Let’s just get this out of the way: Isla Mujeres is “discovered.” It has all the hallmarks — regular ferry service to and from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, trendy hotels, suspiciously jacked-up prices, and a lot of English signage. So an undiscovered, just-between-me-and-you, get-there-before-the-tourists-do gem it is not.
Think of the Riviera Maya in terms of degrees; while the whole thing is touristy, some places will be more touristy than others. Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and pretty much the whole Zona Hotelera are so thoroughly internationalized that going there for the culture is like going to Saudia Arabia for the porn. That is to say, it’s probably everywhere, but like hell you are going to find it.
Here is were Isla Mujeres comes in. Eight miles off the Yucatan coast, it is as much a part of the Riviera Maya as anything between Cancun and Tulum. But the atmosphere, vibe, and very soul of the place is far removed from the high-octane touristiness of the mainland. You’ll still find tequila bars and beachfront cantinas, but you’ll also find cozy, quiet, candy-colored country lanes to walk off the buzz. My kinda place.
It should come as no surprise Isla Mujeres is something of the ignored sibling; it’s not that big. At a little over four miles long but only 2,130 feet at the widest, there isn’t the room for the hotel megaplexes you find on the mainland or nearby Cozumel. That’s isn’t to say there aren’t some tony places to stay (particularly in the southern stretch of the island), but Isla Mujeres is, as these things go, rustic. Things get busy with daytrippers during sunup, around the docks mostly, but things really quiet down come evening.
Sea turtles come ashore on its beaches. The ruins of a temple to Ixchel, Goddess of Childbirth, still stands (somewhat). Iguanas scamper around, well, everywhere. The coral gardens offshore are an explosion of color and life. There is even an “underwater museum,” the Musa Isla Mujeres, where British artist Jason deCaires Taylor erected a series of statues as part of an artificial reef. None of which, aside from the iguanas, I was able to see because guess what?
I was one of those daytrippers, there for only three hours.
What I was able to do was explore the town. Get away from the bars and cantinas clustered around the piers and all of sudden you are in a little Mexi-Caribbean village painted every color of the rainbow. The island is as artistic above the water as it is below.
It seems that being a part of the major tourist hot spot, but only de facto, has given up enough cash and gumption to unleash budding Picassos and Warhols. I’ve always loved Latin art for its unabashed use of brilliancy. Reds are RED, yellows are YELLOW, and all at the same time. On Isla Mujeres, walls are canvases, and the town is a monument to do-it-yourself masterpieces. If it can be colored, and the brighter the better, it will be. Even the graveyard is a phantasmagoria.
You’ll find a few standbys, such as kiosks selling little flowered skulls (they look hokey as a herd, but buy one and put in on your mantle and voila! SO chic) but the further into town you get, especially on the Caribbean-facing side, the more “real” things get. This is a living, breathing community after all, from the cemetery to the — woo-hoo! — sex store. If you know me, you know that no matter where I go, I always manage to find the sex store. It’s like a mutant power.
Anyhoo, it was remarkably tranquil for a destination notorious for being anything but. Even the ferry ride, basically a skim over glass the color of a hundred thousand aquamarines, was in its own way ethereal. And I think, given the chance, the next time I come to Cancun, I’ll forego the frenzy and jostle of the mainland Riviera Maya and book a room on a tiny island off the coast that is too small for anybody to notice.
I live in New York, you see. Every day is a frenzy and jostle. And it gets on your nerves after a while.