Although it has been discovered by tourists, the once-sleepy Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and its fishing village manage to retain a tranquil atmosphere.
Long a haven for divers, anglers, escapists and adventurers, the small (5-mi-/8-km-long by 0.5-mi-/0.8-km-wide) island lies 8 mi/13 km off the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can spot it from some beaches in Cancun. It can be reached by small ferry for a day of snorkeling—outlying coral reefs are teeming with fish—or explored by rented bicycle, motor scooter or golf cart as its own destination.
Beautiful, white-sand beaches on the northern and western sides of the island are popular hangouts for swimmers and sunbathers, who gather under bright umbrellas. The beaches are lined with palm-thatch restaurants and rental places offering water toys, kayaks and snorkeling gear.
The town center is just four blocks by six blocks and boasts a few excellent folk-art boutiques selling high-quality pottery, wood carvings and weavings that surpass those in nearby Cancun.
Unlike Cancun, most of Isla Mujeres is quiet at night—apart from seasonal discos, a few music bars and the rare music festival. This is changing rapidly, however. Already it swells with daytime visitors from nearby Cancun, and new developments go up every year.
Those who snorkel (but don't dive) will probably enjoy Garrafon underwater park, at the south end of Isla Mujeres, where several varieties of brightly colored fish swim along a small coral reef. Unfortunately, snorkelers often outnumber sea life. The entrance fee includes use of the pool, sea platforms, kayaks and palapas (thatch-roof huts).
The beach Playa Garrafon de Castilla features a snorkeling area. Experienced divers may book tours to "The Cave of the Sleeping Sharks," a cave 65 ft/20 m below the surface where the mixture of salt water and freshwater makes resident nurse sharks groggy and slow. Excursions to the open ocean to swim with whale sharks are also offered. (Go at your own risk—no wild animal's behavior is 100% predictable.)
No one, however, is allowed to swim with the endangered sea turtles, which are cared for by marine biologists at the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm. Isla Mujeres is a hatching ground for the turtles, who go ashore to lay eggs every May-September. The eggs are kept safe from predators, and newly hatched turtles are placed in tanks until they are released into the sea by local schoolchildren.
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