The Island of Women
The ‘Isla Mujeres’, the Island of Women, could have been named after the wives of the pirates that frequented the seas and left their women on this safe island, or after the Mayan Goddess Ixchel, who has been worshipped here.
Nowadays, it can refer to the ladies living or the many visiting here, coming from nearby Cancun or from all over the world. so what is there to do on Isla Mujeres? Not much and that is exactly the point.
Not the busy smelly traffic of downtown Cancun, not the mega-clubs, drunk teenagers and inflated prices of the Zona Hotelera. Not even the mega cruise-ships that frequent Isla Cozumel stop on the 8km (5mi) long island that is in places only 100m wide and never wider than 1km (0.6mi).
There are enough souvenir shops to keep you busy for several hours, you can rent a golf-cart to see the Southern part of the Island, but most people just come for the beach. Isla’s North beach (actually starting at the North-West) has white sands (crushed coral) with warm and clear green/blue waters.
Nothing more and nothing less. As long as you are staying in Isla Mujeres Town, you can do everything on foot and if you are very active, you can see all the streets in one day, leaving the rest of your stay to relax!
As we were still on a tight budget, but did not want to camp, I had come into contact with Gladys Galdamez from www.islabudgetrentals.com.
She had some more affordable options, but as they were still too much for us, I proposed to take some photos for her websites and house in exchange for housing and she accepted. So below are a lot of photos, some of which will also be found on her website
Life on the beach on Isla Mujeres
Pictures say more than words:
Running around the Isla with Hector & Veronica
As Isla is only a 20 minute boat ride away from Downtown Cancun, we had invited Hector & Veronica to come over to join us. They joined us on the beach for a while and then did their evening training on the island, one running while the other cycled and coached. I joined them on their other bicycle which was also a good excuse to see more of the Southern part of the island.
Here you go:
A taste of downtown Isla Mujeres
You can board for snorkelling tours, eat ice-cream, pancakes, hummus, pizza or tacos and tortas on the main square. Salesmen will try to sell traditional and less-traditional clothes and handicrafts, while tourists zoom past on the rented golf carts.
In the evening the streets are sparsely lit, the restaurants open and you might hear some nice live music from some of the older inhabitants of Isla Mujeres, a welcome change from the Mariachi-hell (pep-peppe-pep-pep!) of the rest of tourist-Mexico.
More life on a beach
Though I like to swim, I get restless after an hour or so, unlike Ivana, who is perfectly happy floating on her newly-found air-mattress for several hours at a time.
Fortunately our room (my office) all the way on the other side of town was only 10 minutes walking away and there was always an excuse to take another photo.
Here are some:
Old Isla Mujeres & Miss Abuelita
There is not much left of the old fisherman town, where people enjoyed their turtle soup. even though it is low key, tourism had changed everything. Still there are a few original houses to be found, preserved in bright paint.
We were on the island for a festival in honour of one of the popular tourist attractions and endangered species that lives close to the island: the whale shark, a friendly whale-sized shark.
On the last evening the main attraction was presented: the election of Miss Abuelita, roughly translatable as Miss Granny
5 local ladies showed their local dress, evening gowns and their views of life in a heated battle. The jury had a hard time…
Birthday in Cancun and goodbye to the mums…
We invited Hector & Veronica for some tortas on the Palapas Square and started packing.
My mum had brought great new tiny summer sleeping bags from Carinthia. All our winter gear, including our warm Carinthia sleeping bags and down jackets, gloves, boots and several smaller pieces were going with Ivana’s mum to Argentina. We were planning to see them again somewhere around Peru.
It was 20th of July, meaning that it would be my birthday at midnight. we had bought some cakes and some booze and had hired one of the friends of the Quetzal Hostel to mix up some mean mojitos and Pina Coladas to go along with it. It was a nice goodbye to our mums, who had flown halfway across the globe to see us.
We had seen and done a lot in the past 3 weeks. It had not always been easy, we are so used to our own way of life and our mums are not
Also many times it was clear that the cultural differences between the Dutch and Argentinean way of life that had taken Ivana and me more than 3 years to -partly- overcome were very strong between our mums, sometimes leading to stress. But over all it was great to be able to share a part of our adventure and the wonderful world we live on with them and it was sad to say goodbye.
We actually had another vacation ahead of us as my sister and niece were going to land in Belize City in about 8 days to stay with us for 2 weeks. As it was over 500km from Cancun, it was time to pack the bikes again!
As mentioned in the previous post, we have parked our bikes for a few weeks as both our mums are visiting us on the Yucatan Peninsula. After the ruins of Chichen Itza & Ek Balam, it is now time for the beach!
Playa del Carmen, overcrowded and overrated
“Don’t go to Cancun, move to Playa de Carmen!”, was the advice of friends, websites and guidebooks. “More European, more relaxed, less commerce and more affordable than Cancun.”, were the reasons given.
Finally we found a spot, only to find much more expensive hotels than in downtown Cancun. Once we found a decent room (3 beds, Ivana & I can share), we checked out the main street. It was filled to the top with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants and hundreds of semi-relaxed tourists, many of them, yes, European. Large clubs and uber-cool lounge bars were promoted, while Guatemalan art was being sold for western art gallery prices.
Finally we discovered some real food for almost downtown Cancun prices, sold on the streets close to the Central Plaza. Great juice and tortas, the Mexican sandwiches with a choice of meat and/or vegetables and different types of very spicy and tasty sauces.
The beach is very nice at Playa and the water is green-blue as in the brochures, but it’s like that all along the Costa Maya.
The girls were happy with the sea and sand, but I rather wanted to use the last day we had a car to see one more ancient Maya City and took off alone.
More ruins, Coba solo
Coba has the same charm that Ek Balam has and that Chichen Itza is lacking: the ‘Indiana Jones’ sense that you are discovering the ancient hidden cities yourself while strolling through the lush Jungle.
The structures of Coba are not as neatly organised and lined up as in Chichen Itza. From the first group, which contains the large ‘Templo de las Iglesias’, the temple of the Churches, it is more than a kilometre walk through the jungle if you want to see some of the other big ones.
Several dozen sacbe’s, ancient Mayan road crossed the surrounding jungle to get to Coba, an important hub in times gone by. Only a few percent of the estimated 6500 (!) structures of Coba have been excavated, and many of these not even fully and the jungle has remained intact, which is good news for the many different animals living there.
The largest Maya structure (of the entire Peninsula) is called Nohoch Mul, better known as the Great Pyramid and its eroded steps leading to the 42m (140ft) high top can fortunately still be climbed. A thick rope is attached to help the brave people down that made it up and realized that it was quite high and the steps narrow and down-sloping
There will be several persons on the Pyramid, but the views are great: jungle as far as the eye can see. The sweet views are spiced with the knowledge of the thousands of hidden treasures still to be found.
Tulum: busy ruins and empty beach
I was just too late to make a quick visit to the most popular Maya ruins: Tulum. As it is close to Cancun and Playa de Carmen, and the site is open and compact, bus loads of tourists come here every day.
I saw a huge line of them coming out of the exit and caught a glimpse of the famous Castillo, with its postcard location on the edge of the sea. I was not allowed in, but used my time to view some nearby rough beaches, totally deserted.
It was time to return to Playa de Carmen and head over to our next destination: an island!
Isla Cozumel, CouchSurfing and anniversary on the divers and cruise-ship paradise
One part of our way of travelling that we wanted to share with our mums was the use of the CouchSurfing and WarmShowers network, where travellers host other travellers. We managed to find a great host on the Island of Cozumel, that agreed to host all 4 of us.
Ivan not only provided us with a great place to sleep, but also gave us a quick tour of the rough east side of the diver’s paradise, with some great swimming beaches and blowholes. The next day he took Ivana, Cristi and myself for a nice little snorkel tour, while my mum relaxed in a hammock near a pool. Life should not get much harder than this
It was wonderful to have such a perfect example of a great CouchSurfing host to demonstrate to our mums a taste of the hospitality we have encountered all over Mexico, USA and Canada, made possible by the technology and the mentality of our generation, but which has spread far beyond that.
Cozumel is a popular stop for huge cruise-ships and we saw many pass during the few days we were there. But to see further than the shopping tours along the silver-shops and the basic restaurants, you need to spend some days there.
For example it gives you the chance to see the local Sunday dance on the main square, where the local couples dress up and play to the music of a live band, while the sun sets behind a blue and purple sky.
Next and final part of the Mother-ship series coming up: An Island of Women!
Stay tuned, it will be up and running soon as long as the Internet gods are willing
Photos: relaxing in Cancun
We started our holiday with a few days in a Hostel and some visits to the beach as well as the nice local park. The park is not visited much, but is basically a part of original jungle in the middle of the city. It has some great trails, a turtle pond, many lizards walking around and we even saw a snake.
Off to the Maya Ruins: Chichen Itza!
Of course you cannot visit Central America without visiting at least some of the ancient Maya cities. Cancun is quite close to Chichen Itza, maybe the most famous city of them all, especially after a huge marketing campaign managed to get it entered as one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
We had rented a cheap car for a week, so we could tour around for a while, leaving the beaches for later. Our mums experienced a hint of our way of life when we told them that they could only take 1/3 of their luggage –as more did not fit in the tiny car- and that they would see the rest only in a week
There is a wonderful new highway from Cancun to Chichen Itza, but we only found out why it was so deserted (we saw 2 cars in 200km), when we needed to pay over USD 20 in toll fees, close to the exit. Now we understand why Francisco and the other truckers all choose the ‘Libre’ road instead.
The mums got another taste of our trip when we booked them in a small but cheap guesthouse, with 3 beds in a dusty and very hot room in Piste, the town next to the old Maya City. We had arrived in the afternoon, so we had time to have some dinner and go to Chichen Itza for the evening show. Most people do not see this as they come on day trips from Cancun & Merida, but every evening the main structures are illuminated at sunset, while a set of voices tell about the history and legends of Chichen Itza.
The Spanish whispering was a bit too much for me, but it was nice to sit in the fresh breeze while the most famous main structure, the temple of Kukulkan, better known as ‘El Castillo’ -the castle- turned form green to purple.
Here is a photo impression (click to enlarge, more photos in the photo section here).
Souvenirs & Cenotes
Of course the place is stuffed with souvenirs and other semi-local handicrafts. The sacbe number 1, the ancient Mayan road, leading to the ‘cenote’ was lined with vendors. The Yucatan peninsula is lined with Cenotes, which can be anything from a large pond to a huge underground cave filled with water. The soft limestone base of the peninsula combined with tropical rainfall had created these holes and many of them were either sacred or at least an important water source.
The cenote at Chichen Itza was found to contain several artefacts and bones, it was clearly used as a sacrificial place. Some more pix :
Swimming in the Cenotes
Not all cenotes are closed to the public. In fact there is a large tourism sector focused on either swimming in them or even exploring them while diving, as many are connected by underground rivers. We stuck to swimming in a couple, with the first one being close to the town of Dzitnup.
The cenote is inside a huge a cave, but it had a hole on top where sunlight shines through. next to the hole grows a tree and it roots come all the way down to the water, a magic place for sure..
Jungle ruins: Ek Balam
The ruins of Chichen Itza are the most famous, but its popularity has caused some downsides. You can no longer climb on El Castillo as a tourist had fallen to her death a few years ago and the sheer number of visitors can cause irreplaceable dame to the structure.
Also most of the other structures are off-limits now, meaning you can only see them from a (short) distance.
Therefore it was nice to visit a much ‘newer’ site, Ek Balam. Largely unknown for mass tourism, but with some impressive structures, of which the 2nd and 3rd largest are still unexcavated and buried by the force of nature.
The highest structure, known as the Acropolis, can be climbed on its narrow and sloping steps, offering great views over the site and the surrounding jungle.
Somehow, it felt more ‘real’ being here compared to Chichen Itza. An impression:
X’Canche & Genesis: Swimming and relaxing in Ek Balam
This one was open, but also had many roots growing into it, as well as many fishes and plant and we enjoyed the cooling water as well as the collection of free hammocks nearby.
We had spent a few days in the wonderful Genesis Resort in the nearby village of Ek Balam, run by Lee Christie. A nice oasis in the dry surroundings, it had a great swimming pool and evens some bike for rent. In exchange for a discount on the price of the room, we cleaned and fixed the bikes, so that they were safe again
On the road again
After a huge pizza in a nearby village, and some clothes testing for Pablito and Pedrito, it was time to hit the road again. Not to the ruins and beaches of Coba & Tulum as planned, but back to Cancun, this time on the libre road. Ivana had to undergo a second part of a dental treatment, as part of her tooth had broken off the day our mums arrived.
It was time to hit the other famous parts of the Yucatan Peninsula: the beaches!
Meeting old friends in Cancun
It turned out that they did and as there were problems with their ticket, the couple stayed 2 nights at our place, our first experience as a WarmShowers host. After we found out that hector & Veronika were living in Cancun, we told them: cool, you might be able to return the favour in about 2 years
Fast forward to June 2009…
It was great to see Hector & Veronika again. They took us to their small apartment and the following week we spent most of the time together. They helped us out buying some new things, finding a hostel for our mums who would arrive at the end of the week and showed us around in Cancun.
Veronika is an experienced massage therapist and a professional dancer in the famous Maria Felix dance company, performing several times per week in exclusive resorts. We managed to get smuggled in one night and saw their amazing performance, showing the dances and clothing of several regions of Mexico with an incredible power. Here are some photos from that show (more photos in the photo section here).
Relaxing at the beach
Though we had ridden the last part in a truck, we still felt we deserved a few relaxing days after 10,611km (6600mi) of cycling from Alaska. We had seen the beaches with Francisco and Daniel, but Hector took us for some quality time around and in the sea, here are some great photos he took of us:
The mother ship has landed…
It had had taken some planning and headaches, but we had managed. Both our mums thought that 2-3 years away from home was too long, so we had decided to invite them to meet us somewhere on our trip and show them a bit of our way of life.
Cancun seemed perfect as it was about as far from Argentina as from the Netherlands and it had a large international airport.
We had booked the flights (goodbye travel budget :)) just in the week before the announcement of the outbreak of the ‘Swineflu’, but by now most of the hype was gone and all seemed safe.
Both mums had no extra-continental travel experience but both had to change planes in strange countries (USA & Chile/Panama), which was far scarier than any flu. Lo and behold, within a few hours of each other both had arrived. Completely exhausted, but happy to see us. We had parked our bikes at Hector’s house, time for some touring!