Doing nothing on Isla Mujeres
Happy Anniversary to us! Pete and I have now been travelling for one whole year to the day. On March 2nd last year we were just leaving Auckland, taking the Overlander train to Wellington. I can't believe how quickly the time's gone... or how soon we will have to go home again. Guess I'll have to keep looking for that money tree, eh?
I realise that, technically speaking, I should be writing about Havana, which is where we went over New Year; the thing is, we had a pretty horrible time there (including the two of us contracting a nasty case of food poisoning that made us ill for a week!), and I’m not sure I can make a decent entry out of what would essentially be a page of non-stop whinging. So, I have decided to follow that old pearl of wisdom grown-ups told me when I was a kid: If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All!
Originally we had intended to stay in Cuba for a month, but soon decided that that was going to be way too long. Instead we sucked up the airline fees, changed our flights and returned to Cancun with big sighs of relief.
After celebrating the fact that we were back in the civilised world and that our food poisoning symptoms had finally disappeared, we had a question to answer:
At this point we realised that we had been on the move pretty much non-stop since the beginning of September. We’d spent three months touring the USA, then another month crashing cars in Mexico, so we both agreed that it was time to take a break. I found this quote in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which sums up our attitudes to travelling perfectly:
"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Eager. "Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little - handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker (*), their one anxiety to get 'done' or 'through' and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: 'Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?' And the father replies: 'Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.' There's travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!"
(*) The travel guide du jour. I guess today’s equivalent would be the Lonely Planet series.
Pete and I are not what we call ‘route march travellers’. We’re not out to see as many things as we can in the shortest time possible – we’d much rather pick one or two sights, take our time, and enjoy them thoroughly before moving onto the next thing (usually a pub). However, at this point in time we agreed that even ‘one or two sights’ would be one or two too many, and we wanted to stay put for a while.
Next came the fun task of trying to find an apartment in Cancun during high season. We did it, though, and ended up on a sleepy little island called Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). Although it’s a popular destination for apartment rentals, I didn’t find much practical information about the place before we went there, so I’ve decided to rectify this by writing my own guide to life on the island.
About Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is less than five miles (seven kilometres) long and half a mile wide, and has a population of about 14,000. It was given its name by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who, upon landing there in 1517, found many statues of goddesses. (Back in Pre-Columbian times the island was dedicated to Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and childbirth.)
Today it is a sleepy little place where old people sit outside and watch the world go by. Everyone goes to bed early, and gets up disgustingly early (and noisily), usually around 5.30 am. If your neighbours don’t wake you, the newspaper sellers and garbage collectors will.
The locals are very friendly and welcoming, and nearly everyone speaks some English. (They are also extremely tolerant of our appalling attempts to speak Spanish!)
There are two ways to get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun: catamaran or ferry. The catamaran is for foot passengers and takes 15 minutes; the ferry is the only option if you want to take a car to the island, and takes about 45 minutes.
As we’d given up on cars in Mexico, we took the catamaran. You can buy return tickets at the port for $14.50 (see Prices below for more info), and the boats leave every hour or so. About the only thing that caught us out was the queuing system: they have two separate queues, one for locals and one for tourists. The locals get to board first, so if the boat fills up and you are at the back of the tourist queue, then tough luck!
You can also expect to be talked at by a bloke with a microphone non-stop while you are waiting. I have no idea what he was blethering about, ‘cos I soon decided that listening to thrash metal on my MP3 player was preferable to listening to Mr. Man banging on about who-knows-what for the best part of an hour, so I wasn’t paying attention when he gave his spiel in English. Given that we managed to board and disembark in one piece, I doubt it was anything important.
I must admit to having a minor heart attack when I first entered a grocery store in Mexico City (many months ago) and saw the price of a bottle of Coke:
“The price is in pesos,” Pete told me. “They use the dollar symbol here, too.” (My excuse is that I had just left the USA and was still thinking in terms of American dollars.)
After that was cleared up I was happy about prices in Mexico, ‘cos they were more or less equivalent to prices in New Zealand. (It was a nice change from America where we soon stopped converting currencies, ‘cos it was disturbing how much even basic items cost.)
The apartment was small (*) but functional, and was in a nice area very close to the town centre. We also had a maid clean the place once a week. Bedding, towels and kitchenware was provided.
(*) It consisted of a kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom, but the landlord told us he is adding a new floor upstairs soon.
The one thing that concerned me about living on a tiny island was whether or not we would be able to get supplies easily. While I was researching the place I saw one blog which mentioned that most people sail across to the mainland to do their grocery shopping in Cancun. That is one heck of a journey, so I was relieved to find out that it wasn’t necessary.
There were two grocery stores on our side of the island, the main one being the Xpress Super situated on the main square. This is a large store which carries a wide range of dried / packaged goods, and has small refrigerator and freezer compartments. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also available, though there is not a terribly wide range of produce to choose from, and the quality may vary depending on when they last had new stock delivered. However, we found that there was plenty for our needs, and we enjoyed the novelty of cooking for ourselves for a change.
There are also dozens of little corner shops that sell mainly junk like beer, soda and crisps. They are not as well-stocked as the Oxxo stores on the mainland, but are convenient ‘cos they are everywhere. (They will also sell alcohol on Sundays after 5pm, unlike the supermarkets!)
A note about the water:
The tap water is not purified and is not recommended for consumption, however bottled water is cheap and available pretty much everywhere.
There are several pharmacies in the area, including the one attached to the main supermarket in the square. You can buy a wide variety of drugs without a prescription, which we found very handy, though we did have to try several stores before we found some of the less common items.
For people who are still in the planning stages of their trip, I would recommend that you stock up on medicine before you go. Some medication is hard to find, and can be extortionately expensive. (For example: We spent $1,300 (US) in Florida, not including the $400 it cost us to see a doctor to get our prescriptions in the first place. Ouch!)
There are launderettes everywhere, but the one we used was on Avenida Abasolo. They charged $5.55 for up to 4 kilos of laundry, washed and dried in 2 hours. We thought this was great value for money, especially as our apartment had no washing line and very few places to hang wet clothes.
You can buy old tat... sorry, I mean souvenirs pretty much anywhere on the island; vendors are impossible to avoid, there are so many of them. When wandering down the street expect to be stopped every two seconds by someone inviting you into their shop for a browse. You need to either get very good at saying “No”, or expect to go home with an awful lot of souvenirs! (We’re bad tourists; we said no.)
A note about bookshops:
There are a couple of places on the island that sell second-hand English books, but don’t expect a huge variety. (They seem to sell a lot of crime novels and thrillers, for some reason!)
Restaurants & Bars
A typical street full of restaurants. We particularly liked Rolandi’s (the orange building on the left); they make fabulous pizzas and have free Wi-Fi, which was a bonus. Plus they seem incapable of pouring a single glass of wine: every time I asked for one they brought me a ¼ litre carafe. It was terrible, I tell you!
Restaurants and bars are plentiful, so you’re not gonna starve. We particularly liked the places that sold fresh fish. The waiters are lovely, and quite a few of them will ask your name when you go in. We were known as Pedro and Julia (pronounced hoo-lee-a, not hoo-lee-gan, as Pete suggested).
Wi-Fi is important for us as we are a pair of hopeless Internet addicts, so we were kind of alarmed to discover that our apartment had no router. Happily our landlord and our rental agent, Gladis, spent ages arranging things so we could piggyback next door’s Wi-Fi, so we didn’t have to spend the month suffering withdrawal symptoms and wondering how our message boards would ever survive without us.
As soon as we’d sorted out the Internet at home, we searched out public places where we could use our laptops. We found three: Rolandi’s restaurant, Pinguino’s bar, and Cafe Mogagua. This last was our favourite as it actively encouraged long-term browsing (and, by association, long-term drinking!). Their Wi-Fi was high-speed and free, and they had considerately supplied electrical outlets all around the bar. We spent hours there!
The beaches were lovely, although we didn’t spend much time on them due to stormy weather. Still, we were chuffed ‘cos we were walking around in the middle of winter wearing shorts and t-shirts. Britain can keep its snow – we don’t miss that at all!
Watch out for red Nissan Thingamabobs (I’m a girl, so I don’t need to know model names). These belong to taxi drivers who are as mental as cabbies in the rest of the world. I swear in order to qualify as a taxi driver you only have to do one thing: score 0/10 on the Patience Quiz.
You will also get honked every five minutes walking down the road, as taxi drivers seem to take it personally when they see tourists using their legs!
Golf carts are fun, and are popular with tourists. You can hire them hourly, daily or weekly. Rates vary, so shop around. We discovered that the further you are away from the town centre, the cheaper the price.
There are a few things to do on the island, apart from drinking cocktails and slobbing out on the beach. You can spend a day at Garrafon Park, swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery, visit a turtle farm, or choose from a wide selection of fishing, snorkelling and boat tours (which we didn’t do ‘cos I get seasick sitting in the bath!)
And thus concludes the Mexican part of our travels. We spent way longer here than I expected to, and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. Prices are reasonable, people are friendly and the weather is fabulous most of the time. If I get the chance, I would definitely come back here again!
Gotta go now, ‘cos the Internet is dodgy and I’m having difficulty maintaining a connection. I’ll write again soon from Costa Rica...