Discovering Isla Mujeres

Whether you're heading north or south, this Caribbean crossroads off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is a favorite stop for cruising sailors.

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Isla Mujeres offers endless opportunities for watersports and beach time for day-trippers coming by ferry from Cancun.Amy Flannery

Isla Mujeres (Spanish for “island of women”) is a colorful little jewel off the northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan ­Peninsula, a stone’s throw from Cancún. It got its name in 1517 from Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, a conquistador who discovered a variety of female idols there while pillaging for Mayan slaves to take to Cuba. Getting to Isla Mujeres is no simple feat for sailors, and clearing customs is another ­puzzle, but the rewards merit the challenge.

Coming from the Florida Keys, sailing to Isla Mujeres is tricky, because it requires crossing the winding Gulf Stream twice, and the Yucatan Channel can dish up some nasty waves. Luckily, an ideal weather window opened up shortly after our arrival in Key West, so my husband, Ken, and I slipped off the mooring and got our Morgan 38, Mary T, underway. Weather guru Chris Parker gave us some helpful waypoints, and a northeast-to-east wind ranging from 12 to 23 knots graced our entire trip.

Departing Key West, we sailed to a waypoint slightly southwest of the Dry Tortugas, the uninhabited islets 70 miles to the west. We enjoyed a lively ride in four- to seven-foot following seas southwest toward the western tip of Cuba. We never laid eyes on that mysterious island, keeping 15 miles off, but we smelled the sweet aroma of pine smoke wafting from its shores.

There was plenty of shipping traffic in the Yucatan Channel, but the AIS took the stress out of that aspect of the ­voyage. Our final push westward toward Isla Mujeres was the only tedious part of the trip. The increasing wind was directly behind us as we crossed the Gulf Stream in the Yucatan Channel. To avoid jibing downwind, we cranked up the Perkins and motorsailed for eight hours straight toward the southern tip of the ­island.

The 390-mile journey took ­only 67 hours, ­quicker than we’d estimated, putting us in Isla Mujeres at 0200. We chose to anchor on the west side of the island rather than navigate an unknown harbor at night. With a nearly full moon, we could see the sandy bottom, and the ­anchor held immediately. Relief.

After they complete the passage to ­Isla Mujeres, the next hurdle for foreign cruisers is clearing in. It’s a frequent topic of discussion among sailors, and for every question, there are at least three answers.

We were advised before leaving the States to make dozens of copies of our passports, boat documentation and crew list. It was also necessary to pick up a zarpe from a Customs and Border Protection office, which is a document showing the port of departure and intended destination. It makes clearing into Mexico much easier, and American officials will provide one even though they don’t see the point. Cruisers in the know had told us that checking in at Isla Mujeres could take anywhere from three hours to a week, depending on which day we arrived and the mood of the officials. On weekends and holidays, the fees go up. If an immigration or customs official is absent, the whole process can get stalled.

It typically goes something like this: Upon arrival, check in with the port captain, who will send you to the hospital to see a sanitation official. This ­official will ask questions about your health and immunizations, and then either stamp your papers or put you in quarantine. The next stops are immigration for more stamps, and then over to the bank to pay a fee and get a receipt. Then it’s on to the department of agriculture to see an official who might come to your boat to ­investigate what’s in the galley — and possibly confiscate all non-Mexican food. A trip to customs is also required. ­After acquiring all the stamps and bank ­receipt, you then return to the port captain for his stamp.

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Ideal conditions provided for a lovely reach (and a great sunset) the first night of the 390-mile passage from Key West to Isla Mujeres.Amy Flannery

If staying more than 10 days, you also need to go to Cancún and purchase a “temporary importation paper” for your vessel, which is good for 10 years. Failure to procure this piece of paper could result in the impounding of your vessel.

It all sounded fairly daunting, so we decided to employ a local agent to facilitate the process. In Isla Mujeres, Chepo at Marina Paraiso came highly recommended. In rapid-fire English peppered with Spanish, he told us exactly what to do. He said the immigration office charges $110, and he suggested tips of $10 for each of the four officials. We could pay Chepo the amount we thought he merited, so we gave him $40 and he seemed pleased. It was ­definitely worth the ease and peace of mind. All we had to do was give Chepo our money, passports, paperwork and multiple ­copies of everything. Then we plopped down at the marina’s beach bar for a beer and lunch.

We had mixed feelings about paying “tips” to government officials, but after all, they were coming to us rather than vice versa, so we rationalized it as their transportation costs. The tips were optional, not required.

Chepo embodied the word “expedite.” Not only did he talk fast, but he moved fast. He brought all the officials to us, and we only needed to step away from the beach bar occasionally to answer a few questions and sign some forms. It went so quickly that half the time we had no idea which official was from which department.

Only the official from the department of agriculture asked to come aboard Mary T. I pulled a few items out of the fridge and practiced my Spanish vocabulary. She said there was no problem as long as we consumed everything on the boat. Phew! All that remained was to take the ­ferry to Cancún to get our temporary importation certificate. Chepo gave us explicit ­instructions on how to find the office and which stamped papers to present. The fee for that was $60.

After a couple of luxurious days at Marina Paraiso, which has a swimming pool, hotel and restaurants, we moved out to the anchorage to avoid busting the budget. It’s well protected from all directions except the north, and the holding is good. During the day we did endure occasional wakes from fishing boats and vessels hauling tourists, because unlike on the roads, there are no speed bumps and apparently no speed limits at sea here. Still, it was a comfortable spot, and the sea breeze was a relief from the heat onshore.

The cruising community in Isla is a small, close-knit family. Every day on the cruisers net (VHF 13), sailors check in by saying good morning. Fridays and Tuesdays, the whole gang gets together for happy hour and dinner. Cruiser Tim Weeden, who’d been in Isla Mujeres for over a year on his sailboat, Tropical Fun, was the group’s ringleader during our stay, and is the creator of the Facebook page Isla Mujeres Cruisers Net.

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The author offers Death a coconut in one of Isla Mujeres’ many vibrant markets.Amy Flannery

We were in Isla over the Easter holiday (Semana Santa), so the island was busier than usual. Ferries disgorging hundreds of day-trippers from Cancún arrived ­every hour. Most of the crowds gravitated toward the north end of the island to enjoy Playa Norte and Playa Posada, where powdery white sand stretches into calm turquoise waters. Bars and restaurants lining the beach require no shirts or shoes for service. You can emerge from the ocean full of salt and sand, belly up to a bar, and no one will blink an eye.

The colorful downtown area is also at the north end of the island. Ubiquitous trinket and textile vendors beckon tourists into their shops. All prices are ­negotiable. There are juice emporiums and restaurants galore serving fresh seafood. The small out-of-the-way joints have the best food at the best prices. We liked Ruben’s, on Avenida Guerrero, not far from Playa Norte.

There are snorkeling and dive trips ­offered aboard motor skiffs, and catamarans blaring dance music. We did some snorkeling out of our dinghy at one location and saw more snorkelers than fish. Had we arrived in May, we could have gone swimming with the migrating whale sharks.

Outside the tourist areas, Isla is a sleepy little town with plenty of space to breathe. The main modes of transportation are golf carts and scooters. ­Numerous speed bumps prevent reckless driving. There’s a long pedestrian walkway overlooking the rocky shores on the northeastern side of the island. It was virtually empty on the afternoon we took our stroll.

Isla is a popular crossroads in the western Caribbean for cruisers heading both north and south. It’s easy to see why some linger longer than anticipated. With friendly locals, crystal-clear water and thatched-roof bars on every beach, why leave?

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The route of the Mary T, from Key West to Isla Mujeres.Cruising World

Amy Flannery and her husband, Ken Kurlychek, live aboard their Morgan 38, Mary T, and are currently cruising in the western ­Caribbean.