The sea was tossing and the horizon was blue in every direction. Everybody aboard was sick, slightly green in color and occasionally rushing to the bathroom or the nearest rail. 70 other boats jockeyed for position, their wakes adding to the turmoil. The boat captain started yelling in unintelligible Spanish, pointing aggressively towards us and the side of the boat in turn. Seconds later, we were face to face with a 20 foot long shark
3 times longer than ourselves, they glide gracefully through the water, effortlessly advancing at a speed that was difficult to mimic for long. Curious, several times they swam within an arms reach of us, as if to say hello to the strange creatures that have visited their world
Swimming with these beautiful creatures is incredible, a dream for as long as I can remember finally come true.
The whale sharks make their way to the waters off Isla Mujeres, Mexico at this time of year as part of their normal migration, but it was completely unexpected that we would be here. We were enjoying the lobster and rain in Caye Caulker, Belize when a friend mentioned on Facebook that she had just swam with 50 whale sharks. We weren’t planning on going back into Mexico, but its not as if we have a schedule. A few days later we were on the night bus to Cancun en route to Isla Mujeres with little planning and less foresight.
Walking into one of 100’s of tour operators, we began negotiating in earnest. “Buenos Dias, we want to go swim with the whale sharks.”
In her Italian accented broken English, “Oh, yes, we leave everyday at 7:30, it takes about 2 hours by boat to get to the whale sharks, and it is $125 per person.” They seem to like pricing everything in USD in Isla Mujeres, making it as easy as possible to part the gringos with their dollars.
“Woah, $125?! But we talked with other people that only paid $110!”
A few minutes later, after consulting with another employee, “OK, we can do it for $90 each.”
With hard bargaining like that, how can you say no? We paid our deposit and headed to the beach. Playa Norte is one of the nicest beaches anywhere
Between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, we may have well as been in Southern California or the Gulf Coast of Texas. This part of the world seems a big piece of Gringolandia, with an abundance of foreign tourists and everything in English and US Dollars. The prices reflect it. Even the food prices in the traditional market were high by comparison with the rest of Mexico
As is our way, we explored several restaurants from the most sketchy looking food cart to the elegant establishments with beautiful décor and food catering to the finer palettes. Unfortunately we found little to be memorable other than some wonderfully delectable (and dangerous) watermelon jalapeño margaritas. The street crepes and paletas were also quite good, and we were happy to find not 1 but 3 gelato shops
Housing on the island was quite reasonable as well. After being kicked out of the first place we stayed, (“We could probably let you stay longer if you were willing to pay more, hint hint”) we found a great deal at Playa la Media Luna. While others were staying in ocean view rooms for $100 – $150 a night, we were paying $35 a night for the rustic room and then walking 30 seconds to view the ocean from the pool and the beach. How much ocean can you look at when you are sleeping, anyway? 99% of the time we were the only 2 people at the pool
The pool was definitely a necessity as both temperature and humidity were already sky high by 9 am. The ocean breeze and cool pool combo prevented heat stroke and insanity. Regular downpours helped cool things down as well, but also pushed everyone indoors.
With our goal of seeing whale sharks accomplished, we were ready to head on to our next destination: Cuba. The Lonely Planet had this advice, “If there is a bad time to visit Cuba (there isn’t) it would be July and August.”
The forecasts for Isla Mujeres and Havana were for thunderstorms and high temperatures for at least 10 days out. The forecast for Seattle was for blue skies, perfect temperature, and sunshine. So on a whim, we bought tickets to Seattle and decided to camp out there for the summer before heading south again in the fall. It’s a great season for hiking, camping, and boating.
Whale Shark Tour: $90 per person (up to $125)
Underwater camera rental: $40
1-way ferry ticket to Isla Mujeres: 140 pesos (~$11)
Watermelon jalapeno margarita at Lola Valentinas during happy hour: 50 pesos (~$4)
Poc Chuc / pulled pork Burrito at local market: 60 pesos (~$4.75)
Double scoop of gelato: 50 pesos (~$4)