This year’s trip started with four nights in Mérida, our first visit ever to that beautiful city. Mérida is very different from Isla Mujeres, but is perhaps more representative of the Yucatan as a whole, so we highly recommend it. To read the report from that portion of the trip, please visit:
Despite previous visits to Isla, there is still so much we have yet to experience, which is surprising for such a small island. So we find that we have to prepare a list of our favorites to revisit, but to save room for new accommodations, restaurants and activities. Since our hotel in Mérida was ridiculously inexpensive, we decided to splurge a bit by splitting our six nights on Isla into three at Villa la Bella and three at Casa Sirena, two of Mexico’s highest rated B&Bs. We had visited both on previous trips and promised ourselves that one day we would stay at each.
We were a bit apprehensive of the whole B&B vibe, wondering whether we would feel pressured into being part of the group and hoping we didn’t have to sacrifice our plans to do so. Shortly before our trip, we learned that my son Drew and his girlfriend Emily were able to join us, meeting us at Gran Puerto before taking the ferry over. We provided them with some financial assistance, but had already committed to our accommodations and couldn’t afford to put them up all week at the same places, so they opted to spend their first four nights at Posada del Mar. We booked them at Casa Sirena for their final three nights, including one night after we departed. While we were anxious to show them the island we love, I was particularly interested in Drew’s take on the Isla food scene, since he is a restaurant GM in Boston. If I had discovered Isla at his age, with his background, I would probably be living there today. We also learned that my ex-brother-in-law and his girlfriend (XBL and XBLGF for those of you scoring at home) would be arriving in time to spend our last two nights together. We first visited Isla in 2010 with XBL and XBLGF and this was their first return trip. All six of us were giddy with excitement.
TUESDAY, 3 SEPT
Our four-hour bus ride from Mérida began at 7 AM. It’s a very boring drive because the vegetation along the highway prevents you from seeing anything except the road in front of you. We had our share of rain in Mérida and hoped we were heading to a sunnier climate, although radar returns revealed that a large area of low pressure had settled over the entire Yucatan. We took a cab from the Cancun ADO station to Gran Puerto, arriving at 11:15. Drew’s plane had been scheduled to land at 10:30 so I deduced that we would all be on the 12:00 ferry.
Normally, when we arrive at Gran Puerto the ferry is already loading and we have very little time to purchase our tickets and run down the dock. So this was the first chance we had to poke around Gran Puerto. I found the new Santander ATM, which is outside the OXXO facing the driveway where shuttle vans pull up. As a Bank of America customer I planned to make a withdrawal without fees but the ATM was out of cash. Peering across the Bahia we saw nothing but clouds. On five previous trips to the Yucatan we had experienced perhaps one rainy night in total, so apparently our karma bill had come due.
At about 11:45 Drew and Emily’s van pulled up and within a few minutes we had all polished off a cold beer and boarded the ferry. Drew and Emily were robbed of seeing that incredibly aquamarine water, which looked strangely dark under the overcast sky. Even the BFF (Big Freaking Flag) was missing from the Cancun side, adding to the air of unfamiliarity. We pointed out the sights as Isla came into focus. It was easy to show them where Posada del Mar was because their lighthouse was visible all the way across the bay. It was becoming apparent that we were just as eager to show them Isla as they were to see it.
Disembarking the ferry, we headed northward in the general direction of Posada del Mar, making our traditional first stop at Barlito for lunch. We’ve now eaten at Barlito four times, always with luggage in tow. We come not only for the delicious food, but also because we love visiting with Brad and Tiffany. Barlito was crowded today and we all squeezed into a table on Hidalgo and ordered some refreshing limonadas and watermelon waters. Shortly after we were seated, a familiar voice called me from the next table.
“Doug?” It was Jim Silver, owner of Aqua Adventures, sitting with his wife Daisy. I have to admit it was pretty cool having local residents call me by name 15 minutes after arriving on the island and it was the first of many “See? We told you it was our island,” moments. I introduced Drew and Emily and we briefly went over our plans for the two of them to receive some instruction prior to our dives on Friday.
It was time to order. Michele calls Barlito “two of her favorite meals on Isla” because she can never finish more than half of one of their enormous Paninis. She and Emily decided to split a Corriero (105 pesos), grilled chicken with caramelized onions and apple. She admitted that on first bite she realized she had ordered that same sandwich on our last trip, but it was so delicious she didn’t care. I had no problems repeating a previous order, choosing once again the One Eyed Cajun (105 pesos), pulled pork on their three cheese Panini, without even consulting the menu, which was endorsement enough for Drew to order one of his own. Cheese on pulled pork may not seem to be a natural combination, but trust me on this one.
The One Eyed Cajun:
Despite our excitement at being back on Isla, we ate in relative silence, a sure sign that delicious food was on the table. Our bill was 447 pesos ($35.76 US), and as I concluded my visit with Brad and Tiffany while paying the bill I looked up to see the others were already half a block up Hidalgo. I scurried to catch up with them, which requires the ability to say, “No, gracias,” very rapidly as you pass each shop. We got Drew and Emily to PDM and told them we’d be back around 5 PM, giving them time to check in, unwind and explore the PDM bar and beach situation. Michele and I jumped into a cab for Villa la Bella.
We had taken a tour of VLB last year and fell in love with Palapa Suite 1, upstairs and closest to the hypnotic sounds of the ocean. Its distinguishing features include a hanging bed and several gaping windows with blinds that can be opened to let in the sea breeze, eliminating the need for AC. How breezy is it? A word of advice: put away all travel documents and other lightweight objects before opening the blinds. Owners Curtis and Ashley, two of our favorite people on Isla, welcomed us and gave us the rundown. Since our bar tab was now open, we had a Piña Colada and a Margarita brought up to our room while we unpacked. We were already in love with our room and I decided that if we were to build a house in Mexico I wanted our bedroom to look just like this one. Michele’s notes read at this point, “OMG: this is paradise!”
Villa la Bella:
Palapa Suite 1 is upstairs to the right:
The view down the rocky coast from this room is spectacular, and as soon as we saw some people enjoying the surf on “Bella Beach,” we knew we had to get into that water. We changed into our swimsuits and followed the path to the beach. Cooled and content, we went back to our room to change and headed back to Centro. Curtis had advised us to walk one block inland, past the Crayon house to catch a cab, and as soon as we got to the next corner we flagged one down.
View from Palapa Suite 1:
VLB from the beach:
We found Drew and Emily playing pool at the PDM bar, where infamous bartender Romy had already become their best friend. Drew told me that when they had reached their room he recognized immediately that it was not the room type that they had booked, and so he had gone back to the front desk to get it straightened out. The girl behind the desk, he related, glared at him throughout the conversation, or rather monologue, considering she never said a single word. She silently gave him another key and continued glaring at him as though his request for the room he had booked was unheard of.
Emily with her new bestie:
We had a few drinks at PDM as Drew played pool with some other guests, one of whom was celebrating a birthday. They invited us to join them at Miguel’s Moonlite later, and Romy said he was going as well. We walked around the corner onto Lopez Mateos, hoping to show them the cemetery, but it was closed. So we continued onto Playa Norte to show them “our beach.” After a few photos, we walked back down Hidalgo and showed them the corner where they would be able to buy pastries from the back of a black SUV. As we were describing them, the pastry guys arrived and showed us their wares. We bought some pineapple pie for later and turned to walk to Fredy’s.
You can never be sure whether Fredy will be open during slow season, but I had forgotten that he is always closed on Tuesdays, which left us having to make a last minute choice. I turned around and looked across the street. “Well,” I said to Michele, “You know we’ve never eaten here.” I gestured toward Lola Valentina. “Hmm,” she responded, hardly a ringing endorsement.
For purely personal reasons, most of them petty and all of them unfair, we were predisposed toward disliking Lola Valentina dating back to before the restaurant was open. So while eating here had never been high on our list, the rave reviews had us curious. Owner Lori greeted us and seated us, and spent most of the evening flitting about the dining room visiting with guests.
Lola Valentina is known for their unusual Margarita flavors, and while I’m quite happy with the flavors of tequila and lime, we worked our way through the Margarita menu, from pineapple-ginger to watermelon-jalapeno to cucumber-jalapeno. Each was equally complex and refreshing, and priced at 65 pesos, or two for 100. We started with an order of guacamole with salsa and bacon (75 pesos), which was delicious but fairly small. We also ordered the grilled watermelon and Panela cheese with balsamic and Mayan pesto (95 pesos), stacked and layered so as to resemble a Caprese salad.
Grilled watermelon app:
For entrees, I chose the red snapper stuffed with shrimp, onions, garlic and cheese, topped with grilled poblano peppers and a savory cream poblano sauce (175 pesos). Upon taking my first bite, I turned and looked despondently at Michele. “Uh-oh,” she said, “Is it good?” “Worse than that,” I said, “It’s fabulous.” The fish was moist, tender and flaky, and the poblano complemented the fish without overpowering it. Somewhere in the kitchen was a very talented chef.
Emily selected the spicy garlic shrimp in fresh coconut milk sauce with jalapeno and coconut rice (165 pesos), which offered an interesting combination of sweet and spicy flavors. Drew’s choice won the prize for presentation: crunchy coated chicken breast stuffed with mixed Mexican cheeses, bacon and jalapeno-cilantro sauce (155 pesos). It was outstanding, and the consensus favorite at the table, although I preferred my snapper.
The spicy garlic shrimp:
Crunchy coated chicken breast:
Michele was not in the mood for a spicy dish, but was having trouble finding something without “spicy” in the name or containing jalapeno, chipotle or poblano. So she went with a simple approach by ordering BBQ chicken quesadillas with Manchego cheese, onions, pineapple and avocado (125 pesos), which turned out to also harbor quite a bit of chopped jalapeno.
The bill for four of us was 1,155 pesos ($92.40) including drinks. We had to admit the food was delicious, creative and artistically presented. But our visit only confirmed our notion that the owner is a bit “eccentric.” Let’s just leave it at that.
After dinner we strolled down Hidalgo and met up with the birthday gang at Miguel’s. Romy was indeed there, and we all enjoyed a pomegranate Margarita with our birthday cake. Whose grin is more permanent, Miguel’s or Romy’s? Someone should conduct a study.
Miguel serves the birthday cake:
We stepped next door to the dive shop Buzo’s de Mexico, which was closed for the evening, but we wandered into their courtyard to show Drew and Emily that they also offered accommodations. While snooping around Buzo’s, the owner returned and invited us into the shop. He remembered speaking with me last year and was anxious to show me all that they had been up to recently, including helping a scientific team produce a 3-D map of the reefs off Cozumel. Quite an ambitious shop and a very energetic owner. He described their new partnership with Captain Dulche’s, where they are building a scuba training facility and contributing underwater information for the museum.
Before calling it a night we made plans for the next morning. Drew made it clear that he isn’t into waking at the crack of dawn while vacationing, and our breakfast at Villa la Bella began no earlier than 8:30 AM, so we agreed that we would get a golf cart and pick them up at 10 to tour the island. We wondered whether they were really heading back to Posada del Mar or out for adventure. Michele and I found a cab and went back to Villa la Bella. We were back by 10 PM but the entire place looked dark and closed. We worried for a moment that we might be locked out. The front door was unlocked, however, and the little flashlight I had attached to my keys helped us negotiate through the lobby and up the stairs. We were back on Isla and all was right with the world.
Our room lit at night: