This Island Off The Coast Of Cancun Is Paradise

A passing tropical shower had driven tourists under the canopies, but having ordered our first margaritas and guacamole since landing an hour earlier at Cancun International Airport, we were content to wait out the weather before catching the ferry at Puerto Juarez.

The ferry runs every 30 minutes out to Isla Mujeres, a narrow island just off the coast of the popular tourist destination. The ride might only take about 20 minutes, but it transports you to a world apart from the large all-inclusive resorts and crowded beaches of Playa del Carmen. Instead, smaller resorts and a fleet of rentable golf carts lend a more relaxed attitude. A few luxury resorts are tucked away on the island, farther from the pedestrian markets and colorful rental villas.

We disembarked amid a tumble of tourists wrangling suitcases and locals transporting flowers and supplies to their businesses. A friend and I had arrived for five days of the white sand beaches of Playa Norte and eating as much fresh-caught fish as humanly possible.

Crispy fish tacos (on slightly toasted tortillas) with frozen margs at Lola Valentina's hit the spot and were made all the more relaxing by being consumed on a swing at the bar. The Soggy Peso, located near the island's midpoint, posted hand-painted signs out front for the taco options: shrimp or lobster. These we ate sitting on plastic lawn chairs with our toes in the sand. Dinner at Javi's Cantina had only one real option on the oversized one-page menu: the catch of the day, either grilled or Parmesan-crusted.

Those hand-painted signs aren't just for the catch of the day.  Murals and signs decorate the island from the north end's beaches to the southern point's sculpture park. One tiny taqueria boasts its "best tamales in the world" alongside its hours against a '70s teal. An octopus-haired scuba diver takes up a low wall while a half-man, half-jaguar overlooks a section of the eastern shore.

Although a tropical depression kept the many tour boats docked during our stay, the island's reefs are popular snorkeling and diving sites and this was prime whale shark migration season. From watersports to sunbathing, Isla Mujeres is one of the secret spots of Mexico's Caribbean coast.