The Mexican Road Less Traveled: Isla Mujeres

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I had envisioned paradise as a beach of silky white sand and crystal turquoise waters. Days there are spent relaxing in the sunshine, sipping on frozen drinks, and enjoying plates of fresh seafood. After seeing photos, I imagined I would find this paradise when I traveled to Cancun, but I ended up discovering it just off the coast of Isla Mujeres.

A recent vacation to a resort in Cancun, Mexico got me thinking about the different types of travelers and what we’re each looking for when we set out to explore somewhere new. I’m the kind of person who likes to step out of my comfort zone, get a little anxious with anticipation, and fall in love with a place I hadn’t thought twice about before visiting. I live for authentic meals full of flavor, genuine connections with local residents of small towns, and wandering without a plan. Others enjoy the peace of mind that comes with planning a day-to-day itinerary and not having to make last-minute decisions while trying to relax. Admittedly, I hadn’t done much research before hopping on my flight from Miami to Cancun, but my friends had booked our accommodation and I was over the moon about the fact that I would soon be laying next to an ocean that’s hue would live up to my fantasies.

Surprise surprise: you won’t get an authentic experience of Mexico at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun where MTV is setting up to film their spring break event the following week (totally dodged a bullet there). Where you will get it, though, is eight miles off the coast. Say hello to Isla Mujeres. An island only four miles long and just over 2,000 feet wide, you’ll leave wishing you’d had more time to explore its colorful streets and stunning coastline. Out of the five days, I spent in Mexico, the one spent on the island was by far my favorite. It had everything I look for in a travel destination: friendly locals, bustling streets, tasty food, and the freedom to wander and discover. Travelers can reach the island by private boat, which you can hire at your hotel or online, or by ferry, which leaves from Port Punta Sam starting at 5:30 in the morning. We opted for the ferry route, and the ride alone would have been plenty of excitement and beauty to satisfy me for the day. Sitting outside in the warm air, with Spanish music ringing out from the onboard speakers, the ocean looked especially dreamy as we floated along towards the island, and the 45-minute journey flew by. 

When the ferry pulled in we hurried onto the dock and were delighted by the atmosphere. Tourists and local residents alike buzzed about the ferry terminal and spilled out onto the main road. Sidewalk souvenir shops displayed a variety of kitschy figurines and refrigerator magnets. Sombreros hung like flags reminding visitors of where they were. Having made no plans for the day, we stood in the midst of the frenzy to gather our bearings. It didn’t take long for us to decide what our first priority would be: golf carts. We watched as they chugged along the road besides motorbikes and small vans, full of families and tourists looking to explore the island. Signs for golf cart rentals were plastered above every other storefront but as we’d arrived later in the morning on a Saturday most of the shops nearest to the ferry had none left to rent. We wandered up a small street and around a corner where we met a man who said that he didn’t have any golf carts for us but that he would call his friend who may have some left. After following him around a few more corners, we lucked out and were able to rent two carts. I’d ridden in a golf cart once before and it definitely had not been through the streets of a Mexican island, so needless to say I was ready for the adventure.

We spent the day exploring Isla Mujeres at 25-miles-per-hour and it was the most fun I’d had in ages. We started by driving to one end of the island where we were taken aback by the view. Lush grass turned into jagged rocks that dotted the tip of the coast and melted into the rolling blue waves below. There’s something about looking out at a seemingly endless ocean that is incredibly grounding. The next hour of the day was spent eating street-side churros as we drove up and down the coast searching for a beach big enough to lay our towels on, and finally discovered that it was right where we’d started. After parking the golf carts by the side of the road, the eight of us sat down at an outdoor seafood restaurant by the water where we ordered delicious plates of freshly-caught fish, squid, and lobster. A live band added to the experience and we spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and napping in the sand, though by the time five o’clock rolled around and the golf carts were due back we didn’t want to leave. We wandered the narrow streets passing bars, restaurants, shops advertising cigars and beach toys, people sitting in lawn chairs outside of their front doors enjoying the evening breeze, and finally decided on a tiny bar on the corner that’s sign read “2×1”. We discovered this meant two beers and one shot of tequila for the equivalent of five USD, the kind of deal we were never going to find back home in New York City.

While sitting on the roadside, beer in hand, laughing with friends old and new, I was reminded of the importance of travel and how incredibly beneficial it is to my character to step outside of my comfort zone. Exploring new places, sometimes feeling a little unsure, not knowing what the next step will actually bring me back to my center, and with that feeling, I remember what truly holds significance in my life. I’ve not been able to attain this sense of groundedness in places like Cancun, where the resorts are lined up side by side along the beach and the culture is nowhere to be found. Instead, I’ve achieved it in places like Isla Mujeres where one can escape the chaos of spring break vacationers and immerse themselves in a different kind of busyness that naturally attracts the curious tourist but is, at the same time, authentic. If you are the type of traveler who enjoys venturing off the beaten path and you find yourself on the Eastern tip of Mexico yearning for something a bit more enticing, make the short journey off the coast. Spend the day roaming the island, hopefully in a golf cart that’s a bit more speedy than ours were, and discover for yourself the hidden gem that is Isla Mujeres.

Cover Photo by Alessandra Caretto on Unsplash

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