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.