Isla Mujeres (the “Island of Women”) is a skinny 8-kilometre long island located 15 minutes by fast ferry from Cancún. No matter what the guidebook says, it’s a tourist island full of North American vacationers on one-week holidays, and day-trippers from Cancún. It’s not my scene and I felt lonely and out of place here, feelings I rarely have on a trip. Sure it has a nice white sand beach and turquoise water, but the windy and mostly overcast (even rainy) weather during my three-day stay didn’t make me feel like swimming much.

Tacky Hidalgo Street (Isla Mujeres)

Tacky Hidalgo Street

First impressions of Isla Mujeres

I arrived around noon Thursday of last week to a cacophony of car engines and whistles, hardly the island vibe I had in mind. Many tourists moved around in golf carts, but there were also regular cars, taxis and motorcycles navigating the narrow streets.

That Isla Mujeres is crawling with a party crowd of North Americans, souvenirs shops, and overpriced restaurants shouldn’t have been a surprise given the proximity of the island to tourist mecca Cancún. Yet it was. I had imagined a laid back tropical island with swaying palm trees, and this was not it. Yes, I know, I am a picky beach person. In fact, part of my problem is that I’m not a beach person! But somehow, I keep forgetting this.

A lot of traffic for such a small island (Isla Mujeres)

A lot of traffic for such a small island

Thursday afternoon I checked out Playa Norte, the island’s swimming beach. The wind created quite a bit of surf (not the “calm waters” that the guidebook described) and packs of lounging chairs crowded the beach. Families and couples tried to get a tan under a partially overcast sky. One dad and his kids were building a giant sand Sphinx. I walked down to the end of the beach, then went back to my hotel.

In case you’re wondering, my hotel was called D’Gomar and was located right across from the ferry docks, and about 10 minutes walk from the beach. It was the cheapest I could find and it still cost me about $55 CAD a night, which is way above my budget!

A stretch of Playa Norte (Isla Mujeres)

A busy stretch of Playa Norte

Why am I feeling so depressed on a tropical island?

Worse snorkelling trip ever

On Friday I went on a snorkelling trip with a fishermen cooperative and paid 280 pesos (about $23 CAD) for a 3-hour trip in a small boat. We didn’t go very far from town. The boat captain and his assistant were nice enough, but I found the snorkelling disappointing. It was overcast (again) and the water was a little murky. I did see some fish and some so-so coral. But of course since my Galapagos trip I’m now spoiled for life when it comes to snorkelling.

The afternoon after that snorkelling trip, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt so despondent that I decided to head out for a drink. It was after 4 PM and I was hoping to find some Happy Hour discounts on the beach. Unfortunately, due to the lousy weather, the few beach bars were mostly deserted. The offers of “May I help you?” (asked in English) and “2 for 1” signs just made me feel more lonely. In the end, I headed to the town centre and had a fruit juice. I figured my strange state of mind might be caused by dehydration or lack of vitamins. Alcohol would just make me feel more miserable. I did feel a little better after drinking a big glass of mango and papaya juice with crushed ice in colourful Caffe Italia.

Colourful Caffe Italia (Isla Mujeres)

Colourful Caffe Italia 

The food … and crazy prices

The food I had been having until that point was expensive and not very healthy (tortillas, meat, and refried beans mostly). I tried the “sopa de lima” (a specialty of the region) at Mamacita, another colourful restaurant with more reasonably priced food. The sopa de lima has a clear broth with pieces of chicken and vegetables, and some slices of lime which flavour the broth and give the soup its name. They brought me the tortillas (to shred into the soup) seemingly as an afterthought. This soup cost $5! Many restaurants here have prices similar to Canada or the US, possibly for tourists who don’t know any better, or perhaps don’t care. I also had problems finding dishes with fruits and vegetables. (Onions don’t count).

Sopa de lima, a local specialty (Isla Mujeres)

Sopa de lima, a local specialty

One sign that a Mexican town is too touristy is when you speak Spanish and locals answer you in English. And they continue to speak to you in English even though you continue to speak to them in Spanish. It was slowly driving me bananas.

Finally taking a dip at Playa Norte

On my third day, I finally took a dip in the turquoise waters, even though it wasn’t exactly sunny. Tourists (probably hungover from the night before) take a long time to get going in the morning. You can have a stretch of beach to yourself if you get there by 9:00 or 9:30. The area where Playa Norte curves around is particularly peaceful and devoid of bathers.

My favourite spot on Playa Norte (Isla Mujeres)

My favourite spot on Playa Norte

I had planned to go to Playa del Carmen and Tulum (on the stretch of Caribbean coast called Riviera Maya) but they sounded ever more touristy than Isla Mujeres, and just as pricey. If you like Disneyworld, Universal Studios, and Las Vegas, I believe you’ll like the Riviera Maya. They’ve even turned natural cenotes (fresh underground water pools exposed by the collapse of limestone bedrock) into landscaped theme parks for which they charge stiff admission fees (Xcaret, Xplor, Xel-Ha). I decided to give that whole area a miss, and go in search of the more genuine Mexico. So on Sunday, I took the ferry back to Cancun, and then a bus going west toward the inland town of Valladolid.

View from the top floor of my hotel (Isla Mujeres)

View from the top floor of my hotel

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