Isla Mujeres’s western side has calm water and extensive coral reefs that make for excellent snorkeling, though relatively few spots are accessible from the shore. Snorkeling tours can be booked at dive shops or with one of the local cooperatives—Cooperativa Isla Bonita (UltraMar Pier, cell. tel. 998/134-6103) and Cooperativa Isla Mujeres (aka Cooperativa Isla Contoy, end of Av. Madero, tel. 998/877-1363)—or from booths on Playa Norte and at the ferry pier. Most operators take snorkelers to El Farito (The Lighthouse) and other spots near the northern end of the island, where the coral is decent but quite trafficked; afternoons are less busy. Dive shops are more likely to take you to less-visited spots.
You can also arrange to snorkel at MUSA, the remarkable underwater sculpture park near Manchones reef, at the southern end of the island. Dive shops and other operators charge around US$40 per person for a trip combining MUSA and one other spot.
Yet another option is to take a trip to Isla Contoy (US$65 pp), which includes snorkeling on Ixlanche reef in addition to exploring the island. Boats depart Isla Mujeres around 9:15am and return at 4pm.
And you can snorkel on your own at Garrafón de Castilla Hotel and Beach Club (Carr. Punta Sur Km. 6, tel. 998/877-0107, 9am-5pm daily, US$4.25), at the southern tip of the island. The club itself is pretty desultory, but you can explore over 300 meters (894 feet) of coral reef, including the part used by its much-hyped neighbor, Parque Garrafón. Snorkel gear rents for US$6, and lockers and towels can be rented for around US$2.
Whale Shark Tours
Snorkeling with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, is an experience you won’t soon forget. These gentle giants congregate along the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula from mid-May to mid-September and typically measure 6-7.5 meters (20-25 feet) and weigh more than 10 tons. (They’re known to grow upwards of 18 meters, or nearly 60 feet, though such behemoths are rare here.) From Isla Mujeres, whale shark tours leave around 8am for a 60- to 90-minute boat ride northwest past Isla Contoy toward Isla Holbox (where such tours first became popular). Once in the feeding grounds, you’ll see the huge sharks trolling along the surface, feeding on krill. The boat is maneuvered nearby the shark, and a guide plus two guests slip overboard and swim alongside. The sharks are surprisingly fast, despite their languid appearance, and you have to kick hard to keep up and get a good look at their sleek spotted bodies and massive gaping mouths. The smaller your group, the more chances you’ll have to get into the water, though most people welcome the short breathers between turns. Rules also require that boats not linger with any one shark more than 30 minutes; in all, each guest can expect to have two to four chances to jump in.
Two local cooperatives handle most whale shark tours, charging around US$110 per person: Cooperativa Isla Bonita (UltraMar Pier, cell. tel. 998/134-6103, 9am-5pm daily) and Cooperativa Isla Mujeres (aka Cooperativa Isla Contoy, end of Av. Madero, tel. 998/877-1363, 9am-5pm daily). Most dive shops in Isla Mujeres also offer whale shark tours, charging around US$125 per person. Always confirm the departures times, how long the tour will last, and whether lunch and water are provided.
Beginner divers will appreciate the still water and vibrant sealife on Isla Mujeres’s western side, while the east side presents more challenging options for advanced divers, with deeper water (up to 40 meters/131 feet), more varied terrain, and even a couple of shipwrecks. Favorite sites include La Bandera (a reef dive), Media Luna (a drift dive), Ultrafreeze (a shipwreck, in notoriously chilly water), and the famous Sleeping Shark Cave—a deep cave known to attract sharks, where they fall into a strangely lethargic and nonaggressive state. Explanations for this last phenomenon vary: Salinity of the water, low carbon dioxide, and underwater currents are some theories. Unfortunately, overfishing (and overdiving) has disrupted the slumber party, and there’s only a 50-50 chance, at best, of seeing sharks on any given day. September seems to be the best month, but you just never know.
Isla Mujeres’s dive shops charge fairly uniform rates: US$65-80 for two tanks; gear and marine park admission is sometimes included, otherwise they cost US$10-18 per day. The Sleeping Shark Cave and deep dives run a little higher, and most shops offer multi-dive specials. Open-water certification courses cost around US$365, including equipment and materials.
- Aqua Adventures (Av. Juárez at Calle Morelos, tel. 998/236-4316, 9am-9pm Mon.-Sat.) goes the extra mile to provide friendly, professional service.
- Sea Hawk Divers (Av. Carlos Lazo at Av. López Mateos, tel. 998/877-1233, 9am-8pm daily) is a recommended dive shop owned and run by island local Ariel Barandica. Sea Hawk has a half-dozen comfortable rooms and studios attached to the dive shop, which it can include as part of a diving package.
- Buzos de Mexico (Av. Madero at Hidalgo, tel. 998/877-1117, 8am-8pm daily) is a newer dive shop with a youthful vibe.
- Scualo Adventures (Av. Madero at Guerrero, tel. 998/877-0607, 8:30am-8pm daily) is another reliable option.
- Carey Dive Center (Av. Matamoros near Av. Rueda Medina, tel. 998/877-0763, 8am-8pm daily) is a recommended dive shop that enjoys lots of repeat customers.
Excerpted from the Eleventh Edition of Moon Cancun & Cozumel.