I've always been proud of putting the axe to the grindstone while others went skiing in Aspen or touring the Mayan Riviera, but after many years of denying myself what I would call a real "vacation," I indulged my repressed fantasies of turquoise water and white sand beaches and, after briefly considering Costa Rica, Belize, and Curacao, I happened upon Isla, perhaps instinctively. I wanted to go somewhere relaxing, preferably without a tourist-bubble element, and where I could speak the language. Mexico was long overdue.
Arriving in Cancun was surreal. Once on the Ultramar, leaving the old, rusty boats in Puerto Juarez behind, I allowed the wind to force out all my anxieties about my much anticipated trip. I was thinking of a trip report posted on tripadvisor.com, "The Truth About Isla: What a Dump," which inspired furious reactions from both camps (read: Cancun/PdC devotees vs. Isla lovers), wondering on which side I would eventually fall. The fact that I turned 30 years old during this trip compounded my fears--I knew that this trip would eventually reveal myself to me in certain ways--it was a much-needed time for reflection.
Well, Isla exceeded all of my expectations (avowed and hidden) in every way. It was breathtakingly beautiful, refreshingly fun, welcoming and comfortable, and relaxing. But most of all, Isla was the most delicious place I've ever been to! After all the extensive research I did into this island, not one person gave me any indication that the food on Isla would be *that* good, breakfast lunch and dinner (and dessert!).
Our first meal was at Tacqueria Medina, for my favorite and the ever-elusive Tacos al Pastor, which are hard to find in the states, even in Chicago, where I live. At Medina, their salsas were delicious, and they give you slices of the roasted pinapple right into your taco along with the pork. My boyfriend and I were instantly sold. We quickly realized that we were in for seven days of culinary bliss when we had the best crepe ever with perfect Cafe lechero across the street at Mene Mene (try the Canela y azucar).
We then settled in at Su Casa Beach Cottages. Su Casa is owned by the charmingly tiny Miriam Greenstein, who immediately assumed the role of my Jewish grandmother, loading me up with maps and books, insisting that I wear my shoes everywhere, and arranging for the safekeeping of our valuables. Although we were disappointed at first glance by the shabby-looking exterior, we fell instantly in love with our simply-appointed room, which, despite it's lower price as a "garden cottage," is exactly three more steps away from the beach than the "beach cottage." No problems there! Our bed was very comfortable, the showers were hot, and everything about the place was sparkling clean. On our way back from Medina, our cab driver Plutarco (known as Plu), when we inquired about places to eat in the Colonias, took us on a veritable tour, for free, of the lesser-explored parts of the Island. I highly recommend Plu, if you can find him, as a cab driver--especially since he is trying to put all his kids through college!
Our real first day on Isla was gorgeous--perfect weather greeted us early in the morning, and I exited our cottage to be greeted by tripod, the three legged cat, who instantly stole my heart, and an abundance of butterflies and flowers. After a brief stint reading on the white sand beach in front of Su Casa, my boyfriend and I decided to begin our day. Shunning the warnings of posters on the chatter board, we rented a scooter. We figured that we were careful and relatively good drivers, and not susceptible to excessive behavoir of any kind, so we opted to try it out. What a wonderful decision! After drinking more fabulous coffee at Aluxes, we hopped on the scooter and rode around Punta Sur. By this time, all of my cares were washed away as I felt Caribbean breezes running through my hair, and the unbelievable vistas of 'la mar turquesa' ever-changing before my eyes. We ate more tacos (beef and chicken, both delicious) at Sammy's taco stand on Matamoros. Although we were worried about eating at places where non-locals were conspicuously absent, we always felt great after our food. We spent only about an hour at Playa Norte, which was gorgeous, but what one would expect from a beach in Mexico. So we got back on the scooter, and attempted to explore other 'beach clubs' around Isla. We ended up at Zama, which was right next door to Su Casa (very convenient!), and shared a luxurious lounge chair as we watched the sun descend over Cancun. We then rode down to the famous 'beisbol taco stand,' where we ran into Plu and his family, and had tacos that were suprisingly not as good as Medina's! The tortillas were not as exceptionally thin and fresh, and the absence of pineapple was sorely missed in our al pastor. But, the Horchata was the best I had on the island, freshly made!
This is where we stopped paying attention to which day it was. WE were originally planning to take an overnight trip to Tulum, to stay in a palapa on the beach and visit some ruins, but that idea quickly faded as Isla amazed us in all of its splendor and complexity. After we repeated the previous mornings' routine, we ate lunch at Tiburon--the famous Tix-n-Chix--which left something to be desired for me, since I'm not a fish person. But Eddie consumed most of the fish happily. We couldn't help but return to Medina that night, and were aptly graced with heavenly tacos as before. Desert at Color de Verano, while very good, just seemed out of place with our experiences thus far--it was very "Euro," and had a new-agey feel that seemed, to us at least, out of step with Isla's eclectic and zany feel. The chocolate crepe was undeniably good, however, and the ice cream was much better than that which accompanied the crepes at Mene Mene.
Day 3 found us back on Playa Norte, and the swimming was sublime--where else can you float on your back for 20 minutes at a time and not have to worry about waves, fish, and other people? Playa Norte! There is a lot of space to relax in that water... The sun was rather strong, so we were soon itching to explore the island again by scooter. We proceeded to check out Playa Indios, Eddie had a beer, and although they were utterly deserted, they had really cute dogs and were cooking up monstrous lobsters for what appeared to be a family meal at dusk.
After another night of restful sleep in which I felt as if I hadn't moved a muscle throughout the night, we headed to El Centro to see about a Contoy trip with Captain Tony. We encountered four German tourists who convinced us, along with tony, to go that very minute instead of excursioning the following day. I didn't have my camera, but the rustic beauty of Contoy is forever etched in my memory--it makes quite an impression! The snorkeling was horrible, however--on the reefs and in the Contoy harbor, it was very cloudy and not a fish to be seen. We sat on the beach and bemusedly watched the Manta Ray, nicknamed "Gordo," sneak up behind snorkelers unawares, scaring the wits out of them. Apparently, this Manta is pretty much tame, and after our lunch of bbq'd barracuda, rice, and fresh guacamole, I hand-fed Gordo, as if I were feeding grain to a horse! He promptly burped and farted out the food I gave him, but what a marine animal with character! He is really cute. At lunch, we had an audience of hermit crabs and iguanas who patiently waited for our scraps and made quite an absurd display of themselves. I particularly enjoyed seeing the iguanas eat rice--they turn their heads fully sideways and eat from the sides of their mouths! While on Contoy, I befriended a young biology major doing research on the island, and she took us to the Caribbean side, which was utterly sublime--don't miss it if you go! Eddie and I agreed that we could have stayed there on the rocks all day long, but soon we had to leave, and we said goodbye to Contoy and all of its friendliness and tropical beauty. That night, after much needed showers, we had another amazing dinner at Poc-Chuc, chicken enchiladas and Chaya-orange juice, which was, hands down, the best juice-like beverage I've ever consumed!
Day 5: After eating the infamous ribs at viva mexico, which were only disappointing in that we wanted more, we wandered around Colonias, from one side of the Island to the other, swam a bit in the northern-most tip of Playa Norte, and ended our day by watching the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen (look at the User Photos page, you will see which one!).
Part II to come!