Situated in the Caribbean just a short distance offshore from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a small island that punches above its weight in terms of offering an eco-friendly travel experience. The Yucatán Peninsula has long been impacted by mass tourism and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by local officials who are concerned for the region’s fragile ecosystem.
Isla Mujeres is known for its laid-back relaxing atmosphere, a far cry from nearby Cancun. While many travelers simply make an effort to take a day trip to the island from the mainland, Isla Mujeres is more than deserving of being the sole focus of any trip to this region of Mexico.
Getting to Isla Mujeres
Some islands require a bit of effort to visit, Isla Mujeres is not one of them. You simply take one of the regular 30-minute ferries that run from Cancun to Isla Mujeres.
Puerto Juárez’s Gran Puerto ferry port is the main way most people access ferries that run to the island, but there are additional routes leading from Cancun’s Hotel Zone including departures from El Embarcadero, Playa Caracol, and Playa Tortugas.
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As fast as the journey is, most would be happy if it were to take longer since the scenery aboard the ferry is a pretty good appetizer for what’s to come. Many of the ferries utilize engines that are designed to reduce emissions as much as possible and the comfort onboard is pretty impressive for a ferry even when on a standard ticket. However, there is also a first-class section if you wish to enjoy even more comfort.
Isla Mujeres and its Dedication to Sustainability and Environmental Protection
Quintana Roo, which is the state that includes Cancún, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel is proving its dedication to preserving the local ecosystem. The Distintivo S program was created by the local Ministry of Tourism in cooperation with EarthCheck and Rainforest Alliance. The program provides certification and various benefits to local businesses that adopt sustainable practices like conserving energy and reducing water usage.
There have also been signed agreements that look to develop strategies for preserving natural resources and a few projects in the works that look to promote the use of energy from organic waste. There is even an annual Sustainable and Social Tourism Summit held in Cancun.
The other thing you will notice on Isla Mujeres is how few cars there are. While cars aren’t banned, it is golf carts that are the main mode of transportation. You can rent them nearly anywhere on the island and you can even have them awaiting you at the ferry terminal upon your arrival or brought to your hotel.
While many of the island’s golf carts are sadly still gas-powered, it’s still better than the emissions that cars would create. Try inquiring whether electric carts are available to rent in order to reduce your carbon footprint further.
Many of the hotels and resorts on Isla Mujeres are also committed to sustainability and the preservation of the local environment. Some employ onsite sustainability managers to help better manage the hotel’s sustainable measures, and others even have wildlife refuges on their properties.
For Example, MÍA Reef Isla Mujeres has its own Tern Sanctuary and is committed to the conservation of the species. They were offering special day passes where you could visit and observe the birds without booking a stay, a portion of the proceeds going to the ongoing preservation of the sanctuary. You may wish to inquire if this is still available.
Other accommodation providers have on-site composting, utilize solar energy, promote tree planting on the islands, and source organic produce from local growers in nearby mainland villages.
Even a number of tour companies on the island use proceeds to fund environmental preservation, research, and educational programs. Quintana Roo has also now banned single-use plastic materials and utensils.
Top 3 Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Experiences to Enjoy on Isla Mujeres
Visit an Underwater Museum Helping to Combat Climate Change
It can be a challenge to offset the impacts of mass tourism descending upon the local reefs each year. One way that is being done is through a unique underwater art museum known as Museo Subacuático de Arte or MUSA.
Located off the coast of Isla Mujeres in the Cancún National Marine Park., MUSA is a museum that doubles as an artificial reef. While many artificial reefs are created by ships and debris that have been unintentionally or purposely placed on the seafloor, MUSA has created submerged art galleries filled with hundreds of fascinating statues created with pH-neutral cement that not only allow coral and marine plants to grow on them but also have special crevices and holes where marine life can live.
Art is quite literally saving the oceans here, the underwater galleries helping to offset the effects of climate change on the reef and the impacts caused by tourists. It will also increase the reef system’s overall biomass.
Not only do the statues provide an artificial reef where marine life is thriving, it also helps to attract tourists who come to view the underwater museum and the marine life it attracts through snorkeling, scuba diving, and glass-bottom boats. This means the area’s natural reefs see less traffic and have a better chance to heal.
The museum is just in its infancy so to speak, as there are many more galleries planned which will create well over a thousand different artificial habitats.
Visit Isla Contoy
Isla Contoy is a national park and one of the top eco-tourism sites in the region. Access to the heavily protected island is limited to just 200 lucky people a day in order to preserve the local ecosystem.
The island is often nicknamed the “island of the birds” due to the fact more than 150 resident and migratory birds visit the island. Just some of the species that stop on the island include nesting peregrine falcons, pelicans, ospreys, herons and egrets, boobies, and frigatebirds.
To reach the small island that’s roughly 20 miles from Isla Mujeres, you need to go through an authorized tourist provider of which only a select few are available. The guides that supervise tours to the island must go through intensive training to ensure the protection of the island.
You won’t find any shops or hotels on the island, the closest are in Isla Mujeres. Only a limited number of scientists are allowed to stay on the island to carry out research. Otherwise, the island is truly reserved for the local wildlife.
Both insect repellent and sunscreen are now banned from the island, even those that are biodegradable and reef-safe. There are also no single-use plastics allowed and smoking is prohibited. All of this is to ensure the impact of visitors is kept to an absolute minimum both to guarantee the protection of the wildlife here and the island’s Ramsar-listed mangroves.
The island also provides nesting for sea turtles, and the surrounding water is home to hawksbill, green, loggerhead, and leatherback turtles. Tours to the island often allow you to visit Ixlache Reef off the south end of the island. This reef is considered to be the beginning of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef which is regarded as the world’s second-largest.
Swim with the World’s Largest Fish
No trip to Isla Mujeres is complete without swimming with whale sharks, but you’ll have to book your trip between June and September when the world’s largest fish is present in the nearby waters.
Animal encounters can always be questionable travel activities when you consider how often these experiences can put the lives of animals in danger and cause a great deal of stress. However, when done properly, experiencing our natural world through ethical wildlife tours can be a win for both us and the animals.
Ethical animal encounters bring awareness to the importance of various species and funds from tours can be funneled back into conservation efforts. Swimming with whale sharks off Isla Mujeres is thankfully an ethical experience.
Following safety and sustainability regulations is strictly enforced and tour operators and their guides must go through a whale shark biology course among other things before being granted permission to run tours.
Boat tours that seek out the whale sharks during the season when they feed in the plankton-rich waters are capped to just 10 passengers and only 2 people besides the guides are allowed in the water at any time when the opportunity to swim with the whale sharks presents itself.
Not only are you not allowed to touch the whale sharks, there are also minimum distance requirements as well as not being allowed to dive below the surface. This is enforced by way of making life vests mandatory which forces you to remain on the water’s surface.
Once again, even reef-safe biodegradable sunblocks are banned, as these can have negative impacts on whale sharks. Single-use plastics are also not allowed on tour boats and diesel engines are prohibited as the residue they create can harm the fish.
Despite all these regulations, it definitely doesn’t distract from the experience. And while sightings are never guaranteed since they are not forced, there is a very high probability of witnessing a few whale sharks on each individual tour during the season. Some lucky tours witness several dozen in a single outing.
How You Can Travel More Responsibly
Well over a billion people travel abroad each year, which means sustainable tourism is a must if environments and cultures are to be preserved. While tourism can contribute to climate change and the destruction of local ecosystems, it can also have a positive impact if we are all willing to do our part.
It’s your duty to become a more responsible traveler, and it starts with booking eco-friendly accommodations, adopting a ‘Leave no trace‘ attitude and choosing to go with sustainable tour operators. Look for companies that have been certified or proven to be committed to sustainable tourism and maybe even filter a portion of their profits back into the local community, environmental conservation efforts, or the preservation of important local sites.
Don’t be afraid to act as a responsible travel advocate and encourage others to think about ways they can reduce their negative impacts while traveling. Always report any violations of human or animal rights you witness while traveling and offer suggestions to businesses on how they may become more sustainable.