18 May 2015

Isla Mujeres: Bliss on the Beach

When I was planning my trip to Mexico, I knew that I wanted to end it with a few days on an amazing beach. A beach where there was little to do other than swim, sunbathe, eat and swim again. I also knew that after Cancún's zona hotelera wasn't for me after being disappointed by the blandness of the zona hotelera in Varadero, Cuba, almost exactly 10 years ago. I considered Playa Del Carmen, but ultimately, Isla Mujeres — a four-mile island about eight miles off the coast of Cancún won out. In particular, you couldn't really argue with Lonely Planet's description of the island's Playa Norte as a place "you will never want to leave".

Isla, as the locals call it, didn't exactly feel like paradise when I hopped off the ferry on Wednesday night after a long, hot day travelling from Mérida and Chichén Itzá. It was still warm but dark and I was almost run over by a convoy of tourist-driven golf buggies. Then, when I got to the hotel and I realised that "terrace" and "balcony" are not the same and that my room was literally adjacent to the lobby, I was disappointed again.

However, mañana came and everything was OK. My terrace was in fact quite lovely with a hammock and a view of the hotel's near-infinity pool and of a pretty, rugged cove adjacent to Playa Pancholo. Playa Norte, the fêted beach with "sea the colour of blue raspberry syrup" and "crushed coral sand", was only a five-minute walk, so after breakfast, I walked over there pronto, and then didn't really leave for the next two-and-a-half days. It was quite fun watching new arrivals walk through from the road and gawp at the perfection of the beach.

Playa Norte stretches along the northern edge of the island and you can walk the length of it in ten minutes or so. I recommend the north-eastern end, which is less developed. Don't get me wrong: this isn't the kind of place where you will be able to find your own private slice of paradise, but there are fewer hotels and beach club. I walked in through the entrance at the end of Calle Carlos Lopez, and although I experimented with a few other spots, this was my favourite. There aren't too many sunbeds, there isn't loud music and you can leave your towel and your things under the shade of the palm trees while you swim. On the northeast corner of Playa Norte, near the Mia Reef hotel, there's a small lagoon that is great for snorkelling at high tide.

The water is calm, clear, warm and a perfect turquoise. You do have to wade out for a few minutes before it gets thigh-deep (some of the more south-westerly spots get deeper more quickly), but then you can just float, splash, swim and relax. Another sign that it's the best part of Playa Norte is that around lunchtime, a lot of the big speedboats start to arrive and park offshore, spilling people and tequila into the sea (see the difference in the next two photos). If you get there early, though, you won't have to share the water or the view with many other people for a few hours at least.

I had hoped to be able to scuba dive while on Isla, but my ears have been playing up so I stuck to snorkelling. I went on a snorkelling tour to two reef sites with Sea Hawk Divers, and they were great. The tour cost about US$40 and there were only two of us, which meant our friendly, marine biologist guide was able to point out dozens and dozens of different types of fish.

For a Brit who is used to dull, cloudy waters, the Caribbean is always such a treat. The sergeant major fish (grey and yellow with the appropriate number of black stripes) weren't camera shy at all. "Instagram me," they implored. So I did.

We also saw a couple of yellow stingray (can you spot one in the Magic Eye style photo?), a squid and a young hawksbill turtle. I had hoped to see more turtles but to go to the mating sites, you have to dive rather than snorkel. My photo was a little blurry as I was too busy taking a video! I haven't taken underwater photos before and I hadn't appreciated how tricky it was — you lose a lot of colour, for one thing, and the current was so strong that with me drifting and the fish swimming away, the photos didn't come out as well as I had hoped. There are cheaper snorkelling trips — I saw one for US$30 dollars for four hours — but I got the sense that there would be big groups of snorkellers scaring the fish, not enough guides to point out where to look and not enough time spent in the water. Maybe not, but I was very happy with my Sea Hawk tour.

After the amazing food — and value-for-money — in Oaxaca, the Yucatán was slightly disappointing, food-wise. On Isla, there are some (relatively) expensive restaurants by the beach, and then a whole host of touristy restaurants and shops on a street that should be called Calle Spring Break (it's really Calle Hidalgo). Instead, I stuck to street food, enjoying some delicious fish tacos on my first night from a vendor on the square at the southeastern end of Avenida Guerrero. There are a few cantinas outside the market, which is on Guerrero near Matamoros, which are open until the afternoon. I went to a couple of different ones and had some great fish tacos and sopa de lima. None of these meals cost more than 70 pesos (£3) and they were very tasty.

My favourite meal on the island was at Ruben's, a small restaurant on — you guessed it — Guerrero near Lopez Mateos. I had walked past a few times during the day and thought it looked nice,  but I also spotted it ranked highly on TripAdvisor, so I decided to go on Friday night for my last Mexican supper. For 95 pesos (just over £4), you can have soup, a salad, and one of a selection of main dishes. I had the grilled fish with garlic (served with rice, refried beans and tortillas) and it was excellent. The staff are very friendly and in the evening, it was really lovely to sit out on the small patio, surrounded by colourful fairy lights, listening to a live musician (a wee bit of electric guitar) and being eyed up by the cute resident dog. A much more pleasant experience than the numerous hamburgesa, burrito and pizza joints on Hidalgo.

I was very sad to have to leave Isla Mujeres — and Mexico. The island and the beach are beautiful. For me three days was about the right amount of time to spend here — with another day, I could have done another snorkel tour or visited the turtles in the south of the island, but more than that and I would probably have started craving a little more culture and activity. Adiós, México; hasta luego!

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