Just a few kilometres off the easternmost tip of Mexico, ISLA MUJERES is substantially mellower than Cancún, drawing people for long stays despite the lack of tourist attractions and wild nightlife. A hippie hangout in the 1970s, the tiny island still retains an air of bohemian languor, with wild-haired baby-boomers passing on travel wisdom to a new generation of young backpackers.
Physically, however, Mujeres is hardly the desert island it was thirty years ago, and its natural attractions have been developed considerably. Thousands of day-trippers visit from Cancún, and the Garrafón coral reef off the southern tip is now almost completely dead (though fish still flourish here). Prices, too, have risen. But the island can still seem a respite to those who’ve slogged across Mexico, or to anyone overwhelmed by Cancún – the low wooden buildings and narrow streets have a genuine Caribbean feel.
The attractions here are simple: first there’s the beach, then there’s the sea. And when you’ve tired of those, you can cruise around the island to more sea, more beaches and the tiny Maya temple full of female figures that the conquistadors chanced upon, which gave the place its name. But you’ll want to be back under the palms on Playa Norte, the big west-facing beach, by late afternoon: Isla Mujeres is one of the few places along Mexico’s eastern shoreline where you can enjoy a glowing sunset over the water.
Isla Mujeres is just 8km long, and even at its widest point is barely a kilometre across. A lone road runs its perimeter, past the dead-calm waters of the landward coast and back along the windswept, rocky eastern shore. The most popular beach, just five minutes’ walk from the town plaza, is Playa Norte – curving up and around the northern tip of the island, but protected from the open sea by a promontory on which stands a large resort.
If you’ve had enough of the beach and wandering round the main town (the grand tour takes little more than 30min), rent a bike or moped to explore the south of the island, where there are other residential areas and various natural attractions. Heading south from town, about halfway down the length of the island lurk the barely visible remains of the Hacienda Mundaca, to which scores of romantic pirate legends are attached. The place has been criss-crossed with a few too many concrete paths, and there’s a rather dismal zoo, but the jungly shade in the back garden makes for a prime picnic spot. Across the roundabout, another road leads to a government-run turtle farm and research centre, which breeds endangered sea turtles for release in the wild. Entrance helps fund the preservation project.
Just south of the roundabout, Playa Lancheros is a small, palm-fringed beach that is virtually deserted except at lunchtime, when the good, very simple restaurant fires up the grill for tikin-xic fish.
At the southern end of the island, the Garrafón reef is enclosed in a nature park (wwww.garrafon.com) with a zipline and “snuba” (swim underwater with an oxygen line). It’s pricey, and can be crowded with Cancún day-trippers. For snorkelling, you’re better off going on a trip with the lancheros. The entrance to the park is almost at the southern tip of the island – beyond, the road continues to the old lighthouse, surrounded by faux-Caribbean houses containing shops and a restaurant. From there you can visit a somewhat gratuitous sculpture park and the Templo de Ixchel, at the southeastern tip (M$30; free with Garrafón ticket). It’s not much of a ruin (the fertility figures the Spaniards spotted here have been removed), but it is very dramatically situated on low rocky cliffs.