Sunday, April 26, 2015

Isla Mujeres - Playa Norte

My father knew that it would be a long 5 days if we stayed in the resort for the entire stay. So on Sunday, we took a day trip to Isla Mujeres (a small island off the coast of Cancun).

Everything we heard about the island sounded amazing, from the calm shallow beaches of Playa Norte, to the Turtle Farm to the laid back atmosphere without the intense American-style commercialism of Cancun's Hotel Zone.

We purchased our ferry tickets in advance from our hotel concierge (trying to earn more Starpoints), but unfortunately, the ticketing could not be charged to the room. My parents were told to take any bus from in front of the Westin heading north to Playa Tortugas where we could catch the Ultramar ferry every hour on the hour (9AM-5PM).

After having an early breakfast, we caught the bus by 8:15AM and arrived at Playa Tortugas by 8:30AM, plenty of time to catch the first ferry at 9AM.

We got off the bus (which feels like a roller coaster speeding down the road) and walked through a very crowded parking lot so early in the morning. It seemed like Playa Tortuga was the beach for the local Mexican community given it was a bit away from the hotels. We found the UltraMar ticketing booth where we'd exchange our prepaid vouchers for actual tickets. Note: they accepted Visa credit cards.

They quote you in USD, but given the recent FX rates, we were better off being charged in Mexican pesos on our credit card and having our bank do the currency conversion, saving a few bucks.

The pier area is pretty crowded with small vendors selling selfie sticks, fedora hats and other Mexican souvenirs. They also had a few beach-side restaurants just before you stepped onto the pier.

And just in case you wanted one last drink before boarding the ferry, there was another bar at the end of the pier. Boarding started at 8:50AM and we were pulling away from the dock by 9:00AM sharp. The first ferry of the morning only had about 25 people so we had our pick of the seats. My father's been getting motion sickness pretty easily lately, so I took care of him for the 15 minute ride.

While still on board, one of the UltraMar staffers approached us about renting a golf cart. Isla Mujeres is such a small island that there are very few cars, but a lot of motorbikes and golf carts. We knew the prices were going to be 550 Mexican pesos (cash only) for the full day rental, so we went ahead and prepaid with an outfit called Gomar II and was given another voucher.

The other option would have been to just walk around and find another vendor on the street, but we thought an outfit that would partner with the ferry company had to be pretty reputable.

Gomar II ended up being just fine, but we understood why they pre-marketed you when we saw their inconvenient location tucked away on some back street.

After getting a bit lost and frustrated, my parents and I eventually found Gomar II using our "not drawn to scale" map that excluded some side streets. My father gave them his NY State ID as collateral (note: it was not a driver's license) and we were on our way.

We first made our way through the downtown area towards Playa Norte, the best beach on the island. We passed by several banks (ATMs) and convenience stores so you can definitely access cash (which you will need on Isla Mujeres) and stock up on water and snacks.

Since it was still 9:30AM, we were relatively early. After first driving down some ally that led to the western end of the beach, we didn't see any parking available, so we drove down a few blocks until we saw some other golf carts parked along the side of the road. Tip: Playa Norte is pretty long so keep driving down to avoid the tourist crowds who jump at the first opportunity to get onto the beach.

My mother and I went to down the path alongside a beach-front restaurant/bar where you could rent 2 lounge chairs and an umbrella for 150 pesos (~$10 USD). Pretty good deal and since we were early, we could pick the seats right by the water.

As you can see, the water was crystal clear and was shallow, a perfect beach for adorable kids like me and lazy fathers who don't swim well. This is where we spent the rest of our morning and about 500 pesos (in drinks).

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