Isla Mujeres, Mexico
If your thoughts of retirement include a Caribbean island with warm tropical waters, ample sunshine, easy access, and an affordable full lifestyle, perhaps Isla Mujeres is what you seek. Or maybe you’re looking for a winter escape from the cold and snow. In either case, Isla Mujeres is worth a long, hard look.
The tiny tropical island of Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women), located just off the coast of eastern Mexico´s Yucatan Peninsula, has rightly earned its reputation as a popular expat destination and a world-class vacation retreat. And tiny is an accurate description, at only 4 miles long and a bit more than one-half-mile wide.
Not a naturally beachy island, with a rocky coast and some heavy surf on the east side, the west and north sides of the island have some nice sandy beaches aided by the hauling of sand from the mainland. The west side also offers some spectacular nighttime views of the Cancun skyline, only about eight miles away.
Any island called the Island of Women has to have an interesting history and Isla Mujeres does not disappoint. Originally inhabited by the Mayas, dating back over 1,400 years, it was considered a sacred place. The Maya Goddess Ixchel, Goddess of fertility, was honored here with a temple and other structures, but she may not have been the only Goddess honored here. The Mayas also used the island for the production of sea salt which was used as local currency as well as for trading up and down the mainland coast.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they noted the temple and other structures with many stone carvings osf Ixchel and other women and named the island, Isla Mujeres.
Pirates took a liking to Isla Mujeres, using the shallow lagoon to hide from bad weather and their enemies. So, on one tiny island and in the shallow, nearby waters, one can see evidence of ancient Mayas, Spanish Conquistadors, and pirates. It’s quite a place and while artifacts may be found, it is illegal to remove them.
Isla Mujeres is the permanent home to about 13,500 residents including several hundred expats, most coming from the U.S. and Canada. As the weather turns cold, north of the border, Isla’s population swells to accommodate a large flock of seasonal snowbirds.
Getting to Isla Mujeres, from Cancun is easy. Ferries run about every 30 minutes from several terminals in Cancun. New arrivals at the Cancun International Airport can catch a taxi to one of the ferry terminals. Roundtrip fare to the island and back is just under $20 and takes about 30 minutes, each way.
Retire in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
I’ve never met a sad person on an island. Islands are overflowing with happy people who love their environment and Isla Mujeres is a good example of a happy island. People from across the globe gather on the beaches, in Isla’s bars, restaurants, and beach clubs to have fun and enjoy life. Making friends is easy on Isla Mujeres. In fact, as an expat who has made their new life on the island, you will likely make many friends who are snowbirds, those spending the winter months on the island, year after year. You will look forward to their seasonal returns.
Mexico has a couple of simple, straightforward visas for retirees; the first is a Temporary Resident Visa and the second is a Permanent Resident Visa. Both permit full-time residency in Mexico but there are some significant differences such as income requirements, employment legalities, and automobile importation.
Visitors spending less than 180 days in Mexico need only possess a valid passport. No visa required. That allows all those snowbirds to make repeat, annual visits without worrying about a visa, as long as they do not exceed the 180-day limit. If you wish to remain longer than 180 days, you must apply for a visa.
Isla Mujeres survives and thrives because of tourism. It is a bustling tourist center and while Spanish is the official and predominant language, you will find many restaurant servers and other service personnel who speak a bit of English. But don’t expect it and remember you are a guest in Mexico. Knowing a little Spanish will make your time on Isla Mujeres even more comfortable.
The Mexican peso is the official currency but U.S. dollars are accepted almost everywhere. ATM machines are scattered liberally across the island but the best advice is to utilize an ATM machine located at a bank, for security purposes. Many expats choose to have their monthly income deposited in their stateside banks and access funds through local ATM machines, which dispense pesos.
The primary transportation on Isla Mujeres is provided by golf carts…bumper to bumper golf carts with cart rental business seemingly available every few feet. Golf carts are everywhere. And it makes sense. They take up less space on the roadway, they are economical on gas, and the speed is safely restricted. They are also easier to park on narrow streets and lanes. Motor scooters are the second most popular form of transportation along with a huge fleet of compact taxis. Traffic and parking challenges can be frustrating on this tiny island.
Medical care on Isla Mujeres is provided by a network of practitioners as well as a new community hospital. The care is good but for more advanced needs, a short ferry ride to Cancun will allow access to seven major hospitals with all specialties covered. Residents may choose to participate in one of two national health care plans (now under revision) or pay cash at the time of service. A regular appointment with a physician will cost from $12 to $20. Most medications are available over-the-counter, without prescriptions, and the price for meds averages about one third (or less) the cost north of the border.
Lifestyle in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
The relaxed island lifestyle is clearly evident on Isla Mujeres where daily attire can often be nothing more than beach ware and sandals and daily activities largely consist of socializing with friends on one of the beaches or enjoying each other’s company in one of the many bars or restaurants.
Isla is home to a number of beach clubs. The concept of a beach club is not universally consistent, however. On Isla Mujeres, beach clubs are essentially restaurants and bars situated directly on a beach. Most have fresh water swimming pools and provide unlimited use of the facilities, often at no charge provided you agree to buy some food and drinks. Tables and chairs, hammocks, padded and covered beach loungers are normally available to make your day at the beach as comfortable as possible. It is a great way to spend a day. Servers are ready to deliver your cold beer, Bloody Mary or giant Margarita along with a full menu of food items. Some beach clubs do charge a nominal entry fee, especially during the busy season.
Two excellent beach clubs are Captain Dulche and Zema. Both had free admission during the slow season and both offered a great menu, cold beer, and excellent cocktails. The service is excellent, the pools are perfect and beach access is more than adequate. I like the long pier at Captain Dulche. You can walk 50 yards or more out into the Caribbean before climbing down into the warm water.
The central area of the island is made for your entertainment with more bars and restaurants than can be counted. I honestly don’t know the number of restaurants on the island but the number is in the dozens and all the bases are covered when it comes to menu types. Maybe there is a bad one but I haven´t found it yet. You can easily find the freshest seafood as well as chicken and pasta dishes. Burgers, traditional Italian, Mexican, Cuban, and even Chinese and pizza are available. I´ve enjoyed great breakfasts, as well. Forgo the traditional U.S. breakfast choices and try huevos rancheros or chilaquiles.
During the high season (winter up north), live bands are in many locations and even in the summer months, bands are often playing on weekends, catering to the crowds from the mainland.
There is one special place, though, that provides a particularly noteworthy item. Villa la Bella, a perfect, oceanside B&B with a small public bar wins the prize for the best Cadillac Margarita, ever.
Cadillac Margarita at Villa la Bella
- 4 oz of 1800 Añejo tequila
- Fresh squeezed lime juice
- 1 oz of Cointreau
- 2 oz of Grand Marnier
They get $295 pesos for one (about $15 U.S.) and their limit is two per person. One should be more than enough reason to call a taxi for most folks.
Living, fulltime, in a popular vacation destination can be as wonderful as it sounds. You live where other people pay significant dollars to vacation. The hardest part may be believing your life isn´t a dream.
Things to do in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Sea Turtles come to the beaches of Isla Mujeres to dig their nests and lay their eggs. Unfortunately, a number of forces have reduced the success of hatchings so a Sea Turtle center, committed to saving the lives of these gentle animals, is located on the island and is open to the public. For a small fee of around $3, you can see where rescued eggs are reburied, waiting to hatch. There are also tanks filled with tiny sea turtles waiting to be released into the sea as well as injured turtles undergoing rehabilitation.
Isla Mujeres is a primary location from which to embark on Whale Shark tours. From about mid-June through September, huge Whale Sharks migrate through the area and numbers of tour operators, under strict regulation, offer snorkelers the opportunity to swim with the Whale Sharks. The fee is around 3500 pesos ($180).
Those interested in sport fishing will be quite happy living on Isla Mujeres. It is well known for its abundance of Sailfish during their migration through the area in the Spring. There are even a couple of noteworthy tournaments. You can charter a twin-engine boat for around $400 for a half day, including all tackle and bait.
One cannot ignore the beaches of Isla Mujeres and North Beach is as good as they get. With white sand and a gentle slope into calm, aquamarine water, beachgoers can enjoy a peaceful experience. Several restaurants and bars offer beach tables with umbrellas and loungers as well as cold drinks and food. A day at the beach is never a bad thing on Isla Mujeres.
Travel to the southernmost end of the island to a rocky point called Punta Sur. There, you will find the ruins of the Maya temple dedicated to the fertility Goddess, Ixchel. Although previously damaged by a hurricane, the ruins are still worthy of visiting and carvings can still be seen. In true tourist fashion, there are facilities there offering snacks and more substantial food items. This is the highest point on the Yucatan Peninsula so bring your camera.
The waters surrounding Isla Mujeres are visually stunning. The aquamarine mixes with varying shades of deep and light blues to form a breathtaking pallet of nature’s best stuff and sometimes, it is so clear that you can see the bottom 100 feet below. Several catamarans offer tours around the island for around $60 and some of those tours include beer as part of the package. Sometimes, operators stop to allow guests to swim and snorkel. Ask before you board.
In fact, there are many operators offering specific snorkel and scuba tours around the island and nearby reef. There is even an underwater sculptor museum consisting of dozens of sculptors stretching between Isla Mujeres and Cancun’s Hotel Zone. It´s best to take a guided scuba excursion for this underwater experience. The average depth of the sculptors is around 25 feet. There is at least one sculpture of a car (a VW Beetle) and dozens more of individuals in many different poses. Those who have experienced this dive often remark about the surreal nature. Some have called it creepy for its realism while extraordinarily out of place. This project was conceived by Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano whose purpose was to create an attractive barrier upon which coral would grow. Many forms of sea life now call these sculptors home.
Cost of Living in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
The island has dozens of small family-owned convenience stores and two modern supermarkets. Prices are naturally a bit higher than the mainland due to the added cost of transportation.
Life on Isla Mujeres can be very affordable. I recently visited the home of retired expat, John Pasnau and wife, Valerie. The home was about 800-square-foot and had two bedrooms, a modern bathroom, small sitting area/living room, and a very functional kitchen. It is furnished and air conditioned and has a small fenced yard. John and Valerie pay $800 dollars monthly including all utilities.
“A bottle of local beer, Indio, is only 20 pesos everywhere. That’s about one dollar. And I can buy a whole chicken for 60 pesos or about $3.30. A large bottle of Coke is 12 pesos (65 cents) and a big loaf of bread is 14 pesos (75 cents)”, says John.
There is a wide variety of home types on Isla Mujeres. Within the same neighborhood, you can find traditional Maya structures with stone foundations, stick walls and thatched roofs mixed with modern, low-rise condos whose height is restricted to three levels and can be purchased from around $145,000 to over $500,000.
A newly constructed one-bedroom, one-bathroom home in a nice neighborhood goes for $158,000. This would be great for a retired couple or maybe as a rental property. There is even enough land to build another unit on the property.
If condo life is more your style, $265,000 will buy a beautiful two-bedroom, two- bathroom unit in the fashionable Loma Bonita property. The outdoor terrace is the perfect place to catch the offshore breeze and the ocean view while air conditioning ensures total climate control. Modern kitchen and appliances and upgraded furnishings make this a great deal for the couple wanting a Caribbean retreat and ready access to the best restaurants on the island.
Like all other places on the planet, cost of living is dependent on lifestyle. I learned of one person who lives on Isla entirely on a Social Security check of $1,700 a month. His apartment is small and he pays $325 dollars a month. He lives a very comfortable life and puts $300 in his bank account each month so he can fly home to see his kids and grandkids a couple of times per year.
A couple can live in grand style on Isla Mujeres for between $2,000 to $3,000 monthly, all in.
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Featured Image Copyright: ©iStock/SimonDannhauer
Written By Don Murray