My first real glimpse of the Candy Crayon blue waters off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, was on the ferry to Isla Mujeres, an island located 8 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula in that magical spot where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet.
With no warning and no subtlety, the water went from dark bluish to the color of a newborn baby’s eyes. The water was so blue that it looked like a cartoon, impossibly jewel-toned, and it looked as if a child painted the ocean with fairy-tale colors.
My partner Tim and I had just flown into Cancun, navigated the gauntlet of hawking taxi drivers, and made our way to the Gran Puerto Cancun (Ultramar) ferry dock for the roughly 20 to 30-minute ferry to Isla Mujeres.
This spring trip, our first since receiving our vaccines, was also the first time I had visited Mexico. Tim has history on this little island, coming for the last decade for weeks or months at a time. I was looking forward to seeing those famous ivory-white sand beaches and deep turquoise waters, but also snorkeling along the shores and roaming the historic downtown area.
We planned to spend 3 to 4 days on this “Isle of Women” before taking a shuttle to the more far-flung island of Isla Holbox, another rustic island located about 2.5 hours north of Cancun.
Both islands are stunningly pretty, dotted with friendly palm trees and gorgeous waters, but Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox have dramatically different personalities. Besides one being more of a tourism hot spot, the beaches, the food, the waters, and the activities available on each island are unique.
If you can, both islands are worth a visit. But if you have to decide on Isla Mujeres or Isla Holbox, here are four key differences that may help you find the perfect island for your vacation.
1. Isla Mujeres Is Easiest To Get To
Thanks to its proximity to the tourist-favorite locale of Cancun, Isla Mujeres has become a popular day-trip destination. Three ferries run between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, and two are passenger ferries. One car ferry is also available, and three terminals are located within 5 minutes of each other. The ferry at Puerto Juarez leaves every half-hour from 5 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. and every hour after that.
Once you arrive on Isla Mujeres, you’ll have no shortage of options to get around the island. Red taxis are available, and you can get most everywhere for 100 Mx Pesos (roughly $5). Many people rent a golf cart to get around in or even scooters, and these, too, are easy to find within a block or two of the ferry landing.
Getting to Isla Holbox is a little trickier. The best way is to schedule a shuttle from the Cancun Airport to the ferry dock in Chiquila, a 2- to 3-hour drive from the airport. While you can rent a car, you’ll have to leave it in Chiquila as Isla Holbox doesn’t really welcome cars outside of delivery trucks.
On Isla Holbox, you can take a golf cart taxi to your hotel or to the beach. One thing I really appreciated was a prominent sign that clearly displayed the costs of the taxi rides to the different parts of the island. As someone who hates to haggle, I found this to be a nice touch.
Pro Tip: If you rent a golf cart or scooter in Isla Mujeres, watch out for the speed bumps throughout the island. They are high, and you’ll feel them every time you go over one. Tim actually wiped out on his scooter a couple of years back when he hit one going too fast.
Also, the local police will set up checkpoints, especially on busy weekends and holidays. If you are caught driving while intoxicated, you’ll face a hefty fine and possibly jail. Always keep about $1,000 MX on hand to help you in this situation.
2. Isla Holbox Is More Relaxed And Rustic
Isla Mujeres is a party place and Isla Holbox, which can still kick it, is much more relaxed. With the day-trippers from Cancun coming in, Isla Mujeres went from an island with dirt streets to a thriving tourism metropolis.
Even the south end of Isla Mujeres, which is typically where the locals live and is quieter and less developed, is now dotted with new developments and new homes. Walking down the main streets in downtown Isla Mujeres is an adventure in noise, color, yells, and options. The souvenir store owners constantly yell at you to grab your attention, and you’ll dodge scooters, taxis, and golf carts wherever you go.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lot of fun. You can get pretty much anything you want just by asking and haggling a price — everything from that perfect T-shirt to “Cuban” cigars (they are NOT real Cuban cigars) to even shady illegal substances (“Hey Mister! You want sugar for your boogers?”).
On the other hand, Isla Holbox is much more laid-back. The streets are still mostly dirt, and the shopkeepers around the square do not yell or haggle with you. The whole vibe is more casual and relaxed, but at night (especially during holidays) the streets come alive with Cuban and Mexican music and people salsa dancing.
We were on Holbox (pronounced “Hol-bash”) during Easter Weekend, which is a big travel time for those who live in Mexico. The streets were packed with both tourists and locals enjoying the music and dancing to the staccato sounds of Cuban songs.
Another difference is that you can walk Isla Holbox for the most part or rent a bicycle to get around. I highly recommend renting a bike.
3. The Water Sports Are Different
If you want snorkeling and scuba diving, Isla Mujeres is your best option. If you want to fly-fish for tarpon and swimming with whale sharks among the bioluminescent plankton during the summer months, Isla Holbox is your choice.
Each island has its strengths. The rocky coral-lined shoreline around Isla Mujeres makes for great scuba diving and spearfishing. Tim and I loved spearfishing in Isla Mujeres with Sea Hawk Isla Mujeres (ask for Manu!), but we also equally adored going tarpon fly fishing on Isla Holbox with Captain Sand Flea and the Holbox Fly Fishing Lodge.
The whale shark tours are popular on both islands when these spotted gentle giants of the ocean migrate through beginning in May. The area between Cancun, Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Isla Contoy is famous for the biggest population in the world of this animal, and the best months to snorkel with them are June, July, August, and September.
Pro Tip: If you are traveling to the Yucatan during the summer months, try to travel when the moon is new or waning. On these moonless nights, something magical happens as thousands of bioluminescent plankton shine with their own blue light in the ocean. Isla Holbox is one of the only places to witness this sight, but you’ll have to time it for nights with no moonlight.
4. The Beaches Are Different
Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres is widely considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Americas, and because of that, it can be pretty crowded during the high season. The flour-like white sands, little seaweed, and deep turquoise shallow waters make it a gorgeous place to take in both the sunset and sunrise.
However, a large number of boats and yachts also come to the beach from Cancun, sometimes blasting music so people on the beach and swimmers are forced to listen.
If you don’t mind smaller, less “gorgeous” beaches that are still delightful along the sky-blue waters, Isla Mujeres has a few private beaches that charge a day rate that you can visit.
Isla Holbox also has gorgeous beaches – in fact, it has a main beach that runs all the way along its northern shore and butts up against a nature preserve (which you aren’t allowed onto but can view from one of the island’s many Three Island Tours).
This beach also has powdery white sands, and the most unique aspect is how shallow the water is for yards and yards out to sea, making it popular for activities like swimming, kite surfing, and simple beach bumming.
Isla Holbox’s beaches have more seaweed at times, which turns some folks off, but the numerous beach bars, lounge resorts, and restaurants more than make up for that.
Pro Tip: Wear sunscreen! The white sands only accentuate that fierce Yucatan sun, so be sure to slather it on. Be aware that many German and French tourists prefer Isla Holbox, and you’ll come across a few topless sunbathers too.
Overall, both islands are worth visiting. My personal favorite was Isla Holbox, as I prefer a more casual, laid-back, flip-flop relaxing beach to a lively, crowded party beach. The artistic murals painted everywhere on Holbox were among my favorite sights, and walking barefoot through the streets was a soothing experience. Whatever your beach “vibe” is, you’ll find it on either or both of these islands.