Saturday, March 29, 2014

Top 5 Things to do on Mexico's Isla Mujeres

Spring break has come and gone here in chilly Canada, bringing with it 20 more centimeters of snow (Spring, what IS your problem?).  As I gaze longingly out the front window at the piles of snow on my front lawn, with a wee little baby in my arms and spit-up on my shirt, I am remembering fondly one sizzling Spring Break back in 2011 when I journeyed to Mexico for an escape from the cold.

One of the activities that I was able to participate in while I was there was going on a catamaran cruise to Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun, where I had a quite disastrous snorkeling experience.  Despite the snorkeling fiasco, I did enjoy strolling the streets of the quaint island, doing a little shopping, and meeting some fun locals.

A friendly beach scene from Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres means "Island of Women" in Spanish, due to its history with the original Mayan civilization that lived in the area.  The island was sacred to them for childbirth and related medicine, and so the Mayans sculpted several idols in honor of the female goddesses in their religion.  When the Spanish arrived, all they knew was that this island was littered with female statues, and so named it "Island of Women".  Today it is basically a commercial shopping center, heavy on the tourist traps, full of color, music, energy, and activities.

There are a few ways to access the island.  The first and most common is by ferry.  The boats run from Puerto Juarez, Punta Sam, or Gran Puerto to Isla Mujeres several times a day, with Gran Puerto being the newest and most popular.  It is relatively inexpensive at 70 Pesos for a ride there and back.  For ferry schedules and updated fees, you can check out this website, as I don't feel the need to post a plethora of ferry departure and arrival times here.   You can also go out to the island with a group, as I did on my catamaran cruise, or rent your own boat and head out.  Once there, many visitors rent a golf cart from one of the various rental services on the island and truck around that way.  Costs vary for the cart rentals, but the average is about 450 - 550 pesos a day.

Arriving at Isla Mujeres via catamaran.

The island is popular with tourists during the day, but does tend to quiet down in the evening, so if you are looking for a wild time, go back to mainland Cancun and hit up the clubs there.  Isla Mujeres is a day-trip haven, with lots of incredible things to do.  I was only there for one afternoon, and my afternoon was filled with the catamaran/snorkeling activity, so I would definitely like to go back and experience some of the other things the island has to offer.  (And I want to get PADI certified first, as you can imagine after reading my to-do list.)

These are my top 5 things to see and do on Isla Mujeres (some of which I have done, most of which I have not):

1. Snorkeling

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I just stated above that I had a disastrous snorkeling experience when I visited the island last time.  But that's not to say every day will be cold and windy with treacherous waves that cause you to lose your brand-new underwater camera to the ocean depths.  In fact, Isla Mujeres has some amazing snorkeling locales that can't be missed - just go at your own pace, without a tour group.  That way you can choose which date and what time of day to go, and avoid the type of experience I had.

Snorkeling one of the amazing reefs at Isla Mujeres. Image via

For a controlled and safe snorkel, try Garrafon Park.  It is well-known for its coral reef, which blocks the incoming tide to make for a very calm and colorful snorkel.  The park also offers ziplines, dolphin swims, and more.  To simply enjoy the park, go snorkeling in the peaceful coral reef, and snooze in their beach-side hammocks will cost you 79 USD.  If you want to go swimming with dolphins, naturally, the fee increases.

For a more natural (yet unpredictable) snorkel, you can choose from Manchones Reef, Cuevnoes Reef, and Banderas Reef, all just off the coast of the island. Manchones Reef features the Bay Cross (Cruz de la Bahia), a sculpture which honors the men and women lost at sea.

The Bay Cross at Isla Mujeres.  Image via.

Another (creepy) place to try your hand at snorkeling, not that I would go mind you, is the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks.  It is what it sounds like.  The story goes that a young lobster diver followed some sharks into a cave, because he noticed they went in but never came out (I think this guy was a few chips short of a  chocolate cookie).  He dove over 65 feet and came up inside a sea cave where he found the sharks, sleeping with their eyes open.

Maybe don't go there.  Or if you do, and get eaten, don't say I told you to go there. Legal disclaimer!

2. Scuba Diving

And this is why I want to get PADI certified before I return to Isla Mujeres.  Just off the coast, in Manchones Reef, is the world's largest underwater museum, MUSA, which stands for Museo Subacuatico de Arte designed by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. It is unreal and I just can't wait to be zipping around the submerged sculptures and statues in my scuba gear.

Diving in Isla Mujeres' Underwater Museum.  Image via.

The project has a practical application: its purpose is to increase tourism to the Manchones Reef without impacting it environmentally. The goal is to have the majority of tourists all visiting the MUSA, and leaving the rest of the reef alone. The secondary goal is to have the actual sculptures become part of a new, artificial reef.  The cement used to build the statues is made of a special, porous substance that promotes the growth of microscopic organisms. Smart, I say. And what an experience!  Costs to visit the museum range from $39 USD (for a snorkel only) to $95 USD (dive lesson, tank dive, and reef dive). So technically, one could learn to scuba dive while there, and not have to learn beforehand (but it would be cheaper to learn beforehand...).

3. Tortugranja Turtle Farm

Sea turtles love Isla Mujeres, but due to their endangered species status, are now protected at the Tortugranja Turtle Farm, which is open to the public.  It is located in Sac Bajo, north of Playa Paraiso, and costs $3 per person, which is insanely cheap.  Inside, it is a government-run turtle hatchery.  You can see the entire turtle life cycle while there, from the leathery eggs, to baby turtles, to full grown specimens.  Apparently you are not welcome to touch the turtles, but once a year the hatchery will allow visitors to assist in the annual turtle release at the end of the summer season.

Baby turtles enjoying the safety of Tortugranja in Isla Mujeres. Image via

4. Wacky Houses

There are two 'houses' of note on Isla Mujeres.  The first is the Joysxee Floating Bottle Island.  Yup, the name is an apt description.  This 'island' is made, literally, of 150,000 floating plastic bottles, built by Richard Sowa.  Not only that, but everything else in and on the house is made from recycled materials. You can tour the house and meet "Richie" himself, all for the price of a small donation (or a large donation, depending on your financial situation!).  The place looks a little junky, but I'm sure there are interesting stories about each and every room.

The Floating Bottle House of Isla Mujeres.  Image via

Another fun house is the Crayola House, a super-colorful, vibrant, and eccentric building.  It is a private home, and not currently open for tours (maybe there's nothing to see on the inside).  But you can park your golf cart, get out, and go explore the exterior murals and take colorful and vibrant photographs!

The colorful Crayola house of Isla Mujeres. Image via.

5. Beaches and Shopping

Onto the more generic, less specific activities, and the only ones on this list that I have done personally.  There are a few beautiful beaches on Isla Mujeres, the most popular being Playa Norte.  Another popular site is Playa Tiburon, also known as Shark Beach because of the sharks that are kept penned near the beach (with questionable animal rights according to many reviews I read).  I have been to Shark Beach, where you can jump into one of the pens and swim with the sharks for the hefty price of $1.00.  I didn't have the guts, but my friend Martel did.

A friend swimming with a nurse shark at Shark Beach.

I enjoyed the shopping opportunities on Isla Mujeres. I am also a sucker for 'touristy' kiosks and local vendors, like the two gentlemen who dove for conch shells just off the beach and sold them at a table set up right on the sand.  Maybe they planted the conch shells in the water to make it seem like they were fresh, maybe not, but I thought it was cool.  One of them drilled a hole in the end of my shell and taught me how to blow it like a horn.  Unfortunately, I never quite caught on and only ended up nearly giving myself a brain aneurysm trying to make it work.

Another favorite store was at the end of one of the main streets - I can't remember how I got there or what it was called, as I spent the better part of an hour walking the streets getting lost.  It sold mainly women's clothing, and I fell in love with a beautiful black summer halter dress.  There were about five gentlemen behind the till, all laughing, lounging casually and drinking tequila. We bartered in a friendly manner for awhile and I managed to get a pretty good deal on my dress.  To celebrate, the men made me down a couple of shots of tequila - a specialty almond tequila that was very smooth, didn't burn, and left an amazing almond aftertaste.  It was one of the best shopping transactions I've ever done!

Ships at dock on Isla Mujeres.

I have a two-month-old baby currently pooping in her swing chair beside me (this post has been written to the musical sounds of a baby grunting in concentration and the occasional rumble from down below) so I can't just up and book a flight to Isla Mujeres.  If this snow doesn't stop soon, though, I'll be extremely tempted!  If so, does anyone have any other 'must-see' items on Isla Mujeres that I have missed? Please comment below!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Travelers vs Tourists: Why I am SO SICK of this Debate

I do not rant on my blog.  I try to always keep things upbeat, positive, and hopefully, inspirational.  But I feel the desperate need to weigh on in this subject - the silly debate between what makes a tourist and what makes a traveler.  I have read about it on several blogs, seen people comment on Twitter, and even heard about it on television via travel shows and channels. So many backpackers and 'new nomads' bragging about selling their home, staying in hostels and cheap hotels, 'getting down' with the culture, making fun of people who do quick trips, stay in resorts, and visit the standard sights a location has to offer.  People who claim to be 'travelers' and not 'tourists', as if being a tourist was a disgraceful occupation. People who believe that because they do things differently, they are a superior breed of explorers.  Usually I just ignore these people.

Recently the proverbial straw broke the camel's back, and now I have something to say.

I personally have no immediate travel plans, what with a seven week old baby on my hands.  But recently Avy, my wee daughter, and I have been researching a trip to Paris, just because.  Mostly it is Avy's fault - that girl has a severe case of wanderlust.  It's exhausting, really.  Maybe a trip to Paris for her third birthday will calm that girl down.

The beautiful Eiffel Tower - worth at least one visit in your lifetime.

Anyway, we have been watching clips on YouTube of things to see and do in Paris, beyond the obvious, and we stumbled upon Anthony Bourdain in "The Layover" discussing his take on Paris.  And I snapped.  He is just the type of person I am talking about in my introductory paragraph - in this episode he literally sat there and made fun of people who choose to stand in line to go up the Eiffel Tower to see the amazing view of Paris it has to offer. He also recommended people "walk past" Notre Dame Cathedral, yet ignore the history to be found inside because the line-up was inconvenient and oh-so-mundane.  He instead told potential visitors to Paris to find a nice restaurant, sit and get drunk, and then have sex with a "French person".  His words.

The majestic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

My first rant is aimed directly at Anthony Bourdain.  How dare you, Anthony Bourdain?!  You, who are sitting in Paris FOR FREE because you are on a travel show, bashing some of Paris' most beloved landmarks.  You, who have probably been to Paris 50 times, for free, and have probably already been up the Eiffel Tower and combed through Notre Dame.  It's no big deal for you to tell people to waste $3000 for a flight and hotel just to sit around and get bombed on a street corner.  I'm sure people can't do that at home for much cheaper.  I'm sure I would love to sit on an eight-hour flight to another continent just to chase around some Parisian 'tail'.  Anthony Bourdain thinks he is a TRAVELER - he gets to travel all the time, he's a seasoned veteran, he knows the ropes... but honestly, I think he is a just a cocky, spoiled travel snob and I sincerely hope no one actually takes his travel 'advice' seriously.

That's right, Bourdain. Eat your noodles, and I'll go see what a city has to offer beyond a hangover in the morning.

When I take Avy to Paris, and I will someday, we are standing in line for the Eiffel Tower elevator, we are exploring the Notre Dame catacombs, we will take the Seine boat tour... and we'll be happy and proud to do so.  And here's the thing - that makes us both travelers AND tourists.

There is no distinction.  To all you travel snobs out there touting your badge as "TRAVELER" and bashing tourists - give it up.  Of course, there are those people who fly all the way to a destination, then never leave their hotel, eat food at the buffet from their home country, and are generally rude and obnoxious.  Those aren't "tourists" - they're just close-minded vacationers.  They came to that destination for the temperature change, and whatever.  More power to them. Despite their strange behavior, they are STILL both travelers and tourists.  They're just bad ones.

Here is what a traveler is: someone who travels.  Here is what a tourist is: someone who is new to an area and is experiencing it for the first time (or second or third).  Therefore, if you are in a new location during your travels, you are still a tourist. Do you have a home in that location? No? You are a tourist.  Do you pay taxes, hold a job, have a kid in a local school, speak the language fluently, have childhood memories of growing up there, or have family buried in the local cemetery? No? Then dang, you must be a tourist.  You got there on your TRAVELS, but you are a TOURIST, no matter your choice of hotel or transportation or size of suitcase or state of cleanliness.

Really? Because every blog I've been to where people claim to be 'travelers' is LOADED with pictures.

I won't belabor this point anymore.  I just had to put it out there.  I'm sick of people acting superior and labeling themselves travelers - just stop.  No one cares but you.  Get over yourself, ignore Bourdain, and go stand in line to see something spectacular if that's what you want to do.  It's lined up for a reason.