Bypass the Tequila Shots and Visit Isla Mujeres
For those of us of a certain age who have never been to Mexico, the idea of vacationing there makes us think of a few things. As a 33-year-old, I think of watching MTV’s Spring Break, beautiful beaches, tequila shots, Jenny McCarthy when she was just obnoxious and fun instead of obnoxious and dangerous, and more tequila shots.
But Mexico is so much more than all of that! If you’re looking to relax, get an incredible tan, eat phenomenal food, sip tequila (like a grown up!) and not see 19-year-olds doing body shots, Isla Mujeres is the destination of your dreams. It’s gorgeous, safe, low key and perfect for oldies like us who’ve had to leave our hard-partying years behind us.
Seven of us friends visited Isla Mujeres in late September 2018, which was a fantastic time to visit since it wasn’t tourist season. Plus, the weather was great. We were supposed to get rain every day, but only one morning had rain and it was all dried up by the time we set out for the day. Temperatures were in the high 80s, but the ocean breeze kept us cool. In other words: perfect beach getaway weather.
With me as the lone exception, our entire group was either active duty military or veterans. So, we weren’t exactly a loud “Wooooo shots!” group that was bringing a lot of attention to ourselves. We would have been incredibly safe in pretty much any situation. Despite the scary stories your mom reads about Mexico online, there is nothing to be concerned about when visiting Isla Mujeres.
Getting to Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres, AKA Island of Women and referred to as “Isla” by the locals, is a tiny island off the coast of Cancun. It’s about four miles long and not even half a mile wide. You’ll fly into Cancun International Airport, which is an easy two-hour flight out of Atlanta (making it a great long weekend trip for those at Fort Benning and Fort Gordon). You’ll need a passport of course, but getting in and out Mexico couldn’t be easier. Assuming you don’t have a bunch of drugs on you, of course.
Once you get to Cancun, you’ll need to arrange a ride to the port, Puerto Juarez. We used CARM Tours and Transfers, which provides private transfers in vans, and the service was reliable, timely and friendly. The trip from the airport to the dock costs about $45 and was about a 45-minute drive. Our driver spoke little English, and the fluent Spanish-speaker in our group handled the important details. However, the Spanish we all took in high school would have gotten us to where we needed to go without issue.
The boat that’ll take you to Isla Mujeres is called the Ultramar Ferry. You can buy roundtrip tickets at the dock, and use your return ticket whenever you need it. It’s a large boat and travels fast, so it didn’t bother a sensitive seasick wimp like me. After just 20 minutes, you’ll be docking at beautiful Isla.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the immaculate and amazing Casa Sirena. It’s a four-story bed and breakfast just a few blocks from the dock. Full disclosure: Beverly, the manager, is the mom of one of our traveling companions. Beverly is easily in the Top 5 of coolest people I’ve ever met. She’s one of those incredibly engaging people who makes you feel like you’ve known her for years. Every morning she greets you with a genuine compliment that forces you to start your day with a big smile.
Each morning, Casa Sirena’s staff serves a phenomenal breakfast. You may think you’ve had good Mexican food, but this was real-deal food made by sweet Mexican locals. The only day you have to fend for yourself is Sunday, but it’s easy enough to hit a nearby café to pick up a coffee and pastries or breakfast sandwich. Every restaurant we went to had fluent English speakers there, so we barely had to rely on the minimal basic Spanish we retained from 15-plus years ago.
Casa Sirena offers a happy hour each day, complete with margaritas made by Beverly (or other drinks you can request or supply your own liquor for). Plus, the kitchen staff uses the leftover flour tortillas from breakfast and makes delicious tortilla chips, salsa and guacamole to munch on. Watching the sunset with great friends, tasty drinks and snacks were the highlight of the trip for me. And, on some nighs an acoustic guitar player or magician would swing by to add some extra entertainment.
The rooms were large, the beds were wonderful and the décor was exactly what you’d hope for on a Mexican vacation. Beverly or the owner, Steve, were always around to offer recommendations or arrange special trips and reservations if necessary. I can’t recommend Casa Sirena enough.
Where to Eat
My mouth is watering just thinking about all the incredible food we ate on this lovely island. Naturally, fresh seafood is a massive part of the cuisine here. From ceviche to shrimp to fresh-caught grouper, the selection is vast. If you’re more into traditional Mexican dishes, you can find tacos and whatnot anywhere. There were also lots of American dishes, if you’re one of those weirdos who orders chicken fingers and fries when you travel to a foreign country.
Here is a list of all the places where we ate lunch or dinner, as well as our go-to spot for coffee and breakfast food (we had some hungry guys in our group who follow the Hobbit Second Breakfast Diet).
Javi's Cantina. We went here for our last dinner of the trip, and we were genuinely angry that we didn’t go sooner! This was the fancy meal of the vacation, and the food was phenomenal. The drinks were also worthy of mentioning, especially the mango margarita.
Lola Valentina. We came here a couple times because of the great happy hour two-for-one drinks, filling food, and PEANUT BUTTER JELLY EMPANADAS. Yep, you read that right. Lola Valentina’s dessert menu was bomb, and I’d go back there again just for the chocolate empanadas. Plus there was an adorable Chihuahua roaming around the street that camped out in the dining room.
Bally-Hoo. This place has great seafood for great prices, and a gorgeous and peaceful setting. It’s right on the water, and the fish you’ll be eating was likely caught that day. It was the restaurant we hit on our first night, and it was a great way to kick off our vacation and make it very clear that none of us had our kids with us!
Café Mogagua. This was a five-minute walk from our hotel, so we visited it several times whenever we needed a caffeine hit or light meal. The sweet crepes were delicious, as were the breakfast bagel sandwiches. Bags of Mexican coffee beans are available for purchase to take back to the States.
Rooster. We loved this place after we all went snorkeling and diving one morning. It serves traditional Mexican and American food, including brunch staples like eggs benedict, gravy biscuits and chicken and waffles. Rooster also made fancy coffee drinks. The iced mocha latte I ordered was basically a chocolate milkshake, and I wasn’t mad one bit.
Oceanvs By NaBalam. This place has the best fish tacos I’ve ever had in my life. The restaurant is part of a hotel located right on Playa Norte and also offered cabanas/tables right on the sand. We ate at both the restaurant and on the beach on two different days, and both times the service was fantastic. And believe me, we put our server to work on the day we were on the beach. We were there for about six hours and each one of us was pounding margaritas, beer and food the entire time. This was perhaps my favorite experience of the trip, and not just because I got an amazing tan (I grew up in South Florida when it was cool to put baby oil on and bake in the sun. The damage has been done. I might as well embrace it now).
paradICE-Cream.This place being about 100 yards from our hotel was dangerous. We hit it several times, and twice in the same day at least once. The gelato was super tasty (and cheap!), and was exactly what we all wanted after long afternoons in the sun.
There are a handful of hole-in-the-wall type places within walking distance of Casa Sirena that were fantastic, but neither I nor anyone else in our group can remember the names of them (to be fair, at least one of them was a place we stumbled to after a long day of drinking. We just remember the burritos were awesome!). It’s safe to say that anywhere you go on Isla Mujeres is bound to have fantastic and authentic Mexican food. You may be surprised that unlike at Mexican restaurants in the US, hardly any dishes have any cheese on them. No queso blanco chimichangas! No cheese enchiladas! But everything is delicious.
I’m into buying unique, local gifts wherever we go. The brightly colored pottery and figurines you think of when you envision Mexican gifts are everywhere in Isla Mujeras. The main drag—Miguel Hidalgo—and all of its side streets have vendors and shops everywhere you look. The problem is: a lot of it is Made in China crap that gets sent in from Cancun. Sure, you’ll look at the coffee mugs or trinket dishes and think “I got that in Mexico!” but it’s not quite as special knowing that it was made in a factory thousands of miles away.
I was looking for jewelry, so Beverly recommended we visit Galeria De Arte Mexicano, which is just up the road from Casa Sirena. It’s a cute corner store that’s filled to the brim with handmade local pottery, silver décor, wooden carvings, rugs and blankets, and of course, silver jewelry. It’s not my usual style, but I spotted a large marquisette ring I loved immediately. With a little bartering (which is absolutely accepted in Mexico) my husband snagged it and surprised me with it later that day. We also bought my parents a beautiful hand-painted papier-mâché Christmas ornament.
We did also buy some ceramic items, like an awesome Sugar Skull (the colorful hand-painted skulls that are used in celebration of the Day of the Dead) for my sister-in-law and a bright red ceramic gecko for my mother-in-law. If you look for them, you can find a few shops on the main strip that don’t seem so icky and tourist-trappy.
Things to Do
Isla Mujeras is famous for the MUSA, the Underwater Museum of Art (Museo Subacuatico de Arte). There are three MUSA galleries, and the one off the coast of Isla Mujeres is the Manchones. It’s a man-made reef featuring unique sculptures, mostly of people. The sculptures promote marine life and the hope is that, over time, the growth will help enrich and protect the ocean and its inhabitants.
To see these sculptures, you’ll need a boat. There are many diving and snorkeling tours offered, and all are reputable and safe. After all, this is a tourist hotspot, and the market is competitive. We opted to go with Squalo Adventures, which is part of the esteemed PADI diver-certification organization. Five members of our group wanted to dive, while the remaining two of us opted to snorkel. Some of the five were already dive-certified, but everyone wanted to go ahead and do the instructional course as a refresher. So, don’t worry if you’re not certified when you arrive in Mexico. You won’t be doing any super-deep dives; a short course with one of the employees is all you’ll need to dive safely.
The instructional course, boat trip and actual snorkeling/diving only took about three hours total. Four people from our group loved the experience and the Squalo Adventures team so much that they asked if they could go out spearfishing. Though the Americans weren’t successful, our skilled Squalo team took care of business and scored lobster, grouper, barracuda and lion fish. They even whipped up a ceviche for us with the fresh catches!
If hanging out at the beach is more your bag, the go-to spot is Playa Norte. The sand is super soft and the water is crystal clear. We spent most of our time here while on the island. It’s worth snagging a covered cabana and camping out, as long as you keep ordering food and drinks (and tipping your server generously).
Since our crew consisted of people whose job literally requires them to be in shape, exercise was a priority (for some more than others, of course! I’ll go for a run, but I’m not about to put in serious work while I’m vacationing!). Our fitness enthusiasts hit Gym Tonic, which was about a mile and a half from Casa Sirena. It had the basics when it comes to lifting and cardio equipment, and everyone got the workout they wanted.
My husband and I spent seven nights in Isla Mujeras, while the rest of our friends stayed for nine. Seven was plenty, and you could easily fulfill your relaxing beach vacation dreams in as little as three nights. Since the travel to get there (from Atlanta) was so easy, you’re not exhausted and spending a day recovering from jetlag. Our flight out of Atlanta was at 11am, and we were walking into our hotel rooms by 4pm.
Although Casa Sirena is for adults-only, children can stay there if you reserve the entire building (eight rooms). Personally, we all loved being here and hitting the beach without our kids. But, it’s a friendly island and plenty of children, both locals and tourists, were everywhere.
Overall, we loved visiting Isla Mujeres and plan on going back when we have the opportunity. It was relatively inexpensive, incredibly relaxing and fun. If you don’t want to battle other tourists, travel in the fall like we did or before the Spring Break crowd arrives.
* You’ll need plenty of pesos, and the best and safest way to get them is using the small bank on the island near Casa Sirena. If you have USAA, just call in advance and let them know where you’re traveling, and they’ll keep an eye out for suspicious activity. We tried to have at least 1000 pesos on us at all times, which is about $52. A full dinner for two, including a few rounds of drinks, at a nice restaurant cost us about 500-600 pesos ($25-30, plus tip). Some places accepted Visa or Mastercard, but we felt a lot better just using cash everywhere.
* There aren't many cars on Isla Mujeras since it's so small, and most people (tourists and locals) get around on golf carts. You can either rent one from a company, or some hotels provide golf carts for their guests.
* Though Casa Sirena had drinks available, we still wanted plenty of water available in the room. Plus, we like our late-night snacks. Around the corner from the hotel was a small supermarket that provided everything we needed.
* Bring lots of sunscreen! The supermarket and pharmacies were changing a crazy amount—like $20—for small bottles of Banana Boat and Australian Gold. Get outta here with that mess.
* Don’t drink the water. I’m sure everyone has heard this, but it’s worth repeating. Only drink bottled water while you’re in Mexico. I was so paranoid that I held my breath for most of my showers. None of us got sick, so we must have done something right.
* Don’t flush toilet paper. This is a weird tip, but an important one. The plumbing situation isn’t great on the island, so they can’t risk having any clogs. Trashcans are next to every toilet, including the ones in the hotel room, so don’t flush a single square.
* Get ready to relax! It’s an island, so everything is laaaid back. Unless you’ve got an intinerary full of fishing excursions, you can just wake up and do whatever you want. If you’ve got small kids at home like we all do (mine was the oldest at 2.5 years), you’ll love the chance to focus on something other than Puppy Dog Pals and constant demands for snacks.
About the Author
Rachel is the editor of Right and Up. She is an Auburn grad (War Damn Eagle!) and holds a degree in journalism. While working as a sports writer covering the Tigers, she met a cute, tall officer stationed at Fort Benning. A few margaritas, some conversations about why a no-huddle offense is superior and 18 months later, they got married. They have PCS’d to Fort Huachuca, Fort Riley and are now in the National Capital Region. Together they have a son and two dogs.