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Originally published Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 7:04 PM

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Soaking up the sun, and slowing down, on Mexico's Isla Mujeres

An easygoing vacation on Mexico's Isla Mujeres.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Isla Mujeres

Getting there

Vans go from the Cancún International Airport to Puerto Juárez, the dock in Cancún for the passenger ferry to Isla Mujeres. Expect to pay $45 to $50 per van for the 30-minute ride. The Ultramar ferry costs about $12 round trip (credit cards accepted). It runs every half-hour from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and then at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 p.m.

Getting around

Golf carts reign for getting around Isla Mujeres. Daily rentals (usually 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) cost from $33 U.S. to $55. You can see the island in that time, but for $10 more you can have the cart for 24 hours.

Where to stay

There's every sort of accommodations, from small guesthouses to fancy hotels. Hotels range from $80 a night (Casa El Pío) to $215 a night (Villa Vera Puerto Isla Mujeres). The website on the official guide map is helpful: www.isla-mujeres.travel. We stayed at Villa Vera through our vacation club. Without the membership, the rate would have been $215 a night. There are only 24 units, all facing the large pool in the center of the complex. Our unit did not have a kitchen, but some rooms do. It's out of the busy El Centro district of Isla Mujeres, but within a long pleasant walk.

Where to eat

The main business district on the island, El Centro, is packed with restaurants, cafes and small rotiserias, especially on the Avenida Hidalgo, a pedestrian-only gantlet of eateries and their hawkers.

Lolo Lorena's is on Avenida Rueda Medina about a block north of the Chedraui supermercado.

The Mango Café is at Payo Obispo No. 725.

What to do

Our $75-a-person trip to Isla Contoy was arranged through the Cooperativa de Isla Mujeres, a group of boat owners based about a block north of the passenger ferry dock. For more information on diving and boat trips, see www.isla-mujeres.com.mx/english/diveshops.htm

Garrafon Natural Reef Park — a privately run beach — offers swimming with dolphins and other aquatic activities as well as zip lines, bicycles, continental breakfast, a buffet lunch and open bar — all for one price. All day (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) packages range from $84 U.S. to $174. www.garrafon.com

You can also take a dip with a dolphin at Dolphin Discovery, or, if you can't swim you can get a kiss or a handshake from them while on the platform over their swimming area. www.dolphindiscovery.com

Tours to Mayan ruins on the mainland can be arranged through your hotel or at the booth outside the Ultramar ferry dock on Isla Mujeres. Prices range from $55 to $100 per person. If you use Mexican Travel with the Mayan Palace hotel, ask for Sergio Zaldivar, a knowledgeable and entertaining guide.

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The hard vacation decision came early in the week: Sit by the pool or do something?

Fortunately on Mexico's Isla Mujeres, near Cancún, it was easy to split the difference. A day by the pool, then a day snorkeling. Hammock time, then Mayan ruins. And so on until the plane left for home.

On our three lounging days, all my wife and I needed were bathing suits, trash novels and towels, plus enough Spanish to order drinks when we encountered the rare server who didn't speak English.

For our three active days, we chose to visit archaeological sites on Mexico's Yucatan mainland for two days and go to the birds one other day.

Isla Contoy is a bird sanctuary on a narrow, four-mile-long island. From Isla Mujeres, we traveled the 18 miles to it in a panga, a small boat with a canvas cover which didn't entirely protect us from the sun or sea spray.

But we liked the smaller boat as we got to know our shipmates, a couple from Boston, and the crew. Captain Fausto had his 12-year-old son along (no school that day) and was teaching him how to fish with a hand line. We weren't very far into the trip before a barracuda was flopping around in the boat. We also stopped to snorkel on a reef, seeing manta rays, but only a limited variety of fish.

The bigger boats arriving from Cancún carried many more passengers, and once on Isla Contoy we heard conversations in French, German, Italian, Hebrew and Russian in addition to Spanish and English. In fact, we saw more varieties of humans than we did of birds. The island is an important nesting place for sea birds, which means you see a lot of frigates, some pelicans and the occasional osprey — and lots of iguanas, including two large ones that showed up to beg at lunch.

After lunch there was free time for the beach and more snorkeling before heading back to Isla Mujeres, the panga plunging through the waves and leaving us drenched — and exhilarated.

Isla Mujeres itself offered enough attractions that our pool days were often interrupted by jaunts to other parts of the island. The island, a $6 ferry ride from Cancún, is only 4 ½ miles long and a 20-minute walk across.

The ferry docks in El Centro, the business district, while the rest of the island is home to many people who work in Cancún. Restaurants, hotels and some tourist attractions are scattered about the island, a warren of winding, littered streets and sidewalks of often broken concrete. Wander at night (we did safely) and you'll see that these streets are where life happens, with people sitting out to chat, dine and play music.

We started with a visit to the Mango Café for their Monday night Jamaican specials — chicken, pork or fish in a spicy jerk preparation.

The meal was good enough that we knew we'd be pulled away on the next pool day for the café's breakfast special: French toast with almonds and coconut. It was oh, so good and oh, so filling that we had to walk it off, which brought us all the way to the southern tip of the island.

The Spaniard Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba came across the island in 1517 and his countrymen who followed laid waste to the Mayan temple that once graced the island's Punta Sur, destroying images of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of love and fertility and the basis for one version of how Isla Mujeres — which means the Island of Women — got its name.

It cost the equivalent of $3 to see what little remains of the temple, but the setting is dramatic, with waves crashing on rocks below, frigate birds coasting on the wind above, and paths winding through the rocks and archways beneath the demolished temple.

We also liked Playa Lancheros, about a mile north of Punta Sur on the west side of the island. The beach is hemmed in by docks, but it has the essentials — white sand, waves and a friendly bar and restaurant known for the Mayan specialty Tikin-xic, fish bathed in achiote, a spice made from the red seed of the annatto tree and used in many Mexican dishes. Plan on lunch there as the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.

We had time to head for El Centro for shopping, dining and renting golf carts and mopeds, the island's most common transportation. But when we got there, we decided instead to relax on the nearby white sand beach, Playa Norte (North Beach), the biggest and most popular on the island. It wraps around the north end of the island and faces west, ideal for sunset viewing.

Another day, we wandered past Lolo Lorena's restaurant, bakery and inn south of El Centro. It's a blue building with a few baked goods for sale in the front room that opens to the street. Step inside and yoo-hoo for someone, and Lolo herself appears.

A Frenchwoman who has lived on the island for 31 years, she was upset because a dinner reservation for 20 that evening had been reduced through cancellations to 13. What could we do? We sacrificed evening pool time to fill two of the spots. Best decision of the week.

The 7:30 prix fixe meal ($35 per person) is served communally in the courtyard. The four courses included scallops in a tomato and chili cream sauce, risotto and a cassoulet of either seafood or chicken covered with mashed potatoes au gratin.

Each diner got an array of miniature desserts, but the macaroons filled with mango cream were clearly the favorite. The food was delicious, the conversation with our tablemates lively and the outdoor setting tranquil.

The rooms Lolo rents, all tile and bright colors as if designed by Antoni Gaudi, are a far cry from Cancún's huge poultry-cage hotels built atop Gucci, Cartier and Louis Vuitton stores, which you won't find on low-key Isla Mujeres. Her eccentric rooms retain the old hippie milieu that has long distinguished Isla Mujeres from its neighbor Cancún, a Las Vegas with beaches.

There's more of the grit of Mexico on Isla Mujeres. It's dustier, not as well kept as Cancún and crowded. But it's more authentic, has its quieter spots and provides a great place to sit by the pool or be pulled away to play.

John B. Saul is a freelance writer and former editor at The Seattle Times. Contact him at jbsaul@me.com

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