the-beaten-path adventure not readily known to many visitors, my curiosity and research revealed a quirky history of the how this tomb came to be.
The Spanish named the Island upon learning it served as the sanctuary for the Mayan goddess of fertility, with many female-shaped idols of her daughters and daughters-in-law. After an uninhabited three-century stretch of only pirates leaving their women on the island “for safekeeping,” as well as alleged treasure, Mundaca arrived from Spain in 1858, acquiring his wealth from Mayan slavery in Cuba. His actual degree of pirating is unclear, and he may have been one of the more legitimate businessmen of his day; however, Mundaca enjoyed his pirate reputation.
He also apparently turned out to be one of history’s few sensitive pirates, having fallen in love with an indigenous woman called “La Triguena” (the brunette), and dedicated to her his construction of the overlooked large hacienda, now in ruins, named “Vista Alegre” (Happy View) near Playa Lancheros. With areas once used for livestock, birds, orchards and exotic gardens, this makes a pleasant stroll, but bring the bug repellent. When the Brunette married another, legend is Mundaca went insane and died in Mérida about 200 miles away, never making it back to the now empty tomb he carved in memory of her. Find it in Isla Mujeres’ colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before Playa Norte at the north end, with the headstone symbols of the skull and crossbones along with his carved goodbye note to the Mayan girl who never left, saying “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.”
Playa Norte is also the best place to for dinner and drinks and for the most spectacular sunsets over Cancun itself at several outstanding beachfront restaurants. My favorite is Sunset Grill. The food is supreme (try their fresh fruit cocktails) and they have a special deal for all-day use of their beach, two chairs and shower, along with food and drink. A favorite service is arranging for a romantic, privately served table for two which the staff puts right on the beach at the water’s edge for sunset dinner with evening lighting, breezes and even serenades – a perfect way to end the last day of any stay.