Day trip to Isla Mujeres: Organized Tour vs DIY

Isla Mujeres is a beautiful island just off the shore of Cancun, Mexico. It’s only 13km long and less than a kilometer across, so can easily be explored in a single day, making it a popular day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Isla Mujeres is characterized by stunning white sandy beaches, brilliant blue waters, picturesque rocky cliffs and roads that are mostly filled with golf carts.

We’ve visited Isla Mujeres a few times in our time in Mexico, and each time has presented a very different, though amazing, view of the island. Whether you are planning an organized tour, or wanting to visit the island on your own to explore, you are certainly in for a fantastic day! 

 

Organized tour

We’ve taken an organized tour twice to Isla Mujeres. Both times were with Cancun Sailing, based out of Marina Chac-Chi in the Cancun hotel zone. They do offer hotel pickup from anywhere in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, which was a nice option.

While you wait for your boat to be ready, you can take a picture with the Cancun sign!

The tour includes a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres, a guided tour to snorkel the reef and the MUSA Underwater Museum, a buffet lunch, 1.5 hours to explore the island, and a catamaran ride back to Cancun. They also include an open bar on the catamaran and at lunch. If you ask at check in, you may get to go on a boat that also offers spinnaker flying, should the weather be ideal. We haven’t been so lucky yet ;).

In the morning you’ll arrive at Marina Chac-Chi to check in for your tour. The marine park fee of $10usd is not included in your tour price, so this is where you’ll pay this fee. Hint: pay in pesos and it’ll be a bit cheaper.

Once you’ve paid, they will give you a snorkel and you will wait on the beach until your group colour is called. When it is, you will gather with your group, hear a few instructions, and get ready to board.

While you’re waiting, you will likely be approached to buy ‘required’ reef-safe sunscreen. NO, this is not required!!! You can go without, but I recommend buying it ahead at Walmart.. it will be a fraction of the price!

At the marina

 

On the Catamaran

When it’s time to board, we like to try to 
get at the front of the line, so we can sit at the front of the boat. However this backfired the second time, when the waters were wavy enough that the boat rocking made me sea-sick. So be aware! Sit towards the back if you’re worried about this.

Our first trip we sat on the nets and it was breathtaking. The water was the most stunning shade of turquoise, and the bright blue sky made it the most perfect day. Sitting at the front of the boat on the netting proved to be the right choice that day!!

Each tour has about 40-50 people on it. This sounds like a lot, but the boat is actually huge, so tons of room for everyone. As you can see in the photo to the right, many made themselves comfortable on the netting. You can see only one side of it, there is another net the same side out of the frame. And a large sitting area to the back of the image.

 

Time to Snorkel

After cruising across the channel and getting over to the island, the captain stops short and anchors so we can go for a snorkel on the reef and to the underwater museum, MUSA. The first time we did this tour it was AMAZING. Since the water was so clear we could see everything, including so many kinds of fish! Unfortunately the second time was terrible. Couldn’t see a darn thing. Future reference: if they say it’s too cloudy to see the underwater museum, assume that snorkeling in general isn’t going to be that great! (Maybe we’re spoiled though ;))

The unfortunate part here was that there are guides in the water with you, at the front and back of the group. They are there to make sure no one gets lost in the crowds of other tour groups in the same area. While understandable, it’s annoying to be constantly prompted to hurry up and stay with the group. Especially when you’re trying to take photos for Instagram and your blog ;). And when you are with the group, there’s so many people surrounding you, it’s not hard to feel claustrophobic! More than once I was nearly hit with an errant flipper kick or inexperienced front stroke. I do wish the boats spread out a bit more so we didn’t feel so sardined in such an obviously large ocean!

 

Ready for a Drink

After we finished snorkeling we got back in the boat and the drinks started flowing. Naturally we couldn’t drink before snorkeling (liability and all that jazz), so we were (almost) all ready for something cool and alcoholic when we surfaced. The tour comes with an open bar, so the guides were running around serving drinks and beer for the 30 min it took us to get to the lunch spot. I didn’t even need to leave my spot on the net! It was great! This was also when the company photographer started making his rounds taking photos of each couple or group (I mentally prepared myself for the upsell later!).

 

Lunch Time!

When we got to shore we were greeted with the most beautiful place to sit for a meal. The view seriously can’t be beat. Unfortunately… the food could though. The buffet was perfectly average. Mashed potatoes, spaghetti, beans, rice, chicken fajitas and salad. Seth was thrilled to see spaghetti on the menu, and I really enjoyed the fajitas. other than that everything was pretty simple. Not terrible, but not amazing. Nothing I’d complain about with this view! And the best part was that the open bar continued through lunch.

Our second tour stopped at the Ice Bar for lunch, so if you wanted to pay around $20usd each you could get bundled up to enjoy a drink in their bar literally made of ice. Since we come from the land of ice and snow, we opted against that! Both tours also offered the chance to hold a shark to get a photo, but we’re not supporters of that sort of thing so we avoided the docks where they were doing that.

 

Ready to Explore Isla Mujeres

Following lunch, we hopped back on the boat to get to the main port of Isla Mujeres. It was only a 10 minute ride, but staff were quick to offer drinks again! (and really, who am I to say no?!)

They coached us to head to a golf cart rental place if we wanted one. Often they are sold out quickly, and since we only had 1.5 hours on Isla Mujeres before the boat would start back to Cancun, we’d want to start our hour rental quickly. So, following orders, we hopped off the boat and ran to the nearest shop. They still had a couple carts left, so we rented one for an hour, for $400mx. We were told it would take 50 min to get around the island, so we hopped on and away we went!

We started at the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, and headed south until we hit Punta Sur. There we spent a few minutes marveling at the number of iguanas wandering around, and enjoying the view. Seriously stunning! The rocky peak of the island is a beautiful contrast to the white sandy beaches so typical of the Caribbean.

From here, we headed back north, along the east coast of Isla Mujeres. This is a road that can’t be missed! So much so that I was disappointed we were in a rush, so the second tour we headed this way first.

By now, we were cutting it close for time, so he had to rush back to return the golf cart. Once that was done, we had a few minutes to get some photos on the beach before hopping back onto the boat.

We are accumulating quite the collection of photos with these colourful letters, and couldn’t leave Isla Mujeres without adding to it!

 

Once we got back on the boat, the drinks started flowing again! We made ourselves comfortable on the net, and settled in for the sunset ride back to Cancun. During this time the photographer made his rounds offering the photos from earlier. He had a few options to share, including some prints in a themed folder, and a mini Corona bottle with your photo pressed on. Cute, but as full time travellers, not something we wanted to carry around. Many people took him up on it though, so I’d call it a neat souvenir from the day. I don’t remember the price, but I want to say it was around $25usd. I personally wish they would offer a USB stick with all the photos he’d taken throughout the day.

Cheers!

All in all, the tours were fantastic. Knowing what I do now about snorkeling in wavy, low visability water, I would reschedule if they said we couldn’t see the underwater museum. But other than that, I’d call the tour very worthwhile! And we are super budget travellers, so that’s saying something!

 

Next, I’ll talk about our DIY day trip to Isla Mujeres, so you can decide on the right option for you!

 

DIY Day Trip

When my friend from England arrived and was looking for a fun day, I HAD to suggest visiting Isla Mujeres! Since we wanted more freedom than the tour offers, we decided to go it alone this day. So we met up at the downtown Cancun ADO station, and got a taxi to Puerto Juarez. It was only $40mx, so super cheap. The roundtrip ferry was only $300mx, a savings of $20mx from buying 2 one way tickets. And they come with no time requirement, so it’s the obvious choice.

The boat ride over was only 30 min, and offered the same stunning views as the catamaran. The water was flat, and there wasn’t much of a breeze, which made for a pleasant ride. During the journey there was a band performing on the top level, which was cool to see.

 

Getting a Cart and Hitting the Road

Remembering the cautions of the guides of the catamaran tour, we knew that golf carts might sell out so that was our first stop when we disembarked. We found that most shops had the same rates, so we weren’t picky about where we rented. The options were 1 hour for $400mx, or all day for $700mx. Since we had 3.5 hours until the rental shop closed, we opted for all day.

First stop was Playa Norte, which is said to be one of the nicest beach in Quintana Roo. I have to say I agree! It was stunning! We didn’t have time to hang out here during our organized tour, so it was awesome to be able to park our cart and go for a swim. The water was SO calm here, it was perfect conditions for a float.

One thing that is prominent in Mexico is that
you’ll always see vendors selling things up and down the beach. I’ve been to many different beaches, and this is something that is standard at all of them. However, the vendors on this beach were different than those on the mainland. They were loaded with wares. One had so many woven bags, I’m surprised he was still upright! Another had a giant bag full of sarongs. We got drawn in by him… and ended up buying a few! They were more expensive than the mainland, but beautiful, so hard to resist. Nomad problems…. Trying to decide which sarong to buy 😉

I think we stayed here almost an hour! Between the warm sun, the white beach, and the Caribbean blue water, it was hard to tear ourselves away! But… The rest of the island was calling…

 

Island Fun

From Playa Norte we headed up the east coast of Isla Mujeres. The west coast doesn’t offer as many views of the ocean, so this made the most sense to us as bloggers and instagrammers ;). Because we had lots of time to explore since we rented the cart for the afternoon, we stopped a few times to explore the shore and take some photos. The island is truly beautiful, and I was thrilled to have the time to explore it, compared to when we visited during the organized tour.

After a couple hours of exploration we stopped for a snack at the Joint on the west coast. It wasn’t the cheapest place, but we didn’t really expect it to be as it’s clearly a touristy place. The guacamole was delicious, and the fries were tasty (though definitely not homemade as the menu states!).

 

Drinks at Sunset

By the time we finished our snack, the sun was getting pretty low in the sky so it was time to head back to town and return the golf cart so we could find somewhere to watch the sunset. It sets to the north west of Isla Mujeres, so it seemed natural to head back to Playa Norte. This proved to be a great choice!! The sun was just getting low enough on the horizon that others were getting the same idea as us, but we managed to beat the crowd.

We found a bar at the far north west point that had decently priced drinks, and was perfectly positioned for a prime view of the sun meeting the horizon. So, we ordered drinks and settled in to enjoy the last bit of our awesome day on Isla Mujeres! As you can see
from the photos below, it was a stunning end to the day. Since watching the sunset over the ocean was one of the main goals of the day, we definitely called our DIY tour of Isla Mujeres a smashing success!

 

Once the sun had set, we walked around to look for somewhere to eat dinner. We found a really cute little place called Javi’s Cantina, and sat down for some guacamole and a drink. They had live music playing, which was a nice additional to our meal. The owner even popped out to say hello, and to welcome us to her restaurant! Once we were done eating, we were all pretty tired so it was time to call it a day, and head back to the ferry terminal. It was pretty amazing how quickly downtown empties out after the sun goes down! Most restaurants and stores were already shut by now, and it was barely 8pm! The ferry ride home was smooth and quick, which was great. Would not be a nice ending if we had a rough ride back!

 

The Verdict

All in all, both day trips were excellent. If you have extra money, and like the idea of an open bar and snorkeling included with people taking care of all the details for you, go for the organized tour. But if you’d like to keep to a lower budget, and have more time to explore Isla Mujeres without a timeline, do a DIY day trip.

I’m glad we’ve had the experience of an organized trip. However, having done 2 already, I’d lean more towards planning (or not planning) my own day trip to the island.

I hope this helps you decide which trip would suit you! Have you been to Isla Mujeres? Do you have any suggestions on where to eat there? Share them in the comments so I have an excuse to plan another trip over! (like I need an excuse… ;))

About the author

A. Blizzard

I'm a former teen mom, a career chef and an entrepreneur with a life-long wanderlust. My son and I recently became unschoolers and world-schoolers! This means we travel full-time and use our real-life experiences as a basis for his education. It's a blast, and we're both learning so much as we go! Follow us to keep up with our nomadic adventure!

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4 Comments on "Day trip to Isla Mujeres: Organized Tour vs DIY"

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Jamie
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Wonderful run-down of both the tour and DIY option. I always prefer to do my own thing at my own pace. I appreciated the tips about the golf carts and merchants on the beach.

Danielle
Guest

It looks absolutely wonderful! Personally, I’m a sucker for organised tours as I like to be able to totally relax and not have to stress about doing the planning myself!Both of your days looked absolutely incredible though – jealous! 😉

MEGHNA
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Such a fun post! Your post took me back to my organised day trips to Phi Phi islands in Thailand! Though I should give DIY a shot sometime! =)

Caroline
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I took a day trip to Isla Mujeres when I was in Cancun and it was gorgeous – I couldn’t get over how blue the water was! We did an organized excursion and I found it kind of limiting, so I love that you gave us a rundown of the DIY option here!

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