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.

IMG_8445

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.

Stepping Back in Time at Coba

The Yucatan Peninsula was once a powerful Mayan center, home to some of Mexico’s largest and most impressive ancient cities. Whilst the renowned site of Chichen Itza attracts large crowds to marvel at the famous Kukulkan pyramid, the lesser known but equally impressive archaeological site of Coba, just one and a half hours’ drive from Playa del Carmen, provides a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed.

ancient tablet at Coba

When visiting any ancient ruin, it’s best to arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat. The good thing about Coba is that it is set in dense jungle which provides shade when walking between the different structures. One thing I noticed about Coba was it’s size – it is a very spread out site, so we decided to hire bicycles to explore the grounds.

The fact that Coba is so spread out means that you will often be alone while exploring the different structures. Looking up at the pyramids, imagining the ancient ceremonies taking place in the heart of the jungle is a spine tingling experience. The fact that there aren’t hoards of other tourists around makes it even more special.

Coba pyramid

The highlight of a trip to Coba is of course, climbing the main pyramid (as long as your legs are up for the challenge). Going up is not as hard as it looks, and there is a rope running the length of the climb for added support.

The views at the top, however, are absolutely wonderful. Here you can imagine you’re a Mayan King gazing out across your Kingdom. The view of the dense green jungle stretching out to the horizon is just spectacular. It’s nice to be rewarded for the physical exertion of the climb!

view from Coba pyramid

Of course, what goes up must come down. The climb down is slightly more difficult, and a little hard on the knees, but still totally worth it. I always enjoy ancient sites where you can climb the structures, as it just adds more adventure to the day.

Coba pyramid

Another great thing about Coba is its proximity to some beautiful cenotes. As it was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived, we chose to visit the closest one, with the help of some directions from the locals. We made our way down a dirt road and through a local village, where a sign led us to the entrance of the cenotes.

We couldn’t believe our eyes as we made our way down the wooden steps which led into an underground cave filled with clear blue water.

Coba cenote

The water was refreshingly cool as we took to it with our snorkels to explore the strange underground land. The Mayans of Coba certainly had access to plenty of water for swimming and drinking!

It was a much needed swim after the exploring the ruins, and we let the cool clear water refresh our minds and bodies before heading back to Playa del Carmen.

There was just one more stop to make, however; the lagoon near the entrance of the ruins. We arrived just before sunset; the calm surface reflecting the pinkish sky as some friendly dogs came to greet us and say ‘hola’.

Lagoon Coba

Although we were intrigued by the signs for crocodiles, we were quite relieved we didn’t get a visit from them!

Coba crocodillo

It was a fantastic day, cycling through the jungle, exploring an ancient city, climbing a pyramid and swimming in a natural pool. I’d recommend it to anyone who would like to experience nature, history, culture and adventure all in the one location, just a short drive from the heart of Playa del Carmen.