Less than 24 hours since I've returned from my visit to Isla Mujeres, and I feel like I "left home" rather than returned home! Before fleeing the Philadelphia area, I educated my self as much as possible from the information on this web site (invaluable!). So here's the deal.....I'm traveling solo since my wife and high school/college age kids are tied up, and I'm off to finish my Open Water dive course at Aqua Adventures on Isla. With my notes in hand that I took from those whose posted information on this board, here's my mission: Take it slow, try some new things, visit the La Gloria School & the Yellow School House, travel with locals when possible and finish my dives by always returning to the surface.
Arrive at Cancun International around 1pm local time and exit to the far right of the terminal for the ADO buses (first class coaches) to Cancun Centro bus station (35 pesos/3.15 USD). Arrive at Cancun Centro and grab a taxi to Gran Puerto ferry depot (40 pesos + 10 tip/$4.50 USD). Gran Puerto in Puerto Juarez was a quick 15 min trip. For 35 pesos (3.15 USD)hopped the UltraMar ferry to Isla! As we neared the dock for the island, a catamaran sailboat full of "butt-naked" adults, crossed our bow.....what a welcome (LOL). If you're getting worried, nothing like that reoccurred during my trip. I left the photos off of this posting, as appropriate.
I checked in at Hotel Osorio, about one block from the ferry, on Av. Madero. Very simple, extremely clean, Spanish is very helpful and a breezy third floor room (#18) with ceiling fan, bathroom/shower/very hot water and drinking water available in the hallway was perfect for 200 pesos ($18 USD) a night. Highly recommended for those who want a great sleep and save your dinero for cervezas. I brought a little gift bag of "girl stuff/smell good stuff" for my maid and some gifts for the children of the family run hotel (not junk...things they could use for school). Each day, I left 30 pesos for the maid, too. Now this hotel doesn't have a safety deposit box...so just how honest are they??? I left a note on my bed with the pesos and small gift bag reading "Propina, Gracias" and the maid accepted the pesos but set aside the gift bag and note on my desk. I later caught up with her and handed it directly to her.
After a quick visit to Aqua Adventures Dive Center on Hidalgo to check in (everything was in order), I did a little orientation walk and sought out Segio's (aka Playa Sol beach bar). Helpful hint.....Find Jax's (great place for cheap Coronas 5 for 60 pesos, excellent burgers and ESPN) on Playa Norte, and take the sandy road across the street to the end. Sergio's (officially Playa Sol) is on the left. Luis was my bartender and was very friendly like the rest of the staff. This is THE BEST PLACE TO WATCH THE SUNSET!!! If you need a beach day, the chairs are free as long you order something to drink (it's 2x1 cheapo)and the water is deep enough to swim. Stay within the roped off floats though. The passing current beyond them is often strong.
I like to find the "off the beaten path" places to eat, but when you're traveling solo, a little people-watching is fun too. I ended up at Don Chepo (pronounced "chepo" not "cheapo" but it is very reasonable) on Hidalgo. I had guacamole with salsa and Chilaquiles (beef, tortilla, queso), a couple of Dos Equis, espresso and a very good tequilla (Tres Generaciones) for under $ 20 USD. You can go alot cheaper but that wasn't on my plan. The staff of Jose, Cesar, (another mesero who was a little older) and Don Chepo, himself, were very friendly and efficient. After a meal like that....off to bed.
DAY TWO: I dive at 1pm. After waking up early, I head to La Cazuelela M & J's at the south end of Av. Guerrero. This is a perfect place for breakfast. It sits on the corner with outside seating overlooking the Caribbean. Try the Cazuela Ranchera (eggs, torilla, ham, cheese, salsa). With three cups of good coffee (I had read that the coffee on Isla was not so good....NOT!) and a generous tip..63 pesos ($5.65 USD). Before diving, I went to Sancocho's on Av. Hidalgo (next to my dive shop)for lunch. Lime & Chicken Soup, a Shrimp Taco with Rice/Salsa/some kinda bean thing and Agua was awesome and cost less then $5 USD!
Now it was dive time....Donna at Aqua Adventures already had my dive records and file prepared on my arrival. Her dive instructor, Alex, clearly explained our dive and instruction plans and was very organized. For a new diver in a foriegn country, this really put me at ease. Prior to shoving off, the captain and first mate did a thorough inspection of the boat engine, safety equipment and medical equipment. Being a paramedic, this impressed me from the safety point. I could tell that this was a standard routine for them. My dive was great and although I had some natural anxiety in the open water, Alex had a great rapport and patience.
I swore that I'd try a diffent place to eat each time, but the gang at Don Chepo's asked me how my dive went and were so friendly that I returned for dinner. Trying "ceviche" was experimental. I chose the Ceviche Mixto (Shrimp, Fish, Octopus, Squid)....."Smoke'n!".....It was the best thing I've ever eaten (95 pesos..<$10 USD).
DAY THREE: Caught some fresh fruit and juice at a corner stand (they're lots of places) and grabbed my medical/school supplies for La Gloria English School and the Yellow School House (check their web sites..they can use your help) and jumped on the bus (5 pesos/ 45 cents USD) to the mid-section of Isla. You can find the bus stop (aka la parada de autobuses) by the blue sign near the people ferry entrance. Maggie at La Gloria was very grateful and welcoming for my unannounce visit and when one of her workers found out I was from the Philadelphia area, he broke out in the complete Eagles fight song. I knew, I loved this place! Also if you make at least a 100 peso (<$10 USD) donation, La Gloria will give you an Isla Mujeres DVD that plays for over 1 hour.
Back to town for my final dives. Along with me were a couple of very nice gals from Saskatchewan. We dived Manchones, where we saw sea turtles, baracudas, lobsters, stone fish, grouper, etc. We also dived the "Cross of the Bay". Each dive was 45 mins.....Awesome! Topside, I got my high-fives for completing my training and certification. These guys are the ones to dive with when visiting Isla. Aqua Adventures is one of only two genuinely affiliated PADI facilities on Isla. Do your homework before you dive! Donna who manages Aqua Adventures is married to an islander, but is originally from Georgia. Needless to say...English-speaking. So if you need to call ahead/email, she is easy to work with and very responsive.
I washed up and got my shopping done. I sought out place that I could verify "Made in Isla" vs. Made in China. That was actually easy to do. I skipped dinner and went to Jax's for some celebration Coronas (5 for 60 pesos) and some guac and salsa. Found a reputable cigar shop at Roca Hotel on Av. Hidalgo and went down to the Public Square to watch a island basketball game (Gym & Tonic vs. Picus). After the game, I had an "everything on it" hot dog & Coke from the Bimbo hot dog cart. Bueno tambien!
DAY FOUR: A lazy day on the island started with my best breakfast yet (not as nice a setting as M & J, but..) at Amigo's on Av. Hidalgo. Try the Huevos Montelenos. Next, was a bus trip to the Pirate Mundaca's estate. Great place to take a hike and pet the iguanas and crododiles.
Back to town (aka "Centro")to look for Mundaca's grave marker at the city cemetary (Never found it but if you buy a map through MapChick.com, you find it...next time) The marker apparently reads,"As you are, I was. As I am, you will be". Love it! The rest of the day is beach time at Sergio's/Playa Norte. The perfect end of my last full day. I was fortunate to meet some folks from Minnesota and Texas (board posters) who were islaholics. After sundown, I washed up and you'll never guess where I went to dinner. No....try again! To Don Chepo's! Knock your socks off Margaritas, guac/salsa (are you seeing a pattern?) and Shrimp Tequilla (very good) but I should have stuck with my new friend, "ceviche". Got my picture taken with the friendliest guitarist/crooner (what he didn't have in "croon" he made up in "friendly") on the island. No basketball game tonight......so off to bed.
DAY FIVE: Outta here! The only up side is that I go back to talk my wife and kids into spending Christmas here. I was told that they keep a live (animales)nativity scene in the town square. Took the ferry to the taxi. The taxi driver wasn't really happy about taking me to the bus station vs. the airport. (35 pesos vs. 200 pesos...duh!) I told you I wasn't in any hurry. Took the ADO bus to the airport and got in a lonnnnnnnng line for check in on Saturday. I was there 3 hours in advance of the flight and that gave me 45 minutes to look at the food stand prices that rival Rodeo Drive. By the way, unlike in U.S. airports, if you purchase your $2.50 USD bottle of water after the security checkpoint to take on board with you, they will absolutely confiscate it as you enter the carry-on search by the jet port onto you plane. I saw lots of money wasted by travelers.
IN A NUT SHELL: Isla feels like home to me. Sure, people want to sell you things, but they are not obnoxious. At the airport, have a plan....if you have the "Q-sign" printed on your face, people will help/hawk you. On Isla in my one-visit experience, they DO take "no gracias" for an answer, if you deliver it with a kind smile. Learn a little Spanish, even if it's phrase book. After all....English is not the official language in Mexico. Swing by the supermarket located off of the town square, they've got cheapo gifts for your hot sauce and Kaluha fans at home. For a new diver, play it safe and dive with a verified genuine PADI dive center like Aqua Adventures. Exercise common sense with security, but I never felt that there was a problem with my cash and valuables. Take the island bus...travel with the locals. It's fun and I didn't feel like the gringo that I am. Visit La Gloria English School and donate a little time or money. I didn't do alot of the things that were on my list, but I really relaxed. The members of this Board provided great info....Thanks. So there's a little perspective from a "newbie" now certified as a "isla-holic".