Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun. You can actually see the Hotel Zone’s beachfront, mega resorts from the quiet island’s palapa dotted shore – the two cities are so close and yet, they are a world apart.

Getting to the island is an easy 20 minute ferry ride from the Gran Puerto Cancun dock located in Pto Juarez. Though it might be tempting to sit in the air conditioned cabin, opt for the outside seating up top. We saw sea turtles, barracuda and what appeared to be juvenile swordfish on just the boat ride!

Upon arrival to the island, we strolled down Hidalgo street toward the beach to our hotel Cabanas Maria del Mar The cabanas included a/c, refrigerator and TV, and were an excellent value at $550 pesos ($50USD) per night. Although the rooms did not face the beach, the water was only steps away. Another great Isla hotel option is Posada del Mar This hotel has beachfront rooms, a huge pool and Romy, the friendliest bartender on the island!

After check in, it was time to cool off in the waves. Our favorite beach bar was Sergio’s Playa del Sol. We went back several times for their awesome drink prices and no charge for the umbrellas and beach chairs. Beach side service assured we never had to leave our loungers for drinks or their delicious guacamole cleverly served in the avocado shell.

Our best meal on the island was at Casa del Tikin Xic. This restaurant has been serving up great seafood since 1940, so reads the sign. We ordered the Yucatecan style fish that is prepared whole, marinated with adobo de achiote and sour oranges then cooked over a wood fire. The total bill for a meal for 2 and I can’t remember how many beers plus tip came to 300 pesos (about $25USD). After dinner, hang around and watch the sun melt into the Caribbean Sea.

The next morning, we rallied early to set out on the mission that brought us to the island – swimming with the whale sharks. Our boat, the “Azalia,” picked us up at the dock in front of our hotel and on our way to the whale sharks’ feeding ground, we spotted dolphins! Fisherman believe dolphin sightings are a sign of good luck. We were off to a great start!

After about an hour, our captain pointed out a cluster of other boats in the distance. As we got closer, we saw several snorkelers floating in the water and numerous fins surfacing around them. After years of waiting, I was finally here! We paired into groups and took our turns going into the water with the guide. There were over a dozen whale sharks swimming around us, under us and over us. We were instructed not to touch the animals, but it was hard to stay out of their way! At one point, I looked behind me and saw I was less than 5 feet from a giant, gaping mouth, but as soon as the fish sensed me it turned away. These mammoth fish had absolutely no aggression toward nor seemingly any interest in the humans that had invaded their space. When I raised my head above the water I could hear other swimmers’ exclamations of surprise and joy through their snorkels. I found myself giggling like a kid. We were all so elated by the experience.

I cannot express in words how amazing it felt to be so close to these massive creatures in their own environment. If you have not experienced swimming with the whale sharks, I encourage you to book a tour before the season ends in mid September. Otherwise, you will have to wait until they return next year. Tours cost between $100 and $135USD and they are worth every centavo.

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