If you’re anything like me (and I’m sure you must be!), you’ve never stepped foot in a country where the official language isn’t English. You stay where you feel confident that you could blend seamlessly into a crowd whereupon you could make your escape into utter anonymity. But did you know that people sometimes go to places that are in many ways foreign to them and – perhaps even more surprising – they enjoy doing it? I know. Sounds bonkers, right? But stay with me.
In this series, I’ve already taken a look at what it’s like to spend time in the filthy and damp outdoors, and at what it’s like to attend a live entertainment event. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that things have their ups and things have their downs! Overall, though, there appears to be something to this notion of doing things that people like to do.
One big thing that people like to do – and I know this, because when they go do it, they come back and won’t shut up about it – is going to a country that isn’t theirs for purposes other than work. On its face, this seems pretty bizarre. It’s a lot of work to arrange a whole trip to another country, and if you’re going there just to not do any work, couldn’t you just stay home and not do work and save yourself having to do a bunch of peripheral unpaid work?
Regardless, this seems to be a thing that people love doing, my partner included. So we decided to do a bunch of work and spend a bunch of money to go relax in a country that didn’t birth us.
Travelling to Mexico
The dirty little secret of the trip-taking industry is that there’s a lot of travelling that you have to put up with in order to travel. It’s an incontrovertible truth that you can’t hang out at a place without first getting yourself to that place. That’s where a bunch of taxis, jet planes and boats come in.
You have to pay money for each and every one of these, so that’s not great. Being on a plane is pretty fun, though.It’s sort of like being on a train, but the tracks are the clouds and the conductor is a pilot and the people around you are all packed in way closer to you. We found a very affordable deal on Air Canada’s Rouge service. The deal was this: they agreed to take an amount of money from us and in exchange we could sit in their airplane until that airplane landed in Cancun, Mexico.
What was less clear in our wheelings and dealings with the Air Canada Rouge deal-makers was whether or not we would leave on time (we didn’t), whether or not there would be a lot of room (there wasn’t) and whether or not I would get to watch a little TV set on the back of the seat in front of me (I didn’t).
Our plane was delayed substantially by the cruddy Canadian weather that we were desperately trying to escape, but that just meant that we had to spend two less hours in Cancun’s hotel zone (more on this later), so that wasn’t so bad. The seats were fairly cramped, but less so for us because I paid extra money for big-shot seats. Air Canada Rouge offers in-flight entertainment, but it exists on a mobile application. They try to get you to rent special iPads for this purpose, but I pulled a fast one on them and just watched everything on my phone. Even though I’ve probably permanently damaged my vision from squinting for four hours each way, I’m pretty confident that the joke is on them.
Cancun is a city in Mexico. We didn’t see much of Cancun, but we saw enough for me to conclude that I hate Cancun and never wish to return.
Cancun is a very conspicuously constructed series of hotels that appears to be what a bunch of billionaires built after having a contest wherein they asked their small children to design a hotel for them with crayons on a cocktail napkin. The ugliest hotel wins the contest, but it is hard to decide because they are all the ugliest hotel, so everyone loses. Except the billionaires, who probably make a lot of money off of white people from Canada (and elsewhere) who visit their terrible hotels.
We arrived at night and the streets were teeming with party-goers. It was very loud and overwhelming. There were open-air bars that lined the streets, blasting club music and featuring women dancing on platforms in their underwear. The large crowds seemed to really enjoy this. I was grabbed by the shoulder and I think I was asked if I wanted something, but it was in a language that I didn’t understand (more on this later). I shrugged and we hastily made our way to our hotel, one of dozens.
We ordered a room-service quesadilla and prayed that all of Mexico wasn’t like the strange Spanish language episode of Entourage that we had just witnessed.
We left Cancun for our intended destination the next morning. Isla Mujeres is accessible by ferry boat, so we had more travelling to do!
A boat is like a train, but the tracks are the waves of the ocean and the conductor is called “El Capitan” (which I like because it makes me think of Apple computers, like the ones that I use sometimes when back in Canada and not on a boat). Boats are not fun like planes, because boats move in such a way that makes it feel like the ghosts of every animal you’ve ever consumed is haunting you and reaching into your body and kicking you in the groin and stomach. You’d like to vomit, but you never do. You just get to feel that way and you get to practice your acting skills as you pretend that you’re actually fine. This practice, while unpleasant, is probably useful somehow. So boats have that going for them.
Another thing nice about boats is that you get to be outside. Air and water and trees are really beautiful things, and in Mexico they have these three things. Here is a photo of my partner and I enjoying the sights during our ferry trip to Isla Mujeres:
You see what I mean about acting? You can’t even tell that there’s a battle going on, churning and raw, with the forces of good facing the forces of evil on the gooey plains of my GI tract. I look happy.
The happiness of being on a very nice trip with my very wonderful lady is, however, a genuine happiness that transcends sea-sickness. So that’s probably what we’re all seeing there.
Isla Mujeres is a relatively small island with a well developed tourism industry, but not absolutely Cancun-levels of insanity.
Most of the action happens up at the Northern end of the island, and that is where we were to spend about 90% of our stay. My fears of frat party nonsense following us to the island were unfounded. Isla Mujeres is actually quite calm and sleepy, with smaller crowds and a more laid-back atmosphere than the clattering dumpster fire that we had left on the other end of the ferry ride.
We spent two nights at Na Balam Resort Hotel, situated right on the North beach. The room was comfortable and the staff was generally very friendly. This seemed like as good a spot as any to really get down to the business of relaxing.
Our room had a lovely little patio that overlooked the beach area. It was an ideal spot to sit and read, or to sit and eat lime-flavoured snacks while drinking a beer that someone popped a lime wedge into (more on limes later). Here’s a photo of me, sitting on the balcony and enjoying a nice book. (Before moving on, consider this a warning that some of these photos contain my bare legs. You’ve been warned.)
Reading in nice weather is really great. If I were doing ratings of things in this post (which I’m not), I would rate it easily 4/5 stars.
The North beach at Na Balam is public, and we visited it to go swimming every single day. My feelings about beaches are a matter of public record, so it was surprising even to me that I should feel compelled to spend so much time on a beach and in the water and in basically my underpants in front of a bunch of strangers.
The beach there is so calm and comfortable, and the water so refreshing, it served to deepen my understanding of what going to the beach could mean. It is a better beach than Ontario beaches. You can drink beer on it, for one. Or even a fancy cocktail drink, if you feel like it.
The water is ridiculous looking, because it is so blue and perfect. In Ontario, lakes basically just look like something that a sad actor would sit next to in a movie when thinking about their spouse that died in a car accident or something. In Mexico, the ocean looks like a whole world of opportunity. Chief among those opportunities – the opportunity to drink a beer with a lime wedge in it while sitting on the beach. Like this, see?
Look at how much I appear to be enjoying this beer. It’s like I’m saying to it: “Holy smokes, beer. You’re like a beautiful symphony written specifically for the ears that live inside of my mouth.”
Here’s another beer on the beach image, because if you’re reading this post, there’s about a 75% chance that we’re friends on Facebook and you’re just scrolling through looking for pictures.
Note: Those are not my feet. I am not the only one who enjoys a beer on the beach, guys.
After a few days at Na Balam, we moved over to a small inn-style hotel called Casa el Pio. It was the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in and we didn’t want to ever leave.
Casa el Pio is extremely quiet. There are only five suites and late night partying is actively discouraged.
Our room was incredibly clean, stylish and comfortable. Also they give you free beer to welcome you. Free beer.
There’s a small patio area with a little splash pool if you’re interested in cooling down without going all the way to the beach (which is about a ten minute walk away).
Although it is not a beach-access property, this hotel has the benefit of being situated away from the busy part of town, just beyond the town square. There’s a rooftop patio that is a terrific spot for relaxing, which overlooks the town and also the crashing waves of the Eastern side of the island.
Here I am on the rooftop patio, drinking what appears to be free beer.
Isla Mujeres also boasts a vibrant marketplace, home to a variety of restaurants and bars, and about a million little shops that all sell essentially the same useless crap (more on this later). The streets are pretty fun to explore, and with the exception of a few cabs, a bunch of golf carts and a lot of scooters, it’s very pedestrian-focused.
Shopping is a thing that you can do. Some people like doing it. I am not those people. But let’s talk about other things that a person can get up to when they get bored of relaxing on Isla Mujeres!
On Isla Mujeres, you can swim and drink beer and sit around reading basically anytime for (almost) no money. Beer is really cheap if you buy it from a convenience store, and the beaches are public. Sometimes this just doesn’t cut it to fill up a whole bunch of days, so you find other things to do that are often less free.
There are many fine places to get a meal on Isla Mujeres. Pictured above, we see the baked shrimp from Fredy’s. It was ridiculous.
Lime soup (sopa de lima) was a pretty popular item and was very delicious.
All of the seafood on Isla Mujeres is basically insane bonkers yummy. That’s seafood ceviche (half-eaten). They probably have good seafood on Isla Mujeres because MOTHER OCEAN BESIEGES THEM ON ALL SIDES, but hey, what do I know.
Just about every goddamned thing in Mexico is lime flavoured, and this goes for about 90% of the snack foods as well. I even bought a beer that had lime and salt pre-mixed into it. It tasted like shitty alcoholic Gatorade. I still loved drinking it. Beer is so great.
Wandering Around Town
Isla Mujeres has some of the greatest street art that I’ve ever seen, and it’s all over town.
Seriously, just walking around the streets and taking it all in is a total joy.
Then you realize that the paparazzi have been on your tail the whole time and goddamnit can’t they just let me live?
Here I am, hightailing it away from the paparazzi.
These hugely talented individuals appear to be responsible for creating some of the street art pictured above. Those suits must be super uncomfortable. It’s very hot there.
There’s a really nice church in the town square. It’s good for standing in front of for pictures.
Wandering Around Outside of Town
If you walk South, you’ll eventually leave Isla Mujeres’ proper town limits and can check out a pretty wild and very picturesque Eastern coast.
See? Pretty rocks.
Here’s a pretty lady in front of some pretty rocks.
Surprisingly pretty creature remains!
Renting a Golf Cart
If you want to explore the Southern end of the island, it is best to rent a golf cart. You can rent these for 24 hours and basically you can feel like you’re in a super relaxed and pleasant version of Mad Max.
Once you’re in your golf cart, you can take a quick drive over to the Turtle Farm. There are sea turtles at all stages of life here, as well a handful of other sea creatures. The farm raises and rehabilitates turtles in order to bolster the local population of wild sea turtles. Well worth the admission, which works out to roughly $2 per person.
A Wee Little Mayan Ruin
At the Southernmost point of Isla Mujeres sits a very teeny Mayan ruin. The ruin itself isn’t much to look at, but is cool nonetheless.
The view from the cliffs at the South end of the island is worth the trip.
Speaking of nice views:
We went on a 3-hour snorkeling trip, from which I have no photos. It was the most expensive thing that we wound up doing, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I got to take in the sights at a coral reef and swam very close to many little (and big) fishes. On the other hand, I had to go on a boat and then I had to breathe through a tube.
Through a tube, guys.
Pros and Cons
There are good things and bad things about being in a place that isn’t your own country for the purposes of relaxing.
PRO: There are hammocks everywhere.
Hammocks! In the hotel room!
Hammocks! Randomly popping up out of the beach at night when you’re trying to drink a beer!
There are even bizarro hammock-chair hybrids all over the place. Hammocks are doing really well in Mexico, I think. As a species.
CON: You have to use bottled water for everything that involves your mouth. If you accidentally forget, you might get sick.
PRO: There are three dogs on a rooftop next to the hotel that are exactly the same size, but are all different breeds. They each wear a different coloured shirt.
CON: You have to take your shirt off in public.
PRO: You can buy beer anyplace, basically.
CON: You know very little Spanish and you’re slow to pick it up. I learned how to ask for the bill pretty quickly and really enjoyed saying it. I learned how to order various food items, and I could say “hello” and “thank you” without much trouble. Beyond that? Boy, did I feel like a dummy. It’s a good thing that I’m a white North American male and therefore the whole world panders to me, or else I would have really been in trouble.
PRO: I’m a white North American male and therefore the whole world panders to me.
CON: Tourist culture is a real bummer. It’s very difficult to feel like there exists an equitable relationship between the visitors to the island and the locals. It’s pretty obvious that many of them aren’t that well off, and to basically be sitting in the lap of luxury while people waited on me was a very gross feeling and almost impossible to shake. I’m not wealthy, but it’s difficult to embark on this kind of a trip without acknowledging how disgustingly imbalanced the world is and how privileged I am.
There are iguanas.
CON: The shops are mega-aggressive about getting you to shop, tell blatant lies about the goods and will follow you down the street, dropping the price of things you don’t want in a way that feels desperate and makes everyone feel terrible. It’s hard to take. Shopping here was not fun.
PRO: Drinking in bars and going to restaurants here was very fun. I don’t even like margaritas, guys.
CON: You’re balding, so you wear a dumb hat the whole trip.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
You know, I’d never really considered going on a little vacation or travelling with any seriousness, but I can now see some very compelling arguments for putting in the effort. My newfound respect for beaches and public semi-nudity has only strengthened following this experience, and I actually think that I’ve made more progress toward my eventual goal of getting over myself and just chillaxing for a minute.
My issues with the culture of tourism remain and I continue to wrestle with them. If I were to take another trip, I think that I would wish to plan something where our destination were perhaps a little less pandering to us, and probably somewhere a little less… beach-y.
Nonetheless, I have no reservations when I proclaim to you now that going to a country that isn’t your country and relaxing there is a generally good idea, and I would rate it highly, were I doing ratings here (which I am not). I would probably score it an 8/10, if ratings were indeed something that I were employing for the purposes of this post. There will be no ratings here. 8/10 stars if there were, though. 8/10.
To conclude this post – and kudos if you’ve made it this far!: Air travel is alright, boats are awful, Cancun is terrible, beaches are great, there’s nothing better than beer, Mexican food is amazing, turtles are cute, dogs are cute, I like churros, driving a golf cart is hilarious.
Isla Mujeres is a beautiful spot. It is just quiet enough to allow you space to relax, is home to some very funny and friendly people, has gorgeous beaches and weather. Also, it is a great place to get engaged.