Isla Mujeres

August 8 to 15 2013

 

My wife and I are lucky, we have enough disposable income that we can take two or three moderately priced vacations per year. We went to Italy in May to celebrate my wife’s fiftieth birthday (okay, that wasn’t moderately priced). It was a great vacation but travel to Europe is a lot of work. We wanted an easy dive vacation in August so we returned to Isla Mujeres.

Vacationing on Isla is easy because you wake up, go to the breakfast buffet at the hotel, walk two blocks to the dive shop, take a short boat ride to your dive sites, come back from diving, have lunch, lay on the beach or at the pool, walk several blocks into town for dinner then repeat for six days.

We have been here six times so we are experts at this vacation. We know the best shuttle to take from the airport, the best dive shop on Isla, the best hotel on Isla etc… So we thought.

We had a bumpy start, our 5:30 am flight out of Minneapolis had mechanical issues and was canceled. We deplaned and went to the counter to get rebooked. We were told that they could not get us into Cancun until the following day but the agent instructed us to go the Delta desk near gate F1.

Near gate F1 Delta has what is best described as an oasis for stranded travelers. It is a bank of phones that automatically call ticketing when picked up. They also have ticket counters but no one manning them when we arrived.

I got on the phone and called Delta. While I was on the phone a ticket agent arrived and started helping my wife. The ticket agent booked us on a Delta flight into Houston and on a United flight that would get us into Cancun at 9 PM, much better than arriving the next day. The ticket agent was very apologetic, she gave us two $100 vouchers for future travel and a hand full of cookies.

On the flight to Houston we talked with a couple that had been on our original flight. They were told to standby for a 1:30 PM United flight that would get into Cancun at 3:30 PM. Once we arrived in Houston the four of us went to the gate and amazingly they booked all of us on the flight. We were happy that we went from being delayed until the following day to arriving at 9 PM the same day to, arriving at 3:30 PM.

I emailed the shuttle service before we left Minneapolis to let them know we would be arriving at 9 PM and I emailed them again from Houston to give them our new arrival time. I checked that it did send as we were boarding the plane and it appeared that it did.

The flight from Houston to Cancun was only a couple of hours. It pays to fly midweek, the immigration lines were very short, we quickly cleared immigration.

We were sure that since we changed flights our luggage would not make it to Cancun when we did and we were right. It seemed our bad luck with luggage from our Italy trip was continuing. We went to the luggage desk to file a claim but it was vacant. We waited for about fifteen minutes before an employee showed up. We filed our claims and told us our luggage would be on the 11:30 PM ferry and at our hotel by midnight.

We exited the airport expecting, that amidst the chaos outside the airport, we would see our shuttle driver holding a sign with my name but he wasn’t there. That isn‘t unusual, in the past I’ve had to wait ten minutes or so for the driver to show up.

One of the people working for the cab companies saw we looked lost so he asked who we booked with. When we told him Luxury Van and he immediately said they were not there. We waited several minutes then decided we needed to take a cab to Puerto Jaurez to catch our ferry to Isla.

This is my sixth time going to Isla so I know how to get to Puerto Jaurez. There is a light house at the Ultramar ferry dock in Puerto Jaurez and you can see it from the road. We passed the lighthouse  marking Ultramar ferry terminal and I asked the cab driver where we were going. We pulled into a ferry terminal just down the road.

I had one of those moment where I knew I was right but because the cab driver was insisting this was the correct ferry I second guessed myself. The ferry terminal looked vaguely familiar and I had read there was construction at the Isla terminal, I wondered if they had change the Puerto Jaurez terminal also.

I told the taxi driver that this was not the right place but insisted it was. I doubted myself when I shouldn’t have and we bought two tickets. The ferry terminal looked familiar and it took a while but I eventually figured out that this was the original ferry terminal and I had caught the ferry here the first time I came to Isla.

Once we walked onto the pier we saw the Ultramar ferry terminal with one of the new speedy ferries ready to depart.

Our ferry was old, rusty and looked like it might sink before it reached Isla l. I later learned that we were at the Magana Ferry dock. I had no idea that there was another ferry company or why anyone would want to take this ferry. It was slow and it cost as much as the Ultramar.

 

Magna Ferry
Magna Ferry

 

I don’t really know why the driver brought us to this ferry. There is always the thought that he was helping out his cousins by bringing tourists here instead of Ultramar. All I know it had been a long frustrating travel day and we felt that we were taken advantage of by the taxi driver.

On the ride over we were lapped by the Ultramar ferry. As a matter of fact we saw two ferries return from the island before we arrived.

Since we only had a small duffle for luggage and we knew the way to the hotel we walked the four short blocks to Privilege Aluxes rather than taking a cab. We checked in and I let the person at the front desk know that our luggage was coming over on the 11:30 PM ferry and not to wake us when it arrived. I’m an optimist, I beleived that he would pass this information along and we wouldn’t get woken up at midnight.

We dropped the duffles in the room and walked down Hildago Avenue to find a restaurant for dinner. On the trek down Hildago we fell prey to a scam that was new to us.

When we checked into Aluxes they put a white band on our wrist indicating that we got free breakfast with your room.  The street vendors recognize the wrist bands and try to use that information to our advantage.

We walked past a jewelry shop and were hailed by someone working at the shop. He told us tell us he recognized us from when we checked in at the Aluxes. This fact convinced us to go into his shop. Both Karen and I had been up since 2:30 AM with only four hours sleep so we weren’t at our best. We browsed his shop and left without buying anything. By the time we left I was sure that he was not working at Aluxes when we checked in.  It's not a harmful scam, we just felt like idiots and it just added to a crappy first day of vacation.

We walked to the OXXO (think Mexican Seven Eleven) on Avenue Rueda Medina, which is the road that runs along the ocean, so I could buy minutes for my cell phone.  We also stopped at the dive shop to check on diving for the following day. We explained that our equipment was supposed to arrive at midnight and if it did we would be going out.

We walked to dinner at Brisa Mexicana. We had eaten here on previous trips, they have expanded since out last trip. The first time we ate there the chef was cooking on a grill that was mounted to the side of the building, now they have an actual kitchen. The restaurant has some terrible reviews on Trip Advisor but we have always enjoyed our dinner here.

 

Brisa Mexicana
Brisa Mexicana

While at dinner my cell phone rang, I answer it assuming it was a wrong number. It was Miguel from the shuttle company and he said his driver was at the airport looking for us. I let him know that we are on Isla. I was tempted to give him a piece of my mind because I had sent him an email letting him know that we had changed flights and would arrived at 3:30 PM but I deal with computers at work and I know that they don’t always do what you want them to do. I let him know that we still needed a shuttle back to the airport. When we got back to the room I checked my tablet and saw the email to Miguel still sitting in the Drafts folder.

I was sleeping peacefully at Midnight when the phone rang. I answered it and the concierge happily let me know that my luggage had arrived.

I got dressed and went to get our luggage. When I arrived at the front desk mine was the only suitcase there. I asked the concierge where the other suitcase was and I was told only one had arrived. I brought my suitcase upstairs and informed my wife that she would have to wear the clothes she traveled in for one more day.

We woke to rain and had breakfast at the resort. We sat near a window where we could see the ocean. While we were eating we saw a dive boat going out in the pouring rain and commented that it might have been a good thing that Karen’s equipment had not made it, otherwise we could have been on that boat.

Actually, diving in the rain isn’t that bad but the ride out and the surface time between dives a little uncomfortable. It also reduces the light when you are at depth making the colors less brilliant than on a sunny day.

After lunch I used my cell phone to call United airlines. I called the US 800 number and was told that Karen’s bag was in Cancun and they weren’t sure why it wasn’t delivered. Also they couldn’t tell us when it would be delivered.

I called the number that we received when we filed the missing luggage claim, it took a while but eventually someone answered. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was the person that filed our complaint for us. He remembered us and told me that Karen’s bag would be on the 3 PM ferry.

We went to Hildago so Karen could find some clothes to wear. If it was me I could have found a t-shirt and a pair of shorts in any of the shops. Unfortunately women have different fashion needs than men and Karen didn’t find anything so she decided to wait for her luggage.

It eventually arrived about 5 pm. Karen changed her clothes and we were able to start our vacation. I broke the vacation down into the important categories of food, diving and weather.

 

Food

 

Breakfast

Breakfast was included at Privilege Aluxes so we had breakfast at the resort every day except for our last. It was good, they had a lot to choose from, eggs, heuvos rancheros and other Mexican breakfast options. They also had cereal, fruit, granola and a lot more. I had the precooked scrambled eggs (large tray on a steam table) the first couple of days then changed to an omelet that was prepared by the breakfast chef. Karen usually had an omelet or scrambled eggs and she had yogurt and granola several days.

 

Rooster's
Rooster's

The last day of our vacation we had breakfast at Rooster’s. It has great ratings on Trip Advisor. Roosters is located on Hildago and only serves breakfast and lunch. The coffee was great and our breakfast was better than at Aluxes. Worth paying for even if we could have gotten free at the resort.

 

Lunch

Minino’s is one of our favorite restaurants in Isla. It is located several blocks from the ferry terminal and is directly on the beach, you have to appreciate a sand floor to like this restaurant.

 

Minino's
Minino's

We had lunch there several days and also dinner once. The food is always good (almost). The last time we were on the island a couple we were dived with turned us on to Minino's snow crab claws and they were melt in your mouth good for only $10 US.

Snow Crab at Minino's
Snow Crab at Minino's

We had snow crab for dinner again this year. Unfortunately the crab must have been frozen because it was was mealy. It tasted fine but the texture left a lot to be desired.

We had lunch at La Lomita one day. This restaurant got glowing reviews on Trip Advisor. It’s located atop the only hill on the north side of the island. I believe La Lomita means the little hill.

La Lomita
La Lomita

Karen ordered the chicken enchiladas with mole sauce. I ordered chicken tacos. I normally hate mole sauce but I tried some of Karen’s and it was excellent. We ended up trading meals because Karen liked my tacos better than her mole.

On one of our non-diving days we took a cab to Garrafon de Castilla. Not to be confused with Garrafon Natural Park which is next door. Garrafon the park is a tourist trap with zip lines and swimming with the dolphins. Garrafon de Castilla is a small beach area that has snorkeling, drinks and food. The snorkeling is some of the best on Isla and the food is good but we didn’t eat there this time. After snorkeling and relaxing on the beach we decided to try The Joint for lunch.

The Joint is highly rated on trip advisor. It is a small outdoor reggae restaurant that has good food and cheap beer. We enjoyed a couple cervesas and we both had chicken tacos.

The Joint
The Joint

During lunch three young couples arrived at The Joint on scooters. They ordered shots and had drinks. They were early twenties possible younger. When they left they had the brilliant idea to let the girls drive and have the guys ride on the back of the scooters.

I initially didn’t notice but my wife picked up on the fact that they had a fair amount of alcohol. You could tell the girls didn’t know how to drive a scooter. They were revving the engines, popping the clutch, then killing the scooters. It is understandable with a 200 pound drunk guy hanging off the back of the scooter.

We watched one couple leave. The engine revved and the bike lurched, then took off. The girl panicked and her hand froze on the accelerator. The scooter veered for the opposite curb (keep in mind the curbs in Mexico are a foot tall). The scooter hit the curb and tipped over making an awful metal on concrete scraping noise and the two passengers were dumped onto the sidewalk.

It looked and sounded bad, at the very least they were going to leave a fair amount of skin on the sidewalks but they might need medical attention. I felt I should try to help them but I don’t know first aid. Luckily they were not injured and  the girl got up and started and yelling at her drunk passenger.

We ate at Bally Hoo after diving one day. We asked the couple were diving with if they wanted to have lunch and they chose Bally Hoo. The restaurant is located on the water behind the Pemex station. The food was decent and the beer was cheap. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Bally Hoo
Bally Hoo

 

Dinner

As stated above we had mediocre snow crab at Minino’s one night.

On the day that we dived Musa (the underwater museum) we were joined by Deborah. She and her husband own a sailboat and have been sailing the Caribbean for eleven years. They were docked in Isla because the motor on their sailboat had died and they were having it rebuilt. In between dives Deborah told my wife that Cockteleria Justicia Social has the best ceviche she has ever had.

Cockteleria Justicia Social
Cockteleria Justicia Social

That evening we had dinner at there, it’s kind of an odd name for a restaurant and it appeared to be all locals when we walked in. They have a patio that overlooks the water. It’s not picturesque, to the left you see the pier where the fishermen moor their boats and clean their catch. The ferry pier is to the right. It’s actually nicer than my description.

Our waiter asked us if we spoke Spanish and we told him that we only spoke a little. He said that his English wasn’t very good but he would try. His English was perfect. I had grilled shrimp marinated in garlic. It was good but not the best I’ve ever had.

We had dinner at Cockteleria Justicia Social again a few days later. We tried the shrimp ceviche. I had ceviche once in Miami and Karen had never tried it. It was just okay, we didn’t dislike it but we agreed we preferred grilled shrimp over ceviche. I’m sure the ceviche was good but growing up in the Midwest we never acquired a taste for it.

We had read on Trip Advisor about Limon. At dinner Thursday night we overheard someone raving about it.

Limon is located mid island so we took a cab. Limon is small, there are several tables on the main floor of the building and more tables in the courtyard area outback. The food was good, Karen’s salad was especially good. The chef/owner was very friendly. He talked to everyone in the restaurant. I had forgotten my camera so he took a picture of us with his phone and emailed it to me.

A trip to Isla would not be complete without dinner at Olivia’s. The restaurant is owned by Israelis. They opened the restaurant because they missed Mediterranean food. The food is always good at Olivia’s.

Our last night on the island we dined at Lola Valentina. It is a newer restaurant and it is rated highly on Trip Advisor. It is located on the north end of Hildago across from Roosters. Karen had shrimp and I had the catch of the day.

Lola Valentina
Lola Valentina

 

I am highly averse to sauce on fish. I am also highly averse to any green colored sauce on anything. I don’t know why, I just am. It took me years to like pesto.

 

Fish with green sauce
Fish with green sauce

When my fish arrived it was covered in green sauce. I was prepared to ask my wife to trade plates with me but I decided to try a little first and it was amazing. It was literally the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Karen’s shrimp we just as good. She made me promise to write a review on Trip Advisor when we returned home. She also lamented that we discovered the restaurant on our last night so it would be a while before we returned.

 

Diving

When I first came to Isla back in 2006 I dived with a company called Coral Divers. When I returned with Karen she wanted to try a dive shop that a friend her recommend. That shop was just okay, we didn’t connect with them, so I talked Karen into trying Coral Divers. She liked them as much as I did.

Several years later when we returned the shop had been sold and Gilberto was the new owner and the shop was now called Carey Divers.  We continued diving with them because they were the best shop on the island.

As I stated before Karen’s dive equipment arrived late so we missed our first day of diving, which was a good thing because it poured rain.

Once Karen’s equipment arrived we stopped in the dive shop and talked to Gilberto to tell him that we wanted to dive the next day. Also that we had just had our equipment serviced so we would like an easy dive. It’s a good idea to test your equipment in a pool after having had it serviced or at least do an easy dive. Gilberto assured us that we would do Manchiones which not much deeper than 40 feet.

I have learned from experience that dive plans frequently change overnight. When we showed up the following day we were told that the plan was to do a wreck. The conditions were changing and if we wanted to do the wreck this would be our only chance.

We could have backed out. The wreck was deeper than we want to go but we would be sure to stick close to each other. That was the plan.

Normally when you enter the water from the dive boat your BC (buoyancy compensator) is filled with air and once you are in the water you release the air from the BC and do a slow descent. When we arrived on site Rudolpho told us to empty the air from our BCs while we were in the boat, do a back roll into the water and head directly for the ocean floor because there was a lot of current that day.

The way to deal with strong current is to stay close to the ocean floor.  I was on the ocean floor pulling myself along with my hands.  I looked back and Karen was fighting the current about ten feet above me. I wasn’t sure why she didn’t join me on the bottom.

When we got to the wreck and I pulled myself along the side of it using my hands. I had to be careful because there is coral and barnacles growing on the hull and either could slice you hand open.

I notice that I was feeling very strange. I was light headed, I had tunnel vision and at one point there was a voice in my head that whispered, just once, “you don’t need your regulator to breathe”. I had nitrogen narcosis. When we learned about nitrogen narcosis in dive class we were told that it usually happens at deeper depths but it can happen at just about any depth.

I concentrated on moving along the side of the hull in the strong current and didn’t pay much attention to the voice in my head or anything else around me.

We eventually made it around the hull to the other side. Fighting the current had made us quickly burn through our oxygen so we finned to the mooring line and started our ascent. Just before ascending Karen had indicated to me that she had less than 700 psi. She usually has better air consumption than I do but she did not paste herself to the ocean bottom to avoid the current so she ended up using more air than I did. She had never had 700 psi during a safety stop before so she was spooked.

We learned on a dive of the C56 in Puerto Morelos several years ago that if you are ascending a mooring line you have right of way, so any divers coming down the line as you are going up have to yield to you.

As the five of us ascended the line a dive master descended with a diver in tow. He literally had one arm around the diver while he used the other arm to pull them down the rope. We gave him right of way.

Rudolfo told us before we started the dive that if we had current during the safety stop we would go to the boat one at a time rather than in a group. This would avoid a traffic jam at the ladder.

I was facing into the current during the safety stop. My mask fits my face well so I don’t need to have the strap cinched snug or so I thought. Every time I turned my head the current would rip my mask from my face and fill it with water. I would have to hang onto the rope with one hand while I cleared my mask with the other hand. I finally turned around and positioned myself with my back to the current.

Once three minutes had elapsed Karen and Rudolfo let go of the rope and the current shot them toward the boat. I was next but I had a hard time seeing if Karen had cleared the ladder because every time I exhaled, a blast of air bubbles that normally would rise harmlessly to the surface, instead would travel vertically toward the boat creating a whiteout. I had to time my breaths to see when Karen made it into the boat. Once she did I let go of the rope and jetted to the ladder. I grabbed the ladder, took off my fins and climbed into the boat.

Tammy was the next to go but she missed the boat and shot past. Her husband made it to the boat but Rudolfo yelled at him to let go of the boat and go to his wife but he had no idea she wasn’t in the boat and he couldn’t see where she was. Rudolfo finally pointed in her direction and he swam towards her. We unmoored the boat and picked them up.

On the ride back we all discovered the barnacles on the mooring line had sliced our hands during the safety stop.

Next year after we have our equipment service I think we will check it out in the pool before we dive.

During our vacation we dove all of the usual dive sites, Mancheones, Sleeping Shark Cave, Musa… On one of the dives we saw was bat fish. It’s actually a very rare fish. It actually has a face that looks more like a bat than a fish and wings for pectoral fins.

Other than the bat fish we really didn’t see much. We have had some great dives in the past. We’ve seen huge turtles, nurse sharks, many eels, rays etc… This time the diving was really disappointing. Sometimes it just timing, it’s possible you can miss a shark, octopus or other ocean life by seconds. Mother Nature does not wait for you to arrive.

Bat Fish
Bat Fish

I am a little worried that Isla is being fished out. One morning on the way to the dive boat we saw about a dozen ray bodies on the beach with their wings cut off. There is a national park on the north end of Isla but I’ve seen dive masters take lobsters and conch from the park.

Turtle
Turtle
Yellow Ray
Yellow Ray
Atlantic Spade Fish
Atlantic Spade Fish
Statue at Musa
Statue at Musa
Musa Statue
Musa Statue
Atlantic Spade Fish
Atlantic Spade Fish

 

The Weather

I checked Weather.com a week or two before our trip, they predicted a sixty percent chance of rain. When we were in Puerto Morelos several years ago we had roughly the same forecast and once every other day we got a thunderstorm that lasted twenty minutes then it cleared up and we had sunshine the rest of the day.

As vacation neared the chance of rain decreased to twenty percent. I was psyched for beautiful weather during vacation. Unfortunately we experienced thunderstorms throughout the entire week.  We commented several times how lucky we were that we never got rained on as we saw large thunderstorms skirt the island.

The storms became more frequent as the week progressed. We saw many thunderheads go north or south of Isla. There were several times we were wading in the waters of North Beach as we watched billowing thunderheads pouring rain into the ocean.

Mother Nature put on a show for us while were having dinner at Cockteleria Justicia Social. A huge thunderstorm made its way just north of Isla and toward the mainland dumping rain and illuminating the sky with shards of lightning. Quiet the dinner show.

Storm at Cockteleria Justicia Social
Storm at Cockteleria Justicia Social

Our room overlooked the pool. We were in our room one afternoon after a hard day at the beach. We heard what sounded like thunder so we looked out the window and saw blue skies and people lounging at the pool. We heard thunder several more times so I looked out the back side of the resort and it was pouring. Several minutes later the rain crossed over the building and the partiers at the swim up bar had to run for cover.

We were caught on the beach during a storm. It was our own fault. We heard the thunder in the distance about fifteen minutes before the storm arrived. We hoped it would go around Isla but the clouds, rain and thunder moved over the top of the resort toward the beach. We huddled under paylapa to stay dry.

On our final day the skies opened just before we boarded the ferry, confirming our decision to take the Ultramar ferry rather than taking the old slow Magana ferry. We and our luggage got drenched boarding the ferry. It was a choppy ride. I figured it would stop raining by the time we docked Puerto Jaurez but this wasn’t just a rain storm, a tropical depression had moved in. Our shuttle picked us up and brought us to the airport.  We were in a large van and I was glad we were, the streets were flooded from curb to curb.

 

The Good

 

Privilege Aluxes is still a great resort to stay at.

The seafood at Lola Valentina can’t be beat. The tacos at La Lomita are worth the trip to Isla and if breakfast wasn’t included at Aluxes we would most likely have eaten at Rooster’s every morning.

 

 

The Disappointing

 

The weather. It started out nice but deteriorated as the week passed.

The diving and Carey dive shop.

 

 

Recap

 

Okay, so we didn’t have a great vacation like we usually do when we go to Isla. We had a rocky start because of the canceled flight and crappy cab ride but when we went to Turks and Caicos the first three days of our vacation were crappy. Once we changed hotels it was one of our best vacations. This vacation started out flat and never really improved.

Isla has always been cheap, dirt cheap but it has definitely gotten more expensive. There were still good deals, you can still get a bucket of beer for 80 pesos at Jax and you can get cheap tacos almost anywhere but the days of the delicious eight dollar dinner is gone.

I am worried about diving on Isla, the lack of large sea life might be because of the time of year or just bad luck. I don't feel optimistic that diving will improve.

Karen and I agreed even before we left the island that we would try another dive shop next time. Carey isn't a bad dive shop but like Isla, they just aren't what they use to be.

Did we dislike Isla enough to move on and never come back? I don't think so but I think this will prompt us to explore other areas of the Caribbean like Bonaire, Curacao or Roatan.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Isla Mujeres

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