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Whistling in Isla Mujeres

semi-overcast 28 °C

This was our favourite restaurant in Isla Mujeres - the Mango Cafe. It serves an exceptional breakfast and lunch, there is always a line-up and we always managed to snag a coveted upstairs table.

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Unfortunately, on two out of our three visits, we were tormented by the worst singer we have ever encountered; his off-key renditions of gringo oldies verging on parodies. He punctuated "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with plunking chords for emphasis, followed by a whistled version. Our erstwhile entertainer summed up a lot of how we felt about Isla Mujeres - confused, surprised, at times annoyed, at times charmed, and still at a bit of a loss as to the attraction.

Isla Mujeres, (Island of Women), is a bony finger of land 13 miles from Cancun that is just seven kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide - we walked the length and breadth of the island a number of times. It is so named because of the goddesses the Mayans used to celebrate fertility and childbirth.

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I don't know if it was the luscious reference to women, but we had imagined powerful swelling waves, fertile valleys and a magnetic appeal. Isla Mujeres has turned out to be kind of like that, but with less polish and a rougher edge. It's taken us the full week to get a feel for it.

The island is divided into three parts - the south end, which is populated by large homes and beach clubs; the north end, where the ferry spills out visitors every half hour onto the hotel zone, beaches and shopping areas; and the centre - where the locals live.

This is where we rented our Airbnb from Maria and Rolando, a warm-hearted, hard-working couple who have three sons, a restaurant, and a family compound at the end of this alley. They live on the first floor, Maria's parents and one sister on the second floor, another sister on the third floor and our place was on the top - the one with the palapa and the blue walls. There are also two dogs, several birds in cages, at least a half-dozen motorcycles, two golf carts and a chicken that appears to be a pet.

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We also met the neighbourhood kids - they play in the alleyway. They are like children from another era - beautiful manners, curious, and self-possessed. These two little girls, Renata (on the left) and Rowena were quite taken with us. Renata wanted an English lesson every time we met, so she dutifully repeated "dog", "cat", hair" ,"t-shirt", "shoes" etc.

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We tried the same thing with the boys, but after repeating "dog", they gave up and got back to the business of throwing stuff against the wall.

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We arrived home yesterday afternoon to a 6-year-old birthday party in full swing, complete with SpongeBob SquarePants, fully mic-ed entertainers, and a very stubborn SpongeBob pinata that despite the best efforts of the party-goers, would not break. One of the organizers, in the interest of keeping the party going, finally had to bring it down and it took two adults to manhandle the thing open. Out flew the goodies and it was every man, woman and child for themselves as they dove in.

The somewhat glum-looking party-goers:

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There is lots of life in this neighbourhood and much of it lived outside. Doors and windows are open, kids run from house to house, neighbours stop to chat - an effective and comforting Neighbourhood Watch. We were locking our door until we realized that you could slide open the window beside the door and undo the latch, so we just closed the door and left knowing all would be as we left it when we returned.

Coconuts are ripe for the picking. We watched this two-man effort at dislodging them onto the pavement.

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Local restaurants like Dona Mari's chicken place are typical. A few tables, a big plate of barbecued chicken and a big bottle of Coke for about $6 and take-your-chances seating. All the seats are doubled up and when I attempted to take them apart, the young man quickly came over and warned me to keep them together. A few minutes later a trio from West Virginia arrived - one of those big boys got those chairs undone and he sat down before we could warn him. Flat on his backside he went, as the four legs splayed out - a batch of defective plastic chairs that in Mexico, cannot go to waste.

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A typical street in mid-island.

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The water surrounding Isla Mujeres is easily described this way: the body of water facing Cancun (calm, good for swimming and snorkeling), the north end (the best beach on the island), the east coast (the Caribbean - wild, dangerous currents, strong surf), and Punta Sur ( the southernmost part of the island where the two bodies of water meet and soften).
We chose to walk south to Punta Sur on our first full day on Isla Mujeres. Our place is a block and a half from the east coast, so we set out along the paved path for a number of kilometres.

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Mainly, the water is somewhat inaccessible, as there are cliffs to navigate and surf that rumbles right up to shore. But in spots, the land dips down and small beaches emerge.

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We spent an afternoon under one of these palapas - going no further than our knees in the surf, but just enjoying the peace and quiet.

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Eventually, the paved path disappears and is replaced by a rugged dirt path that veers away from the road and runs between the sea and some very fine real estate.

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And then, finally we reach Punta Sur. This is the easternmost part of Mexico - the very first spot in the country where the sun rises each morning. It is also the meeting point between the wild waves on the east and the photogenic, emerald crystal waters of the southwest.

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And now, I will take you out of the life and colour of the local Mexican neighbourhoods, the calm well-bred vacation homes of the south into a whole other world that is just not our cup of tea. However - big but here - we have talked to a number of tourists who either live here each winter, or have been coming here on vacation every year and simply adore this place. I've come to realize there are distinct differences between travelling around Mexican towns and cities and traveling around beach towns. What we are looking for during extended travel and what someone on a much-needed break hopes to find are two very different things.

A little tipsy on watered-down margaritas by 11:00 a.m., sun-burned in your beach coverup and hanging onto the back of a golf cart might not be anybody's best look, but you need to get away from winter and your job and your life. But - another big but here - if Holbox was the hang-out of the cool kids, Mujeres is far more middle-of-the-road, and all of this is hugely amplified by a bombardment of day-trippers from Cancun. They come over by ferry, sail over on party boats, even hop on jet skis (illegal on the beaches, but they try until the navy shows up), and then once here, swarm the small island in golf carts.

This is a typical parking scene:

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Playa Norte is considered Isla Mujeres' best beach. It is beautiful - talcum powder sand, crystal water. We sat beside folks from Kelowna who have been coming here for eight years and according to them, the beach experience has been ruined in the last few years by this:

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When we first arrived, about 11:00 a.m., there were just a few boats out there. A couple of hours later, it was like a parking lot - boats backed up to the buoy line and many of them blasting their tunes. Each of these boats are from Cancun - each of them filled with between 10-30 passengers. Most of those boats arrive stocked with food and liquor, so there is very little financial benefit to the beach clubs and restaurants. The passengers hop out, swim around a bit, make a lot of noise and then leave. It is a gong show. As well, the buoy line is really close to shore, so there is a very small area in which to safely swim, and then that small area is filled with drunk people playing drinking games.

We decided another day to try our luck at one of the beach clubs on the south shore. Zama Beach Club had good reviews, so away we went; confident we would be free from the hordes. The beach clubs vary in price and quality and amenities, but generally you either pay a small fee for sunbed and umbrella rental and food is on top of that, or you pay a higher fee and most of the price goes back toward your restaurant bill. In this case, we paid roughly $5 for our rental for the day and we ordered food and drink.

Zama has a gorgeous setting, and at first glance, appeared absolutely perfect. And for the most part, it was - we spent several hours there, chatting with other tourists, eating good food, swimming and reading.

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The pools were cool and clean, and as it turned out, the only place we swam while we were there. The sea water in this area was quite murky and footing was unpleasant - mucky and filled with seagrass.

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And there were a number of boats that came ashore, but we hardly noticed them. No music, the passengers who all filed off to one side were quiet - they were a non-issue.

Who could resist jumping on this swing for a photo? I tried to smile and point my toes like Esther Williams might have done, but was somewhat impeded by the sheer weight of that swing, so this was as high as I could muster.

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And finally, the north end of Isla Mujeres - where there are most of the hotels, restaurants and shops. On first impression, the centro of Isla Mujeres is not immediately attractive. There are not impressive government buildings, nor are there photogenic little parks. This is a typical small street:

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These small streets are lined with stores just like this one, hawking their "handcrafts" - not one authentic Mexican souvenir in sight. It is depressing to see shop after shop after shop filled with tourist tat, and it is also depressing to be aggressively hassled by merchants wanting to sell stuff, tequila, cigars, massages - whatever. The quality Mexican goods are not here - we are walking wallets -period.

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Something that struck us about Isla Mujeres is the infrastructure has not been maintained; much more so than the financial devastation that Covid has wrought over the past two years. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, everything needs a coat of paint, a bit of love. We were told that for many years Isla Mujeres languished under a corrupt mayor and council and that in the past while, their dynamic new mayor has begun to make very significant changes. One of the first things she did was to remove the open landfill that was in the south end and that is in the process of being totally cleaned up.

You can see major work going on in the main square:

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I was shocked by the state of the malecon. In most seaside places we have visited, the malecon is a showplace; a natural gathering place to stroll, eat ice cream and stop for photos. With the sea as a natural backdrop, the malecon is usually enhanced by sculptures, monuments, and a line-up of waterfront cafes and restaurants. We passed one small cafe, but otherwise, this could have been a back alley. Many buildings boarded up, piles of rubble - a few stalwart walkers, but this could be so much more. Perhaps that is on the mayor's agenda as well.

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We did pass this delightful place - home to Timothy Fisher art. He has utterly transformed this building with his 3-D ceramic art, and it is a glimpse into what incredible potential exists here.

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Back in town, we came upon this installation - perhaps it is a collection of shoes found on the beach? I often walk by one flip flop or a single slipper and wonder how it is the owner didn't notice them missing.

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We leave Isla Mujeres a little confused. I think our experiences and impressions would have been entirely different if this island was more remote. If those beaches were not invaded and the streets not filled with tourist junk, the charm and beauty of the place would have a chance to shine. It seems the folks who live here for part of the year find their own spots, stay away from the crowds and have figured it out. We're glad we came, it was another adventure.

Next stop - back to Cozumel for two weeks. See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 00:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cancun playa malecon isla_mujeres punta_sur _norte Comments (7)

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