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These two Caribbean islands are among the most peaceful beach destinations in Mexico, both easy jaunts from Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Although day-trippers and cruise-ship visitors come ashore during high season, the islands never feel overrun. Come evening, the uncrowded streets and relaxed energy of the residents exemplify the enduring tranquility of the islands. Neither Isla Mujeres nor Cozumel is particularly large, and they each still have that small island feel -- with pristine beaches, bumpy roads that don't go far, a welcoming remoteness, and a seemingly timeless setting.

Fish-shaped Isla Mujeres lies 13km (8 miles) northeast of Cancún, a quick boat ride away but what feels like a world removed from its glittery neighbor. Despite this proximity, I consider Isla Mujeres a little-known gem filled with historic and rustic charm. During pre-Hispanic times, Maya women would cross over to the island to make offerings to the goddess of fertility, Ixchel. More than 40 sites containing shrines remain around the island, and archaeologists still uncover the small dolls that were customarily part of those offerings. Hotels range from rustic to boutique, and the value of accommodation and dining are among the best one can find in this part of Mexico. Passenger ferries travel to Isla Mujeres from Cancún's Puerto Juárez and the Hotel Zone's Embarcadero at Playa Linda; car ferries leave from Punta Sam.

Larger than Isla Mujeres and farther from the mainland (19km/12 miles off the coast from Playa del Carmen), Cozumel has its own mini-international airport. Life here revolves around two major activities: scuba diving and cruise ships making a port of call. Yet a strong sense of family and community continues to prevail here. There are less than 100,000 people on the island, a couple thousand of whom are Americans and the rest of whom are mostly Maya, Yucatecan, and Mexican from elsewhere in the country. There's just one town, San Miguel de Cozumel; to the north and south lie resorts. The rest of the shore is deserted and predominantly rocky, with a scattering of small sandy coves that you can have all to yourself. Because Cozumel remains a frequent stop on the cruise ship circuit, the town's waterfront is lined with jewelry stores and duty-free and souvenir shops. This and the area around the town's main square are about as far as most cruise-ship passengers venture, and they're usually just here for a few hours in the middle of the day.

Unfortunately, there's no way to travel directly between Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, but you can get from one to the other by traveling via Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

The Best Websites for Isla Mujeres & Cozumel

  • Isla Mujeres Tourist Information: www.isla-mujeres.net -- The official site of the Isla Mujeres Tourism Board provides complete information on Isla, from getting there to where to stay.
  • My Isla Mujeres: www.myislamujeres.com -- Get a local's view of the island; check out the section called "My Isla Guide Book."
  • Cozumel.net: www.cozumel.net -- This site is a cut above the typical dining/lodging/activities sites. Click on "About Cozumel" to find schedules for ferries and island-hop flights, and to check the latest news. There's also a comprehensive listing of B&Bs and vacation-home rentals.
  • Cozumel Travel Planner: www.go2cozumel.com -- This is a well-done guide to area businesses and attractions, by an online Mexico specialist.
  • Cozumel Hotel Association: www.islacozumel.com.mx -- Operated by the tourism-promotion arm of the hotel association, this site gives more than just listings of the member hotels. There's info on the island's history, culture, and ecology, plus useful descriptions of things to do and how to do them.