Well, Cancun pretty much sucked like I thought it would. Thank god Isla Mujeres is a 20 minute ferry ride away. Isla’s got turquoise waters, a good mix of tourist accommodations and local haunts, and everyone on the island pretty much knows each other. It also has just enough quirkiness — ex-pats building houseboats out of plastic bottles, pirate legends, and murals up and down the streets— to keep me from getting bored. I was also lucky enough to meet two locals who kindly drove me around in their pick-up truck and bought me way too many beers.
1. Cochinita Pibil every Sunday at Carniceria Colonia
Cochinita Pibil is a traditional Yucatecan dish: a whole pork roasted with spices, orange juice and banana leaves under the ground for a few hours. On Sundays this local butcher on the south side of the island (where most of the locals live) begins selling it by the kilo at 6 am and it’s usually sold out by 10 am. Big hunks of cochinita are scooped up out of a metal tray, weighed and put in a plastic bag along with a few scoops of broth and tiny bags of pickled purple onions and bright green habanero salsa (if you don’t know habanero is incredibly spicy and a force not to be reckoned with).
I asked for 50 pesos worth and it was more than enough. Walk down the street (towards the centro) and on that same block is a tortilla factory, where your make-your-own-taco adventure will be complete. The tortillas are made with maseca (processed corn flour) so they’re not amazing, but you’ll want to see the blue and white tiles on the floor and 10 tortillas will cost you 3 pesos. It’s not the best cochinita I’ve ever had, but almost every local I talked to also went that morning so just enjoy being part of a ritual.
Located on Avenida Martinez Ross, you’ll have to take a taxi from the centro or if you rent a moto or golf cart you should be able to take Ross from the centro.
2. Tikin Xic at Playa Lonchero
There are three places on the island that make Tikin Xic, a fish covered in achiote, lime and salt and cooked over a wood fire for 40 minutes. It comes out bright red on a metal tray with a side of rice and mix of cabbage. Yesterday the catch of the day was red snapper, which was a little expensive ($250 pesos per order). Spend the day lounging in one of the beach chairs here or just come for lunch and hit up the turtle farm and Hacienda Mundaca after, which are right near by. It’s not a local hangout so prices are a little inflated. Open for lunch, with newly added dinner service.
3. Loncheria Alexi y Giovanni inside the Mercado Municipal.
As far as I can tell, Leonora is the queen of the market. She lovingly teases everyone that walks by and knows most of their orders. I went back both mornings for her chilaquiles in salsa roja and I went for lunch one day too. She made me promise to come back with my husband (I’m headed to a wedding on Saturday and she gave me strict instructions to push everyone out of the way for the bouquet.) Don’t forget to check out the market too. Open for breakfast and lunch. On Guerrero near the post office.
4. If you’re really adventurous, head to a cantina. This one is called Tio Ruti’s Piano Bar (nope, no piano) and again, is on the south side of the island where the locals live. My friends call the waitress CJ (which in Spanish sounds like cejota, meaning big eyebrow) in honor of her painted-on eyebrows that give her a different expression every time they come in. The great thing about cantinas is that you pay for your beers ($20 pesos) and the snacks—called botanas—are free.
It’s luck of the draw what you get each day, the first cantina we visited served us sopa borracchera (drunkin soup) named for the drunk person that decided to throw beans on some chips and serve it to us the next morning, and a tuna salad which was light pink and scary. My friend, who also pushed the tuna to the other end of the table, said they had a fantastic pozole the day before. At Ruti’s though, there was a selection of delicate conch ceviche, solid rice with chicken, squash in tomato broth and a few so-so seafood dishes. Again, this is for people who want a real local experience and mostly want to drink beer in a dark hole.
1. Tres Mentiras
Despite the lively tablecloths and bright prints of Frida, lucha fighters and other Mexican pop icons, this bar is easy to miss due to it’s location at the end of the main tourist drag. But, it’s the cutest bar on the island and the owners are super friendly. Their ceiling reads “Viva la Revolucion” and when they don’t have live music they play some of my favorite Latin America reggae that I forget I like until I’m on an island. Tres Mentiras means three lies, named after the three lies visitors say on the island: I’m leaving tomorrow, I’m not drinking today, and I love you. I said the first one twice. On Hidalgo towards playa norte (opposite side of the port).
2. Fenix house of music
Check out this beach bar behind the Na Balam hotel for big lounge beds on the beach, live music most nights during high season (I caught a great Cuban band from 4-6 pm on Sunday), and free shrimp soup in a styrofoam cup on Sunday afternoons. Sunday is really THE day in Isla.
For the hangover: Fresh coconuts are sold during the day at the end of Hidalgo, towards Playa Norte. Go for the cart run by the older guy. He really gives no fucks if coconut pieces fly off and hit you while he’s hacking with his machete and I found it really funny.
Playa Norte is your go-to beach. If baby turtles make you freak out go to the turtle farm. Hacienda Mundaca is worth a visit, if nothing else than to hear more about Fermín Antonio Mundaca de Marechaja, a slave trader, pirate and overall massive carbron who thought he could win over an island girl by building her a two-story mansion and elaborate gardens, only to lose her to a fisherman and die of heartbreak. He has a tomb at the cemetery (near the coconuts and worth a peek). Punta sur is the eastern most point in Mexico, so even if you can’t make it to sunrise it’s nice to imagine the sun crawling over the cliffs as it first touches Mexican soil.
Hotel Cabañas del Mar is probably your best deal on the beach. Rooms are nothing fancy, but they each have AC and terraces. Light pink walls and lush greens surround a small swimming pool, and the hotel’s back yard opens into playa norte. I paid $850 pesos (about $60).