Isla Mujeres

The other side of Cancun

Kaye Holland discovers that there's more to Cancun - the Mother of all Mexican resorts - than first meets the eye It’s hard to believe that just four decades ago,  Cancun - on the thinly populated south east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula - was little more than a sand barrier and jungle.

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Fast forward 40 years and Cancun – much like Las Vegas and Dubai – has risen out of the sands to become a mega resort whose white sands, high rise hotels, salubrious shopping malls and super clubs attracts more than four million visitors a year.

 

The Four Tops might have sung about going loco down in Acapulco back in 1988 but today it’s Cancun where the party people come in their droves to drink and dance Ibiza style at clubs like the legendary Coco Bongos.

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Culture snobs may sniff but Coco Bongos (which can accommodate 1800 revellers) is a fun-fest alright – expect DJ booths, a glitter balled dance floor, hormones and hedonism.

 

But contrary to public perception, Cancun isn’t all about party nights and sleeping late. If, like me, you’re after a tamer time you could head out to Isla Mujeres  or to Ciudad Cancun aka Downtown.

 

The downtown area (which is on the mainland whereas the Hotel Zone is on a sandy spit of an island) couldn’t be more different from the Zona Hotelera if it tried.

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It’s not particularly pretty (you won’t find too many tourist brochures urging you to head here) but what downtown does have is lots of local character making it great for those tired of tourists, tourist menus and inevitable tourist price hikes.

 

Travelling here (you’ll need an afternoon to get there and do it justice) from the Hotel Zone by bus feels like a bit of an adventure – albeit a vanilla one. To get the inside story on Downtown Cancun, check out Avenida Tulum – the main (and most interesting) road. It’s short on standalone attractions but high on atmosphere.

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A couple of places worth knowing about… Mercado 23 is a good place to pick up authentic souvenirs (happily you won’t find any corny T-shirts proclaiming ‘I heart Cancun’ here) as well as inexpensive clothes (a girl can never have too many bikinis) and food items. Next throw yourself into a feast of local cuisine at the all-night food market – home to some of best taquerias (taco stalls) in town. But if you’re the type who needs a table cloth and cutlery with your evening meal, Perico’s is the place for you. In fact every diary should have a window for dinner at this long running restaurant where family recipes are served with a show consisting of comedy skits, live marimba and, on my visit at least, a lively conga line. Before leaving downtown (although there are some charming small hotels such as Hotel El Rey del Caribe should you decide to stay), enjoy a drink at one of the (very local) bars that dot the periphery of Plaza de Toris.

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Essentially Ciudad Cancun is no landmark holiday destination but if you need a break from the jet skis, sunburned crowds, banana boats and babble of the Hotel Zone, Downtown delivers.

 

Isla Mujeres: island bliss

The tiny coral island of Isla Mujeres is close to Cancun but, unlike the gaudy mega resort, hasn’t yet lost its charm writes Kaye Holland

Cancun can be fun if you’re looking for cheap drinks and liveliness but when you need a break from the hordes of Spring Breakers who haunt Mexico’s most popular destination, make for Isla Mujeres - aka island bliss. Unmarred by the glitz and bling of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is proof that there are pockets of paradise which haven’t been lost in the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Only an hour’s boat ride away from the mainland, this laid back island is antithesis to Cancun which is all hormones and hedonism - think party nights and sleeping late. By contrast you won’t find any clamouring package tourists on Mujeres. The island  is seductively slow paced: it’s the sort of place where everyone seems to have nothing to do except sit in the shade/sun while the sound of lapping water soothes the senses. There’s a distinct lack of development here (locals still get around the island by golf cart) - it’s just you and the crashing waves.

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As previously mentioned the Quintana Roo island is within easy day tripping distance of Cancun, but I’d recommend staying on the island for a couple of nights so as to open that book you’ve been dying to read and to check out the diverse dining scene. For Mujeres boasts a smattering of excellent restaurants that are a world away from the 'all you can eat' boozy buffets of Cancun. Rather Mujeres' restaurants are the kind you wish you lived around the corner from, owing to their super friendly service and interesting menus.

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Little wonder then that for many who come, Isla Mujeres immediately becomes their favourite holiday hot spot. I met several travellers during my two day sojourn who confessed that they had come here on holiday  one year and, as the island’s small town vibe and slack pace worked its magic, booked to return.

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And for good reason. At the risk of descending into copywriting, the beauty of Mujeres - all sparkling  white sands and the smell of coconut in the breeze - is truly dizzying. Even commitment phobes like me will want to get married, just to have a honeymoon here.

All told, Mujeres is the perfect place to begin Chinese New Year. Enjoy it - before the crowds really start rolling in.

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