Isla Mujeres is a tiny isle adjacent to Cancun, home of assorted MTV hedonistic pursuits. The island isn’t flashy, and you’re a golf cart rental away from navigating it in roughly an hour.
Fathers would be hard pressed to sell a Cancun vacation to their wife and kids. Isla Mujeres is another matter. It’s perfect for families eager for sun, snorkeling and modest adventures. Cab rides are inexpensive, the restaurants plentiful and most beaches offer the kind of PG-rated pleasures that make it suitable for all ages.
Getting to Isla Mujeres requires flying into Cancun and taking a ferry to the island. Neither task should be a problem for casual travelers. Some, not all, locals will take U.S. currency. Your best bet is hitting an ATM and keeping some Pesos in your pocket.
In a few days you’ll get a feel for direction. It’s not a complicated, or large enough, island to give visitors anxiety. The taxi drivers are knowledgeable and many speak adequate English. You also won’t sizzle in the sun until a cab pulls up. The longest we had to wait during our eight-day visit was 10 minutes, and that was rare.
The Welcome Mat Is Out
Island residents are generally kind and open, and while the homes suggest impoverished conditions travelers won’t feel endangered while traversing the island.
We stayed at El Castilla Maya, a gorgeous, multilevel home ideal if you’re bring a large group of friends and family. The condo offers WiFi (imperfect but good enough), a series of too-small TVs, an open, stocked kitchen and grand amenities on the second and third floors. Think hammocks, bars with an impressive ocean view and plenty of space to lounge. If the beach isn’t tempting for any reason, the condo offers a gorgeous, curved pool with shallow enough waters for the youngsters.
The island’s marketplace features the expected crush of T-shirts, both clever and R-rated, jewelry (stunning silver and gold creations to affordable costume pieces) and Mexican staples (“lucha libre” masks, skull-themed ceramics). Vendors will try to lure you in. They are easily brushed aside with a friendly “no gracias.” A few are a bit more aggressive, but it’s never unpleasant.
Isla Mujeres is a great vacation spot for kids under 5, as nearly all activities were free to children under 5. This includes Dolphin Discovery. We saved $140 in admission by taking our kids before they turned 5.
One reason to skip more popular resorts and hit this island is to teach your children perspective. The people appear poor. Some buildings, formerly spectacular in size and scope, look ready to topple. Yet if feels uniformly safe along the island, the taxi drivers are gracious, and the waiters appear eager to help.
If you are looking for beautiful water without a crowd, visit Zama Beach Club on the east side of the island. We arrived during a tropical storm and the locals let us know that while many of the popular beaches would be too rough for swimming Zama Beach Club would be calm. They were right. The picturesque beach features an open-air restaurant with decent, but not memorable, menu items.
The Museo Subacuatico de Arte (MUSA) is an underwater museum containing hundreds of sculptures. Most snorkeling trips offered on the island will give you a little taste of the museum. If you want more time, hire a private snorkeling trip or do a dive trip of the museum.
We hired Captain Mikey, our housekeeper’s brother, for a lovely half day of snorkeling that included three stops and lunch. The cost was about $30 per person plus tips for his staff. Kids under 5 were free. Captain Mikey also hired extra staff to guide us in the water and watched our kids in the boat for part of our snorkel adventure. A big highlight for our 5 year old was when Captain Mikey let him drive the boat.
We skipped one of the biggest tourist sites on the island, Garrafon Natural Reef Park with an entrance fee of $59 to $109 per person, due to the cost. Plus, we were told that there was comparable snorkeling next door at Garrafon de Castilla (admission about $5, kids under 5 free). While Garrafon de Castilla was a bit run down, the snorkeling was amazing. We saw what seemed like hundreds of different kinds of fish, and the ocean was so calm that our daring two-year-old snorkled. Garrafon de Castilla had modest lounge chairs and tables, a reasonably priced menu and staff that would deliver food and frosty beverages to the beach.
The Playa Norte
This is one locale where the kids may need to be protected from all of nature’s beauty. Some sun worshippers go topless here. Visitors can rent beach umbrellas, lounge chairs and even beds with posts. Be sure to ask about prices and times since no obvious signs explain the rates. The crowd here is younger, and more adventurous, than other beach spots on the island.
The best reason to stop here with your family is the water itself. It remains blissfully shallow for a good, long stretch. Go out far enough and you’ll be near a few anchored boats eager to enjoy the beach up close.
If all that sun fires up your appetite, settle into a seat at Buho’s. The beautiful restaurant sits near the beach, featuring lazy ceiling fans nudging the sea air around. Food selection is standard Mexican fare, and while the dishes aren’t memorable they certainly offer both fine taste and value. The restaurant’s floor is simply an extension of the beach, which means your children can play in the sand while you enjoy a peaceful meal. Or, you can saunter over to the bar and sit on one of several swing seats for a fun, romantic spirit.
Dolphin meet and greets can feel pre-packaged and cold. Dolphin Discovery reflects part of that experience, but the staff members are efficient and the overall vibe makes it more than worth your vacation dollar.
Customers, all wearing life vests, will enter a large sectioned off swath of the water where the dolphins roam, lining up on the far side of the fenced area. A dolphin trainer will make sure each person gets to play with the dolphin, kiss its stubby mouth, do a little dance and other tourist rituals. With every exchange you’ll be asked to pose for a nearby camera person snapping shots for purchase later. The photo prices are steep, but we were able to negotiate a deal – make sure to do the same. The selection process is elegant, with a whole room dedicated to flat screen TVs where you can call up your family’s shots and select the ones you wish to buy.
The premise is clean and well maintained, as are the rest rooms. The package offers lockers to hold your possessions while you get chummy with the dolphins. A beautiful pool shallow enough for youngsters is on the premises, for those who wish to extend their stay.
You can even sample a respectable lunch buffet lunch with free dessert and fountain drinks. It won’t be the best meal you’ll eat on the island, but you won’t take a bite and wish you had packed a sandwich instead. Expect a wide variety of food from chicken wings to hot dogs and quesadillas. Those looking to eat healthy can sample the fruit or salad options.
The experience wasn’t perfect. A sales clerk tried to “upsell” our son on a few toys, and you’ll feel like a cog in a machine as you wind your way through the building en route to the dolphins.
Other Isla Mujeres destinations of note:
Rolandi’s, a highly regarded Italian restaurant which we learned also sports excellent service and delectable ice cream.
Don Chepo, a traditional Mexican restaurant, scurried to accommodate our large group during our visit. The food was solid, not spectacular, but the staff’s cheery outlook made it worth the trip.
The Soggy Peso offers one of the more unique interiors of any place on the island. Picture a standard round bar near a long, attractive pool to be navigated around to reach said bar. The restaurant offers daily specials, a very modest menu and a “no kids” policy meant to keep things adult. You might still be in Mexico, but the bar feels like it was airlifted from a Florida saloon. Yes, the Jimmy Buffet vibe is that strong.
Mango Cafe jumps out from its quaint street setting thanks to its large signage and the bustling crowd that gathers much of the day. Visitors can sample the free WiFi but will stay for the American-centric menu focusing on breakfast and lunch options. The open air setting is delightful as was the breakfast enchilada we sampled. The pancake option may seem ordinary, but don’t let that fool you. The pancakes are fluffy, perfectly cooked and very filling. The noise level during our stay was a tad overwhelming, with the whirring coffee grinder and steady conversation making quiet chatter difficult.
Turtle Sanctuary offers modest pleasures for an appropriate price ($3 U.S. dollars). You’ll see a variety of turtles up close, including baby turtles paddling furiously in an large tank in the acuaria space. Don’t make it your afternoon’s centerpiece, but if you find yourself a short golf cart ride away it’ll make for a nice diversion.
Several outdoor pools feature a gaggle of turtles of similar breed, but the indoor exhibits are more intriguing and better stocked. One large room features traditional fish tanks filled with crustaceans and a series of small pool-like divisions with a variety of turtles.