My husband and I finally made our long-awaited and much anticipated honeymoon to Isla Mujeres the week of June 25 to July 2, 2006. After researching the island (primarily on this website) for over a year, we had high expectations for our trip. I am very sorry to report that our expectations were not realized, and we returned home disillusioned, hungry, and sorely disappointed (although wiser for the wear). I will add the disclaimer that this was our first trip to a foreign country, so please take it with a grain of salt and the warning that I do not plan to travel abroad again. I have written in detail of our experience in the hopes that some of this information may be useful to other travelers as green as we were.
In addition to this being our first time out of the country, it was also our first time on an airplane. Our flights were smooth and we were pleased with Delta, but our arrival day was wrought with difficulty. I will tell you upfront that I am a planner and a list maker, and I mistakenly thought I was prepared for anything and everything we might encounter. I did not bring an ink pen. This came back to haunt me more than once. If you are in the process of planning your trip, mark my words - bring an ink pen! Bring 2! We had assumed the airline would hand out pens along with the forms for customs and immigration, but they did not and had none to loan. When we arrived at the Cancun International Airport, we were herded onto an open-air shuttle bus with about 100 other people. I was able to borrow a pen from a fellow traveler and illegibly fill out most of the forms. The heat was sweltering. (We are from south Louisiana and believed we were accustomed to hot and humid climates. Not this climate.) As we approached the airport, we could see what looked to be about 5,000 people standing in line waiting to get into the building. After some discussion, they turned our bus around and took us to another entrance, where we were able to at least get into the building to stand in another line of about 5,000 people. Utter chaos. I borrowed another pen to finish filling out the forms, and we crawled through immigration. Customs was no problem and we found our luggage, so I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky.
Leaving the airport - what a ruckus there was! I knew from my research that there would be hordes of transportation companies lurking on the sidelines trying to reel us in, but nothing could have prepared me for what awaited us outside. Have you ever been to Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street? That is about the closest comparison I can make to the assault on our eyes and ears that we had to walk through to find our driver. We hired Cancun Valet for round trip transportation, and I could have kissed the man holding the sign with my name on it. We had a pleasant, air-conditioned ride through Cancun to Gran Puerto. The port was very clean and modern, and the UltraMar ferry surpassed our expectations. The crew was very friendly and helpful, and weren’t we surprised to find plush seating and LCD flat panel monitors on the interior! We made it to the island in about 20 minutes, and had no trouble finding a taxi at the port.
Our driver pulled up at Casa Tranquila (rented from www.islabeckons.com) around 4:00 in the afternoon. We had been assured that Marcela would be there to let us in the house. She was not. I attempted to call her cell phone which she did not answer. All we could do was leave a message and sit on the curb by the street in the hot sun with our luggage piled around us. I called her a few more times and she finally answered, telling us she was on her way. Luckily, someone who knew her had passed by the house, saw us sitting on the curb, and had let her know that we were there. She rode up on a golf cart about an hour after we had arrived. Marcela was very nice and informative; she had a map for us and was full of Isla advice. (We already had a map which we had previously ordered from www.cancunmap.com - it’s a must-have if you’re going to the island for the first time). The house itself was very nice and well-equipped for anything you might need, including a blender, a hair dryer, movies, ample towels and toilet paper, and plenty of drinking water (which had a faint plastic taste – we didn’t drink much). We were disappointed to find that the two hammocks on the balcony were in reality only one hammock with a big hole in the middle. The wading pool was missing the plug, but that was quickly remedied the next day by the maintenance manager Drew. We liked Drew; he’s very personable and we were glad to have him as a contact during our trip.
After we got settled, we took a taxi to Hidalgo street to find dinner. We ended up at Angelo’s for pizza and were glad that we did. Their pizzas are baked in a wood burning oven and topped with (almost) too much cheese. Tasty! We went back to the house with full stomachs and a little more optimism than we had after our hot and hellish arrival. We curled up in the blessed air conditioning to watch a movie.
Around 12:30 am - the electricity went out. Pitch. Black. Darkness. In an unfamiliar house in a foreign country. More than a little unsettling. Unfortunately we had not thought to bring a flashlight (add that to your packing list right below “ink pen”.) We stumbled blindly down the stairs and fumbled around in the kitchen, searching for the matches and candles that Marcela had pointed out to us (and followed up with the words “just in case”….hmmmm). I knocked a cup off the counter and reflexively bent down to find it. Bad idea! My chin came into brutal contact with a solid wooden barstool, and ohthepain. Just what I needed in addition to my borderline panic at having no electricity. If it had been possible for me to jump on the next plane home, I would have done it without a second thought. But I was stuck. We found enough candles to light the bedroom sufficiently (which might have been romantic had it not been for the absence of air conditioning). It was a long and hot night – the electricity came on again around 8:30 am. We went into town the next day, found a hardware store, and bought a flashlight. They did not sell ink pens. Our trip had certainly started out with a bang.
MONDAY: Most of the day was spent exploring downtown Isla and North Beach. I must give credit where credit is due: Playa Norte is the most gorgeous, breathtaking beach I have ever seen in my life. The water is clear and aqua and blue and calm and clean and just PERFECT. Though our trip was far from ideal, this place truly makes up for Isla’s imperfections. We ate lunch at a little place on Hidalgo (I believe the name was Brisas Mexicana or something – it’s across from Malquerida). We had beef and chicken fajitas – they didn’t taste bad, but the quality of the meat was terrible on both accounts. We paid about $6 USD apiece for the meals, and I guess you get what you pay for. We also went to the bank and stood in line for about 30 minutes to cash a traveler’s check. (After doing this twice, we discovered that the little exchange stands on Hidalgo accept traveler’s checks – don’t waste your time at the bank but count your pesos carefully). We took a nap during the day to make up for our sleepless night, then rode back to town for dinner at Chile Loco’s. They have very good pina coladas, but I cannot say anything good about the food. We both decided to try the Chile Loco, which is supposed to be a poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp and cheese and covered with a cheese sauce ($11 USD). Not sure what happened to our cheese, but what we got were steamed peppers stuffed with a ton of cooked shrimp (no seasoning or cheese, just shrimp) and covered in a sauce which was more like hot milk than cheese. The service was excellent, but the meal was incredibly lacking.
TUESDAY: We slept really late. Lunch was at Picus which we had heard wonderful things about. They have excellent salsa and chips! We tried the shrimp ceviche which was pretty good. The shrimp were well cooked, but lacked the lime flavoring we expected. We also had the Picus Fillet – fish topped with a wine sauce and mushrooms. It was absolutely terrible; the fish had a very bad taste and the mushrooms were sour. Service was average, and again we walked away from the table unsatisfied.
We did a little shopping that afternoon. Shopping on Isla is less than ideal. In fact, it’s a grueling and loathsome experience. See below for details.
We stopped to buy beer at the supermarket, and then went back to Angelo’s for some decent food. We tried the Hawaiian pizza – the pineapple/ham combination wasn’t quite as good as we thought it would be, but it was still a good pizza.
WEDNESDAY: Playa Norte! Foolishly paid $15 USD for 2 chairs and an umbrella (live and learn), but we were glad to have that shade because it was H.O.T. The water was so clear and calm, it was like being in the world’s largest swimming pool. We ate burgers & fries for lunch at the Sunset Grill ($7 USD apiece). The fries were excellent, the burger was just OK. Nice location, slightly high prices, decent service.
We went back to the house, cleaned up, and took a taxi to Casa O’s for dinner. WOW this place is awesome. If you do not eat anywhere else on the island, please do yourself a favor and make the trip to this restaurant. (It’s about $5 USD taxi ride from downtown one way – still worth it.) The restaurant is situated right above the water, and the view is spectacular. Wonderfully romantic atmosphere. The service we received was impeccable; the wait staff even went so far as to learn our names and used them throughout the meal. We tried a pina colada (very good) and a margarita (tasted like watered down tequila, but had a strong effect on my husband). They brought us a bowl of hot French bread with butter that was to die for! We ordered the lobster ($35 USD) and the Asian chicken ($11 USD). The lobster was a bit tough in the middle, but the flavor was good. The Asian chicken was different, but decent. It was almost like a chicken jambalaya – shredded chicken mixed with rice and sliced vegetables. There was a heavy spice in the dish that I didn’t care for (mint maybe?) but the quality of the food was excellent. One of the waiters noticed us struggling to get the lobster meat out of the shell, and brought us a bowl of warm water to wash our fingers in. How thoughtful! When we left, there were several taxis waiting outside to take us back. This was by far the best restaurant experience we had on our trip. (Note: If you do not wear long pants to this restaurant, WEAR BUG SPRAY. I did not anticipate needing it for this occasion, and my legs were covered with bites the next day.)
THURSDAY: Back to Playa Norte, but first stopped at Malquerida for lunch. Prices were reasonable and they have excellent guacamole! It comes in a gigantic bowl - heavy on the avocado, very creamy and fresh. The nachos were ok, not bad but not great. (Note – you can use the bathroom here for $1 USD if you are not a paying customer.) We ended up renting our beach chairs and umbrella from a different guy for $10 USD this time. On the way home, we stopped for dinner at Jax. Their pina coladas were better than most, but be warned that their cokes are fountain drinks, not canned or bottled (yuck!). The food was better than the other places we tried, prices are average, and the menu is extensive. TRY THE FISH TACOS! They’re heavy, but they are delicious. The arracherra steak wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. The service sucked.
FRIDAY: We were finally able to call our family from Diga Me (service had been down all week). Good connection, great prices. We shopped around, then had lunch at Miramar. We were impressed with the atmosphere (nice beach view and they had a great band playing), and the service was very good. The food wasn’t bad and prices were reasonable. We ordered chicken tacos which my husband really enjoyed, and quesadillas (just cheese and flour tortillas, not much I can say about it). The rest of the day was spent looking for souvenirs for family. For dinner we went back to Angelo’s and had an excellent pasta dish with mushrooms and asparagus, but did not care for the pina colada. Of course we got excellent service. That night, the pen I had borrowed ran out of ink as I was making notes for this report. What are the odds.
SATURDAY: We reluctantly went shopping again, but only because we had many people to buy souvenirs for and were willing to put ourselves through the torture. I looked for an ink pen that was less than $5.00 and wrote in blue or black ink, but could not find one. For lunch, we made the mistake of going back to the Sunset Grill. The fries and nachos were very good, the chicken fingers were terrible, and the service was beyond rotten. After our food was served, our waiter never came back to the table. I finally flagged him down and asked for a water (we had been sitting there with nothing to drink for about 20 minutes). He never brought it, and I eventually had to get up and order it from the bar. After another 15 minutes, I ended up having to go to the register to ask for our bill. Another waiter came to get our money. We had been very patient and were used to typical “island time”, but there was no excuse for the complete lack of service.
We had a better dinner experience – we gave Don Chepo a whirl because by this point, we had almost no money left. We tried the beef tacos and the chicken tacos; they were decent and the service was very good. Everything on the menu was cheap as the name suggests, and we wished we had tried this restaurant before our last night on the island. There was a man sitting outside the restaurant who played the guitar, sang, and occasionally barked like a dog. He was very entertaining and musically talented; it made for an enjoyable last night on the island.
SUNDAY: All I can say is, HOME SWEET HOME! We checked out of the house early, anticipating another ordeal at the airport. The ferry ride was just as nice as before - the water we rode through was the most amazing color that exists in nature. Our Cancun Valet driver arrived 15 minutes early, and off we went. The Cancun Airport was just as bad as before; hot, crowded, and confusing. I found a souvenir ink pen for $2.00 which I couldn’t get to write and consequently did not purchase. We had an uneventful flight to Atlanta - more forms to fill out, and I was able to borrow a pen from the steward! We flew into Baton Rouge that evening. I could have kissed the ground.
OUR SHOPPING EXPERIENCE
We did most of our shopping on Hidalgo and the surrounding downtown streets. Almost every vendor we passed (and there were a LOT of shops), yelled at us to come and buy from them. We were fresh meat and these people were starving wolves. This was a tiresome and annoying pattern that continued throughout the entire week. We quickly discovered that this method of high pressure sales was not limited to the streets of downtown. We were approached by vendors at almost every restaurant, WHILE we were eating, and were assaulted by more of the same on the beach every single day. Do not believe they accept “no gracias” for an answer. You have to be very insistent and say no 2 or 3 times - these people just DO NOT QUIT. We could not get away from it no matter where we went.
Do you enjoy haggling? I do not. Be forewarned that most of the items for sale in the downtown shops have no prices marked. The vendors start at the absolute highest dollar they think you might be suckered into, then work their way down the peso ladder when you don’t take the bait. Also be forewarned that if you pick up an item to examine it, it will be assumed that you want to purchase that item and there is some price out there that you will agree to. Once again, these people just DO NOT QUIT. It was sad; I realize the island is very poor and we were there during the low season. These people were desperate to make a sale. However. These tactics did not make for a pleasant shopping experience, and we ended up avoiding most of the shops because of the vendors’ obnoxious behavior.
One other note about shopping – we had a preconceived notion that it would be easy to find handmade, relatively inexpensive items in Mexico. This is NOT the case; most of the vendors all have exactly the same items for sale and I wouldn’t describe anything we saw as “cheap”.
We did find a few shops selling unique items. Look for a table covered with a white cloth on Hidalgo with jewelry pinned to it. The owner’s name is Gabriel, and he sells handmade jewelry (amber, jade, turquoise, etc.) We bought a few items from him at reasonable prices and were pleased with our purchases. He even adjusted a bracelet I bought so that it would fit properly. We found another shop on Hidalgo (I don’t know if it has a name) owned by a man named Angel. He and his family make pottery items, such as statues and wall hangings. (Most of the shops had pottery, but his pieces were unlike anything else we saw). He was also the only vendor we found who sold 100% “vainilla”. We liked Pearl Passion – this shop is located on the side street directly across from the ferry port. Their jewelry had prices marked, the prices were reasonable, and the items were unique and of very good quality. One shop on Hidalgo (I wish I knew the name!) sold handmade masks. There was not an inch of wall in that shop that was not covered with art – it was really fantastic to see. There’s a great little convenience store on Hidalgo called Viva Mexico – good prices on bottled drinks and snacks. That was about the extent of the worthwhile shopping we did despite the time we spent doing it. Perhaps shopping elsewhere on the island is different? I hope so. (By the way, there is a public restroom in the Celebration of Mayan Arts store if you have the need.)
If you have read my report up to this point, I am impressed - thank you for your time and your interest. I hope you found it entertaining and perhaps informative. A few closing thoughts: Overall we were very disappointed with the food. We had tried to focus on the restaurants that we had heard rave reviews on, when we probably would have done better striking out on our own. Most of the food was boring and bland, and I can honestly say that no meal we ate was really delicious with the exception of the fish tacos from Jax. It could be that we are spoiled for the vastly superior food we are used to at home, or maybe we were just misled. Whichever the case, by the end of the week, I would have given my left hand for a Taco Bell burrito. The scenery is very beautiful, but the island is obviously very poor. That being said, we felt safe everywhere we went, even at night. For the most part, people are friendly and just want to make a sale. We had no problems communicating; almost everyone knows a little English and I know a little Spanish (which helped immensely but wasn’t necessary). The phrases we used the most were “Hola”, “Gracias”, “No gracias”, “Perdon” and “Cuanto cuesta?” Brush up on your Spanish numbers as well. We had never seen a peso before our trip, but conversion is easy and we had no problems with currency. The bathrooms we visited were decent; most had toilet seats and paper which was more than we expected after reading comments on this website. Don’t forget – don’t flush the paper! (We brought plastic baggies to dispose of it which worked perfectly.) One other thing – we didn’t get any rain, but we didn’t see a single gorgeous sunset either. If you are planning a trip to the island, my best advice is to go for North Beach only, don’t shop, and keep your expectations fairly low. Thanks again for reading and buena suerte.
Bonnie & Jason