Islands: Escape from Spring Break

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1994

Islands: Escape from Spring Break
By Mike Grudowski

After only a few hours on Mexico's Isla Mujeres--a five-mile-long, barracuda-shaped Caribbean island eight miles east of the spring-break-o-rama in Cancún--you begin to understand its reputation: This is the place where Yankees and Euros alike come when the gringo trail begins to feel stressful. The Lotus Eaters come here for dessert.

It's not hard to see why. At Playa Norte, also known as Cocos, a half-mile of sugar-fine sand on the island's north end, you can wade a hundred yards out into the glowing turquoise shallows before the water reaches your chin. Strolling the narrow brick streets in the nameless village, you'll note with relief that none of the pastel homes, shops, or hotels exceeds three stories, and there's not a franchise in sight. And at happy "hour"--from 8 to 10 P.M.--Mexican beer becomes cheaper than water, at two for about $1.30.

The incurably ambitious can find ways to exert themselves here. In the afternoons on Playa Norte, you can find what may be the planet's most cosmopolitan international pick-up vol-leyball game; at night, the locals play basketball on the town square. You can rent sailboards and catamarans from vendors on the beach; rates hover around $15 per hour. For the best snorkeling, either head for El Garrafón National Park, on the island's south end (get there between 8 and 11 A.M., before the tour boats from Cancún arrive) or hire a guide boat from Mexico Divers, one block north of the ferry pier. They'll take you to the offshore reefs for less than $20 for a half-day, including lunch. Scuba divers generally sign up with Bahía Dive Shop (011-52-987-7-0340) and head for the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, a few miles off the northeast tip of the island, where tiger, lemon, and bull sharks--and occassional hammerheads--laze about on the sandy bottom in a relatively harmless low-oxygen stupor. A two-tank dive with all the necessary gear costs $75.

To get to Isla Mujeres, fly into Cancún, then hire a van or a taxi for the 30-minute ride ($10-$25) to Puerto Juarez. Catch a ferry (about $1.50) or a faster water taxi (for a bit more). There are taxis on the island, too, but most hotels are within walking distance of the dock. Now is the best time to go: December is high season; between June and December the chance of rain increases; September through November is the season for nortes, a nasty breed of tropical squall.

The Hotel Posada del Mar (800-221-0555) is convenient to Playa Norte and the village. Rooms are pleasant, if a bit rustic by U.S. standards, and cost $45-$68 for a double. NaBalam (011-52-987-7-0279), located on the northern end of the beach, is a bit plusher and pricier ($66-$83 per night). Cristalmar ($60-$90 per night; 800-400-3333) has a private beach but is relatively far from town.

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