For lovers of lush green surroundings, warm turquoise waters, and a relaxed island vibe, flying into metropolitan Cancun might seem counterintuitive, but that would be wrong. The city is a gateway to natural beauty and adventures along the Riviera Maya peninsula and, more closely, on tiny Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute boat ride from the packed Malecon.
The small island was a center of fertility pilgrimages centuries ago, then a retreat for Mayan people fleeing Spanish impositions. It was also a hiding place for pirates and, over recent decades, has lured major resort crowds for beachy day trips. Catamarans of partiers still converge at sandy clubs scattered along the coast, but the revelers are contained at private installations while quieter island life goes on. Recently designated a Pueblo Magico (magical town) by Mexico Tourism, the island proudly holds onto that status with conscientious management.
Isla Mujeres wasn’t on my bucket list, but snorkeling with whale sharks, the gentle, spotted giants who feed near the surface of the sea, has been a goal for years. On my first visit to Isla Mujeres, I joined a group of underwater photographers during the summer migration, which peaks in July and August. It was also the hottest time of the year. More recently, I visited in temperate October at the end of the storm season, spending four days exploring other natural wonders around the island.
1. Whale Shark Phenomenon
Annually, thousands of these gentle giants swarm the open waters off the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, where they mate and feast on clouds of tiny krill. Boats full of snorkelers spot the sharks, share the information, and cluster close -- but not too. These are trained and licensed tour operators, and none of their vessels are over 33 feet long. They monitor and guide two snorkelers, plus a guide, into the water at a time.
Spotting the 25- to 40-foot-long creatures hanging vertically in the sea as they suck in gallons of water is a thrill. Getting close is magical, but they can swish past quickly. I slipped into the water repeatedly and paddled fast to avoid their wide maws. As filter feeders, they aren’t threatening. Whale sharks have wide mouths, but their stomachs can’t contain anything as large as a human adult. Captains, guides, and snorkelers were respectfully cautious. Collisions could be disastrous, drive the marvelous creatures out of the area, or close the tours.
During migrations, whale sharks cover thousands of miles. They’re spotted around the world, but Isla Mujeres is one of the most popular spots in the Northern Hemisphere. The pods have made a big impression in the area and responsible tourism has taken the place of fishing as a steady source of income for the island. I’d like to return one July to celebrate their presence at the Whale Shark Festival. The annual event is filled with performances, art shows, costumes, and sometimes more than one parade.
2. Gateway To Remote Isla Contoy
About 19 miles north of Isla Mujeres sits the more remote and pristine island of Isla Contoy. The Mexican government declared it a national park in 1998 to preserve the wildlife environment, which shelters 152 species of migratory and resident birds like double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, boobies, frigate birds, American flamingos, egrets, sea swallows, and roseate spoonbills. Only 200 visitors are allowed to make the crossing daily and can enjoy the island on day trip sailings with Ceviche Tours. Apply for visit permits at the park offices in Isla Mujeres or Cancun.
3. Visit The Mesoamerican Reef Residents
Signature turquoise waters kiss the western side of the Isla Mujeres then drop to dark, deep blues on the Atlantic side. This is where island meets the ridges of the Great Mayan Reef. It stretches over 600 miles from Mexico, south to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The reef in the Isla area is home to over five hundred species of fish and numerous endangered creatures including turtles, manatees, and the splendid toadfish. One beautiful but devastating invader is being purged from local waters. Lionfish indiscriminately eat nearly every reef-tending fish. Those cleaner species are precious and help ensure the reefs stay vibrant and other commercially valuable creatures, like lobster, survive. I spied one small lionfish but without a spear and glove, kept my distance. Aside from devastating appetites, lionfish are covered with alluring but sharp and poisonous spikes.
4. Along The Cliffs And Into The Past
What’s known of early Isla Mujeres’ history is inseparable from the Mayan people. Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, fertility, medicine, and abundance makes her presence known, especially when you visit the southern tip of the island. A new, huge statue rises near the trail entrance that winds past cliffs to the ruins of a low, Mayan temple. Many women still make a pilgrimage to the point for blessings with childbirth and fertility. Each New Year’s morning Isla residents gather here to greet the first rays of the sun. The point has the highest elevation on the island and archaeologists believe that ancient Mayans used the small temple at the tip as a lighthouse for traders trafficking among the coastal communities. Today, Punta Sur is a wild and windy spot accessible from downtown by tour, taxi, or golf cart. There are a few amenities -- a casual coffee shop, and a bar and gift store. Locals set up carts serving tacos and frozen treats near the entrance.
5. Ocean Art Goes Big
The 2014 Sea Wall Project brought muralists from around the world to raise awareness and funds for whale shark and manta ray protection in Mexico. When I visited a year later, the murals were still fresh. This video showcases the Pangea Seed Isla Mujeres Murals.
Today few remain, but the goal of greater marine stewardship is permanent and other muralists have moved in to embellish electrical boxes, storefronts, and walls across the island. With an affordable golf cart rental, I had the freedom to explore the 4.5-mile island over several hours. Our first stop was to admire the murals near the Naval Station. There are more artistic discoveries with ties to the island’s eco-core scattered around the island.
6. Notorious Sleeping Sharks
Isla has been a refuge for ages. Mayans fled there after Mexico gained independence from the Spanish and a central village slowly grew. It remained sleepy and remote until WWII when, as the easternmost point of Mexico, the Navy built a permanent base there. Cancun began rising as a tourism center in the 1970s and Isla developed more slowly. In the 1950s, Jacques Cousteau’s colleague and Isla resident Ramon Bravo drew worldwide attention to an important discovery.
While diving for lobsters, local fisherman Carlos Garcia Castilla noticed a cave where sharks entered but didn’t exit. Freediving to about 65 feet, he discovered a cavern full of sharks that appeared to be sleeping. Ramon Bravo joined Castilla and soon, with the arrival of Jacques Cousteau and help from the National Geographic Society, they investigated the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks. Before that discovery, it was thought that if sharks stopped moving, they would die. Whether they truly sleep is still controversial, but the research has made the island world-famous for ocean conservationists.
I was driving to the Turtle Sanctuary when the clue to this story rose out of a roundabout. A life-size, bronze statue of a man with fins and snorkel gear caught my attention. It marks the spot above the cave where Ramon Prieto’s ashes remain.
7. Turtle Legacy
Once huge loggerhead, green, hawksbill, leatherback, Atlantic, and olive ridley turtles roamed the waters of Isla in abundance. There are many reasons for their declining numbers but today, La Tortugranja (The Turtle Farm) is helping their recovery. Local fishermen inspired protections, and today visitors offer a few pesos and their time to continue the conservation efforts by visiting the site.
The government-run facility is modest but interactive. Inside the aquarium building, nearly a dozen square, open tanks are filled with active turtles of all sizes. A touch tank along the back wall lures young visitors close. Seahorses and eels live inside banks of wall tanks. Outside more pens and tanks sit beneath shady pergolas.
Hatchlings are brought in from nearby nests along the shore and sheltered before being released. Older, injured, and rescued turtles are nursed before returning to sea. Several albino turtles are permanent residents. They will have much longer lives in this land-based, aquatic environment.
There’s a small gift shop, and the day I visited several iguanas basked on rocks near the snack stand. They obliged photographers who move slowly and don’t get too close.
8. Blow Bubbles In The Underwater Museum
In 2010, rumors surfaced about an underwater sculpture garden being built off the coast of Isla Mujeres. The first pictures spawned questions -- Why there? Why those sculptures? Time has answered. Dr. Jaime Gonzales Cano, the head of Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, was looking for a way to ease stress on the local reef system without having to close the national underwater park to visitors. In a collaboration with British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor, the two created one of the largest artificial underwater art attractions in the world.
There are now over 500 sculptures offshore in about 40 feet of water. They can be observed by snorkeling, but as a diver, I was able to get closer. It was thrilling, a bit creepy, and totally engrossing to float around and over this artificial reef. In the largest cluster of life-size casts of locals, sea creatures have taken over as planned. Corals splay across chests and sea fans spring from shoulders. Features and limbs are disguised by the growth and strange colors.
Like great art exhibits, questions continue about why these particular configurations and clusters. They seem to echo the consequences of urban existence with cars and houses, desks, and bankers. Shadows from giant grenade and land mine sculptures provide shelter for fish and lobster. It’s touching and strange -- two impressions I imagine the fish share when staring back at divers.
Visit the Underwater Museum, MUSA, online to see the initial installations and how they’ve changed over time. There are local dive and snorkel shops happy to guide your visit.
Whether you visit Isla Mujeres for a day or a week, enjoy the vacation spots and make time for some of these more natural options. You’ll go home with truly unique memories that can make a positive difference in the world. For more inspiration, consider “Beyond Cozumel: 5 Other Mexican Islands Worth Visiting,” too.