13km (8 miles) N of Cancún
Only a quick boat ride from the swarming beaches of Cancún, Isla Mujeres feels like a different world. Bathed in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, the sleepy island attracts visitors who prefer a laid-back lifestyle focused around the beach and watersports such as diving and snorkeling. The name translates as "the island of women," but few islanders agree on the origin. While Isla Mujeres has a healthy nightlife, relaxed isleños frown upon spring break antics; if you're looking for parties, stick to Cancún.
Beaches -- Playa Norte, which runs along the northernmost edge of town, is a picture-perfect Caribbean dream, ideal for relaxing with a cool beverage or wading in the waist-deep water. For stunning views across the turquoise waters to Cancún, head to Playa Lancheros, on the southern side of the island. Enjoy the spectacular sunset from the Casa Rolandi restaurant, on the waterfront of the Villa Rolandi resort.
Things to Do -- Fans of ancient cultures can tour the crumbling Maya temple at the southernmost tip of the island, thought to be dedicated to Ixchel, goddess of fertility. Wander through the multicolored sculpture garden, or venture just beyond to the Cliff of the Dawn for extraordinary views. Get up close to sea turtles at the Tortugranja, a sea turtle sanctuary that protects the marine reptiles. Bypass the Isla's downtown T-shirt stores in favor of boutiques where you can shop for Mexican artworks ranging from Day of the Dead skeletons to sea-glass jewelry.
Eating & Drinking -- The island's culinary specialty is seafood, best enjoyed at a beach restaurant such as Zazil Ha, where you can sink your feet into the sand by day and dine by tiki torch at night. A local favorite dish of Maya origin is Tikinxic -- whole fish marinated in achiote and sour oranges, then wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in an earthen oven. While tequila isn't made on the island, it's the most popular spirit here, especially when included in freshly made margaritas.
Nature -- Divers and snorkelers have a wealth of sites to discover off of Isla Mujeres. The diving spot is the Caves of the Sleeping Sharks, once famous as a meeting point for slow-moving sharks. Snorkelers prefer the calm, shallow water of the island's western side, with Lighthouse and Manchones being the best spots to see the coral reef. On a day trip to Isla Contoy, a national park with mangrove lagoons, you'll spot dozens of more than 150 species of birds.