Site of the first Spanish landing in Mexico in 1517, the “Island of Women” takes its name from the idols of the goddess Ixchel found here. Though close to Cancún, the island has a quite different, laid-back atmosphere, and has long been a backpackers’ favorite. It also has excellent diving and fishing opportunities.
Visitor Information: Av Rueda Medina 130, to the left from the ferry quay; (998) 877 0307; open 9am–4pm Mon–Fri; www.isla-mujeres.net
Guadalupe Chapel: Av Perimetral Oriente; (998) 705 9911; open 8am Sun for Mass
Women’s Beading Cooperative: open 9am–4pm Mon–Sat
Parque Garrafón: (01) 866 393 5158; open 9am–5:30pm daily; adm $89–$199; www.garrafon.com
Parque Escultórico Punta Sur: open 10am–6pm daily; adm $6
This beach at the northern tip of the town is where many Isla visitors spend their days, with laid-back beach bars for refreshment breaks. With pure white sand and calm turquoise waters, it’s excellent for tranquil swimming.
An underground river meets the sea at this cave, and sharks come to bask, trancelike, in the mixture of fresh and salt water. A must-see for experienced divers – but don’t wake those sharks!
Isla’s only town still has the look of a Caribbean fishing village, with narrow, sandy streets and brightly painted wooden houses. There are plenty of cafés and souvenir shops, and few cars.
To the northeast of Isla town, this “secret” beach is in a sheltered inlet that’s even more shallow and placid than Playa Norte.
Nearly 60 women are working members of this cooperative and earn a living by making jewelry. Visitors are welcome.
Isla Mujeres’ favorite reef for scuba courses and easy diving. Only about 30–40 ft (10–12 m) deep, the waters are safe and have plenty of colorful coral and fish to discover.
A simple and humble church, the Guadalupe Chapel looks out onto the sea and offers a very inspiring view. There’s a small gift shop on site, which sells handmade jewelry. The church also acts as a venue for events such as quinceañeras (a young girl’s coming-of-age celebration) and weddings.
This nature park and snorkeling center is created around a natural, shallow pool. There are restaurants, equipment rental, and swimming and snorkeling opportunities in the rock pool, off-shore reefs, or in the swimming pool.
The southern tip of the island has been transformed into a sculpture park with striking modern artworks spread around the windblown headland and lighthouse.
An uninhabited island about 18 miles (29 km) north of Isla Mujeres, Contoy is an important seabird reserve for pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds, spoonbills, and others. Day trips are run by companies on Isla.
Isla’s most famous residents were the 19th-century Louisiana-born brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, considered the last great Caribbean pirates. Sailing south after falling out with the US government, they built a stronghold on the Isla lagoon, but were attacked by the Spanish Navy in 1821. Both badly wounded, they escaped in a boat. Pierre is thought to have died in Dzilam Bravo on the mainland; Jean’s fate remains a mystery.