Golf Carts and Baby Turtles, a Great Day on Isla Mujeres

After many months in Playa Del Carmen, this year we finally decided it was time we traveled north and saw what all the fuss was about in Isla Mujeres. Only a 20 minute ferry ride from busy Cancun, this small, easternmost island in Mexico is a destination in itself and was a great way to spend one of our last days in the country before heading to Spain.

Like its larger island relative Cozumel, an hour to the south, Isla Mujeres (Spanish for Island of Woman) is a tourist hotspot in this region and prides itself on its gorgeous beaches and laid back atmosphere. It’s also much smaller than the nearby island of Cozumel. Isla Mujeres is less than five miles long and is only a 1/2 mile wide at its widest.

Though there are a few vehicles and some taxis on the island (as well as a vehicle ferry if you have your own ride), it’s the perfect place to rent either a moped or a golf cart. Since there were the four of us, we decided a golf cart would be the perfect way to see everything the island had to offer.

Unlike the majority of the people day tripping from Cancun, the day we decided to visit Isla Mujeres we got off to a late start. By the time our hotel’s free shuttle dropped us at the ferry, it was already pushing eleven.

We also missed the 11 o’clock ferry by 30 seconds so had to wait the extra 30 minutes for the next one. The kids were excited since they knew we planned on getting a golf cart and Cole was anxious to get in the driver’s seat. Those 30 minutes felt like forever until Micki suggested we grab some drinks while we waited.

Ferry to Isla Mujeres
Ferry to Isla Mujeres

The drinks definitely helped, however I was secretly worried that we wouldn’t be able to find a cart to rent for the day. All the forums and boards say that if you arrive in the afternoon, all the islands 500+ golf carts would already be rented. As we always do, we decided to see if this travel legend was true for ourselves.

After enjoying the peaceful ride of the ferry, we were surprised at the hustle and bustle of the island. There were people, taxi drivers, tour operators and food carts everywhere and the place had a definite frenetic energy that we hadn’t felt in a while. Our learned travel sense kicked into high gear and we grabbed the kids, pushed past the throng of people and started heading up the street.

After walking past more than a few shops with sold out signs next to their golf cart boards, Micki and I started to once again question our late arrival. Thankfully, the night before I had scoured the web for the best places to rent one once we reached the island. I kept a few of the backstreet rental shops in my head just in case we didn’t have any luck with the popular places. Our search lead us down a few small side streets and more than once we questioned where we were going.

Luckily, we found a place with one last cart available. The going rate for a daily cart in Isla Mujeres this time of year is $50 for a normal cart (2 people facing forward and 2 people facing backward) and $60 for the deluxe version that’s longer and can seat all 4 people facing forward.

Of course they only had the deluxe version and refused to budge on the price seeing they knew it was probably one of the last carts to rent on the island. We don’t normally pay top price for anything as we travel and I had a tough time swallowing it, but the look in the kids’ eyes was enough for me to pull my wallet out and suck it up.

Charles Kosman and kids on a golf cart
Barefoot Nomads on a Golf Cart

A few minutes after dropping the cash (and leaving behind my driver’s license – all the shops make you do it) we were on our way. After driving a few blocks I can honestly say that the money was well spent. Passing by the loads of tourists sweating their way down the small 8 x 5 block radius of downtown we headed for the open road and south to the ever popular turtle farm.

For those of you who have never visited Isla Mujeres, the island is perfectly sized that a golf cart can easily go from one end to the other and back again in around two hours. You can probably do it quicker if you don’t stop anywhere. Of course we wanted to see it all so it took most of the afternoon.

There is one main road along each shoreline so you can simply follow the loop and you never really need to do much backtracking. Besides for a few small areas, it’s hard to get lost and your rental shop will give you a tourist map of the island before you leave.

One of the days highlights was definitely Tortugranja, otherwise known as the Turtle Farm or Sea Turtle Sanctuary. It was our first destination and the kids loved it. Costing only a few dollars for all of us, they each got to pick up a baby land turtle, watched sea turtles swimming in the large tanks as well as got up close to a bunch of smaller sea turtles in the inside tanks. There were also a few workers who were letting them touch various marine animals like a star fish, sea cucumbers and a prehistoric horseshoe crab that they let me hold.

Hands on at the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm
Hands on at the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm

Though the place is small, the even smaller entry fee made it a great spot to stop for an hour and the kids enjoyed seeing and interacting with the creatures. The tanks in the small building also housed an octopus, sea horses, crustaceans, sea anemones and clownfish as well as various other fish.

Aquarium at the Turtle Farm
Aquarium at the Turtle Farm

There were also rare albino sea turtles in the center tanks as well as a few smaller turtles that were currently being rehabilitated. Outside, there were a few larger ones swimming about and I heard that on a calm day you may see sharks in the large outside pen.

Sea Turtles at Tortugranja
Sea Turtles at Tortugranja

After washing up and jumping back on the cart we headed south towards Punta Sur to see the lighthouse and the Mayan ruins. Before we reached the southern tip of the island, we had to stop at Garrafon Natural Reef Park to check out the views. The place was expensive ($29 an adult and not sure what they charged for kids) so we didn’t go in, however they have a nice lookout view where you can watch people zip along a bunch of ziplines leading from the tall cliff near the road down to the water. The beach and the hammocks looked quite nice as well.

Garrafon Natural Reef Park
Garrafon Natural Reef Park

We had heard that some of the best snorkeling on the island can be found there, but we usually prefer to keep our costs low so would have probably gone to the cheaper (though not as upscale) Garrafon de Castilla (only 50 pesos or  $4 USD per person) right next door instead. They essentially offer the same snorkeling experience so if you don’t have the time for Garrafon Natural Reef Park on your golf cart trip around the island, Garrafon de Castilla might be worth your time.

As we continued our cruise to Punta Sur, the lighthouse was impossible to miss and the road pretty much ended there regardless. We locked up the cart and headed left towards the large Iguana statue and the dozens of real iguanas overlooking the stone wall and some gorgeous views east from Mexico’s farthest easternmost point. Who knew that a few short weeks later we would be in mainland Europe’s westernmost point looking right back across that same body of water?

Iguana Statue at Punta Sur
Iguana Statue at Punta Sur

We circled back around the building and stopped off for an ice cream in the little ice cream shop at the entrance. It wasn’t bad but it was ridiculously overpriced. If you have a need for ice cream I suggest you grab some from the shops on the left side of the entrance way as they cost less than half what the ice cream shop was charging.

Once properly cooled down, we headed over to the ruins. Supposedly, when the Spanish arrived there were tons of images of the female Mayan goddess Ixchel scattered all over the island and in particular around the now destroyed temple. Thus the name Isla Mujeres was born and has remained.

Punta Sur Coast
Punta Sur Coast on Isla Mujeres

We were a little dismayed they charged to get into the garden and to see the ruins, however the kids were free and it was only 30 pesos ($2.50 USD) per person so we decided to check them out. It’s sad to say that the ruins weren’t much to see however the walk around the cliffs was gorgeous.

Ixchel Ruins on Isla Mujeres
Ixchel Ruins on Isla Mujeres

The kids loved walking along the pathways on the cliffs overlooking the water with its twists and turns and little grottos. It was quite beautiful. For some reason there are large sculptures everywhere in the gardens near the ruins and though some detract from the natural beauty of the land, they definitely give you something to ponder as you walk along the paths.

Micki and Jordan at Heart Arch at Ixchel
Micki and Jordan at Heart Arch Near Ixchel
Charles Kosman and Jordan walking the paths near Ixchel
Charles and Jordan walking the paths near Ixchel

After numerous photographs around beautiful Punta Sur, we jumped back on the cart and started making our way up to the beautiful northern beaches and their white powdered sand. We also had to stop a few times to check out the small beaches and tide pools along the eastern road as they looked too interesting to just pass by. As we enjoyed the last few minutes of wind blowing through our hair, too soon we found ourselves back in town.

We had originally planned to eat at one of the beachside restaurants but we were all so hungry by that point that we decided to stop in town. We pulled up to Manana Restaurante & Bookshop and ordered some delicious sandwiches and huge smoothies. The kids really enjoyed the smoothies and we thought the place had a lot of character. The waitress was super nice and the kids enjoyed checking out the book selections.

Manana Restaurante and Bookshop
Manana Restaurante and Bookshop

Our day was quickly passing by so we decided to drive around town and check out the sights before heading to the beach. There is a huge boardwalk that goes along the northwest point in town and on the east side there are smaller beaches and much smaller boardwalks. In the top northeast you can find a great little lagoon and beach called Playa del Secreto. There’s a small narrow bridge that connects to a smaller island there that the kids thought was great fun to drive over on the cart. Micki didn’t agree.

Playa Del Secreto on Isla Mujeres
Playa Del Secreto

After that we headed towards the main beaches on the island. Most roads going towards them are dead ends so it took us a while to find a place to park. As luck would have it, just as we reached the beach the sky clouded up and it started to mist. After spending the past few months near the ocean, we decided we’d already had a great day and left the beach for the next time we visited.

After cruising the town one more time we decided it was time to drop off our cart. Most places close early and are very strict on their return times so wanted to ensure they would still be open. We had to circle the area twice since all of the small streets in town are either one way lanes or pedestrian only.

Barefoot Nomads walking on pedstrian street in Isla Mujeres
Pedestrian Street in Isla Mujeres

With my driver’s license finally back in my pocket and the cart safely returned, we wandered down the small streets and checked out the little shops and markets along the way. We were expecting to stay later in Isla Mujeres, however after getting into the busier section of town we decided to end our day on the island the opposite of how we started it; early.

As we fought our way back into the proper ferry area (there are different ferry terminals depending on which ferry you take) and waited in line with the scores of others, we started to contemplate what a week or longer on the island might be like. Our daydreams were soon interrupted as we began to board the ferry. Before we knew it we were back in Cancun and in a cheap taxi heading back to our hotel.

In all, it was a great day trip and with all the great restaurants, gorgeous beaches and things to do on the island I know we’ll be back there again someday.