The island of Isla Mujeres, just 13km (8 miles) offshore, is one of the most pleasant day trips from Cancún. At one end is El Garrafón Natural Park, which is good for snorkeling. At the other end is a captivating village with small shops, restaurants, and hotels, and Playa Norte, the island's best beach. If you're looking for relaxation and can spare the time, it's worth several days.
There are four ways to get there: public ferry from Puerto Juárez, which takes between 15 and 45 minutes; shuttle boat from Playa Linda or Playa Tortuga -- an hour-long ride, with irregular service; watertaxi (more expensive, but faster), next to the Xcaret Terminal; and daylong pleasure-boat trips, most of which leave from the Playa Linda pier.
The inexpensive Puerto Juárez public ferries are just a few kilometers from downtown Cancún. From Cancún City, take the Ruta 8 bus on Avenida Tulum to Puerto Juárez. The air-conditioned Caribbean Express (20 min.) costs $4 per person. Departures are every half-hour from 6 to 8:30 a.m. and then every 15 minutes until 8:30 p.m. The slower Caribbean Savage (45-60 min.) costs about $3.50. It departs every 2 hours, or less frequently depending on demand. Upon arrival, the ferry docks in downtown Isla Mujeres near all the shops, restaurants, hotels, and Norte beach. You'll need a taxi to get to El Garrafón park, at the other end of the island. You can stay as long as you like on the island (even overnight) and return by ferry, but be sure to double-check the time of the last returning ferry.
Pleasure-boat cruises to Isla Mujeres are a favorite pastime. Modern motor yachts, catamarans, trimarans, and even old-time sloops -- more than 25 boats a day -- take swimmers, sun lovers, snorkelers, and shoppers out on the translucent waters. Some tours include a snorkeling stop at El Garrafón, lunch on the beach, and a short time for shopping in downtown Isla Mujeres. Most leave at 9:30 or 10 a.m., last about 5 or 6 hours, and include continental breakfast, lunch, and rental of snorkel gear. Others, particularly sunset and night cruises, go to beaches away from town for pseudo-pirate shows and include a lobster dinner or Mexican buffet. If you want to actually see Isla Mujeres, go on a morning cruise, or travel on your own using the public ferry from Puerto Juárez. Prices for the day cruises run around $45 per person.
El Garrafón Natural Park is under the same management as Xcaret (tel. 998/884-9422 or 877-1101; www.garrafon.com). The basic entrance fee of $29 includes access to the reef and a museum, as well as use of kayaks, inner tubes, life vests, the pool, hammocks, and public facilities and showers. Snorkel gear and lockers can be rented for an extra charge. There are also nature trails as well as several restaurants on-site. An all-inclusive option is available for $59, which includes dining on whatever you choose at any of the restaurants, plus unlimited domestic drinks and use of snorkel gear, locker, and towel. El Garrafón also has full dive facilities and gear rentals, plus a gift shop.
Other excursions go to the reefs in glass-bottom boats, so you can have a near-scuba-diving experience and see many colorful fish. However, the reefs are some distance from the shore and are impossible to reach on windy days with choppy seas. They've also suffered from overvisitation, and their condition is far from pristine. Nautibus's Atlantis Submarine (tel. 987/872-5671) takes you close to the aquatic action. Departures vary, depending on weather conditions. Prices are $79 for adults, $45 for children ages 4 to 12. The submarine descends to a depth of 30m (98 ft.). Atlantis Submarine departs Monday to Saturday every hour from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m.; the tour lasts about an hour. The submarine departs from Cozumel, so you either need to take a ferry to get there or purchase the package that includes round-trip ground and water transportation from your hotel in Cancún ($103 adults, $76 children 4-12). Reservations are recommended.
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