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My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

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Rochester, New York
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My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

I've just returned from an all-too-short week in beautiful Isla Mujeres. As this trip is so fresh in my mind (I still have a bit of sand between my toes), perhaps it's too early to objectively compare it to my other trips; but I honestly feel this particular trip will reside towards the top of my list for quite some time. The island is beautiful, serene, and cozy... almost everything within a five or ten minute pleasant walk... several of the most popular streets are pedestrian only, so it's an ideal place to simply stroll around aimlessly (zen walking, as I call it). On weekend evenings, the town square is buzzing with activity, with numerous vendors selling freshly-prepared munchies and sweets; two of my favorites...a generous bag of hot, crispy churros for $1.50, and made-to-order queso empanadas for $0.75 each. On weekend evenings, a variety of performers will sing and dance on stage while local children roll around the cobblestones in rented pedal cars. On weeknights, take in a volleyball game or two, played on the public court. While I didn't attend a weeknight mass in its entirety, I spent a few reverent moments observing one from the rear of the church (very beautiful, despite my limited comprehension of the language).

During the course of my week, I stayed at three different establishments, each with it's own unique character and charm. All were convenient to everything (after all, el Centro, the heart of the tourist community, is probably a mere six blocks by ten blocks, surrounded by the ocean on three sides (the "fourth wall" of el Centro is the narrowest part of the island, where a single airstrip (probably a half- to three-quarter miles long) provides a lengthy, rather unpopulated buffer between el Centro and the other parts of the island). While I'd had hopes of visiting a number of the southern attractions (between two and four miles away), I never strayed far from el Centro...the week ended far too soon. I'll see the southern areas next time (yes, there will definitely be a next time!).

During the day, the beaches are the place to let the world go by. The breeze is wonderful, the sand is a powdery white, and the drinks are as plentiful as you wish. Many of the beach bars will provide loungers and umbrellas for "free" provided you purchase their food and beverages (there is generally a minimum, so it's best to inquire what that minimum is /and/ prices for individual drinks...drink prices seemed amazingly arbitrary, so it's best to ask up-front). The beach bars shut down surprisingly early (don't plan on watching the sunset from your rented lounger... while the staff may not exactly kick you out, you'll surely feel extremely rude for staying put as they put away every chair, table, and umbrella except the ones you're occupying). Not to fear...as the sun begins to set, the village bars beckon, and the strolling mariachis provide atmosphere while working for tips. I spent many of my late afternoons at Jax Sport Bar, just across the street from the bay beach (the calmest and shallowest water...ideal for those with children)...how Jackie can turn a profit by selling a bucket of five Coronas for $4.60, I'll never know. But her bar attracts people there from all over, many of whom live on the island for months at a time (or visit as many as six or seven times a year)! To give you some idea of just how reasonable accommodations can be, on my last night, my room (two beds, A/C, TV, fridge, toaster, coffee maker, purified drinking water, en suite bath with the best water pressure I'd had all week) was $30. So you can see how one can stretch their dollars if they know where to look.

Whatever cuisine you're in the mood for, someone's offering it; I ate quite a variety of dishes, and seldom had a meal costing more than $10 (often with drink and tip included). Even many of the higher-end places (which I didn't dine at) had surprisingly reasonable prices (virtually everyone has their menu posted at the entrance, so there's little surprise about what things will cost). On my first morning, I went to the public market to buy a liter of fresh-squeezed OJ ($1.50) and a heavy bag of Cochinita Pibil (pulled pork, Yucatan style). Having refrigeration available throughout my stay, I knew a stack of tortillas and bag of pibil would provide me a week's worth of simple and delicious lunches (Sunday is generally the only day they sell Cochinita Pibil, and it goes very fast). A kilo cost me $23, but was worth every penny. During the course of the week, I returned to the market regularly for fresh bananas and juices...I loved the OJ so much, I never sampled the other varieties, but a neighbor raved about the carrot juice. Other inexpensive breakfast/lunch options include the luncherias at the market (Henry, one of Jackie's bartenders, recommends the one which is closest to the road).

Ferries run between the mainland and island every half hour from 5 AM to 9 PM, then hourly til 1 AM ($3.50 each way). Personally, I didn't leave the island until I absolutely had to. While I'd originally planned to spend my last night near the Cancun airport (due to an 8 AM flight), I'd opted to hop the 5:30 AM ferry the next morning instead. Between that and a $20 private cab, I happily spent my last night on the island instead of the mainland.

Snorkeling and diving opportunities abound. For a quick and inexpensive snorkel experience, consider El Farito ("the small lighthouse"). For about $20, a guide will take you out to the federally-protected reef area in the quiet bay waters. Garrafon and Mancheros are other options, but further from el Centro (and the water at Mancheros can be rough).

Whether you're on a shoestring, or wish to be pampered, the island holds plenty of treasures for you to discover. If those All-Inclusives are beginning to look All-The-Same, or you simply want to vacation at your own pace, put Isla Mujeres on your list. You won't be disappointed.

Healy, Alaska
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for Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
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1. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Hola Bill! Good to read your report . . . sounds like you had a great time. I would love to hear where you stayed. Did you come without reservations - is that why you bopped around?? Curious minds want to know! :)

I think you found some of the best things of Isla - the people and the food, as well as that incredible beach - I can't wait to go back myself. You are fortunate to be on the East coast where you have access so some of those killer deals on flights - such a joy for a budget traveler. Adios! :)

Rochester, New York
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2. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Hi Coalminer...

I'd intended to spend six nights on the island, and because my first choice had only three nights available, I made arrangements for the other three at another property. I'd originally intended to spend my seventh (and final) night on the mainland, but realized I could stay on the island provided I caught the earliest ferry the following morning. Here's where I stayed:

1. Las Palmas (3 nights at $55/night)

2. Casa el Pio (3 nights at $65/night + taxes)

3. Maria Lecita Apartments (1 night at $30)

On my next visit, I'll try to keep it down to a single place, but it'll be hard to choose. I loved them all!

new york
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for Isla Mujeres
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3. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Wonderful trip report and thank you for sharing. Sounds like a great time :)

Edmonton, Canada
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4. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Thanks for the report!

Isla Mujeres has always been on my to-do list, and it's bubbling up toward the top. The next time I see a seat-sale to Cancun, I think I'll jump on it. (And I'll bet there are some last-minute sales right now...)

Winnipeg, Canada
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5. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Thanks Bill, for the great report and a refreshing point of view of view. We love Isla (we honeymooned so....)and honestly, whether you are on a budget or not, it's can be such a pleasure and relief to just drop our overly consumerized, overly comlicated, overly demanding standards for a bit of simplicity.

What area would you stay in next time?

Winnipeg, Canada
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6. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Edit function? Please TA?

Rochester, New York
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7. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

I'll soon be writing a review for each of the three places I stayed. They were all wonderful in their own way, and I'd return to any of them in a second. However, if pressed, I'd say that my second-floor suite at Casa el Pio was my favorite. Location-wise (ie, convenience), you honestly can't go wrong with any hotel in el Centro. The whole town is probably about the size of an 18 hole golf course, so it's never more than a ten minute walk to your favorite beach bar, restaurant or shop. So if you're considering your options, I'd concentrate less on which "side" of town you'll be on, and more on what amenities/character/price-point you're looking for.

Casa el Pio is steps from the town square, just behind the Catholic church. On a quiet residential street, it's a chic small boutique hotel (four guest suites, with a shared courtyard and dipping pool). The property manager, Margaret, is lovely and very helpful. The suites are incredibly spacious, with clean/crisp/modern decor, and are very well-appointed. From the second floor balcony, you have a nice view of the Carribean to the east, and even a bit of a bay view to the west. The roar of crashing waves and pleasant evening breeze were wonderful. Even the roving news vendor, shouting "fresca, fresca" several times each morning brought a smile to my face. The are a few swanky All-Inclusives on the island, but IMHO, those people are missing out on the island's true charm.

Des Moines, Iowa
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8. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Great report Bill, can't wait to read the rest of your reviews.

I love Maria Leticia, but would also like to try Las Palmas and Casa El Pio sometime.

Rochester, New York
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9. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Thanks Laura...

I'll get the reviews posted soon. Haven't unpacked or done laundry yet. LOL. While Casa el Pio is a bit "splurgy" relative to the other options, it's worth it. Very chic, and I loved the proximity to the town square. $65 a night barely gets me a room at the Motel 6 back home. :-)

Las Palmas was very special as well. While not as chic as el Pio, it has bright, hip vibe to it. And Safari, who co-owns it with her mom and sister, is a sweetheart. I found Las Palmas very cozy and serene, with it's shady courtyard, plentiful hammocks, and awesome rooftop dipping pool.

Nashville
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10. Re: My New Shoestring Getaway Destination!

Great revue of Isla Bill. We have been going their since our honeymoon in "95". We keep saying we keep telling ourselves "We'll go somewhere different next year" but we look at the experince we get, great beach, fantastic food, wonderful people, and the incredable value the island offers, we keep coming back. Be sure to take the daytrip to Isla Contoy next time. You'll have a great day of fishing, snorkeling, and sightseeing. Fantastic lunch and softdrinks and beer incl.

I am headed to Puerto Morelos for 2 weeks in May this year. Never been to PDC or Tulum.