Less than 10 miles off the coast of Cancún, Mexico, the tiny island of Isla Mujeres beckons travelers with its island charm. Those who cross the small stretch of the turquoise sea for a day trip will light upon wild cliff sides, endless stretches of palm trees, a vibrantly colored town, streetside coconut carts and one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Once sacred to the Maya goddess of childbirth and medicine, Ixchel, Isla Mujeres or Women Island was named by 16th-century Spanish conquistadors for the abundance of goddess statues they found there. Today, Cancún and island locals refer to it simply as “Isla”.
Just twenty minutes on the ferry from Cancún, Isla Mujeres embodies island charm © New Nomads / Getty Images
Frequent ferries make it easy and quick to get from Cancún to Isla Mujeres for the day. If you’re staying in the Hotel Zone, leave from Playa Tortugas, El Embarcadero or Playa Caracol. If you’re staying downtown head to Puerto Juarez. The pleasant 20-minute trip is made even more so by staking a claim on the ferry’s upper deck to admire the unbelievably blue views along the way.
Starting your day
Once you arrive and step off the ferry dock, head towards the center of town to Avenida Hidalgo for your first meal of the day. This pedestrian street is known for its four-block stretch of restaurants and shops. Along the way, you’ll pass brightly-painted stores selling equally colorful souvenirs like embroidered Maya blouses, Mexican skull decorations, whimsical animal figurines, and the island’s famous seashells, with vendors calling out promises of cheap prices or maybe even 'free tequila'.
Colorful shops full of artisan crafts fill Avenida Hidalgo © Laura Winfree / Lonely Planet
Avenida Hidalgo is also home to several eateries serving breakfast and brunch options, like open-air venue Lola Valentina. Try the cheese-filled French toast or enjoy the extensive vegan options, and wash it all down with a hibiscus water or (why not?) a watermelon-jalapeño margarita.
After breakfast, it’s time to experience the most iconic activity on Isla Mujeres: a golf cart ride around the island. There are several golf cart rentals shops just across the street from the ferry terminal. Most places will charge $600-$700 Mexican pesos for the day (usually until 5pm), and some allow you to rent by the hour. To rent, you need a valid driver’s license from your country of origin.
DIY golf cart tours of the island
Isla Mujeres is just five miles long with one main road going around its entire coastline, so navigating by golf cart is an easy daytime tour. Head south out of town and just keep going. You’ll pass many attractive outdoor spots for lunch or drinks along the way, so keep an eye out for the tree-shaded deck at Barlito; Oscar’s, which has fantastic pizzas in the afternoon; and the Joint with its live reggae bands.
Zipline over the turquoise waters at Garrafon Park © Infinite Highway / Getty Images
Near the southern end of the island is the spectacular Garrafon Park lookout point. Pull over, maybe buy some ice cream if the vendor is there, and enjoy the view of the Caribbean Sea. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the zipline over the water; tickets for the zipline are sold at the entrance to the park.
Just a bit further along the road is the entrance to Punta Sur, the southern tip of Isla Mujeres and the easternmost point in all Mexico. It's a particularly popular spot on the morning of January 1 for anyone who wants to see the first sunrise of the new year. A $30 peso entrance fee gets you access to Punta Sur park. Once inside you can explore the majestic cliffs, admire the brilliant blue ocean and wander through the sculpture park. There is also a Maya temple dedicated to Ixchel.
Snap some photos cliff side at the end of the island in Punta Sur © htrnr / Getty Images
Once you’ve gotten your most instagrammable shots of the trip, hop back into the golf cart and head back to town along the rocky east coast road — lined with cliffs, crashing waves and the occasional roadside seashell stand.
An afternoon at North Beach
Once back in town, return your golf cart and walk to the beach at the northern end. Called Playa Norte (North Beach), this stretch of silky white sand is frequently ranked among the best beaches in the world thanks to its rows of palm trees and calm clear waters that never reach above your waistline — perfect for ocean lounging or wading. If you’re feeling budget-conscious, just lay a blanket down in the shade of a palm tree between Green Demon and Buhos.
Lay down your towel and enjoy the white sand beaches and sparkling sea for the afternoon © Laura Winfree / Lonely Planet
If you’re looking for cocktails and amenities, you can rent a bali bed or lounger at any of the several beach clubs. On Sundays, Fenix beach club has live salsa music and dancing in the afternoon, while Green Demon has live reggae parties on the beach starting at sunset. (On North Beach, weekdays are best for avoiding crowds, but Sundays are best for live music.)
Yachts begin to line up just off the coast in the late afternoon and groups of friends gather on the shoreline in preparation for Isla Mujeres’ famed sunsets: the island is one of the only places on Mexico’s eastern coast where you can see the sunset over the ocean.
After dark on Isla Mujeres
Once the sun has set and the stars have come out, head back to Avenida Hidalgo, where travelers congregate for an evening of dinner and drinks, still wearing flip-flops with the day’s beach sand clinging to their toes. This central street becomes the hub for island life after dark, whether it’s pasta at Rolandi’s or live music under strings of lights at El Patio. For cheap eats and local favorites, walk a bit further south to find several street carts selling tacos and more by the city hall square.
When you’ve had your fill of salt-soaked breezes and the quiet whoosh of swaying palm trees, it’s time to hop on the ferry for a starlit ride back to the glittering lights of Cancun.