Traveler: Liz Martone
When: December 2017
Cities Visited: Isla Mujeres
Overall Experience: Isla Mujeres is a small island right off the coast of Cancun, measuring only 5 miles long and less than a half-mile wide. Because it is such a small island, it’s the perfect escape from touristy Cancun or Playa Del Carmen.
Logistics: Since I live in the Washington, D.C. area, I’ll expand on that first. There are several direct flight options to Cancun through Southwest out of Baltimore International Airport (BWI) or other airlines out of Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). Direct flights out of Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) are harder to find. However, since Cancun is a popular tourist destination, most international airports should have some direct flights from which to choose. My roundtrip flight (mind you, this was over the New Year’s season) was about $400-450.
Once you arrive in Cancun, you need to arrange for a taxi to take you to the ferry location, which is about 20 minutes away. It is another 20-30 minutes via ferry ride over to Isla Mujeres. These ferries are fun because they’re large, high-speed boats and if you sit up top, there is usually a guitarist on board for a short, entertaining performance. The one-way cab to the ferry dock will be around $40-50/person, and the ferry ride will run you about $20/person for a roundtrip ticket.
Hotels: Airbnb or VRBO are going to be your best bets to find somewhere to stay on the island. Last year, I stayed at Cabanas Del Mar, which is right on the most popular beach of the island, Playa Norte. This location cannot be beat! We also got a complimentary breakfast through Buho’s Beach Restaurant & Bar, which is adjacent to the hotel and on the actual beach. It’s not clear whether the breakfast is still included in room rates at this location now, but I’m sure you could just ask!
This past year, I stayed at a condo called Casa Perla with a group of friends, which we booked through VRBO. The condo was perfect (with a rooftop deck and pool!) and is located near the middle of the island, so toward the southern end of the island and further from Playa Norte. If you do stay near the middle to southern end of the island, you should highly consider renting a golf cart or expect to take cabs, as most of the “downtown” action is located on the north end of the island. This condo was absolutely perfect!
Getting Around: There are plenty of cabs throughout town (especially since it’s such a small island), but I’d recommend renting a golf cart. Most people who visit the island for a few days rent a cart through the place they are staying, whether that’s a hotel, Airbnb, VRBO, or another rental agency. If you do this, you can come and go as you please. And there seems to be no real parking rules for golf carts, so long as you aren’t blocking a driveway!
For breakfast/brunch/lunch, be sure to try out these restaurants:
This is one of the most popular breakfast/brunch locations near Playa Norte. You can’t go wrong with a breakfast sandwich made out of their homemade rosemary bread. And, their French toast options are KILLER! On this most recent visit, our waiter, Hector, was a former masseuse and offered us all a 5-minute shoulder massage at the end of brunch… I know weird, right? But we weren’t about to pass up a free shoulder massage! LOL.
This is another popular breakfast/lunch spot, located just across the street from where we stayed on this recent trip (Casa Perla). It is located in pretty much the middle of the island (if not closer to the south end). There’s unlimited, self-serve coffee, which is fantastic for those of us who are coffee lovers. One of their most popular menu items is the “Hot Cakes” – it comes with scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, AND pancakes. No question there. The actual restaurant is outdoors, situated under a canopy, and the walls are colorfully painted. Overall, it’s an aesthetically pleasing dining experience.
For dinners, be sure to try out these restaurants:
Located near Playa Norte and on one of the busiest streets in Isla (Miguel Hidalgo), they have a good selection of cocktails and a pretty expansive menu. They have swings at the bar counter area closest to the street, so it makes for a fun experience. The menu has options for everyone (read: great vegan options), and I must say that on this recent trip, I was impressed by all the grilled octopus options!
This gem of an Italian restaurant is located in the heart of the “downtown” Isla area, near Playa Norte. You can expect to wait about 15 minutes or more for a table because it is that popular! If you’re like me and just love a good dish of Carbonara, THIS IS THE PLACE FOR YOU. This is truly one of the best Italian restaurants on the island! Also, fun fact: Mexico has the most amazing Italian restaurants in general…
Speaking of Italian food in Mexico, if you just want good ole pizza hit up Oscar’s Grill. We found this through locals in the area, and it was delicious. We actually came here after a few cocktails at Soggy Peso (read more below), and it helped to soak up the alcohol.
I’d highly recommend that you save this dinner for one of your last night’s in Isla, as it’s one of the best meals you can have on the island and in one of the quaintest locations. This town home turned into restaurant is owned and operated by Sergio, who actually grills lobster on the patio of the restaurant while he sips on his wine. Sergio made the experience for us one to be remembered. He won’t hesitate to meet you and recommend (and even sit and sip if you allow it) options for your table. Check out the Facebook page and you’ll see what I mean about Sergio’s love of grilling lobster tableside. Not only does he make it enjoyable, his staff is the most professional in town – our waiter remembered our favorite wines from the prior year we visited!
For drinks, check out Soggy Peso Bar. We found out on the most recent trip that you can actually arrange to stay here, but we originally found this spot for its bar scene. When you enter Soggy Peso, the first thing you’ll notice are all the sports paraphernalia (hats, coozies, etc) hanging from the ceiling of the hut. In addition to the hut bar, they also have seating out by a dock that you can actually go out on. This is a great place to take sunset pictures by the way! The one and only thing I’ll say is: BEWARE OF THE MARGARITAS. You’ll feel just one, so if you have two… good luck!
Let me start off by saying: rent a golf cart, just do it. The entire island is so small that it makes the most sense for transportation. And it’s fairly cheap!
For a half-day (or whole day, as that’s an option) excursion, rent a private catamaran through Cancun Sailing. I chose to do a half-day rental from 9am-12pm, which included sailing around the island and stopping to snorkel for a bit. I worked through a woman named Mariel Diaz, who was an absolute pleasure! She is super responsive and communicative throughout the booking process and will accommodate any issue. On the day we were set to go sailing, it was windy (but still partly sunny), so our normal-sized catamaran was not going to work. Instead of rescheduling for another day, Mariel requested a larger-sized catamaran to accommodate our planned excursion. We ended up with an 80-person catamaran! Make sure you bring a tip (whether that’s in Pesos or USD doesn’t really matter) for the boat captains!
For beautiful cliff views, take a walk through Garrafon National Park. It’s at the southernmost tip of the island, and you can walk around the surrounding area. For a fee, you can also do some activities in the park, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. I’d suggest walking around the area for either a sunrise or a sunset photo op!
You didn’t go all the way to Mexico not to lie on the beach! The most popular beach of the island, Playa Norte, is at the northern end of the island. You must go at some point since it’s just about the only beach on the entire island with enough beach area for you to lie out on. It gets crowded pretty quickly; I’ve never had any trouble, but you should go on the early side of the day to snag spots! While you’re on the beach, you may see a few massage cabanas. The majority of the massage cabanas will be found on Playa Centro, only a 10-minute walk from Playa Norte. The massages in Mexico are so cheap (usually $15-20 for 30 minutes or $30-40 for 60 minutes!) that if you’re into them, you MUST get one! And since you’re on the beach, it’s SUPER relaxing.
After lying on the beach, stroll down the main street of Miguel Hidalgo (only a few blocks from the beach) to shop around. This is on the same street as Lola Valentina and Rooster Café noted above. There are so many textiles and gifts you can pick up throughout the shops located along this street, and the vendors will usually bargain with you on the prices. Don’t ever just pay full price… try to talk them down a few Pesos if you can. I personally purchased a few decorative pillow covers for my living room, and a few other household items (like the painted skull pictured below). There are so many colors to choose from in these shops.
- Exchange US Dollars for Mexican Pesos ahead of time! Make sure to build into your budget enough for shopping and cheap beach massages while you’re there. It is best to bargain deals using Pesos since it’ll be cheaper for you than paying US Dollars.
- Bring a waterproof phone case so you can take pictures while snorkeling underwater.
- Rent a golf cart, you won’t regret the decision (have I mentioned that enough already?!)!
- At most establishments (whether it’s condos or restaurants), you cannot flush toilet paper; instead, you throw it out in the trashcan. That’s just good to know…