Just 8 miles off the coast of Cancun lies a tiny island surrounded by turquoise waters, white sand beaches and, in the summer, swarms of whale sharks. Isla Mujeres is most known for those whale sharks, which indeed drew us to the island, but it was the calm demeanor, breathtaking scenery and incredible food that will inspire me to go back.
Isla Mujeres is barely 4 miles long and 2,000 feet wide, often visited as an afterthought day trip from Cancun. And it’s easy to understand why: the ferry from Cancun takes just 15 minutes. Once there, the tiny island feels easily conquerable — and it is — but it’s worth taking your time to fully experience Isla Mujeres for more than a day.
5 Days of Sunshine and Seascapes in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
I admit I expected to be bored by Isla Mujeres. Beach vacations aren’t my forte, so I worried the tiny island couldn’t contain my curiosity for more than a few days. But after 5 days of sunshine and seascapes in Isla Mujeres, I dreaded leaving. Who knew sipping on margaritas, enjoying beautiful scenery and relaxing in the ocean could be so entertaining?
Getting to Isla Mujeres
It takes a bit of effort to get to Isla Mujeres, but it’s worth it. We flew into Cancun airport, took a shuttle to the Gran Puerto port, then boarded a ferry for the 15-minute boat ride. (They leave every half hour from 5:00 am to 8:30 pm.)
Once on Isla Mujeres, we had the option to wait in line for a cab, hail a bike-driven cart or walk the five blocks to Ixchel Beach Hotel. We chose to walk, but quickly questioned our decision after we were covered in sweat from the heat!
Island Life on Isla Mujeres
We spent the next few days in full vacation mode enjoying the pleasures of island life: alternating between catching sun on the beach, swimming in the refreshing water, and gazing at the beach from a patio during a guacamole break. All while enjoying margaritas, of course.
Every day we’d walk along the colorful souvenir shops and restaurants on the main street, Miguel Hidalgo. And that’s where we made my favorite discovery about Isla Mujeres: the food is really good.
At first glance the open-air restaurants seem incredibly similar, even down to their menus. Most serve Mexican food with an ironic pasta or pizza section, a sure sign of catering to tourists. But the food was actually meticulously crafted and flavorful enough to compete in the best of food cities, until the price was taken into consideration. Isla Mujeres is so affordable it’s shocking, with margaritas costing 80 pesos (under $5) and most entrees hovering around 175 pesos (around $10).
We ate chile poblano stuffed with chicken, enchiladas drenched in chocolate mole, freshly-caught fish tacos bursting with cilantro and limes, and bowl after bowl of guacamole — and every dish was delectable.
Related :: Where to Eat in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Back to those whale sharks. The massive animals migrate year-round following plankton, their main source of food, and swim through the Caribbean from May through September.
Dozens of companies take small groups 2 hours out to sea to swim with the giants. All the boats go to the same spot, radioing each other when they’ve found a crowd of whale sharks. Only two people (plus a guide) are allowed in the water at a time, but with so many boats, it still makes for a lot of people.
Lucky for us, we found almost 30 whale sharks in the same place. (The previous day only four were found.) Two by two we jumped into the water, swimming as fast as we could next to the massive fish, making sure to steer clear of the mouth and the tail. They weren’t afraid of people at all, letting us swim close enough to touch them (although that’s strictly forbidden). This video shows what it was like.Swimming with whale sharks has always been on my bucket list, but as soon as I plunged into the ocean I quickly discovered I’m petrified of extremely deep water. After a slight panic attack swimming next to a whale shark, I got too spooked by the water and returned to the boat. I spent the afternoon out of the water, happily watching the whale sharks swarm around our boat.
Later we stopped to snorkel at the edge of the bay (in much less horrifying 12 feet of water!), swimming along reefs full of fish and barracudas. Then we ate the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted, made by our captain while we swam.
Exploring Isla Mujeres by Golf Carts
Another day we rented golf carts to explore Isla Mujeres. The island is so tiny it’s not worth having a car (though they exist), so everyone drives golf carts. It was a lot of fun cruising around the island.
We drove to the edge of the other side of the island for views of rocky cliffs and rolling waves at the Cliff of the Dawn. Then we visited the Tortugranja Turtle Farm, a sanctuary for the six different types of sea turtles that live on the island. The small aquarium is the one thing I don’t recommend that we did.
All too soon, we were on our back to Chicago, dreaming of sunny days and strong drinks. Isla Mujeres is relaxing and beautiful and I can’t wait to go back. I think spending the Fourth of July on a Mexican beach might just be my new tradition!
Tips for Visiting Isla Mujeres:
Bring pesos. Almost everywhere on the island is cash only and while they will accept US dollars, they are legally allowed to exchange it at any rate they like and will take advantage of it. I can’t say enough good about our hotel, Ixchel Beach Hotel, with beautiful rooms and a private beach.