Tell a group of Americans that you’re heading to Mexico these days, and at least one is sure to ask: “Are you sure it’s safe?” I heard it a couple of weeks ago ‒ although I was not planning to hit Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey, Nogales or any other border towns, but Isla Mujeres, a serene, five-mile-long island just off the coast of Cancún.
I couldn’t entirely blame them, though, considering the media’s portrayal of the entire country as a drug-war battle zone ‒ as well as the fact that the US Department of State has, sadly, included it on its list of travel warnings since September (along with the much-more-deserving Japan, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Libya, of course).
Well, I’m just back from the peaceful, anti-Cancún paradise, and while I can’t speak for the rest of Mexico (though I personally don’t avoid an entire country because of a few trouble spots ‒ kind of like staying away from Maine, Florida and Illinois because of gang violence in L.A. or the South Bronx), I can firmly report that Isla is safe and pretty perfect.
Want to check it out for yourself? Below are some of my can’t-miss Isla Mujeres picks, from sand to sweets.
Most ideal beach: North Beach
Fine, white sand and swaying palm trees ‒ plus distance from noisy crowds and close proximity to both great snorkelling and an atmospheric beach bar (at Na Balam) ‒ puts this spot at the top of the list. Swimmers, though, be aware: You’ll have to hike out quite far into the shallow, crystal Caribbean until the water even reaches your hips. It’s more about standing and lounging in the sea around there.
Best hotel “splurge”: Na Balam
Classic, low-rise structures, some palapa-topped, have peaceful, breezy rooms (both beachfront and, for a bit less, poolside) with bright-turquoise tile floors, plus great beach access, yoga classes and much charm ‒ for an average of US$169 nightly.
Artsiest view: Punta Sur (South Point)
Punta Sur, at the opposite end of the island from “downtown,” is home to the small Mayan ruins (the remains of the temple Ixchel, for the goddess of fertility) as well as an impressive, whimsical sculpture park. Both are perched high atop a windswept promontory, with incredible views of the Caribbean and, in the distance, Cancún.
Best breakfast: Alexia y Geovanny Loncheria
The ladies working this colourful stall at the town’s sleepy little market turn out delicious plates of huevos a la Mexicana (or any other way) ‒ served with rice, refried beans and a stack of hot tortillas ‒ for less than four bucks each. And the fruit plates are just about the sweetest in town.
Tastiest lunch: Qubano
Spunky owner Vivian comes to Isla by way of Cuba and then Brooklyn with a diminutive daytime eatery that bursts with huge flavours ‒ vegetarian sandwiches, fresh salads, Cuban pulled pork and Hungarian pastries (a nod to her father’s heritage) among others.
Coolest way to see the entire island: golf cart
For about US$50 a day, don’t pass up the chance to circumnavigate the island like a true tourist, with the wind whipping your hair as you putt-putt around in a rented golf cart. It’s so fun!
Sweetest way to end a day: fresh churros, or pastries from the cake ladies, both in town square
The churro guy pushes the sweet dough into its signature rocket shape before his partner drops them into bubbling oil, stuffs them into a paper bag and tops them with crunchy sugar. Heaven. But then there’s the cake ladies, a mother-and-daughter team whose nightly offerings ‒ flan-topped chocolate cake, rice pudding, cheese pie, cheesecake, pineapple cake and tres leches cake ‒ will slay you. Their savoury offerings, like empanadas made from scratch right before your eyes, are also not to be missed.