There are so many beautiful places along the Riviera Maya!
My recent trip to Quintana Roo’s Riviera Maya was also my first time in Mexico, and I quickly learned that Cancun, while situated on the Yucatan Peninsula along the Caribbean Sea and closer to Central America than the U.S., is more of a tropical Vegas than an exotic getaway. A drive along the hotel zone’s main corridor was filled with flashy signs, big-name brands, luxury hotels, noisy crowds and familiar restaurants.
But only a 20-minute ferry ride away we found peace and paradise on Isla Mujeres: a tiny, 4-mile long island decorated with coconut trees, sugary-soft white sand beaches, roadside coconut stands and sleepy neighborhoods. It’s the perfect day escape from your wild Cancun adventure and offers something for every type of traveler.
How to get here
There are multiple ports with ferries to Isla Mujeres from the Cancun area, the cheapest from Porto Juarez and closest dock being Playa Tortugas. It was about a 20-minute taxi ride from the center of Cancun’s Zona Hotelera to Tortugas and cost 180 pesos.
Ultramar offers hourly ferry trips from Playa Tortugas starting at 9 a.m., and the earlier you go the better. The scenic trip across the channel takes about 25 minutes and there’s always live music (bring some cash to tip). For the best views, head straight to the deck!
Return ferries back to Playa Tortugas from Isla Mujeres depart hourly beginning at 9:30 a.m. Our original plan was to take the first ferry to Isla Mujeres at 9 a.m. and return to Cancun on the 12:30 p.m. boat, but we had so much fun that we missed it and ended up on the 2:30 ferry home. We truly never wanted to leave the island!
How to get around
The ferry docks in Isla Mujeres’ central town on the northern tip of the island.
The best way to see the island in a day is by golf cart! We booked ours from Gomar Rentals; representatives from the shop were on the ferry promising better deals than rentals on-island (we never learned if that was true, but it was convenient to book on the ferry!). It was $35 for a full-day rental.
[Tip: all of the roads in the downtown area, except for the main road, Ruena Medina, are one-way only! Make sure to give yourself extra time to return the golf cart so you can navigate the tricky maze of one-way streets.]
What to do
As soon as we got our golf cart, we headed south of town on Av Rueda Medina and toward Punta Sur, the southernmost point of the island. Along the way, there’s several roadside stands to stop for fresh coconuts and we definitely took advantage of that!
At Punta Sur, there’s a lighthouse, salt-worn sculpture garden and the crumbled remains of a temple worshipping Ixchel, the Maya goddess of fertility, the moon and happiness.
Just past the sculpture garden is the Cliff of the Dawn, Mexico’s easternmost point, where you can meander along a series of pathways carved into the seaside cliff wall. It’s a 30-peso entry fee to visit the temple.
For some much-needed beach time, we stopped at Playa Lancheros, where you can order some fish tacos and pina coladas at the beachfront restaurant, Tikin Xik, and lounge around on the swings. It’s also the perfect spot for a post-lunch dip in the Caribbean Sea!
After lunch: La Tortugranja. This attraction is a turtle farm built in the 1960s by Gonzalo Chale Maldonado, a fisherman who grew concerned about overfishing of turtles who were laying eggs on the island. Here, rescued turtle eggs, including green and loggerhead, are hatched and then baby turtles are released into the ocean at the end of each summer (and visitors can volunteer to be a part of it!). There’s also small pools with albino turtles and injured turtles who cannot survive in the wild and a small aquarium and touch tank. Admission into the aquarium is 30 pesos.
History buffs will enjoy a visit to the Hacienda Mundaca outdoor museum, which is in ruins now but filled with overgrown pathways and crumbling structures. It was built by a pirate named Mundaca who at one point in the 19th century owned 40 percent of the entire island (he wasn’t a very nice guy, unsurprisingly).
After exploring in the hot sun all morning we needed an energy boost and stumbled into the cutest outdoor restaurant near the center of the island called La Tarima. There are three different food stands within the patio area, and the entire place is friendly, plastic-free, environmentally-minded and oh-so photogenic! We ordered some amazingly fresh smoothies and sipped on them in the afternoon shade.
Back in the island’s town center, we returned the golf cart and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the town streets and shopping in the markets (they’re mostly souvenirs and kitschy buys). Isla Mujeres’ most famous beach, Playa Norte, is a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminals and the perfect place to post up on the sand before heading back to Cancun, sun-kissed and relaxed from another day in paradise!
If you’re visiting between May and October, consider adding a whale shark tour to your itinerary for the opportunity to swim alongside the planet’s biggest fish! Even though they measure in about 50 feet, whale sharks are extremely docile and peaceful creatures and a treat to see up close.
-The Wandering Alligator