Isla Mujeres – just far enough away

isla turtle on manchones reef Say “Hello” to my little friend!
Far away across the Atlantic, tucked away in a corner of the Mexican Caribbean, just off the Yucatan peninsula, the island of Isla Mujeres is old home, memory chest and long time inspiration to me. It’s colour drenched seas and white powder sands are the benchmark for every beach I have seen in the last few decades and returning there after a prolonged absence was as therapeutic as I had hoped, giving me two weeks of utter bliss on an island that had definitely changed but in all ways I could see for the better.

Isla Mujeres is a shiny upgraded version of the quaint little island I left ten years ago.
It’s not the dirty, scorpion infested little island we once all joked about (mainly to keep it secret. We really failed on that one!).

There have been huge strides in recycling rubbish, educating communities and generally upping the level of service and type of facility that the average traveller expects. The backpacker lodge is still there and doing a roaring trade but the number of rental homes, mid priced hotels and swishy but quirky boutique hotels has increased to cater to a wider market.

Yet the laid back, this can only be the Caribbean, island vibe is still there. It’s there in the incredibly colourful streets of downtown with their multiple wall murals and traders laconically calling out offers of cigars, panama hats and Mexican handcrafts for sale. You still find it on the deserted stretches of rocky coast on the windward side, constantly pounded by the waves from the open sea, where you can search out sea glass in the nooks and crannies of the sharp edged rocks or just sit on the sand and watch the waves change colour in the sunlight.

It is forever my Isla at the Fishermans Quay early in the morning, after the colourful pangas have scudded into port and the nets have been emptied and folded into silver white humps on the sand and the catch has been snapped up by the local restaurants. It’s my Isla in ever sunrise and sunset and every single moment I get in the sea where the blood warm water soothes and buoys you whilst the world below enchants you.

I can’t say enough good things about Isla, I came back from feeling that sometimes things do get better over time, that the best of times are not always in the past and that the safely exotic is a good place to go, particularly when winter darkens our doors in far West Wales.

isla mujeres fishermans quay Isla Mujeres Fishermans Quay
ruins of ichel temple isla mujeres Ruins of Temple of Fertility Goddess Ixchel
whale shark mural Isla Mujeres One of many murals on Isla Mujeres
hidalgo isla mujeres Colourful crossroads in downtown Isla Mujeres
na balam isla mujeres Na Balam, Isla Mujeres

Travel Information

Mexico is hot right now and not just because of the weather! The early November flight with Thomsons from Gatwick to Cancun was full, something that would never have happened ten years ago when I regularly crossed the Atlantic. Back then a November flight would have been much quieter but it wouldn’t have been so comfortable.

Virgin Atlantic and British Airways also offer direct flights to Cancun all year round, several times a week, but Thomson uses the Dreamliner Boeing 787 on this route and the flight is higher, faster and more comfortable than ever before and yet still the vast majority of passengers were going as part of a package and were missing out on a lot of the unique aspects of visiting Mexico.

It’s understandable the first time you take the plunge and decide to go to Mexico – which still seems incredibly exotic to most of us Brits – you want to be safe and so you choose an All Inclusive in the Hotel Zone of Cancun, but with a little bit of Mexico mileage under your belt there is no reason you shouldn’t be exploring the entire Riviera Maya, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres independently.

Transfers from airport to ferry dock and onto the island can be prebooked through a number of highly efficient, reasonably priced, English speaking, transfer companies willing to wait outside of the arrivals gate for you with a cool scented towel. We booked with Canada Transfers and as well as the return transfer from the airport to Grand Puerto where the Isla Mujeres ferry docks they also provided a pre-loaded data sim for my phone, eco friendly sunscreen for diving on the reef and a selection of ice cold drinks to combat the flight dehydration and the Mexican heat. They also dealt with a three hour flight delay on their own initiative. Makes it all really easy! We were at the ferry dock within forty minutes of landing and before the package tours had even finished loading the coaches. Holiday well and truly begun!

On the island we stayed at two locations; Na Balam (Jaguar in Mayan), where I have always wanted to stay and Ixchel Beach Hotel which wasn’t built last time I was on Isla. Both were outstanding.

Na Balam is a quirky, atmospheric collection of low rise buildings, right on the beach at the north of the island and you reach your spacious room by following winding paths of shell rock through gardens of bright flowers and tall palms. It’s lovely. I adored it. From the wonderful reception doors of carved wood to the plunge pool terrace we had overlooking the sands. The staff are lovely, really helpful and the food at Zazil Ha, their beach restaurant, was excellent and included an amazing ginger based salad dressing that I am currently trying to copy.

Ixchel was totally different, a modern building enjoying the best position on the island, right on the famous Playa Norte. It is run like clockwork and we were hugely impressed both by the care they take in maintaining the building (super harsh environment!) and the staff who without fail went above and beyond doing everything from hunting down the best room available to taking our golf cart back when we had an early start on a trip to Isla Contoy (Wendy we thank you, honestly, you are brilliant!).

I had booked Na Balam through EBookers because I had a discount code, otherwise I would have booked direct but I booked direct with Ixchel which they seemed to appreciate.

I’ll have more information on eating on Isla, excursions and particularly diving and snorkelling on later blog posts but in the mean time here are the links to hotels and transfers we used.

Na Balam Yoga Hotel Isla Mujeres

Ixchel Beach Hotel Isla Mujeres

Canada Transfers – Cancun Airport to Isla Mujeres Ferry

house on the reef Isla Mujeres House on the reef – Isla Mujeres





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Escaping Winter – Isla Mujeres in November

It is, as I mentioned in the previous post, nearly ten years since I last saw Isla Mujeres, now I am here and whilst some things have changed so much has stayed the same. Thankfully!

Isla still has that island vibe; that chilled out, calmed by the sea, bathed in the sunlight, bemused by the colours way of soothing the soul. You just feel the stress seep out if you. You feel it sewing up the great big rips in your heart.

Essentially this post is a picture postcard to the family back home, just to let them know all is well and I haven’t been eaten by a shark and I promise to get back on the plane home! Yes I am almost certain I will get on the plane home! Oh and I love my new GoPro camera and it loves Isla.

Enjoy the photos – can’t believe this is my November :-)

image Sunny November Morning
image Snorkelling near NaBalam
image How big is my Iguana? @garrafon de castille
image Sunrise at media luna beach
image Cliff of the dawn - Punta Sur Isla Mujeres
image Diving Manchones Reef

So, to the family; weather great, food amazing, wish you were here, really miss you all xxx

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Going back to the island….

Isla Mujeres Mexico Isla Mujeres by Mexonline
Isla Mujeres is a spit of coral and sand in the Caribbean Sea just off Cancun in Mexico. To me it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Blessed with powder white sand beaches Isla is surrounded by the most amazing coloured water, water of the clearest, palest, purest blue you have ever seen. Everyone who goes there talks about the colour of the water.

You get there by ferry from Cancun and it is, or it was, a million miles away in attitude from the flash and high rise of that particular party town. That’s me, always stepping off the beaten track!

I built a house there once, in the jungle, at the south end of the island, not far from the Mayan ruins of the goddess Ixchel, in a patch of jungle that was garlanded by butterflies in the day and the will o the wisp trails of glow bugs at night.

The last time I saw Isla was a summer night in 2005 when the humidity hung heavy in the Caribbean air and lightening was flickering far out to sea on the Bay of Mujeres. My husband Phil and I had just had dinner at Gran Puerto Cancun with our friends Katherine and Bruce and we had watched the sunset paint the sky over Isla Mujeres from our seats at the Alta Vista restaurant at the top of the lighthouse at the port.

As we waved Katherine and Bruce off that evening I remember watching them walk down the dock to the ferry, with the lights of Isla in the distance and I wondered if I would ever be here again because we had just sold our house on Isla, we were heading to Turkey and I didn’t know when we would be back.

I haven’t seen Isla since that day.

Phil never saw Isla again; he died in Turkey in 2008. I never saw Katherine again; she passed away early this year after a long and courageous fight against bowel cancer. The Alta Vista restaurant is closed after one too many hurricanes hurled itself at the tower but Isla is forever there, tucked away in a corner of my mind, waiting.

After Phil died I couldn’t go back to Isla, I couldn’t even look at pictures of it for a very long time. We liked and enjoyed and understood Turkey but Isla we loved and Isla was our special place. It was the first place we went on holiday together, it was the first place we dreamed our dreams and it was the first place we made those dreams happen. Just looking at pictures of the brilliant, blue shaded, waters around the island used to reduce me to tears.

I stopped reading my friend’s trip reports, I stopped keeping up to date on the island. I kept in touch with Katherine as she took on cancer but we didn’t talk about Isla. I never talked about Isla.

And then my Dad died and for no reason I understand I started thinking about Isla again. It started calling to me, across the seas, across the years, a call rolling up along the gulf stream from the Yucatan to the coast of Pembrokeshire. It said, “Come see me, it’s time.”

So I’m going back to the island, making the pilgrimage at last. I’m going to go play in the water, dive the underwater museum, see Silent Evolution, the ever growing crowd of statues that now colonises the sea floor off Isla, it wasn’t even an idea last time I was there, now it’s nearly six years old and becoming part of the ecosystem. I’m going to go watch them release the baby turtles into the autumn seas, go eat great food, maybe drink a few cocktails, go discover the island vibe again.

I’ve got a flight to Cancun and a ticket to the island and I’ve booked a few days at Na Balam which is a tiny little hotel on the beach that I have always wanted to stay at and then I’ll see where we go next. Maybe I’ll stay on the island, maybe I’ll move on, I’m traveling with hope but if Isla has changed beyond all recognition then that is cool too, at least I’ll see her one more time.

mumsnet

Before I head off to Isla I have a trip to London planned. I am lucky enough to be attending BlogFest 2014 where I get to meet other people who share my weird blogging habit.

Bloody hell, people like me, people who readily admit that they blog and don’t seem to be ashamed of it!

I’m looking forward to it, it’s a chance to socialise, a chance to listen to some great speakers including one of my favourite authors, Nick Hornby, and a chance to participate in debates and masterclasses. It’s exciting to be going; blogging is often lonley and whilst you get boosted by the lovely comments people make you don’t get to interact with people in person very often, or I don’t because I tend to live in weird places, so actually getting to spend time with other bloggers is going to be very, very interesting and cool and stops me feeling quite so odd!

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