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Nothing sexist about the Island of Women

As I walked the short pier where the modern and astonishingly fast ferry I travelled on docked, the peace of Isla Mujeres seduced my tense eardrums. Two weeks prior, I was dodging the headaches of hotdog vendors and boat tour touts every time I left my hostel in Playa Del Carmen. Then was the escape to downtown Cancun, where I hid in my bungalow hostel, not brave enough to walk the streets in the shadows of hotels taller than the moon.

I was tipped off by a German student that I should avoid Cancun’s nearby island of Cozumel. With a glance across the ocean to its coast, lined with cruise ships and sky scrapers, I decided to take his advice. I had spent two months exploring the likes of Mexico City’s architecture, the vibrant markets of San Cristobal de Las Casas and the pyramids of Chichen Itza. I didn’t want to arrive in London with the sight of fast food restaurants being my freshest memories of Mexico. It took no longer than thirty minutes to arrive at the suggested location, yet the little known island, just eleven kilometres long, was worlds apart in many ways.

Isla Mujeres, or Island Of Women, was said to be named after figurines of Mayan goddesses discovered in 1517. Others have said it was the lovers of Spanish pirates who were kept there whilst the men pillaged ports, who influenced its title. A huge black statue of a fisherman with his beautiful woman seated provocatively on a large stone, helped me to side with the later theory.

Delving into the grid system of streets, a strong sense of Mexican character struck me, in loud contrast to the atmospheres of Cancun’s spotless sidewalks and beefy shopping malls. Very few buildings were taller than two storeys, lining the narrow streets with their colourful paintwork.

One small shop selling nothing but bottles of water sat beneath a ceiling of bright red corrugated iron, its owner seated motionless on a stall every time I walked past during my week long stay. Other shop owners simply sat on their doorsteps, not once shouting me into their premises like so many merchants had attempted to do during the previous fortnight.

The most popular beach of Isla Mujeres was still of few people on a busy day, even with ferries leaving to and arriving from Cancun at thirty minute intervals from six in the morning until ten at night. The sand was an extremely faint yellow whilst the water was perfectly clear.

Looking out into the sea, many people could be seen scattered about the consistently shallow and still Caribbean ocean, as far out as five hundred metres. A short walk to the other side of the island’s tipped end, a wall introduced a long sidewalk to a choppy coast, lined with benches comfortable enough to lie on for hours and enjoy the breeze, whilst reflecting on the many highlights the country offered.

At the town centre was a band stand surrounded by delicate flower beds and benches. Kids of all ages played on a well maintained basketball court whilst older locals could be seen walking in and out of a small but impressive church which remained open all day. At the southern tip of the island sat a very decayed Mayan temple, damaged in 1988 by Hurricane Gilbert.  

As I swung back and forth on a wooden swing attached to the small beach bar of Hotel Poc-na’s backyard of sand, I realised many other backpackers had also arrived at the island in hopes of ending their trips on positive notes. There was a strong sense of conclusion to most conversations, increased each time someone offered a philosophical reflection about their time in the country.  Everyone indulged in trading stories of their summer, cementing the island in my mind as being a graveyard for life imprinting journeys to rest. On the rare occasion that a backpacker beginning their exploration of Mexico checked in, everyone would rush to present themselves as most knowledgeable about the land, enthusiastic to order the new visitors as to where to go and what to do.

During the morning of my final day on the island, I went on a boat trip with a group of local fisherman who took tourists out to various coral reefs in the ocean for near to nothing. Compared to a similar trip I partook in at Cancun, which was run very much like a business with strict time schedules and little room to allow for enjoyment, this was superb, emphasising the great find Isla Mujeres was once more.

I had found it hard to avoid the many fast food outlets of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, with just several non western restaurants available to dine in. The island’s culinary offerings were a delight however, with a healthy range of traditional dishes on offer at most establishments.

Having experienced so many places representative of Mexico’s charm, it was a shock upon arriving in Playa Del Carmen and Cancun. As much as one reads about the intense commercial nature of these places, no tour guide or horror story from a friend can prepare you. It’s as though you’re no longer in the country. Isla Mujeres makes up for this considerably, and is an extremely ideal waiting room ahead of flying home out of Cancun’s nearby airport.

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