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Mexican Port of Call
Escape from Cancún
Just seven miles NE of Cancún, the tiny island of Isla Mujeres is a world away
By: Jamie Matusow
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Isla Mujeres is a perfect Caribbean stopover when exploring the Yucatán and Central American coast, but the real draw is its laid-back attitude.
On a recent trip to Isla Mujeres, I wasn't sure what to expect other than a very small island (only 5 miles long by about 1 mile wide) off the coast of Mexico, known for its sparsely populated palm-fringed beaches and crystal-clear aquamarine waters. What I found was a favorite destination for a small group of yachtsmen who intend to keep it quiet as long as possible. What's more, Isla (as it is fondly referred to) boasts a world-class marina and shipyard.
What's the Attraction?
"Don't tell anyone," one crew member gibed. "We want to keep it a secret."
When pressed, he admitted, "The owner loves to bring guests down here. He has a fishing boat here too. And no exaggeration - you can catch sailfish all day long!"
Sportfishing makes Isla a popular destination, but unlike other Mexican resorts that were formerly fishing villages, there are no high-rise hotels, glitzy clubs, fashionable boutiques, cruise ships, or five-star formal restaurants - and that's the true beauty of it. Across the bay in Cancún you'll find McDonald's, Friday's and Chili's, but the closest you'll come to a fast food joint on Isla is a tacqueria or tortilleria. In fact, except for the downtown area, which is just four blocks wide, Isla retains the charm of a small fishing village.
That's why once you settle in to the easy unassuming lifestyle, you may not want to leave. According to Pierre Sanchez, dockmaster and director of operations of the marina and shipyard at Villa Vera Puerto Isla Mujeres Resort & Yacht Club, one of the few high-end properties on the island, many yachts stay in Isla for several months. "Isla's been a sportfishing destination since about 1974," he says. "The fishing is great year-round, especially for sailfish and white marlin."
Sanchez says the area started attracting more large boat owners around '93. Touring, diving, and snorkeling trips increased due to several large coral reefs and the island's proximity to Mayan ruins and the Yucatán. "But," he says, "Isla's potential as a charter destination has not yet been realized."
Many boaters use it as a home port, says Sanchez. For others, it's the perfect stopover on the way from Ft. Lauderdale or the Bahamas to Belize. The full-service marina, in a naturally protected harbor, accommodates boats from 30-180ft, and there are plans to expand. The adjacent shipyard even offers a 150-ton Travellift if your boat needs to come out of the water for painting or refit. If you want to get your "land legs" back, there's a luxury hotel on the same hidden saltwater lagoon property as the marina. It features villas, suites, three swimming pools, a gourmet restaurant, and a pool bar.
The resort's shuttle service will whisk you to their private beach club or across the bay to Cancún in just 15 minutes if you feel the need for shopping, dining, or nightlife on a grander scale. Or, hop on a moped and see what Isla's all about.
Exploring the Island
Although you can walk to many places on Isla, once the sun is up it gets quite hot, and a moped provides cool relief. Either way, start the morning by heading to Playa Norte, a fine white sand beach where you can relax under the coconut palms and swim in water that's clear as far as you can see. The water is so calm and shallow, it seems as if it would be possible to walk to Cancún, which looms in the distance across the Bahía de Mujeres (Bay of Women). It's easy to while away the hours on Playa Norte, gazing out at the beautiful spectrum of blue water, occasionally interrupted by vendors tempting you with fresh fruit, pepitas, pareos, or a snorkeling excursion.
When you need a break from the midday sun, walk a few steps to one of the beachside restaurants to enjoy seafood nachos or grilled snapper under a shady palapa. Margaritas are especially good when sipped at the sandy-floored beach bars while perched on wooden swings.
Noon is also a good time to hop on your moped and take a short ride into the island's only real town, El Pueblo. This is where the ferry terminal is located and where all the action (if you can call it that) lies. The streets are lined with Caribbean-colored clapboard and stucco houses, the usual Mexican souvenir shops, and a variety of open-air restaurants. And of course there are the ubiquitous kiosks manned by locals hawking fishing, snorkeling, and scuba outings; golf cart and moped rentals; and trips to El Garrafón National Park (El Garrafón, an underwater coral reef is highly overrated by the way, and was not worth the trip!).
However, you need not enter the park, itself, to enjoy all that Punta Sur (the southeastern part of the island) offers. A magnificent seaside path, Caminos en la Orilla del Mar, wends around the rocky cliffs that form the eastern tip of the island, past caves and dugouts furnished in some cases with chairs and palapas. Cancún is once again visible across the way, and at the very tip of the land lies Santuario Maya a la Dosa Ixchel (Sanctuary of the Goddess Ixchel), a Mayan ruin and the clue to where the island may have gotten its name.
Isla Mujeres means Island of Women and one possible explanation is that the ancient Maya came here to worship Ixchel, known as Lady Rainbow; God Mother; wife of Itzamna the Creator; Madam of the Sea; Goddess of the Moon, Patroness of Weaving, Childbirth, and the Art of Medicine. Quite a woman! Another theory is that when Hernández de Córdoba landed on the island in 1517, he spotted stone idols of women along the coast. Most likely Isla was a mecca for women praying for fertility.
Although Hurricane Gilbert destroyed much of Ixchel's site in 1988, it has been partially restored and is a beautiful vantage point with an incredible panoramic view. Arrive early in the morning and you'll be the first person in Mexico to see the sunrise, as it is the easternmost tip of the country. The upper part of the trail passes through an outdoor sculpture garden filled with the works of many Spanish artists set amid scrub and cactus and kept company by iguanas and lizards of all sizes.
You can then head back toward town or North Beach via the wilder, northeastern side of the island, passing many beaches with water too rough for swimming, but perfect for shelling. There's even a house shaped like a giant conch shell! Or as the day cools off, you may want to head for the malecón, a type of paved boardwalk popular in many Mexican coastal towns. On Isla, the malecón runs along the windward side, providing little in the way of swimming, but offering magnificent vistas. Here you'll see dozens of fishermen's shacks next to new construction creeping in. It's hard to imagine that some of the sites that have turned to rubble are now valuable real estate - but all you need to remind you is the spectacular view! The malecón is also very popular at about 6am for an early-morning run or walk before the day gets too hot.
Another malecón runs along Isla's western side, along Avenida Rueda Medina, where the ferry terminal is located and where there's more activity all day. Daytrippers arrive from Cancún for lunch and shopping in the small downtown, and often frequent the several outdoor sandy-floored restaurants that feature the many catches of the day.
Dining Out and Shopping
Try Rolandi's Pizzeria, one of the island's most popular hangouts, known for their lobster calzones and brick-oven pizzas with exotic island toppings, and don't fail to order the homemade coconut ice cream with mango and nuts - I want to go back just for that! Take another evening to head over to Palateria Y Neveria La Michoacana for a local woman's dazzling display of fresh fruit ice creams that include strawberry, mango, banana, and papaya. Rolandi's sister restaurant, Casa Rolandi, is a cab ride away, but offers fine dining and a view of the Caribbean. Fresh fish tacos are a real treat at El Sombrero de Gomar, and it's evident that the broiled lobster at Bistro Francais was caught the same day. Mañana Baguetteria has great hummous, salads, and sandwiches, not to mention iced cappuccinos! And if you're having Starbuck's withdrawal, there's also Aluxes Coffee house right down the street.
Before or after dinner, you can explore the many souvenir shops and bargain with the vendors who work hard to lure you in to see their goods. Most sell the typical Mexican blankets, T-shirts, cotton clothing, hammocks, masks, pottery, and silver, insistently offering you "the best price, amigo" which is always at least 20% higher than they'll settle on. A few shops offer higher quality merchandise. Galeria de Arte Mexicano has a fine display of better crafted, painted pottery from artisans known throughout Mexico. They also have an array of alloy (40% silver and nickel) serving pieces and picture frames, and an extensive selection of Mexican handcrafted silver jewelry. Plateria Artesamias Lety offers more silver jewelry than you can imagine. The finest jewelry on the island can be found at Rachat & Romero, Isla's largest store by far which, as the saleswomen revealed, is part of Van Cleef & Arpels. There are actually two large stores across the street from each other; one carries sterling, the other gold and quality gemstones.
Should you need provisions, there's a well-stocked supermercado and a hardware store in town. There's even a small airstrip.
For a tiny island, Isla Mujeres has a lot to offer, but most of all, it provides a perfect blend of water sports, local color, natural beauty, and a casual attitude.
Sorry, but I just couldn't keep it a secret... and I can't wait to return!
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