By Louie Frias
Isla Mujeres. That little gem off the coast of Cancun lying peacefully in the Caribbean Sea, waving you over to experience her magic.
(Editor’s Note: The list began with renting a golf cart to explore Punta Sur, swimming with whale sharks, and current snorkeling. It continues here.)
4.* Tortugranja (Turtle Farm) is a government-sponsored hatchery for endangered sea turtles. In the summer the turtles come to Isla Mujeres beaches late at night into the early hours of the morning to lay their eggs. A sea turtle is capable of laying more than 100 eggs at a time. Authorized and trained volunteers from the turtle farm scour the beaches on the Caribbean coastline and collect the eggs for a 60-day incubation period. The participation fee for the farm is US$3 and offers the opportunity to see how man protects nature. Easy to find, it is located on Sac Bajo (north of Playa Paraiso).
Isla Mujeres hosts four types of endangered sea turtles: Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. In fact, a sea turtle monument erected and dedicated by the government proudly overlooks the Caribbean Sea just east of the Palacio Municipal.
Islanders are extremely active and proud of their role in the protection of this air-breathing creature. If you can stay awake until late at night and get to the Caribbean side of the island, you will be invited to witness a spectacle rarely seen by the typical tourist. Once you see your first one, your adrenaline pumps, your heart races, your eyes squint in the dark in disbelief, and you will never be the same.
If you’re lucky enough to be on Isla in October, you can take part in the liberation of the turtles held all over the island when thousands of baby turtles are released.
5. Fashion and talent shows. That’s right. You’ll be blown away with what this island can produce. Isla is highly supportive of the arts and the education and advancement of its youth. On a Friday or Saturday night, if you’re in Centro enjoying a fabulous meal and you hear unusually interesting music from “over there,” you might be so inclined to pay your tab and seek it out.
If it originates from the Palacio Municipal, it’s your best shot at seeing what Mayan culture, talented children, young adults, and dedicated educators put together can produce. The beauty of Mexican dance, music, and colorful cultural attire fill and inspire the soul. Don’t be surprised when you arrive and find it’s literally standing room only.
Tip: If you weren’t having dinner and stumbled upon Palacio, there are incredible cheap eats being grilled up right before your eyes. Tacos with arroz and frijoles and a multitude of toppings can be bought for only 15 pesos each.
6.* Garrafon de Castilla. Not to be confused with the pricey Garrafon Park. Your golf cart will get you here. Although it’s not a secret, it’s secret. Hardly any tourists seek it out or visit it. The locals, both from Isla as well as Cancun, like it just for that reason. Great family beach. It’s less than US$5 for entry and has a fully-stocked bar.
The best reason to visit is the protected snorkeling area. You can practice with your new gear and, to make it interesting, buy some fish food, stand still or float, then let ’er rip. Hundreds of friendly, colorful fish will envelope you looking for lunch. Another camera opportunity. Tip: If you don’t have snorkel gear, they’ll rent it to you.
Between swims, you’ll find a number of lounges in the sand to sit in under an umbrella and enjoy some food and beverages while you marvel at the sight of Cancun on the horizon.
You can get to Garrafon de Castilla by cab for about 40 pesos, or take your golf cart. Start by driving out of Centro, and, staying to the right of the airport, drive through the Colonias, pass Chedraui, and head deep into the Isla jungle. Keep your eyes open on your right. If you pass The Joint, you’ve gone too far.
7. Fishing. If you enjoy fresh fish for dinner, this one will be very alluring to you. Most restaurants will grill your fresh catch for you, provided you have it prepped prior to arriving. Check with a few places first so you can be assured. Tip: Once you’ve secured a spot on a boat, ask your captain for his recommendations. Offer him some of what you catch for his “hook up.”
Any day of the week you can find — or rather, be approached by — a local offering you a half to full day of deep sea fishing. Typically for less than US$50 you can hire a boat with a few other enthusiasts and be taken out. If you want some cold adult beverages, your captain’s first mate will fetch some for you to put in the on-board cooler.
The ride out is relaxing and allows you to see more of Isla from afar while you bask in the warm sun and breathe in the ridiculously unpolluted, fresh salt air. About half an hour into the trip, you’ll be given a spool of fishing line with a baited hook. The captain will let you know when to toss it out. Pay attention. Either you’ll be moving to another spot or you’ll be working that line like a tuna wrangler. If the latter happens, you’ll be “el Jefe” and friend to all upon your return.
When you return to the dock, you’ll be approached and asked if you’d like your catch prepped for eating. Negotiate the fee, give them a token of the day’s catch, and head to your new chef and present your offering. This is a great way to make friends on this little slice of heaven known as Isla.
Ultimately what you’ve discovered is that although the sights and activities are all incredibly illuminating and rewarding, the magic of Isla is her people. For without people who are genuine, giving, friendly, and engaging, there can be no magic.
(Those activities that can be done in a day are indicated with an asterisk.)
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