In the last week of our Mexican return, staying on Isla Mujeres, we took advantage of a reasonably good forecast for the first few days to take a taxi into town, and check out Playa Norte – the most sought after beach on the island. We stopped off in Cafe Mango, a gringo hangout rated very highly on Trip Advisor at the time of writing. I don’t feel I could finish our write-up of this holiday without returning to one of my favourite themes – Mexican breakfasts. We have written about some of our favourites for the last trip in numerous early entries, and I won’t repeat any of them here, but I do need to give a shout-out to the Mango crew for their supreme bad boy re-imagining of Chile Poblano Relleno (stuffed poblano chile).
The other breakfast I had been seeking out in these parts was another speciality on the Yucatan peninsular: huevos motuleños. This is how it looked when it came,and beside it Clare’s classic huevos rancheros for comparison’s sake. They both involved tortillas spread with re-fried beans, and topped with two fried eggs, cheese and tomato sauce. To be honest the only thing that separated them seemed to be the addition of cheap wafer thin ham on the montulenos – and given that I had been given to understand that the special ingredient was garden peas, I felt a little cheated. You don’t often get to have peas for breakfast. Still a gut-busting and cheap breakfast option, mind.
I’ve digressed again. The north beach was rammed, but for a good reason – it delivered what all the guide books had been promising: long stretches of pristine white sand, shelving gently into warm, pale turquoise waters. The strains of reggaeton hits emanated from beach bars where groups of sun-worshippers sat on swing seats and nursed beers or hangovers or both. We had hit paydirt. As I waded into the water I got the complete sense of relaxation I’d been seeking for months, and which you can only get ten days into your holiday; that is, a few days before you need to pack and leave.
In the distance shimmered the incongruous high-rise shoreline of Cancun’s Zona Hotelera, where the all-inclusive crowd flock in their droves all year. We had stayed away ’til now on purpose, but there was something about this Mammon’s playground so close to our retreat that called for closer inspection. Clare wanted nothing to do with it, but I know you, our loyal reader, expects the unvarnished truth from this blog, so the next day your intrepid correspondent hopped on a speedy Ultramar ferry and make the 25 minute crossing to Playa Caracol, to try to get get under its skin.
The moment you are herded out of the dock at that end of the Spit, you know you’ve hit the Spring Break epicentre. The area around Playa Caracol is dominated by gleaming white palaces surrounded by impeccably manicured and constantly watered lawns. Behind them lie the infamous nightclub Coco Bongo, Hooters, Daddy-O and a host of other American theme bars all tempting you in with aggressive sales techniques and sky-high alcohol prices (70 pesos or nearly USD$4 for a bottle of local cerveza – I can’t believe US tourists pay much less back home). The monster slept by day, but I got a sense of how crazy things got when it wakes up. It was hard to believe this was an unknown fishing village just forty years ago.
I took a local bus to a beach further up the spit, passed a sad stretch of topless palms, beheaded during Hurricane Wilma’s visit in 2005, and bought a 17 peso beer from the local convenience shop. From there I moseyed into the main part of town, and found a quiet restaurant in the backstreets that sold a couple of dishes I’d been keen to sample again: guacamole and enchiladas verdes. The green sauce on top of the chicken-stuffed tortillas was sweet and sharp, the fresh guacamole a perfect accompaniment.
At the harbour waiting to catch the last ferry back. I ordered a shot of smoky mescal reposado and watched some swashbuckling practice on board the Pirate Show Cancun’s Blackbeard experience, before it was time to catch the last ferry back. I wouldn’t be returning any time soon, but my parting thought was that if you’re going to sail so close to the mouth of the beast, you’ve nothing to lose from tickling its tonsils for an afternoon.
Back on Isla Mujeres, Clare had been visiting a turtle farm, and the Hadienda Mundaca, where the dastardly pirate had built a house and grounds for his favourite woman on the island, who nevertheless rejected him (what happened as a result is unclear). That evening we sampled some more incredible plates at a local restaurant, Basto’s Grill, a tender arrachera (skirt steak) served with a baked potato and sour cream sauce for me, and the island’s famous Mayan dish of Tikin-Xic (filleted fish in achiote sauce), for Clare.
On our last full day we hired some comfortable ‘fixies’ (aka bikes with no gears and tricky-to-master reverse pedal breaks) to get around the rest of the island. We stopped at Punta Sur to check out an modern sculpture garden and a small Mayan ruin at the most easterly point of Mexico (having been at its most westerly when we entered Baja California back in July 2013). Next we pulled into town for lunch at the local haunt Cocteleria Justicia Social (a fisherman’s cooperative) abutting the ferry terminal, and as I had already had my obligatory plate of shrimps that week, we shared a perfectly grilled grouper spiced up with La Anita habanero sauce, making Clare very happy indeed.
The clouds had already massed overhead that day, and the forecast was gloomy ’til the end of the week. But we happened to be in town for the islanders’ annual carnival, and as if to prove that there is never a dull day in Mexico, the fisherman’s wives – perhaps the mujeres that give the isle its name – turned up in their red and gold costumes and danced whilst we ate. As we walked out into town, the streets were filled with the sounds of samba rhythms as costumed dancers enthusiastically twirling around. That unexpected twist sums up what we love about this country, and why we will always want to come back.