I arrived in Playa del Carmen expecting to fall in love, but ended up sorely disappointed. After a quiet Christmas in Guanajuato, it felt like mild culture shock to arrive in one of the biggest tourist destinations of the Caribbean coast, full of loud parties, thousands of tourists, and a plethora of English-speaking locals.
We decided then that we’d be using Playa del Carmen as our base for exploring the Yucatan. We spent our time climbing the ruins of Coba and Chichen Itza, sunbathing on one of the best beaches in Tulum, swimming with sea turtles in Akumal, and eating our way through Valladolid.
The one thing that had been missing from our explorations? An island.
Isla Mujeres is found a few miles off the Caribbean coast, accessible via a short ferry ride from Cancun. The island is long and skinny — four miles in length but only 600 metres in width — and is a laid-back former fishing village, full of colourful buildings, surrounded by crystal clear waters, and a place where the primary method of transportation is a golf cart.
Hey, guys! Have I ever told you I get seasick?
The twenty-minute-long ferry ride over from Cancun wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but like most minor movements, left me feeling like the world was spinning and i wanted to get off. If you’re mega-prone to motion sickness like me, pop a few pills before you leave.
Our trip to Isla Mujeres was a Christmas present from Dave, so we were mid-range-ing it up for a few days in the phenomenal Casa Barco. For $88 a night, we were staying in the best-rated property on the island, with fantastic staff, a great location in the heart of town, and a lovely swimming pool
Isla Mujeres is split into three distinct areas: the north, where we were staying, is the touristy part of town. You’ll find tons of restaurants and busy white sand beaches with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. Head further south and the middle of the island is where you’ll find the locals. It’s much quieter here, with small, family-run cafes and expat communities making up the majority of the land. Head further south still and there’s little development: small guesthouses, vibrant turquoise waters, and a small Mayan site to explore.
We opted to stay in the north because, well, we are tourists.
Oh, and because this beach was a five-minute walk away.
So what’s there to do in Isla Mujeres?
Eat Street Food
You guys know I’m not exactly the most experienced of eaters, but while I was in Mexico, I was approached by a Latin American food magazine about writing a series of articles about Mexican street food. I was terrified, but treated it as the perfect excuse for widening my food-based horizons and sampling dishes I’d usually shy away from.
This also meant that the majority of my time in Isla Mujeres was spent trying to work out how to describe food.
The meat was… brown! It tasted… meaty! And cooked. It tasted like it was cooked. And meaty. I… liked it?
Rent a Scooter and Go Exploring
Isla Mujeres is perfect for exploring on two wheels. We toyed with the idea of renting a golf cart, but at $55 a day compared to $25 for the scooter, we opted for the latter.
I grabbed a GoPro and a selfie stick and we set off to explore!
Snap Photos of Garrafon Natural Reef Park
Our first stop was Garrafon Natural Reef Park, located near the southern tip of the island. There, you can go ziplinging and snorkelling, and there’s a swimming pool and hammocks to hang out in. We toyed with the idea of going in, but decided to spend our time scootering instead. Plus, they offer dolphin swimming activities, which we’re both firmly against, and we didn’t want to support it.
Instead, we stopped for a while to marvel at the ridiculous colour of the water as people ziplined their way over it.
(If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll recognise this spot as the source of my cover photo!)
Check out Joysxee Yland
Joysxee Yland is a floating eco-island comprised from 150,000 plastic bottles. For around $4, the owner will you give you a tour of his home. He wasn’t around when we rocked up, so we settled for taking some photos instead. While I’d hate to spend my life floating and vomiting, I think this is such a great way to promote recycling and conservation!
Ride to the Southernmost Point of the Island
Because it’s there where you’ll find the iguanas.
Both fake and real.
Explore the East Coast Beaches
The east coast of the island is all about sheer cliff faces and rocky beaches. Unlike in the north, we didn’t see a single person on any of these ones. Scooter along the main coastal path and stop off whenever you spot somewhere beautiful (likely every few minutes!)
Grab Lunch in the Colonias
As you’re heading back up to the north, take a left turn when you hit the middle of the island and you’ll find yourself in the colonias, where the majority of the locals live.
We stopped off at Mango Cafe for delicious fresh fish tacos for lunch before hitting the road once more, and I highly recommend it. This part of the island was full of vibrant colourful buildings and had a very different feel to the north.
People Watch in the Town Square at Night
After watching the sunset on Playa Sol, head to the town square for some street food and people watching. The food options here range from corn on the cob to tacos to tamales to huge slices of flan for less than a couple of dollars each.
Dave and I would often grab a few tacos and settle down on a bench to watch the locals chat outside the church, while their kids would dance on the wooden makeshift stage.
The Things I Should Have Done
Our trip to Isla Mujeres was all about relaxing and soaking up those final moments in Mexico before we moved on to Belize.
There were things I really wanted to do, but could never seem to get my ass into gear enough to actually arrange anything. It’s that kind of place.
Whale watching is something I’d be sure to check out next time I’m there. During May to November, the southern coastline can sometimes see as many as 400 whale sharks visiting at once!
There’s a turtle farm you can visit, too, where hatchlings are kept and protected until they’re released into the sea, drastically improving their chances of survival.
And how can I forget the underwater museum of sculptures?
Isla Mujeres isn’t an undiscovered paradise that’s free of tourists — after all, it’s only twenty minutes from Cancun! But it is a relaxing getaway if you’re looking to explore somewhere where life moves at a slower pace. The buildings are colourful, the food is good (although double the prices of most places on the mainland), the beaches are beautiful, and the water breathtakingly blue.
Plus, there’s a giant iguana statue.
Have you been to Isla Mujeres? Where’s your favourite island getaway?
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The meat was… brown! It tasted… meaty! Haha, love it. I am very interested in getting to Mexico for the food. Always looks fresh, vibrant and full of flavor (and spice).
The food is probably the biggest thing I miss from Mexico.
I loved Isla Mujeres! I was also disappointed by Playa del Carmen but Isla Mujeres, Tulum and Lake Bacalar redeemed the Yucatan for me ?
Yes! Did you manage to check out Valladolid? That was one of my favourite places in the Yucatan.
Isla Mujeres looks very pretty! I would love to go to the area with the iguanas :) Which month did you visit Mexico and Belize? I’m planning a trip to Belize in February I just want to check if you went in the same season, because the weather looks amazing in your pictures!
We were there in January/February and the weather was great! :-)
Beautiful and the water looks amazing. You pictures of food make me want to travel more even though I travel plenty. Great post.
Thank you, Marc! I’m happy to hear that :-)
Perfect timing! We are just planning our itinerary for January in Mexico — isla mujeres sounds absolutely dreamy!
Yay! You should definitely check it out :-)
So it turns out that being a food writer might be your calling after all! ;) I’m sure that your series for the magazine turned out great. On another note, you had me from your first photo — that blue!! I swear, no matter how many gorgeous tropical beaches I visit or live by, that blue never gets less exciting. Gorgeous.
Isn’t so beautiful? The water on the Caribbean coast is some of the prettiest I’ve seen.
I have been looking for a magazine with Mexican food articles. Do you have a link to your published article or the name of the magazine?
Yep — it’s called the Latin Kitchen. Here’s an article I wrote about eating in Playa del Carmen for them: http://thelatinkitchen.com/travel/features/s/foodcrawling-street-food-playa-del-carmen
Love your food descriptions – always assumed describing things like taste and colors and scents was a genetically preprogrammed female skill I just happened NOT to have, but I guess I’m not alone after all!
My ability to describe food ranges from “yum” to “yuck”, passing “o.k.” and “nice” somewhere along the way, so I think “meaty” and “cooked” are quite impressive ;-)
Oh, me too! I’m eating so much good food these days and I’d love to write about it, but… yeah. Not so good with the descriptions! :-)
How blue is that water!!! Looks amazing
So blue! Definitely worth visiting just to see those beautiful colours :-)
Nice pictures, I’m going there in january. Is one day enough to visit it ? Also, do you need a scooter or golf cart to explore the island or there’s van or minibuses ? I’m scared to use a two wheel.
The photos are amazing, I hope it’s going to be as beautiful as your pictures. (sorry for my bad english I’m french)
Hey Mat! If you got up early and caught the first ferry across, you’d have enough time to see the island in a day! I didn’t see any vans or minivans, so a golf cart is your best bet. There are taxis as well, so you might be able to pay a driver to take you around for the day as well.
Whoa, that water!! Haha. Love the tidbit you included about writing for a food magazine. I feel like that’s how I feel when I’m just writing a Yelp review! LOL!
Hahaha! Yeah, I rarely write reviews for that reason!
Awesome post Lauren! Delicious food and exploring on a scooter sounds like my kind of place:-) And wow, such a bright blue ocean…
Thanks, Lotte! It was a lot of fun to write about :-) And yep, Isla Mujeres was pretty great.
That water doesn’t even look REAL!
I’ve always wanted to go there during whale shark season… one of these years…
Ah, whale sharks! I’m so desperate to see them, but I think it’ll involve a lot of seasickness…
Can I just take a moment to say how much I LOVE the fact you wouldn’t pay entry to somewhere that supports dolphin shows/captivity. My respect for you just jumped up a billion extra notches, big love.
Thanks, Francesca :-) It’s something I feel very strongly about!
Wow the colors in your photos are beyond stunning!
It makes me want to just up and book a trip out there :)
You should! :-)
Hi – just found your awesome site! Lots of great info!
We are going to Playa del Carmen over Christmas. (We may have changed our booking had I found your site first! – Oh well – we’ll still have tones of fun!)
I’m interested in going to Isla Mujeres – but wondered how you made your way from PDC to the island?
I’m not a very experienced traveler and will be with my husband. So any advice on taxis or how to book the boat (assuming) from Cancun to Isla Mujeres would be helpful.
We were looking at renting scooters either in Cancun or PDC but so many sites warn against it. Crazy traffic, rough areas, etc. Assuming maybe the island is safer?
Hoping that you can shed some light on how you made your way and where you book scooters, would be so appreciated!
Keep up the great writing! Its a great read!
Jennifer in Canada
Hey Jennifer! We took a bus from the ADO station in Playa del Carmen to Cancun, a taxi to the ferry terminal, and then a ferry to the island. It was very simple. You don’t need to book the ferry in advance — turn up at the terminal and buy a ticket there.
It was super-safe to scooter around Isla Mujeres — barely anyone on the roads at all! We rented the scooter through our guesthouse.
Just found your blog and I love it. Amazing!
Thanks, Christine! :-)
I absolutely LOVE spending time by the water and that water just looks beyond incredible! I’m not sure if you mention it somewhere else (you probably do and I should check) but what camera are you using to take these photos? They’re such amazing quality!
A Canon 550D with the kit lens! :-) Super old now!
Thanks for the reply Lauren! :)
You have a great site. Thanks for the info on Isla Mujeres. We were there on our sailboat for 2 weeks back in 2004 and we have always wanted to go back. We will be there for 9 days in May.
We live in Panama now so if you are ever this way let us know.
We do a blog on our travels as well that is going to get a major upgrade and face lift soon!
John and Susan
I will absolutely let you know! Panama is very high on my list of places to visit :-)
Thanks for writing about our little slice of paradise! We loved your blog and have shared it to our Isla Mujeres Vacation Rentals Facebook page and website!!
Thank you so much! <3
I agree wholeheartedly. Isla Mujeres is our personal paradise, too. Playa Norte is one of the best beaches on the planet and the street food is cheap and to die for.
Sadly, Isla Mujeres is not the quiet undiscovered island that it used to be, but real busy these days and the hotel rates keep going up. Nevertheless, it is still our personal paradise!
There are my two favorite things to do that are not on your list: swimming and snorkeling at Playa Norte!
No need to go to Garrafon for those.
Loooove Isla Mujeres! It’s my happy place on this earth. Great write-up — it has me missing this beautiful island! Like you said, it’s totally paradise.
My wife and I visited Isla mujeres for a few days last month, and we long to go back there. I loved it, I stayed at an all inclusive resort and had a delightful time.