Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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Playa Del Carmen

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$250 bought me my flight from New York to Cancun. The airport in Cancun was pretty basic, and to our frustration every single one of the ATMs at the airport was broken. Thankfully, the machine didn’t eat either of our cards (others weren’t so lucky), and Hailee was carrying some leftover US dollars. The conversion rate was easy; basically 10 pesos equalled $1. At the airport we jumped on an ADO bus for 68km to Playa del Carmen – it took about an hour, cost $16 (prices fluctuate depending on the season) and was extremely spacious and cool (which I was already grateful for, after only 10 minutes in the mild Mexican heat!). There are two bus stations in Playa del Carmen – the ‘old station’ is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue and the ‘new station’ is essentially at the opposite corner of the town, right next to the big supermarket MEGA, and Walmart.

We stayed at Tres Mundos Hostel – which was clean, friendly, and quiet. It was within close proximity to both the beach and 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and the weather was so warm that the cold showers were welcomed. The main street, 5th Avenue, is one row back from the beach and has fancy all-inclusive resorts at each end. It is incredibly festive, crowded with high-end shops, souvenir stalls and over-priced bars and restaurants. The streets are thick with American accents, and little Mexican men promoting their souvenirs by telling you it will help you find a Mexican boyfriend.  The souvenir shops run by these cheeky Mexicans are a source of entertainment on their own. You can find everything from sombreros, ceramics, blankets, leather, food, magnets and of course, tequila. As soon as we set foot in one of these places, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave into the temptation of these colourful delights.

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Venture two streets back from the beach, and you are already hitting local territory – with street food, carts, and houses. So it is relatively small, and doesn’t take long to explore by foot, which I loved. Running perpendicular to the beach is Avenida Juarez – which has lots of smaller shops, where prices tend to be more negotiable. There are also lots of food stalls, and a small food market. It has an entirely different vibe to 5th Avenue, and feels far more authentic. At the south end of 5th Avenue I located a bunch of shops I’d adored in Europe – such as Pull & Bear, Zara and Bershka and at the northern end were more shops, including Forever 21.

The beach was fine – but for a New Zealander (inherent beach snobs) it was overcrowded and a little bit dirty. We spent a few well-needed days by the beach. We were craving sun, sea and sand after our week in New York. The weather was very temperamental – always hot, but there were numerous patches of rain throughout the day. This was fine; it provided opportunity to pop up into town for a quick bite, or to browse the shops.

Our first Mexican meal we wanted to be authentic – therefore we had to find somewhere selling Mexican food amongst all the Italian, French and other touristy cuisines on offer. We settled on a place called La Fisheria – which at the time I didn’t find too expensive (given the exchange rate) but I soon learnt it was more of an upper-end restaurant, definitely targeted at tourists. Despite that, the menu was mouth-watering, and the food fantastic; my yellow fin tuna tostada with mango guacamole was almost worth dying for.

An avid blogger myself, I always take enjoyment out of visiting places that other people recommend on their travel blogs. In Playa del Carmen, we had been advised to eat at El Fogan, which is on the far side of town by the supermarket (only about 5 blocks). We arrived, and it was buzzing with people. We sat down to find the entire menu was in Spanish. Unfortunately, I was not as bilingual as I’d thought, so we had to piece our way through the menu, still being a little unsure of what we actually ordered I got tacos el pastille; the beginning of a trend, and certainly, the beginning of the end. For about $1, I got two tacos, with the meat coming off the rotisserie (commonly seen in kebab shops in NZ). Another restaurant recommended by a blogger was Le Cororela. This place was located near the south end of 5th Avenue; cheap, authentic and delicious, we shared tacos, enchiladas and a quesadilla – washed down with a green smoothie (had to get my nutrients from somewhere!).

[Nearby is the Xcaret Eco Park, which is a popular tourist destination, especially for families, and is home to many activities (for example cenotes, snorkelling), wild-life, beaches and eateries. Also, just a ferry ride away is the island of Cozumel, which although we didn’t have time to visit, Hailee spoke highly of it – a great opportunity to hire quad bikes and do some exploring, as well as a world-class destination for snorkelling and diving. It costs approximately $25 and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry.]

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