It’s well known that Cancun is a stereotypical destination vacation, forged by government-led tourism efforts that began in the 1970s. The 165-plus hotels are built around hedonism, offering a dizzying array of eats, drinks, and fun-in-the-sun activities. This “the more the merrier” vibe extends to the hotels’ sizes too; many of these pleasure palaces boast room counts in the multi-hundreds.
Isla Mujeres offers an antidote to Cancun’s crowds. Once a Mayan goddess sanctuary and pirate refuge, now day-trippers are drawn to this idyllic island — just 30 minutes by boat across the azure Caribbean Sea. Beach clubs scattered along the shore have the amenities of big hotels — chaises, cocktails, and Mexican cuisine — at a smaller scale. One, Zama Beach Club, stands out for its incredible eats, and it taught us a few things:
Watermelon is a wonderful topper to fresh guacamole. Shrimp aguachile, a ceviche-like dish with lime juice, cilantro, and Serrano chiles, is a refreshing, spicy break from the sun. Grilled octopus tacos are a stellar snack. And one can’t miss Isla Mujeres’ indigenous dish, Tikin Xic (salmon marinated in achiote paste), grilled over coconut husks, and garnished with avocado.
The seafood and fish-centric menu feels right at home on Isla Mujeres, a hub for local fishing boats. Young chef Diego Lòpez has even spearheaded an initiative to incorporate lionfish, a species invasive to the coral reefs, in menus across the island.
Guests can choose to eat on the beach, by the pool, or at tables under a thatched roof palapa. A full bar shakes up refreshing cocktails like fresh fruit margaritas or micheladas, a Bloody Mary made with Mexican beer instead of vodka. Note that micheladas are made differently depending on the bartender. Here, order a “michelada roja” to have yours with Clamato.
Be sure to take the time to savor Zama’s setting while you’re there. Take a dip in the infinity pools, Jacuzzis, or the Tiffany-blue sea to work up an appetite. Beachside cabanas, lounges, and hammocks are sublime spots for post-meal siestas.
Rick Bayless is also a fan of Zama Beach Club, where he just filmed a segment for the next season of his PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time.
Zama Beach Club is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. To get there from the local ferry terminal, take a taxi or book a golf cart ($35-45 per day). Golf carts are Isla Mujeres’ most common form of transportation, as their slow speed sets the pace for relaxation.
Bonus insider tip: Craving some caffeine? Hit up Café Mogagua near the ferry terminal. Billed as the “best coffee on the island,” this open-air, funky café pours organic coffee from Chiapas. If you have a case of seasickness, order the Mexican remedy of mineral water, lime juice, and salt (which also acts as hangover cure).