You won't believe how close this little gem is to Cancun yet it only sees a tiny fraction of the people that it's giant tourist-attraction neighbor does on the mainland.
From the port in Cancun, it's only a 15 minute ferry to Isla. Some people go there on a day trip but I don't see the point. Skip Bubba Gump Shrimp and Señior Frogs and stay on one of the top beaches in the world!
The island is small at only 4 1/2 miles long and 1/4 mile wide. The tallest building is 5 stories and most are no more than 3. I'm not talking super-cheap remote small fishing village here; there is plenty of tourism, but it's a world away from the bustling Hotel Zone. There are not many tourist attractions, but if you enjoy spending a few days chillin' on an amazing tropical beach that's easy to get to from the US, this is a fantastic place.
Playa Norte really does look just like the photos and in my opinion, that's the only place to stay. The water is clear, warm, calm, and shallow and you can stay in it all day long. If you are not staying at a hotel that provides chairs and umbrellas, you can rent them and some places will let you use them for free if you buy drinks from them. If you tip well and use your charm, you can even have your waiter bring your drinks to you in the water. :) :)
What to Do
There's not a whole lot to do on the island but I've never minded that. There's a turtle farm that helps rescue sea turtles, a ruin at the southern tip, and a ridiculous tourist trap Garrafon Reef Park. There are whale shark tours and other tours that are on the pricey end of things and definitely take a bit of haggling. There are ATMS and many many tacky souvenir shops all selling the same junk. (There have been problems with fake ATM covers stealing people's info so only use the ATMs at the banks.)
Golf cart rentals are everywhere as are taxis. There is also a public bus system that runs around the island for almost nothing. If you rent a golf cart, you can see the entire island in a single day.
The main drag, Hidalgo is full of International cuisine, bars with live music, and souvenir shops. It's not bad for a stroll but be prepared for every restaurant and shop to ask you if you'd like to see what they have for sale. And it's always almost free for you today!
A small crowded cemetery sits directly behind Play Norte at the North end of Hildalgo. I have a thing for cemeteries. They can be an interesting look into a local culture.
Get a massage on the beach. The prices will range from $30 - $40/hr with a cooling facial. I have found the best prices right next to ChiChi n' Charlies (Isabelle and Marisol are amazing) and out on the beach in front of Privilege Aluxes.
There's a little protected bay area over by the Mia Hotel that can be pretty and may have some fish but I have also seen it with a lot of smelly seaweed. Regardless, you should have a walk down the beach to check it out, it's not far. From there you can continue over the rocks and through some small beaches on the ocean side until you get to the Malecon that doesn't have much other than a colorful photo-opp Isla Mujeres sign.
Otherwise just plan on spending a lot of relaxing time on the beach and in the water.
Where to Eat
There is a grocery store in the Playa Norte area at the end of Hidalgo and also a huge grocery further down the island accessible by golf cart. Cava del Duero Xpress liquor store is behind the Playa Norte supermarket and there are a couple of places right on Hidalgo to buy cold beer.
There is a lot of seafood served in the restaurants along the water by the ferry and the main drag Hidalgo is full of tourist restaurants that are pretty much all terrible and all overpriced.
A few recommendations are:
- Pita Amore - Super tasty pitas stuffed with flavor. No, not a healthy salad type of thing. Trust in the Pita. Meaty and filling, and they have a delicious vegetarian option! The super tiny place is stifling hot but worth it.
- Ruben's - Okay Italian food and good steak at reasonable prices and run by Ruben who also hosts charity events for local children.
- Loncheria Alexia y Geovanny - Across from Ruben's - fresh local breakfast or lunch for under $3!
- Cafe Mogagua - A popular tourist place with great Chilaquiles for breakfast and good coffee.
- The Soggy Peso is a cute little bar on the bay on the West side of the airport. It's (somewhat) walkable and has a great vibe. They serve one food item each day for happy hour (along with a handful of other bar food items) and the locals crowd in 5 minutes before they start serving.
- Sometimes in front of the supermarket there are street vendors. Fresh hot churros are pretty awesome.
How to Get There
Taking the Ultramar ferry from Puerto Juarez (Gran Puerto Cancun) is the most economical but they have doubled the prices recently so it's no longer the hands-down best choice. Round trip is now 300 pesos or $17 round trip.
If you are in the city, you can take a collectivo or taxi to Puerto Juarez for very little. Directly from the airport it depends on how many people you have. If you have more than a few, then book a private van from Happy Shuttle for $35. Otherwise you can take the ADO bus to the bus terminal ($5 each) then take a taxi from there ($5) or collectivo ($1).
If you are in the Hotel Zone, bus 8 is supposed to go to Puerto Juarez, but it does not run very often. You can also opt to take the frequent local bus (Rt 2) for $1 to the Hotel Zone ports (Playa Tortugas, Playa Caracol, or El Embarcadero) where the ferry costs $19 round trip.
Once you arrive on the island, you can easily walk to Playa Norte from the ferry dock or you can take a taxi for 60 pesos. It's about 1/4 mile.
Where to Stay
I have stayed in a rental house on the East side of the island but it's very windy and rough and it's not even possible to go in the water. I have also stayed at the Privilege Aluxes on the North West but even then (with possibly the best pool on the island) I wished I had stayed on Playa Norte.
Ixchel is in a fantastic location and most rooms have a view of the water. Their prices have gone up though and they are certainly not considered budget accommodation at $150+. But if you have a group of people, they have some very nice 2 bedroom units with a full kitchen.
We had booked a very specific penthouse suite with a swing bar in the new building but when we got there, they tried giving us a penthouse in the other building with a spiral staircase (which I loathe). A few tears later and the fact that our paperwork we had printed out showed the unit number, we got our room but not without wasted time and hassle.
Cabanas Maria del Mar is a good choice. Their prices are reasonable ($80/night), they have a pool, the property is on the water but only some rooms have an ocean view, they supply free drinking water, and Buho's Bar is on the property.
You can get a room at ChiChi n' Charlies for under $100 and it's right on Playa Norte. I haven't stayed there but it looks like there is no escape from the sun/heat and I've heard the loud music can be a bit much.
For more of a budget, you can find some nice little boutique hotels in town. There's even a hostel near the beach!
Why Do I Like It?
It's more expensive than the places I usually visit but you can cut down the cost with very little effort. It's also so surprisingly close to Cancun where you can get some good flight deals from the US / Tijuana. It's an easy place to bring my friends from the US who prefer a more Westernized vacation and they are all blown away by how incredible the beach is.
Extra tip: During the summer, giant sea turtles come up on the beach to nest and lay their eggs at night right in the Hotel Zone in Cancun! Sometimes I stay one night in the Royal Caribbean to see the turtles nest on the mainland, then head out the next morning to the island.
Extra tip: Cancun city (not the Hotel Zone) can be a fun place to stay. There are inexpensive hotels and you will not even know the Hotel Zone is near by. Stay near the Parque de las Palapas where you can spend the evening with local families and eat greasy street food. You'll also be right by the bus terminal for onward travels and there's a large grocery store within walking distance. There are various hostels and one of my favorite places if I'm sharing with someone is the Xblamque.