Cancún and the Emerald waters of Isla Mujeres

Cancún, I believe is the most eastern point of mainland Mexico and the most populous city along the touristic state of Quintana-Roo where the Gulf of Mexico spills out into the Caribbean Sea. Isla Mujeres is then about eight miles east of Cancún, yet much less crowded than its neighbor and a great way to get away from the city life. Besides Key West, Florida, Isla Mujeres closest point to Cuba is also about ninety miles.

I’d said in the closing of our time in Holbox blog we had plans for Cancun. The thing was April 1st was Bia’s b-day and we’d now been on the road for four months. Primarily camping we had found a three day all-inclusive deal at the Royal Solaris Cancun for just around $150 a night for the both of us. Triple our daily budget but having saved quite a bit through living light gave us a little flexibility. We’d actually booked while in Mérida so a couple weeks ahead of schedule and had it for the weekend after her bday as it fell on a Monday.

Getting to Cancun from Holbox (Chiquila)

From Holbox island you’ll of course need to catch one of the ferries running every 30 minutes for $10 between the island and Chiquila. At the docking station is the Ado bus station (recommendation) in which for around $16 can catch a bus that runs from 9am – 8pm to Cancun. The just over two-hour journey takes you back into the eastern-central part of of the Yucatán Peninsula of Quintana-Roo and direct east to one of the most eastern points of Mexico altogether.

First glimpse of the hotel pool

We opted to hitchhike from Chiquila to Cancun as it seemed the next place most tourists were heading after the island. After about twenty-minutes a very kind older German couple picked us and our backpacks up and took us along to one of the most touristy vacation cities in all of Mexico.

Cancun

Cancun and selfies while keeping ourselves entertained

Arriving into the southern part of the city seemed as if we’d just entered a tropical Vegas with its flashing lights, built to smaller scale versions of world icons and a strip dedicated solely to Hotels towering over the coast. It was a bit of madness heading towards our destination along that so named Hotel Zone. Finally greeted by the front doorman of our hotel who had thought we were lost with our backpacks we finalized a little paperwork before settling in.

Attempting to unpack

There were hostels in Cancun for sure. There was most definitely a general type of tourism found here. The feeling we got from Cancun is it has an international airport and is starting point for most people flying into this corner of Mexico. The closest Mexican point also if heading to Cuba with daily flights and of course beautiful weather and water. That being said I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to spend extended periods of time.

Three days was maybe one day too much for us here. The hotel was well maintained and everything from the food to the giant pools were fun but everything here seemed to be just excessive. Not a blog to preach so I’ll leave that up for interpretation.

The beaches along the hotel zone were beautiful though with white sands and deep blue and green water stretched as far as the eye could see. Our three days of decompression did reset and set us up for the next bit of our journey.

This is pre-seaweed that washed up a few days later

If staying in Cancun as a starting point and budgeting I would recommend a day or two stay at most in a hostel. If looking to break up a longer trip and have the budget available, a couple days in a hotel was refreshing.

Getting around Cancun

Public Bus

If you have the time the local busses were about $1 a ride and have quite a few different routes around the town.

Uber

The rideshare app does work but it has had its problems as of lately with the cab unions fighting to close it down. I’d still give it a go if trying to get around a bit more quickly

Taxi

There were taxi’s everywhere yet the fares seemed to be inflated compared to other places we’d seen in Mexico

Colectivos

Also, there are colectivos located throughout cancun with many hubs being around the ports. You can also reach the centro bus hub from the hotel zone on R1 or R2 which has many colectivos going in and around Cancun at if I remember right, 10 pesos a ride.

And making it to Isla Mujeres

There are a few ferry companies leaving Cancún and the surrounding areas for the island depending on your plans.

Ultramar

To start this is probably the most popular, quickest and user friendly ferry with four ports from Cancún. Three leave from the Hotel Zone (Playa Tortugas, El Embarcadero and Playa Caracol) making it convenient for anyone staying in the hotel zone. Also Puerto Juárez is a major shared port and also runs ferries.

Most of these ferries run every half hour from 5:30am – 11:30pm and cost about $8 each way or $15 roundtrip. They also run packaged deals for multiple runs which we did buy since we were planning on using them for an upcoming adventure to Cozumel. Each of these trips takes about fifteen minutes crossing.

Magaña Express

A more locally run option and also running out of Puerto Juárez with a similar schedule to Ultramar does run just a bit slower and doesn’t have the option to sit outside as you can on the first option.

Costs for this being in the same port though run at 80 pesos or around $4 each way and a much better price had we have known at the time. Note that even with our option both offer round trip tickets but if you lose your ticket for return there is no database to look up and you’ll be forced to buy another.

Car Ferry from Punta Sam

Punta Sam is port located at one of the most northern coastal points of Cancún. It is the only available option to bring a vehicle over to the island as well.

Getting here a bus will only bring you so close to the port. Of course if Uber is running another suggestion and if you’re skipping out of the higher prices Ultramar to ride this bargain than you’re probably not looking at taking a cab. In this case if coming from the hotel zone you can hop on the R1 or R2. Pay attention to your location (the centro bus station is pretty big) and hop off to grab a colectivo to Punta Sam.

This ride runs five times a day on or around 7:15am, 11am, 2:45pm, 5:30pm and 8:15pm. I’d show up just a little earlier to solidify a ride. Vehicles range between 250-300 pesos depending on size ($13-$15) and motorcycles for 82 pesos ($5). Passengers ride each way for 18 pesos or around $1. This route is a little slower taking a nice and easy 45 minutes to cross but a bit more economical and more local route.

Isla Mujeres

As talked a little from the intro, Isla is a beautiful island a few miles off the coast, east of Cancun and touristic, just not nearly as its mainland attraction is.

According to the Spanish when they arrived the island was filled with images of goddesses as to where the name derives. To the Maya, the island was sacred as it was the birthing spot for their deity Ixchel, goddess of childbirth and medicine. The island later was a favored safe haven for pirates throughout the 1800’s while traveling through the Caribbean seas.

Today it still sits, surrounded by spotted by shallow clear teal waters separating it from the deep midnight blue ocean. As we approached you could still see the hotels towering over the beaches of Cancún. The view from here gave Cancún a much friendlier look as all was calmer arriving into the sleepy island.

We docked middle of the day, sun directly above and no place to go. Again, with our big backpacks (this is before we did another items purge) but an idea of where there seemed to be happening. It would only be a matter of time before we’d be able to ask a few people on the streets for hostel recommendations.

After running into a couple full hostels, and about thirty minutes of wandering, we found luck and a perfect location.

Where to stay

Selina Pok Na

Formerly just Poc-Na Hostel as it was when we arrived, it looks as if the Selina brand has came in and really made this a place of luxery for any traveler.

Before it was a Selina

We had came upon it asking the locals for camping areas which led us here. They had once offered areas for tents but no longer, not a problem as the hostel before the facelift was still lovely. Clean, areas to relax spread out and right about on the beach. It looks as if it connects to the beach on the north side now as well. When we visited they had plenty of mixers for meeting other travelers and at night hosted lively shows under the stars and distant from the dorms. Not sure beyond pictures how the place is anymore but with having stayed at quite a few Selinas’ now the brand speaks for itself. Top of the line hostel/hotel, period and usually run at about $10 a person a night for a mixed dorm.

Nomads Hotel Hostel & Beach Club

This place is a gorgeous hostel as well. A little more than Selina running at about $15 for a mixed dorm per night but sits right on the beach. Located a little more south west facing Cancún, this is the other choice I’d highly recommend if staying on the island.

Airbnb

Of course if you’re looking at a more private experience but don’t want to spend your vacation in a motel or spend more on a hotel there are more affordable options with airbnb. Many times actually more affordable than a hostel the isla has at the moment about 60 options ranging from $28 and up for two guests in a private suite.

Getting around

Isla does have roads and there are cars but for the most part you will see more golf carts, mopeds and taxis cruising around. Using a taxi here you pay by trip, not by the person. Taxis aren’t owned by companies here and a driver may pick up another party if there’s room but the price is right costing about 44 pesos or under $3 from one side of the island to the other.

There is also a bus that picks up behind the Mercado Municipal in the northern downtown area I think every half an hour. For 4 pesos it will bring you as far south as the turn to Sac Bajo and then head back north. This runs from 7am – 7pm.

Moped and golf-cart rentals are primarily on the north end of the island. Mopeds usually cost from $20 for the day on up and golf-carts double that.

Lastly, our main way of getting around most places is by foot as the island is only a few miles long. We walked everywhere and really got to know the grounds in doing so. Also we were able to hitchhike one day of intense sun while returning back to home base.

Stuff to do

The beaches of course

There are some wonderful beaches around the island but to touch on some favorites we’ll start with Playa Norte. This beach sits most north of the isla on it’s west facing side. This is a great place to be in the mix of everything steps from the downtown center and full of hotels, hostels and restaurants right on the beach. On top of that, it’s the definitely our favorite to catch sunset, along with the rest of the island.

Playa Norte Sunsets

Now there are what seem to be less touristic yet stunning beaches that run up the east coast hidden below jagged cliffs. Some are easier than others to reach but during one adventure we spent time walking to the most southern point and during our escapade we came upon beach after beach mostly empty, some with just a few locals swimming. The east side of the island seemed to be the windier side (possibly just the direction of the day) but the ocean seemed to be slightly more alive and even more brilliant. It is a bit of a hike so rentals or a taxi could be a better option.

Garrifon de Castilla was a beautiful beach on the south west side of the island that was known for its snorkeling. We walked to it without any snorkeling gear and if I recall we didn’t want to spend the money on rentals but the views were really spectacular.

Punta Sur

If making way to the most southern point of the island you’re in for a treat. Punta Sur shares some of the best views we’d seen were here. We did walk from the most northern point and along the hike we saw nearly no one. As we came to the point an unending arrival and departure of golf-carts seemed to roll through. It still had its peace, just a place of interest. Here laid the ruins of a Maya temple for the goddess Ixchel along with a few other statues and tourist attractions and a restaurant. From here you can really get a clear view on one side, Cancún and the other, the endless ocean.

Wander the north markets and beyond

Explore everywhere by all means. I think the best way to get to know a place is on foot while and speaking to the locals. The northern side of the island is touristic and at night the streets come alive with vendors, music and many sightseers. We found so many cool spots where ever we went. One day a storm came over and only a few of us were out in the streets with water past your knees but was able to find an awesome local carry-out that I can’t remember for my life. Don’t plan too much and get out and enjoy the scenery.

Things to eat

Medera Food & Art

One of the best hamburgers we’d had in a while as, I mean we’re traveling and not usually on the road to eat hamburgers. This by far was excellent along with a fresh tuna and rice bowl. Located a little out of the touristic north center but a great stop if heading south and looking for a bite. Also paired with a gallery/shop where you can pick up some cool gifts or pieces to bring home, if not traveling long.

Beachin’ Burrito

Needles to say, we forgot to take at least one food pic…

A rockstar burrito shop that since our time had the opportunity to expand to a new location just steps from the North beach. As much as you could think burritos and Mexico coming from the further North America, you really nearly ever touch a burrito. All of the parts of a burrito, but different. The joy of holding a thick, juicy local California style breakfast burrito in front of my face was something special. The almost daily visits to Cotija’s, Don Tommy’s or Rigoberto’s left a missing spot that was filled and outdone with exceptional ingredients and service. Also they had an outstanding line of homemade and available to buy salsas.

If cooking for yourself

First you have the Mercado Municipal located central of the downtown, North side of the island. This place has fresh stuff, lots of produce at a great price and it’s near local.

Secondly, not to sell out to a company I believe is owned by Walmart, but if traveling on a budget you have Chedraui, a huge grocery store located central-west of the island and can be reached by bus for 4 pesos each way.

Our overall take

If I was flying into Cancún to begin a journey in or around Mexico, I would spend at most, two days if wanting to sightsee Cancún. Then I would go directly to Isla Mujeres if looking to explore more of the area and just take it upon this beautiful island.

Cancún was fun yet while looking for experience in a more localized community it is a bit busy and caters much to tourism, which makes sense and nothing against it. If only trying to take a quick trip to party outside of the same party you’ll find in say, the states, then more power to it.

Isla Mujeres is a majestic island that runs on its own time. Things don’t seem to open until about 9:30am but that ok if you’re on vacation (and hopefully not having an emergency). Honestly, not to take from Cancun but most likely next time heading through, we’d probably catch a colectivo straight through Cancún and catch the next shuttle on over to the isla.