Our trip to Isla Mujeres:
Cancún airport, arriving over the Caribbean ocean. Carved from the jungle, in an ever more extensive complex of terminals, access roads, hangars and hustle. Welcome to the air equivalent of “boat time”, that frantic, frenetic, interface where tourist and tourism worker come together to dance for dollars. The seashell sellers and the golf-cart renters will come later. Now it’s time for resort rooms, car renters, time-share pushers, and transportation services. From the time you enter the terminal until the time you leave it, smiling faces with honey-toned voices will be importuning you to buy, rent, or sign up.
[At the ferry dock in Isla]
There is a large tourist information booth, way over there by the doors to the street. Should you get that far without having succumbed, their job seems to be to steer you back to one of the booths you left behind. None of the taxi and colectivo services will mention that there is a bus stop just outside the building, where for a few pesos an air-conditioned ADO bus will whisk you to downtown Cancún; that for another 25 or 30 pesos you can take a cab from there to the ferry terminal at Puerto Juarez to catch the fast boat to Isla. Instead they will tell you – truthfully – that no matter which booth vends you your ticket, the cost from the airport to Puerto Juarez is 160 pesos per person colectivo, or 550 pesos for a taxi. “Buy it from me, or from them”, the message is; “that is the cost”.
[The harbor in Isla from the second floor of the Hotel GoMar, right across the street from the ferry dock.]
Once away from the airport, and through the hotel zone with its mega-resorts; after the last of the folks who have been sharing your colectivo have reached their smaller, less spectacular hotels in the main city of Cancún; you wend your way further north through neighborhoods of small industry and working class apartment buildings to arrive at the ferry dock in Puerto Juarez.
At this point, a digression. Like everyone who returns after years of absence to an old favorite that has become more popular, we can’t help but notice the changes. Some are “good” and some are “bad”. Most are inevitable. Some folks, who return year after year to the same places, are hardly aware of changes. New developments inspire loathing in those who long for an exact repeat of their old experiences, while delighting those who liked the place before but missed the comforts of “modernization”. We would like to think we are immune from these feelings, existing in some sort of Zen trance of acceptance of what is; but the truth is probably closer to the opposite: we expect changes, and we like some and loathe others. In this spirit, we will report on the changes where we think it appropriate, and leave it to you to judge for yourself whether they are good or bad or inconsequential.
[A typical “tourist street” in downtown Isla Mujeres]
There is more than one ferry dock in Puerto Juarez, but the one most heavily used is the passenger-only UltraMar terminal. Gone are the old wooden-bench, open-deck transports, replaced by plush, high-backed bus-type seating in an enclosed, steel and glass cabin mounted on a catamaran hull. Most have second decks, some enclosed and others open. The boats leave every half hour, and take twenty minutes to cross. There are porters available to get your luggage to the boat, and the boat staff will help you and your baggage on and off the boat if you choose to wheel it yourself. Beware that the air conditioning is severe in the cabins.
The terminal building has gift shops, a delicatessen – sandwich shop, and a McDonald’s. There are comfortable outdoor benches under a canopy to use while waiting for the next launch. The tickets are 35 pesos, unless – like us – you have official identification certifying you as an old geezer, in which case the cost is 15 pesos. Round trip tickets cost twice as much as one-way.
[This is the most ubiquitous form of island transportation, after motor scooters. Not fast, but cheap to run, and anyway, nothing’s very far away…]
There appear to be fewer hotel hustlers on the dock at Isla these days. In the four years we’ve been away, a couple of new puestos (stores, stands) have sprung up between the ferry landing and the street, but there hasn’t been a major revision á la Puerto Juarez. There is a passage along the left hand side which will take you to the taxi stand without having to go all the way to the street. Taxis are still a very reasonable 20 – 30 pesos to most of the island. The ferry landing is “downtown”, so for many it’s a short walk to the hotel. The whole island is a very walkable 4.5 miles long and about a half-mile wide.
[ A part of the north beach. It costs 200 pesos to rent these front-row seats for the day]
As a general description, Isla is like an elongated plucked footless chicken with it’s rump in the northeast (where “downtown” is) and a very long neck doubling back on the west side from it’s southern-most point. Past the beak, there is a small navigable channel, and then a reef / mangrove swamp that acts as a further barrier and ends just south of the rump where the larger channel services the ferries, shrimp trawlers, and others. Boats going south from downtown pass through the Anchorage, the navy docks, the small-boat marinas and the fishing co-ops, and enter a narrower passageway with more marinas, some boatyards, and resort docks.
Our destination, the motor sailer Pearl, is tied up out in the Anchorage, and our hosts, Diana’s daughter and son-in-law, are waiting for us at Marina Milagro, about a mile south of the ferry dock. When we get there, and hugs and kisses – as well as introductions to the other boater folks hanging out at the Milagro’s bar (it is by now 5:00 in the afternoon) – are over, we begin the process of loading ourselves and our luggage into the small, light-weight dinghy for the journey out to the boat.
Docks are made for boats, not dinghies. This means that you have to climb up to the dock and down to the dinghy. Docks are fixed. They do not move with the tides or pitch when a wake from a passing shrimper hits them. Dinghies move when you push against them. You have to be careful how you stand up, and be poised when you enter and leave them. Why nobody has built a small floating platform attached to their dock by a short hinged stairway is a question whose answer eludes me. Haven’t they heard of the “aging population”, with our bad knees, more easily broken bones, and diminishing sense of balance?
[One of many fishing co-operatives on Isla. We were able to purchase langustinos (small lobsters), red snapper, boquinetta (hog fish) and other fresh delicacies for reasonable prices. The upper entrance is on the main road]
With much pushing and pulling, and the endless patience of others, we did manage to make it off the dock and into the dinghy. The short trip out to Pearl was – as always except the few times it chose to rain – delicious. Pearl, equipped beforehand with the requisite hand-holds and a low dive platform, proved to be a lot less problematical. Since most of you are either not interested in staying on a boat or don’t have one available, I’ll skip a detailed description, except for saying that it was big enough and well enough designed that four of us could sleep and eat comfortably and share space together for two weeks without tearing each others’ hair out.
[There are many rotting hulks like this one to be seen tied up in the lagoon.]
Except for when Northers (cold fronts that come down from Texas in the winter) are blowing, the heat and humidity on Isla – as on any Caribbean island – is relentless. Unless you are a skin cancer risking sunworshipping loony, you will need to seek some kind of relief for at least part of the day. This means either an air-conditioned room, restaurant, cyber-café; or a beach umbrella on the North beach; or an upper level room: somewhere you can catch the trade winds that blow in almost constantly from the sea. I spent many an afternoon lying on the living room couch in Pearl, reading and being cooled by the Trades.
Isla was really savaged by hurricane Wilma last year. Hurricanes are part of island life, and most of the buildings are designed and constructed to minimize damage. Isleños are also very good at marshalling government support to rebuild at maximum speed, so by the time we got there, a little more than a year later, there was little evidence left, with the exception of some boats that had been blown into the mangrove barrier, left there to rot, and some shoreline damage. The last time we were there, this was a paving-stone walkway facing the Caribbean. Lots of new paint around town.
Isla is daily inundated by tour groups. They come over from Cancún on special ferries and motor sailers in the morning and leave by sundown. They tour the island in twenty- and thirty- car golf cart trains, they eat in restaurants that specialize in feeding groups, they shop for t-shirts and sea shells downtown. By nightfall, the island is returned to the folks that live and vacation here. The downtown restaurants are crowded and noisy if lively and a little tipsy.
[Since the last time we were in Isla, the “conch house” has given birth to a “snail house”. Facing the Caribbean, it appears to have weathered Wilma quite well. Note the iguana crawling down the wall on the right.]
Most of the hotels are small – under 20 rooms – and, while it is certainly possible to find costly accommodations, we were able to spot available rooms for as little as 350 pesos: and this was in high season. Rooms and small apartments with cooking facilities are readily available for about the same price, if you rent by the month. Restaurants are plentiful, and it is easy to find a good platter with fish, rice, beans, a little cabbage salad and a fruit drink for under 50 pesos.
There are four comedores (kitchens: small restaurants) next to the municipal market building, serving delicious cheap food, but the market – especially after Oaxaca’s cornucopia of delightful produce – was a disappointment to say the least. Anyone who is staying for a time and wants to cook at home can get marginally better produce at the one and only supermarket, on the town plaza, or spend a good part of a day each week going into Cancún to stock up. This has been true in Isla ever since we’ve been going there. Incidentally, while we were there, the supermarket was giving a better exchange rate on dollars than the central bank of Mexico. I wonder how they come out on that…
In spite of the more garish aspects of tourist life, we still find Isla to be charming and affordable; the Caribbean clear and great for snorkeling.
[There are a lot of iguanas on Isla. This grand-dad is sunning himself on a rock in the park next to Isla’s only remaining Maya temple fragment.]
What about living there?
When we stayed on Isla about four or five years ago, we looked at a house for sale in the middle of the island, in fairly bad shape but basically sound, with an asking price of about 600,000 pesos (roughly, $55,000 dollars). A couple of years ago, a foreign couple purchased it for about a million pesos, put another million into it, and are now asking 3 million for it. Isla is slowly but surely being gentrified. While there are a few potential building sites still vacant, the combination of the Navy, which owns a large chunk of the island, the national seashore parks, and the few resorts and marinas already in place, means that most people who want to buy will have to buy from someone else. Whether that someone else is an “Isleño” (Mayan native of the island) or an “outsider”, prices are going up.
There are no bilingual schools, and there is very little cultural activity compared to places like Oaxaca, Mérida, or even Cancún. Ultimately, Isla is a very small place, isolated and insular. While Cancún is close by, weather can make the 20-minute ferry ride into living hell. Last week, a “Norther” came down with winds of over 65 mph in the (relatively sheltered) lagoon; more in the trench between Isla and Cancún. The waves in open water were 20 feet and more. For three days, Diana’s daughter couldn’t leave their boat for the 5 minute dinghy ride to the dock. Our conclusion: Isla is a great place to visit, but we’ll continue to live in Oaxaca.
[At the southern tip of the island, there is a sculpture garden where each piece comes from a different country. Because of the weather, they are mostly painted metal]
The “New” Migración:
Last year, the workers in the Oaxaca office of the department charged with enforcing the laws regarding foreigners in Mexico went on strike. Their complaint was incompetence and mistreatment by the new state director. They were all fired. Their replacements serve under month-to-month contracts.
Last week, I began the process of renewing my FM-3 temporary residence permit. I was treated with courtesy, and furnished with a very simple and helpful list of the things I would need to bring back with my application form. When I returned with the required documents, they were accepted without any fuss, and no “and now, you must do x”. The process, I was told, would take about 8 days, very quick by previous experience.
The office has moved, by the way. It is now located at Independencia 709, right across from the Cathedral, upstairs and in the back. The INSEN office, where resident aliens of a certain age can acquire “senility cards”, has also been relocated, to the ground floor at 709.
No news: Good news?
Oaxaca is quiet these days. Hardly any marches, and even fewer rallies. Of course the political killings go on, and the relentless attack on the land by resource-hungry multi-national corporations; and the final stripping of all protection for local farmers being buried by imports of US and Canadian subsidized corn and beans; the ecological disaster that’s coming with the strip mining of gold and silver; and the ongoing Plan Puebla Panama: all of which are stirring the pot, which from time to time is bound to boil over a little.
Meanwhile, it is just dandy here in Paradise, with lots of cultural activity, and amazingly good weather considering this is the cold season. Lodging is plentiful, local artisans are still quick to discount, and – long overdue – immigration officials at the northern border and all the airports are now giving everyone 180 day visas – even if they ask for only 90.