January 9, 2016
We woke up on Saturday to beautiful blue skies, and checked the weather for the remainder of our stay. Though we had initially anticipated perhaps spending the afternoon at the Mayan Museum just next door, hiding from the 86+ degree weather in the temperature controlled environment, we noticed the rest of our stay was looking cloudy and bleak. The other item on my MUST SEE list was Isla Mujeres, a small island just off of the Zona Hotelera that boasts one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, and some have said even the world. In my never-ending quest to find something similar to Vieques’s Blue Beach, this was the very first thing I wanted to see when I knew we were scheduling a trip to the area. Nice weather was crucial to the success of this excursion, so we ended up changing plans last minute and headed right out for a day trip.
Our first step was to figure out the bus system of the Zona Hotelera, which is actually really easy. You just take any R1 or R2 bus on the side of the street that corresponds with the direction you want to go; they come frequently, and stop regularly for people who are walking. You hop on, and for $10.50 pesos you can go as far as you want. It does startle me that they deal in only cash (mostly coins) and the driver counts out change while actively driving down the road, and you are standing there, gripping the railing, trying not to fall over while you hand him your money and collect your change. But it was cool to see all of the other resorts, malls, restaurants, and other establishments, providing further evidence that the Hotel Zone is like a mini Vegas, but with beach instead of casinos.
We jumped off of the bus at Playa Caracol, which is a centrally located area with all kinds of tourist activities, and a kind man pointed us in the right direction to the ferry, which was situated next to a gorgeous little beach and had a view of a quaint red-and-white striped lighthouse.
The pier out to the ferry at Playa Caracol
Love this lighthouse!
The ferry process was interesting and almost a tourist activity in itself, unlike ferries in Washington state or to San Francisco even, where it’s merely a mode of transportation. Here, the counters boasted on enormous banners that this company had the “Fastest ferries around, and with the most frequent departures all day!” (Mind you, they were sometimes hours apart, and horribly late). Ticket salesmen tried to upsell us on snorkeling trips, golf cart rentals, and day trips to adventure parks. The waiting area for the ferry was in an open air bar that tried to help you bide the time with cocktails and guacamole. And then the ferry arrived to pick us up 15 minutes past the scheduled departure time, and it was a hot wait on the dock in the midday sun. Televisions on the ferry advertised hotels and water parks and activities. It’s like you couldn’t escape the sales pitches.
Ready to get on the ferry!
The ferry ride itself was pleasant enough, and we stopped at the Embarcadero and parked behind an enormous pirate ship to pick up additional passengers, so that was fun.
Arriving in Isla Mujeres, we were absolutely bombarded right off the boat with vendors shouting at us to view their wares, or to rent a golf cart (apparently the preferred tourist method of travel on the island), or thrusting a laminated page displaying sea life in our faces, insisting “best snorkeling prices!” Yikes! The streets were crowded with tourists elbow to elbow, with beachside bars and overflowing souvenir shops lining the sidewalks, and little women with machetes hacking the tops off of coconuts and adding straws. There was even a very random soft serve ice cream machine in the street, unaffiliated with any shop or restaurant, with small children lined up for cones.
The great thing about Isla Mujeres is it's pretty small, easy to walk around the downtown area with great beaches, and they have very helpful large-scale maps posted in convenient places. This was important because we got off the ferry and the first beach I saw, while nice, was nowhere near my expectation levels of Blue Beach-ness. The beach in front of our hotel was way nicer, and I was going to be super annoyed if this was it. I was ready to turn around and jump on the next ferry back, not ready to waste a full day at a subpar beach (the next ferry was either in 30 minutes, or 4 hours. So much for their “frequent departures”). But alas! The map indicated we were at the wrong beach! We had to keep going.
After winding through a few awkward back streets and a weirdly secluded golf cart rental lot, we emerged from the back of a shabby bar into the full splendor of Playa Norte, the Holy Grail of Mexican beaches. My goodness, it was everything I expected and also nothing I expected at the same time. The water was crystal clear and a light aqua color; it was gorgeous, but almost too green. Beach clubs lined the water, but there were SO MANY people it was overwhelming. Pelicans dove into the water to catch their lunches, but they were too close to the people swimming, and we often saw people jump out of the way to avoid getting pummeled. I desperately loved this beach, and I also hated it.
The less crowded side of Playa Norte
We walked down past the beach clubs to a place where the water was calm and palm trees provided natural shade. It looked like locals were camping out on their towels here, but it seemed like unsupervised chaos, and we were concerned about leaving our belongings here while going into the water since we had our wallets and cell phones, etc. So back to the beach clubs we went. They all seemed to be about the same price, and representatives near the water accosted passersby to entice them to select their club versus the neighbor’s. We went with one of the first ones we came to, and paid $200 pesos for our shaded lounge chairs and wifi.
The bummer about beach clubs, at least in Playa Norte, is you are sandwiched in between other visitors with almost zero privacy. Thanks to the proximity, I could read all of the text messages on my neighbor’s iPhone, and listened to him ask questions about the menu and order guacamole in surprisingly perfect Spanish for his very Caucasian appearance. Random vendors would also duck under the umbrellas to try and peddle all kind of necklaces and beach bags and seashells to you, completely ignoring that you are minding your own business and trying to relax. But the great thing about beach clubs is the sense of security you have, as they are well staffed to meet all your needs, and you feel comfortable leaving your items at your chair while you head down to the water. Also, the close proximity to your neighbors creates an unspoken camaraderie amongst your paid-for comfort; I know I would have fought off any stranger trying to snoop in Perfect-Spanish-Speaking-Caucasian-Guy’s stuff.
Relaxing at the Beach Club
The water was heavenly. It was so shallow you could walk out incredibly far, and so clear it kept my fears of unknown sea life at bay. The temperature was perfect, and there were hardly any waves, which was ideal for basking and frolicking. I only wished I had brought Gina (my floaty!) with me for this excellent floating opportunity.
After our dip in the water, we went back to our chairs and ordered chicken tacos and nachos, delivered right to our chairs. If you’ve never dined on cheap Mexican food next to the ocean with your feet in the sand, I highly recommend it. Overall, it was an lovely afternoon despite my reservations and the crowds.
As the time approached for the ferry back to Cancun, we went and found some pay showers ($10 pesos) to rinse off and change into less salty clothes in some seriously nasty public restrooms. We walked back to the ferry terminal with thoughts of perhaps looking in some of the souvenir shops, but the constant hassling from the owners felt almost like being attacked and harassed, so it really turned us off the prospect. We ended up being early for the ferry and wanted to switch our tickets to another location in the Hotel Zone that was leaving half an hour earlier, but it turned out the ferry was delayed and wouldn’t be there for another hour (again, so much for being the best ferry line…if this is the best, I’d hate to see the others).