The waters around Isla Mujeres are home to one of the most densely populated whale shark feeding areas on the planet - well, between June and September at any rate. Despite the 'shark' part of their name, these gentle giants are plankton feeders. While they are unlikely to do you any harm, whale sharks are massive. It's impossible to describe just how big they are without getting in the water with them.
When your boat arrives (along with many others), you will get your first glimpse of the whale sharks from above. They still look big, but nothing prepares you for how awe inspiringly huge they are when you actually put your face under water and come face to face with one. While the trip itself can feel a bit rushed, swimming with these spotted giants in the clear waters of the Caribbean is certainly an amazing experience.
Most tours have visitors swim 3 times with the whale sharks, taking it in turns in pairs or groups of three with a guide. Snorkel equipment is provided. Tours cost approximately $125 USD (that's the official price, although advertised prices on the island can vary). It is important to ensure you go with a registered company, as the Mexican Army is charged with enforcing rules like not touching the whale sharks. While I was there, most people booked the day before with no issues.
Okay. So visiting a cemetery isn't necessarily on the must do list for most people when staying on an island paradise, but the one on Isla Mujeres is certainly worth a quick look. It's crowded and colorful, and is even home to the grave of a resident pirate. His grave is decorated with the almost obligatory skull and crossbones and was apparently carved by himself, before he went off and died alone in Merida. As a result the grave lies empty, awaiting its pirate.
For many years Mexico's sea turtle population was under threat, due to turtles being hunted and killed for their meat, shell and eggs. Now, things are looking up. Mexican law now protects them and Isla Mujeres' Turtle Farm is working hard to ensure the survival of these species.
At the Turtle Farm, eggs are deposited into safe, caged areas to keep them safe from predators. Once hatched the baby turtles are moved into ponds until they grow big and strong enough to be released into the sea. At the Turtle Farm you can view turtles and different stages of development, as well as other sea creatures including sea horses. The centre isn't huge, so don't expect a visit here to fill in an entire day - an hour is probably more realistic.
The Turtle Farm is open daily from 9-5pm. There is a small entrance fee (approximately 30 pesos), part of which goes toward turtle conservation.
To get there you can hire a taxi or use one of the golf carts that seem to be everywhere. I decided to rent a bicycle and cycle. It's a short (approximately 20 min) ride from the centre of town.
Isla Contoy is located approximately 30 kilometers north of Isla Mujeres - a distance that makes for a pleasant boat journey. The small island is less than 10 kilometers in length, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in beautiful beaches and bird spotting opportunities. The island boasts more than 150 migratory and resident bird species, including frigates, brown pelicans and cormorants. It is also an important nesting site for sea turtles.
The island does feature a 20 metre high watch tower, with views over the lushness of the island and the central lagoon, and a few walking tracks with information on local flora and fauna. Hermit crabs wander everywhere and iguanas are also easily spotted.
Only 200 visitors are allowed daily and a limited number of tour companies have permission to bring visitors to the island. That said, tours are easily booked at the Fisherman's Cooperative booth on Isla Mujeres.
Cost is approximately $750 MXN, which includes the boat trip, all drinks (beer, soft drink, water, etc), snorkeling along a Caribbean reef en route (equipment provided), park admission, lunch and a brief guided tour.
Guys will walk down Playa Norte with huge bags of fresh coconuts and top them with a knife and stick a straw in so you can drink them tight there. Or you can get them from a cart on the road. Only about 20 pesos ($2USD).
Zama's is a beautiful club on the beach on Sac Bajo. It is only open during the day, from about 11 am to 5 pm. There are comfortable beach chairs, beautifully designed pools, private dock that you can also swim off, terrific bathroom and shower facilities, and a lovely restaurant and bar. If you consume $25 worth of food and drink per person you can use the facilities all day. We usually spend a day there when we go to Isla.
They do weddings too and I could see that it would be a beautiful spot for it.
This trip leaves from the Blue Bay Marina in Cancun. You sail on a catamaran from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, stopping first at the El Farito reef for some snorkeling. The current here is pretty strong and it's a national park so they make you stay with the group and the obligatory photo op which you have the opportunity to purchase later. The snorkeling here wasn't the best I have seen in this area but it was OK.
After snorkeling, they dock at the main part of town where you have about 1 1/2 hours to do a little shopping, then it's back on the boat for a ride up to the north part of the island and a buffet lunch on the beach followed by a short stay on the beach. The final part of the adventure is spinnaker sailing, my husband was the first to volunteer, I sat back and took pictures. The lighter folks got a much better ride, they could sail much higher!
Everything is included on the trip-drinks (soft drinks, water, beer, rum punch), buffet lunch, snorkel gear. The cost for us was $69 per person which included round trip transfer from Playa del Carmen. The attached website offers a lower price if you are staying in Cancun or you can probably book once you get there.
The crew wasn't overly friendly, except with the cute girls in the bikinis from Argentina, but they were on hand to get us drinks and I'm not really much for participation on booze cruises anyways. I was a little annoyed by the blatant pitch for tips, they actually walked around with a hat and watched what you put in! Well, except for those cute Argentian girls....
Isla Mujeres is famous for its great scuba diving. We did our dive certification while there on vacation, and though time consuming, it was certainly worthwhile. It's about 4 complete days of classroom and water classes, (lots of studying as well), so if your vacation time is limited, it may not be for you. However, getting your certification there is probably less expensive and less time consuming than it would be at home. There are several dive companies on the island; we went with Coral Divers, and our instructor Carlos was great.
Snorkeling costs $20 to $25 US. Well worth the price with lots of exotic fish. At the right places they will quote 250 pesos (about 20 US) including lunch. They sound like they will cook fish on the beach, but will stop at Playa Tiburon at the Playa Tiburon Restaurant. The lunch is grilled mackerel, very well done and worth it, even if you end up paying $5 US extra. This is a restaurant on the island where Mexicans outnumber Americans.
The north beach of Isla Mujeres is the aptly named Playa Norte, to which most beach-goers flock. The water here is a beautiful aqua color; further out it becomes a deep blue. The waters are very calm and warm. Youcan wade out hundreds of feet and still be only waist-deep in the water.
I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by the beach itself. I'd hoped for a wide span of soft sand, but the beach is fairly narrow and packed with beach chairs (which you can rent for $10-$15 a day) and umbrellas. Depending on when you get there, it can be hard to find a decent spot to set up a blanket. I'd recommend getting there on the early side, between 8 and 10am. After that, tons of tourists from Cancun start making their way to the island for a day trip. The mornings, however, are quite peaceful.
On the northwest end of the island you can take a quick peek at the island's cemetery with its colorful, rather cheerful looking graves. Tucked in the middle is the grave of a local pirate, complete with skull and crossbones (the pirate isn't actually buried here, but inland at Merida). On his grave is the creepy epitaph (in Spanish, of course): "as you are I once was, as I am so shall you be."
Avenue Hidalgo is kind of the main drag “downtown”. The street reminded me a bit of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but more charming. It’s a narrow street, lined with tons of shops, restaurants and bars. Balcony’s from the two story buildings overlook the street; and outdoor seating from the restaurants pepper the street. It’s lively, but I never felt like it was too crowded.
My guide didn’t speak much English, so I didn’t understand a lot of what he told me about the island, but once we got in the water, it didn’t matter. The Caribbean water makes for excellent diving. Great visibility, warm water and terrific sea life.
Sea turtle sanctuary. It is very lovely. I would definitely go back here again if I ever happened to find myslef on Isle Mujeres. The turtle are gradually rehabilitated and released into the wild again.
At the southern tip of the island are the ruins (and they are ruins) of the Temple to Ixchel - goddess of the moon, fertility and other worthy causes. The temple had been in ruins for years but in 1988 Hurrican Gilbert almost succeeded in finishing it off!