A girls’ trip to Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres, meaning ‘Island of Women,’ is the site of an ancient Mayan temple dedicated to Ixchel, the Goddess of fertility, medicine, and the moon. It was given its current name by the Spanish, who found many female shaped idols of the Goddess when they colonized the island, so it seemed fitting that my first visit to Isla Mujeres would be on a girls’ trip.

My friend was planning a trip to Isla Mujeres at the same time my mother was visiting me in Mexico so she invited us, along with another friend who is a regular visitor to Playa del Carmen. The girls’ trip was born out of chance, serendipity or perhaps fate, but either way, I was happy to be finally visiting Isla Mujeres after experiencing the beauty of it’s crystal clear waters on our whale shark tour back in August.

Our ferry departed from Puerto Juarez, Cancun, about an hour north of Playa del Carmen. They are very regular and run every half hour so we purchased our tickets at the port. We sat on the top deck for the beautiful twenty minute ride across the water; I was excited for my Mom to experience her first ever Caribbean island.

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approaching isla

We disembarked at the dock at the western side of the island, and headed off on foot to the famous ‘Playa Norte’. We procured sun loungers and umbrellas from Tarzan’s beach club, and took to the water which shone like topaz under the bright mid-morning sun.

playa norte

It was absolutely, unmistakably, beautiful.

The beach of Playa Norte is the most popular and well-known of the island, and I can understand why. Flanked by fine, white sand, the water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise and as calm as a swimming pool.

After soaking in the water and getting our fix of vitamin D, we headed back through the town in search of a golf cart to rent. We didn’t have to look very far – these dinky vehicles are one of the most popular forms of transport on the island and rentals are easy to find. We negotiated a rate of 400 pesos for the whole afternoon (US$30), and took off to explore the south end of the island.

golf cart

At only five miles long, Isla Mujeres is very easy to explore. We drove past luxury homes and through the quaint, colorful local town in the center of the island, before arriving at ‘Punta Sur’, the southern-most tip.

We paid 30 pesos (US$2.50) to enter the grounds of the temple of Ixchel and made our way along the paved walkway to the very end of the island where the ruins were located. It wasn’t so much the temple itself which made us gasp in awe, but the breathtaking view from the top of the craggy limestone cliffs across the Caribbean.

temple of Ixchel

temple cliffs

The wild ruggedness of the sea crashing into the rocks was in stark contrast to the calmness of the water we’d swum in at the northern end. Though vastly different in appearance and feel, both scenes were equally beautiful, and it amazed me how such a small island could be so naturally diverse.

To top it off, modern steel sculptures dotted the landscape, reminding me of the importance of human civilization existing in balance with the natural environment. At first, I thought the sculptures detracted form the natural beauty of the site, but after I had wandered around for a while, I realized that they had actually enhanced my experience.

sculpture Ixchel

With the sea breeze whipping at my face and the sounds of the powerful waves crashing into the limestone below, I could feel the sacred nature of this ancient place of worship, and understood why the Maya chose ‘Punta Sur’, the southern-most tip of a tiny Caribbean island, to build the temple of the Goddess.

A Day on Cozumel Island

Situated just off the coast of Playa del Carmen is Mexico’s third largest Island, Cozumel. We decided to experience Island life for a day and headed over on one of the fast ferries which depart regularly from the port at the southern end of town.

Tickets are around $12 per person, one way, and can be purchased at the ticket counter at the port. Ferries run all day from early morning to late evening to ensure you maximum time on the island. As it was our first time to Cozumel, we didn’t know what to expect so decided not to make plans and to simply take the day as it came.

Ferry to Cozumel

We took our snorkels as we’d heard about the fantastic coral reef fringing the island. We hoped to catch a glimpse of the world’s largest barrier reef.

Upon alighting the ferry at the port, we were surprised by the designer store fronts and high end brands in residence on Cozumel. A glimpse of the large international cruise ships docking at the port put the pieces of the puzzle together; it is a popular stop-off destination for Caribbean cruises.

We bypassed the shiny stores and headed through the town into a quaint, brightly painted square. Old men sat peacefully watching the world go by while women gathered to gossip and wrangle small children. This was the sort of laid back island life I had hoped to see, and it was lovely to stroll through the square under the shade of old leafy trees.

It was nice to see that despite the importance of cruise ship tourism to the local economy, there was still a local flavor alive and well on the island.

Cozumel street

Door in Cozumel

We wandered through the back streets of the town and admired the brightly painted buildings and quaint local restaurants. It was mid morning and the sun began to beat down strongly, encouraging us to seek out relief in the Caribbean Sea. Somewhat stubbornly ignoring calls from enthusiastic taxi drivers looking to make a fare, we resolved to explore on foot and headed south along the coast.

Yellow house in Cozumel

We passed a few waterfront restaurants with access to the water, wondering where we would find a suitable access point into the cool Caribbean. The water shone like bright blue crystals, reflecting the sun’s rays, begging us to submerge in it’s cool embrace.

We came to a lighthouse which sat on a lovely bay and decided we could wait no longer – we were going in! Only two other people were on the tiny beach as we laid our bags down and prepared to cool off. The water was deliciously refreshing and small colorful fish darted around the rocks beneath the surface.

private beach in Cozumel

Rejuvenated by our swim in our ‘private bay,’ we then guzzled down ice-cold sodas and snacked on chips and salsa at the waterfront restaurant, admiring the view. It was a weekday, and we had to pinch ourselves that we were sitting beach-side on a Caribbean island, while most people we knew were slaving away at their jobs back home.

We decided to explore more of the island on foot, and cut through the center of it. We emerged at a bustling town full of locals going about their busy days. Squares, government buildings, hospitals and stores buzzed with the midday rush. It was hard to believe that just across the water from Playa del Carmen, there was a busy, functioning city with a thriving population.

We stopped in at a local restaurant for lunch, far form the tourist trail. While we dined, we chatted to the owner of the restaurant who was more than happy to fill us in on the state of the island. He told us that the economy was suffering a little since the hurricane of ’05 which damaged some of the reef system and washed away some of the beaches on the east coast.

Restaurant in Cozumel

But he enjoyed the slow pace of life on the island – it was the only life he ever knew. He dreamed of moving to the colonial town of Valledolid some day, but wasn’t sure when that would be.

It was great to get a local’s perspective of the island from someone who has seen all the changes occur over the years. It struck me how vulnerable islands are to the natural environment, compared to the mainland where growth simply continues along the coast or inland.

I was glad our experience of Cozumel consisted of a nice swim, a good walk, and some interesting conversation with the locals.

Foodstall in CozumelSlow paced island life on Cozumel…

As we made our way back to the dock to depart on the ferry, I wished the island well in it’s attempt to balance large scale cruise ship tourism with the local culture, and hoped the local people, especially the friendly restauranteur, would continue to thrive in their beautiful island home.

Valladolid: a day trip to colonial Mexico

The wonderful thing about Playa del Carmen, aside from the sparkling Caribbean Sea and laid-back atmosphere, is its location to many wonderful sights and attractions. From ancient ruins to cenotes and deserted beaches, there is a wide variety of experiences to be had along the Riviera Maya.

Venture inland, however, and you will discover a different side of Mexico, the colonial heart of the country; towns with crumbling cathedrals and neat zocalos (squares) set among historic buildings, all just a day trip away from the white sand beaches of Playa del Carmen.

If, indeed you manage to pull yourself away…

Valledolid church

Just two hour’s drive from Playa, you will find yourself in the charming town of Valledolid, where you will catch a glimpse of traditional Mexican life. It is home to two very large, impressive Cathedrals, and the most prominent one, San Gervasio, sits adjacent to the main square, or zocolo, in the center of town.

valledolid square

The zocolo is the heart of every old town in Mexico, and it is here you will experience the typical way of life; stout Mayan ladies selling hand-made wares, children laughing and playing, while elderly couples sit peacefully, watching the world go buy.

Most of the tourist stores are located around the main square, along with a traditional ice-creamery. Buy a cup of your favorite flavor and sit on a bench under the shade of a golden flowering tree and observe local life going on around you.

Valledolid handicrafts

About ten minutes from the center of town is another smaller square with an large, yellow Cathedral called San Bernadino. Stroll through the peaceful interior under a high pitched ceiling, while a few birds flutter around, escaping the midday sun.

When you have had enough of churches, squares and pretty architecture, stop off at the nearby cenote, Zaci. For just 20 Pesos entry, descend the wooden staircase leading down into the cave filled with crisp, cool water.

It makes for a great escape from the heat of the day, and is conveniently close to the center of town. The cenote is named after the ancient Mayan city that Valladolid was built on, after it was invaded by the Spanish. These days, Valledolid’s Mayan heritage is celebrated, and you can buy various handicrafts around town and at the entrance to the cenote.

Valledolid locals

Sometimes it’s nice to experience another side of Mexico, and Playa del Carmen’s convenient location allows you to do this in one day. Hire a car or a driver for the day, leave early in the morning and return to your Condo Hotel early evening. You could even tie in a visit to the ancient ruins of Chichen itza which is about 45 mins drive way.

Hit the ruins in the morning and stop for the afternoon in Valladolid before returning to Playa del Carmen for sunset cocktails at Indigo beach club, having experience a different side of the country – colonial Mexico – that many tourists don’t ever get to see.