The last time I traveled to Mexico, I was 18 years old (yes, that was a loooong time ago). I traversed the border with my college boyfriend at San Diego to have some drinks and take in the sights of Tijuana. My short visit did not really leave the best impression. The things that stick in my brain from that adventure are the extreme poverty, destitute children selling chiclets, places advertising donkey sex shows and street after street of hawkers selling crappy tourist merchandise for “almost free.” Almost free was way beyond my college budget, so I didn’t bring anything home and even tequila bars were a stretch. This time, a little more luxury and a quiet beach town was on the agenda.
Our parents, those adventurous folks who inspire us to be the itinerants that we are, wanted a family vacation to bring together our far flung siblings and nieces. As our parents are aging, and we are realizing that the time we have left with them is shorter than the time we’ve already had, it has become a priority in our lives to spend more time with them. On Marybeths suggestion, we choose Isla Mujeres, a cute caribbean island just off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula. She had been there a couple of times previously with friends and knew it would be just thing for a family get together.
My prep work for this trip consisted of trying to fit back in my swimming suit after half a winters worth of putting on winter weight and finding my passport and towel. In general, we relied on Marybeth to get most of the plans together (which she did), but also, this part of Mexico is so practiced at catering to tourists, particularly American tourists, little preparation is needed. Which is the problem. Isla is a a cute little place, with lovely beaches, good food and plenty of sun, but it hardly feels like you’ve left the country. It’s a little difficult to wax poetic about a place that’s not very different from the Florida coast where we grew up. I actually like a little struggle with the my travel and I enjoy getting pushed out of my comfort zones. That’s possible here, but you have to try really hard and with poolside drinks just waiting for you it’s difficult to get the motivation.
This part of Mexico is, however, a great place for family and for newby international travelers. It’s easy to get around the island. Most of our transportation was provided via rented golf carts, though we used the ubiquitous (and cheap) taxis on a number of occasions. Zipping around the Isla on golf carts is great fun. Just keep an eye out for one-way roads and the many speed bumps peppered over the island roads. Take some time to just explore the island, it would be pretty hard to get truly lost. Do go visit the Ixchel temple at Punta Sur. It’s a lovely spot. Take the short trail down and around the cliffs, but watch your step wherever you see wet pathways (I almost ended up a mermaid after slipping on on some of it).
English is widely spoken by those working in the tourist trades and most restaurants have menus in English and Spanish. On the topic of food, you would have to work pretty hard to find a bad restaurant here. Everywhere we ate was good, a few fantastic. Fresh seafood and fresh pressed juices are not to be missed. Many of the restaurants along the coastlines are co-ops run by fishermen who bring their fresh catches in daily. Living in landlocked Colorado, truly good, fresh seafood is a luxury commodity in which I rarely indulge. On the Isla however, seafoods are cheap and plentiful so I ate to my hearts content!
We booked a driver with Carm Tours and Transfers and spent a day traveling to Chichen Itza. We got to Chichen Itza early in the day, well ahead of the crowds and heat of the day, so we were able to enjoy the park in relative peace. The ruins are truly impressive and well worth the long drive. After we had our fill of the park, our driver took us to Selva Maya Hacienda for a great lunch followed by swimming in the adjacent Cenote Saamal. Devoid of surface rivers, the Yucatan Peninsula has vast underground waterways. In some areas, the ground above the water gives way and forms cenotes. Bringing life sustaining water to the inhabitants of the peninsula, cenotes are magical places and swimming in a cenote is an experience not to be missed.
I was thrilled to have my first chance to go diving in over 20 years. I was PADI certified when I was 16 years old and for a couple years before going away to college, I spent quite a few weekends on dive trips in caverns and springs around Florida. It’s been a long, diveless time between then and now, so after a short “refresher” course, I was ready to go. Diving is a lot like riding a bike, what you need to know comes back to you pretty quick. Marybeth and I did two reef dives with the Squalo Adventures dive company. The water was clear and calm and we were treated to the wonders of the reefs including lots of fishes, lobsters, sea urchins, and even a stingray.
Beaches and beach clubs are the highlight of any coastal Mexico vacation. Take your pick of venues and rent a chair or cabana to spend a relaxing day in the sand and sun. There are the usual vendors hawking goods on the beach, but they are rarely pushy and will move on with simple “No gracias.” Most of the beach clubs have waiters ready to bring you whatever food or drink you might like right to your cabana, or you can sip a Mojito in the shade in one of the many beachside bars.
After nearly 10 days of surf and sun, coastal vibes and sumptuous seafood, it was time to go home. We are already dreaming and planning a return to Mexico. It’s a large, diverse and welcoming country and we want to sample it all!