World ? Caribbean & Central America ? Mexico ? Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres: Introduction

13km (8 miles) N of Cancɐn

Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) is a casual, laid-back refuge from the conspicuously commercialized action of Cancɐn, visible across a narrow channel. It's known as the best value in the Caribbean, assuming that you favor an easygoing vacation pace and prefer simplicity to pretense. This is an island of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, complemented by a town filled with Caribbean-colored clapboard houses and rustic, open-air restaurants. Most hotels here are clean, comfortable and beachy, with a few luxury boutique hotels dotting the island. But, in general, if you're looking for lots of action or opulence, you're likely to prefer Cancɐn.

Francisco Hernȥndez de CɃrdoba, seeing figurines of partially clad females along the shore, gave the island its name when he landed in 1517. These are now believed to have been offerings to the Maya goddess of fertility and the moon, Ixchel. Their presence indicates that the island was probably sacred to the Maya.

At midday, suntanned visitors hang out in open-air cafes and stroll pedestrian streets lined with zealous souvenir vendors. Calling attention to their bargain-priced wares, they give a carnival atmosphere to the hours when tour-boat traffic is at its peak. Befitting the size of the island, most of the traffic consists of golf carts, motos (mopeds), and bicycles. Once the tour boats leave, however, Isla Mujeres reverts to its more typical, tranquil way of life.

Days in "Isla" -- as the locals call it -- can alternate between adventurous activity and absolute repose. Trips to the Isla Contoy bird sanctuary are popular, as are the excellent diving, fishing, and snorkeling -- in 1998, the island's coral coast became part of Mexico's Marine National Park system. Although the reef suffered substantial hurricane damage in 2005, it is now largely back to normal. The incredible water clarity illuminates the wonderful array of coral and tropical fish living here. Among the underwater life you are likely to see are French angelfish, longspine, trumpet fish, four-eye butterfly fish, green angelfish, stoplight parrotfish, southern stingrays, sharp-nose puffer fish, blue tang, and great barracuda.

An upside of Hurricane Wilma's impact is that Playa Norte received an infusion of white sand, and is now broader and more beautiful than ever, despite the "haircuts" suffered by many of the palm trees. The island and several of its traditional hotels attract regular gatherings of yoga practitioners. In the evening, most people find the slow, casual pace one of the island's biggest draws. The cool night breeze is a perfect accompaniment to casual open-air dining and drinking in small street-side restaurants. Many people pack it in as early as 9 or 10pm, when most of the businesses close. Those in search of a party, however, will find kindred souls at the bars on Playa Norte that stay open late.

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