Mexico’s Marvels: A Budget-Friendly Guide to Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres is home to some gorgeous resorts, but I think the island’s atmosphere lends itself best to a quiet adventure.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Many people have heard of Cancun, a popular honeymoon destination on the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico. But if you mention Isla Mujeres — a tiny, five-mile-long, two-mile-wide island that is just a twenty-minute ferry ride away from Cancun — you’ll get inquisitive glances and question after question. The quiet island has successfully stayed out of the tourist spotlight.

A few resorts in Cancun offer day cruises to the island. Facing Cancun, the main tourist strip comes alive during the day. Pop-up vendors call out to the tourists: “Just stop and look!”, carts hauling street tacos and sodas roll by, and locals walk down the beach, holding cigars or jewelry or offering massages. The tourist strip bustles and moves endlessly. If you’re lucky enough to snag a taco, the guacamole will ooze out one side, rich and sweet. The sand on the dirt road will brush against your toes as you walk.

Quite the contrary, the other side of the island offers an almost desolate view, a stark beauty made of waves crashing into rugged rocks. My husband Nathanael and I took wedding pictures here, setting up my iPhone on a self-timer. I wore a thrifted wedding dress and he wore a suit, splashing in the ocean without a soul around. 

Isla Mujeres, mexico

If you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort experience, I wouldn’t recommend Isla Mujeres. Cancun, Cozumel, and other popular destinations in Mexico are preferable if you’re interested in a vacation where you’ll be able to access all your amenities in one place. Isla Mujeres is home to some gorgeous resorts, but I think the island’s atmosphere lends itself best to a quiet adventure. I hope you’ll agree.

 

Where to Stay on Isla Mujeres

One massive perk to Isla Mujeres is the multitude of extremely affordable lodging options. And by affordable, I don’t mean “filled with bedbugs and barely worth it.” These are nice, quality hotels that just happen to be reasonably priced.

Nathanael and I chose to stay in a hotel we found on Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) that was just USD 40 a night. We chose it for several reasons—we would have a full kitchen available in our room, so we could cook our own meals, with such a low cost, we’d be able to extend our vacation, and we wanted to stay in the local area of town to really capture the flavor of the place.

One of the best parts of our trip was cooking freshly caught fish in our own little kitchen. We made breakfast every day and stocked up on tacos so that we could have one whenever the mood struck. Squeezing fresh limes, we made our own sparkling limeade. We walked to the convenience store, just steps away, and bought candy and soda made with real sugar for a few pesos.

We were extremely happy with the hotel we chose, but I know from further research (and some of the hotels we visited while we stayed) that there are a number of hotels from USD 40-60 a night in the local area of town. They offer similar amenities. Some offer small pools, some have kitchenettes, and some even offer complimentary breakfast. I would suggest checking VRBO and Airbnb for budget-friendly options.

Most of these hotels based in the local area of town are cheaper because they’re further away from the beach. Of course, “far from the beach” is a relative term on such a tiny island. But if you don’t mind catching a taxi or renting a golf cart to get to the ocean, it’s worth being right in the thick of the real island life.

If you’re looking for a very low-cost option, there’s a great hostel, Poc-Na Hostel, that starts at USD 11 a night and even offers free breakfast and access to the hostel’s private beach. It doesn’t really get much better than that — at least in budget terms. It’s known as a “party hostel,” so if you’re looking for a quiet vacation, beware. The hostel’s beach is usually filled with twenty-somethings playing volleyball or lounging in the sun.

 

Transportation Options on Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

If you need to get somewhere, taxis are readily available.

Taxis aren’t too expensive, but you’ll need to haggle for the best price. We waited for thirty minutes outside of Punta Sur because the first taxi that drove by quoted us a ridiculous price. Speaking in broken Spanish, I translated for Nathanael as he told the cab driver: “No, that’s too much.” The taxi cab drove away, spitting dust back at us, and I instantly regretted it. It was a hot, hot day. But eventually, another cab came along and drove us back to the beach.

If you stay closer to Playa Norte or the tourist strip, you’ll be able to easily walk to restaurants, bars, and the beach. If you’re interested in exploring the island at all, though, you’ll need to avail yourself of the taxis or rent a transportation option.

Many tourists choose to rent golf carts to easily travel around the island. There are quite a few companies that rent golf carts, so don’t be afraid to shop around to find the best price. The average daily rate tends to run around USD 45, which is worth it if you plan to see the whole island and want to do so on your own terms. A ten-day rental usually runs around USD 300.

If you want a really fun transportation option, consider renting a scooter. Many of the locals have their own scooters to easily traverse the island, and a variety of companies on Isla Mujeres rent scooters to tourists. Scooters run about USD 20 for a daily rental, and you’ll fit right into the island life with the wind in your hair.

To make sure you get the best price on transportation, don’t be afraid to scour the internet for deals before you hop on the plane. Many rental companies offer coupons or seasonal deals. Other companies are open to haggling, so ask about options.

Top Picks for Budget-Friendly Activities

Next, you’ll want to plan some activities. Here’s the thing—if you Google a list of things to do on Isla Mujeres, you’ll probably see Playa Norte (the most popular beach), Punta Sur (a small section of Mayan ruins), Hacienda Mundaca, or the MUSA underwater museum. All of these are worthy attractions, but there’s a multitude of other things to do on Isla Mujeres that won’t cost you more than a few pesos.

Take advantage of the local life while you’re on the island. Nathanael and I walked around at night, taking in the sights and scenes. There were soccer and baseball fields just a short walk from our hotel. For several nights in a row, we stopped by and watched the games, cheering when those around us cheered.

I’m so grateful we stopped by to watch the games, because we ordered panuchos for just a few pesos from the snack bar, and they were incredible. Corn tortillas piled high with pork, salsa, tomatoes, and a thin, spicy guacamole—we kept coming back for more.

There are so many things to see on the island. Many locals run small businesses outside of their homes, selling food and drink. It’s an adventure to just take a walk around and sample the fare.

Walk down the tourist strip, and you’ll learn about all kinds of opportunities to explore the ocean—rent kayaks, go on a deep sea fishing tour, go swimming with the whale sharks, or go on a snorkeling tour. While these are all great opportunities (and don’t pass them up if there’s an experience you really want to try!) there are a few other activities that aren’t as widely advertised.

Snorkeling at Garrafon Beach at Garrafon de Castilla

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

There are plenty of snorkeling tours offered on Isla Mujeres, and I’d recommend checking one out if you’ve never snorkeled before. However, if you’re a seasoned snorkeler and would like to do some exploring on your own, check out Garrafon de Castilla, a beach club offering a small private beach area for sunbathing and water activities. Unlike Playa Norte, it’s rarely crowded, as it is located on the Southwest coast of the island.

You’ll have to pay an admission fee, but it’s just a few dollars. You’ll be able to rent a locker and snorkeling gear and go out to explore the ocean on your own. The snorkeling is good — expect to get up-close and personal with the fish, especially if you buy fish food from the front desk.  Bring your own snorkeling gear if you have it, or rent it for about USD 5 per person.

You can also just sunbathe and enjoy the quiet nature of the beach or indulge in snacks or cocktails from the snack bar. It’s right next door to Garrafon Natural Reef Park, which offers snorkeling tours, zip line adventures, and other fun activities. If you’d like to stay away from the touristy parts of the island, this beach offers a quiet retreat.

Disclaimer: if you happen to have a phobia of iguanas, you should probably avoid this beach. You’ll be able to spot at least two or three, and we even had to step over one to scale the stairs down to the beach. (Don’t worry—they’re friendly!)

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

All in all, it’s no luxury resort, but it is a quiet place to escape from the crowds and enjoy an afternoon of sunbathing and snorkeling.

Visit Dolphin Discovery

Dolphin Discovery offers dolphin and sea lion encounters where you’ll get to swim with and interact with the animals. However, for just USD 30 per person, you can purchase access to the Dolphin VIP lounge, which offers all-you-can-eat restaurants, bottomless drinks and cocktails, and access to an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. The admission also includes a snorkeling tour with an experienced guide, which is usually much pricier on its own.

Nathanael and I loved spending the day at Dolphin Discovery. Even though we opted not to swim with the dolphins to save our bank account, it was well worth the admission fee to relax in the pool with a bottomless cold drink and try a variety of food. We absolutely loved the selection of sushi, but there was a variety of seafood, pasta, salad, and traditional Mexican offerings as well.

Dolphin Discovery is usually bustling with tourists, but it’s clean, well-maintained, and the staff is pleasant. You’ll be able to watch the dolphins doing tricks and interacting with guests from the Dolphin VIP lounge, and catch glimpses of the other animals like stingrays and manatees.

If you’re fine with watching the dolphins from a distance and would like to spend some time feeling like a VIP, I’d suggest planning a trip to Dolphin Discovery.

Meet Sea Turtles at Tortugranja

Tortugranja, a sea turtle farm, was another of my favorite experiences on the island. If you like aquariums, it’s so worth it, and the admission is only about USD 3 per person. The sea turtles are the main attraction, but there are plenty of other fish and sea creatures to view — nurse sharks, horseshoe crabs, porpoises, lobster, and reptiles.

Turtles became endangered on Isla Mujeres a few decades ago, and Tortugranja was created in order to preserve the species. At the turtle farm, the turtles are hatched and raised until they are old enough to have a good chance of surviving in the wild. The center also rescues injured turtles and animals that wouldn’t be able to survive on their own.

As you walk through the center, you’ll be able to view turtles at different stages of development, from tiny turtles to massive creatures up to four feet long. You can take an hour-long tour of the center if you’re interested in the details of turtle conservation, or just explore at your own pace.

If you visit at the right time (May-October), you might get to witness the release of the sea turtles to the ocean. In a true Finding Nemo moment, hundreds of little turtles scurry out across the beach to reunite with the ocean.

Swim with a Shark at Playa Tiburon

Another less-populated beach is Playa Tiburon, literally translated to Shark Beach. It’s not usually crowded and offers beautiful white sand on the crystal-clear waters just like Playa Norte. The Mexican restaurant on the beach offers a variety of traditional options, including delicious grilled fish.

If you’d like, you’ll have the opportunity to swim with a nurse shark and hold it for a photo. It’s an interesting experience, for sure, and only costs just over USD 2 (it’s an extra USD 6 for a professional picture). However, if you hand the staff a smartphone and ask nicely, they may take a photo for you for free.

Even if you’re not interested in interacting with the nurse shark, Playa Tiburon is a great place to escape the crowds and enjoy a beautiful beach experience and some local food.

Dining Options on Isla Mujeres

You’ll never run out of places to eat while on the island. My advice: be adventurous. Try a new dish. You can always fall back on old favorites like tacos and enchiladas, but while you’re here, step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

The Soggy Peso is a definite favorite, both for their daily specials and atmosphere. You won’t be the only tourist visiting, but they’re known for their tacos and stout margaritas. (Non-drinkers, try the virgin coladas!) You’ll have to pass through a small alleyway to get there, but don’t worry, it’s a respectable establishment.

If you happen to pass by Pita Amore, be sure to stop in. Though it doesn’t look like much, it has great prices and an interesting selection of pitas, flan, and beer. As a bonus, the owner is incredibly friendly and welcoming.

The bottom line when dining on Isla Mujeres is this: stay away from the tourist strip, and you’ll do fine. Most restaurants offer daily specials with budget-friendly options.

The magic of the island is that whether you eat on a beautiful balcony overlooking the beach or buy enchiladas from a cart on the side of the road, you’re in for a tasty meal. Oh, and order seafood! It’s freshly caught and there’s nothing like fresh fish tacos on the beach.

Don’t Miss Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres is overflowing with sun and spices: Spanish spoken like poetry, large cats that leap from every street corner, and peppery salsa that will tickle your throat. I hope you get the chance to experience all the local flavors during your stay.

 

Author’s Favorite Travel Gear

 

                               

Sanuk Yoga Sling — EllaI didn’t get the opportunity to practice yoga while I was on the island, but walking around in my yoga sling sandals was a pretty good replacement. As you’ll be walking a lot on the island, comfortable shoes are a must. These sandals are like a spa for your feet—you’ll feel like you’re walking on a cloud.

SGM Waterproof Pouch with Waist StrapThis waterproof pouch is essential for beach travel. You’ll be able to bring your valuables with you into the ocean without worrying about leaving them on the beach. It’s like a small, waterproof fanny pack.

Ice Mule Classic CoolerIce Mule makes a variety of portable coolers, but the classic size is just what you need for a beach trip. It’s advertised to keep drinks cold for up to 24 hours — and it works! It’s a bag that you can easily sling over your shoulder and bring along with you.

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Hannah Coffman

A storyteller first and foremost, Hannah has a bachelor’s degree in English Creative Writing and a fascination with the written word. Over the past several years, she’s gained experience as a writing tutor, a journalist, a technical writer, and a grant writer. From her home in Rolla, Missouri, Hannah spends her days writing, exploring the Ozarks, kayaking Missouri’s rivers, hiking, and traveling. She has traveled throughout the US, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Haiti, and iscounting down the days until her next adventure.

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