I began venturing to Isla Mujeres in 2011 and while I rarely have an opportunity to revisit an international destination, Isla is the one place I continue to return, and it is beginning to feel like my second home. The island has a sentimental draw for me since it has marked a number of personal milestones in the past few years. For those interested in Isla’s underwater experience, below is a compilation video from some of my trips.
The whale shark swims are amazing – no diving allowed. Trying to keep pace with one of these is nearly impossible. At full effort, I could not keep up for long, but for a while, I had a great view of those gills and it was an experience like nothing else.
Isla is a great place to view spotted eagle rays while diving. In January, the population seems to increase. When diving the wrecks there, you can sometimes see them in very large groups around that time. Sometimes the current and surge can be quite strong by the wrecks as well as the reef, but it is worth the challenge.
If you are lucky, you can sometimes see dolphins swimming off the island. When I filmed them for the clip in the video above, it was just an impromptu “just jump off the boat when you see them” opportunity. They were spotted by the crew the day before so we were hoping to randomly see them. Image quality was affected by visibility and water movement, but if you look closely, there is even a baby in the middle of the group.
Getting to Isla is simple – fly into Cancun, taxi to Gran Puerto (~30 minutes) and take the Ultramar ferry (~30 minutes more) to Isla. The ferries are huge and run regularly, so you will not wait long and they do not run out of seats so you do not need advance reservations. I think the charge is ~$15 USD each way, but this is one of the last places you can pay in dollars. Once you arrive on the island, you will need to change money to Mexican pesos. Some restaurants will accept US dollars at a conversion of 10:1 but that is not to your favor because the exchange rate at banks is generally higher. There are multiple ATMs on the island and most of the tourist locations have bilingual employees.
During the daytime, Isla will be more busy than in the early mornings or evenings because there are day-trippers who will come from Cancun to spend time on the beach or shop. Isla is usually pretty quiet in the mornings. It’s “island time” here so nothing is firm. Pay attention to open/close times for your favorite restaurants because most have at least one day closed per week and some only are open in the late afternoon/evenings. It literally took me four trips to get to one restaurant which was always closed whenever I was in town (it was worth the wait though!).
Aside from the main beach (Playa Norte), there are lots of things to do on this small island. It is safe to walk around, but since the length of the island is about 4.5 miles, this can feel like a miserable journey on foot if you travel in the late summer when it is really hot. I would recommend renting a golf cart to see one side of the island at a time. Most tourists stay on the North side of the island, but the South side has sights to offer too. Below is a list of some diverse attractions a traveler might find enjoyable:
Tourists will find most of their desired restaurants, shopping, dive/tour operations and nightlife along this street which is near Playa Norte. That said, there are some great alternatives off the beaten path in this area, down the road in Colonia and also on the other side of the island if you are adventurous about trying something new and have transportation. Meals on/near Hidalgo can be your most pricey options. Delicious local alternatives (daily caught fish, fresh ceviche, fish tacos, etc.) are available throughout the island – just ask around for recommendations. Taxis are relatively cheap but they can add up quickly. That is why most tourists stay on the North side where most of the activity is located.
Caribbean Side Beaches
The Caribbean side of the island has pretty rock formations and because it is generally windy on that side, there can be beautiful waves. There are several smaller beaches on this side that often go unnoticed by tourists due to the terrain. However, these are the same beaches where the sea turtles come at night to lay their eggs. If you are awake around midnight, it can be fun to take a golf cart down here and watch the turtles come out of the ocean to bury their eggs. There are small crowds each night that stay up to watch this long process. There is usually a volunteer on the beach who will collect the eggs to take to the hatchery so they can protect them from predators. It is a quiet area with only street lighting.
Joysxee Floating Island
There is a man-made living floating island in Makax lagoon. For people into recycling, this is kind of a “nerdy cool” thing to see if you already have your golf cart for the day. For yet another small fee (Isla knows how to support its economy!), the owner will take you out for a little tour.
This is the underwater museum between Isla and Cancun which also functions as an artificial reef. In addition to the many statues of people, there is also a Volkswagen Beetle car replica, log cabin, cross of the bay, etc. There are stories behind each of the statues and it is worth seeing – better diving than snorkeling so you can get down lower – but don’t set your expectations too high. With the exception of the relatively new statues, they cover quickly with greenery so nuances are not easily distinguishable. You will find some small fish here too but not as many as you will see on the reef so it is more of an artistic attraction than a true dive site.
This is one of my favorite beaches because it is rarely overcrowded, the sand is soft and the water is beautiful and crystal clear, perfect for safe swimming out a long way. Rent a beach chair and palapa from Tarzan (just look around and you will easily spot him – bring him a home and garden/interior design magazine and he will be your best friend forever) or talk to locals about where you can find free places to sit. There are a lot of vendors that will stop by throughout the day to try to sell items but they will accept a “no gracias” and move on if you are not interested. Your best bet is to pack a little bag of water, snacks, sunglasses, towel, reading material, etc. and just stay for the day. The nice thing about renting a spot on the beach is that you have the umbrella shade when you want/need it and you can leave and return without problems.
This is the Southernmost point on the island and the BEST place to watch the sunrise at Cliff of the Dawn. For a nominal fee (~$3 USD), the park warden will let you in to do the early self-guided hike that takes you down to see the art statues and also allows you down along the rocks for better viewing. The local policia patrol this area so do not be alarmed if you see armed soldiers in the parking lot in the mornings and such. The area is safe for walking and ideal for photography.
The turtle hatchery is located near the peninsula. Again, for a small fee (~$3 USD), you can go in, see all the baby turtles that will soon be released back in the ocean and also see outside how they log and care for the eggs until they hatch. Visitors with good timing and luck can even watch the turtle eggs hatching outside. Talk to locals about when the planned turtle releases are – it is pretty neat to see.
This is where the ferry drops you off. There are all sorts of small boats and docks along the water in this area. It is one of the best places to watch the sunset on a clear night. The sun moves quickly, so just find a dock, have a seat and enjoy the view before you miss it. This can also be a great place for photographs because of the brightly colored fishing boats.
Underwater Wrecks and Diving
While neighboring Cozumel can brag about amazing coral formations and many beautiful fish, Isla does have a couple of cool wrecks. The C-55 and C-58 are both former US WWII gunboats that were gifted to Mexico and subsequently sunk for divers. The currents can be strong here at various times in the year but January is an especially good month to find big schools of spotted eagle rays at the wrecks. Night reef diving is a fun opportunity to look for lobsters and octopi – you can also sometimes experience bioluminescence. If the current and surge are strong, it can sure be interesting. Night dives under a full moon are great.
Whale Sharks and Giant Manta Rays
This is one of the big draws in the late summer months to Isla and Cancun but the actual site is closer to Isla Holbox. It is a good thing this is such an amazing experience, because it is also some of the hottest weather for Isla (baking hot with high humidity). From Isla Mujeres, it is about an hour boat ride to the site where the whale sharks congregate. The past couple of years, the giant mantas have also been coming and hopefully that will continue for tourism benefits. No diving is allowed, but you can snorkel with a variety of tour and dive operators for ~$125 USD (gear included). The major rule here that is reiterated by the guides: no touching, riding or harassing these animals. The Isla trip operators, especially, take their whale shark privilege seriously. Since there are so many boats there at the same time, you really have to be careful in the water and consider safety your top priority. Do not assume that boat captains can see you in the water.