Last Updated on June 17, 2023

Cancun is an immensely popular destination for travelers. It generates about one-third of Mexico’s total tourism revenue and is one of the entire Caribbean’s most-visited places.

Visitors to Cancun can chill on its magnificent beaches, enjoy its array of fine restaurants, shop in glittery retail palaces and never venture beyond its boundaries.

If, however, you’re more of an adventure traveler, I suggest heading south to the riveting Riviera Maya filled with historic ruins, captivating cenotes and eco-tourism treasures.

I also highly recommend two incredible islands that should be explored during your time in Cancun: Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox.

You’ll fall in love with these amazing escapes and thank your lucky stars you found them. Whether you go for a day visit or an overnight stay, you’ll love these true-blue Caribbean Island gems.

Isla Mujeres: The Island of Women

Punta Sur Views, Isla Mujeres
Punta Sur Views, Isla Mujeres

Located just 12.5-miles off the coast of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is accessible by ferry or boat from Puerto Juarez. The ferry terminal is about a 15-minute drive from the Cancun Hotel Zone and the ferry ride takes about 20 minutes.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they were fascinated by a Yucatán island with many images of Mayan goddesses representing the moon, fertility, childbirth, and medicine. They named this small archipelago Isla Mujeres — the Island of Women.

Even today, the feminine touch abounds here as Mother Nature has blessed this offshore jewel in so many wonderful ways. It’s no surprise that Isla Mujeres has been named one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (magic villages) for its natural beauty, cultural riches, and historical relevance.

Renting a golf cart is the ideal way to explore this small island once arriving from the mainland. They’re fun, easy to drive, and it’s almost impossible to get lost — after all, it is an island, only five-miles-long and 400-yards at its widest point. But is it ever big on adventure!  

My family loved exploring authentic Mayan ruins from the amazingly picturesque Punta Sur where the rising sun’s rays first touch Mexican soil. This point’s rocky cliffs, crashing waves, and multi-hued waters are truly captivating.

Diving and snorkeling are popular here due to the tourmaline waters and abundance of sea life. Zip-lining over the Caribbean Sea is another exciting adventure.

El Farito (The Lighthouse) Reef is teeming with hundreds of colorful tropical fish and varied coral formations. Local guides instructed our small group of snorkelers to be on the lookout for a statue of the Virgin Mary on the ocean floor placed here by local fishermen after being found in a shipwreck.

The coral reef sites in the Cancun region have received a huge influx of visitors over the years, and this has taken its toll on natural areas and ecosystems. But art and nature are now being balanced in the most elegant and visually attractive way at the Manchones Reef where an underwater sculpture museum containing more than 500 life-sized statues are fixed to the seabed. The sculptures are made from specialized materials used to promote coral life and marine life breeding.

Beaches are spectacular on the island, kids love the turtle sanctuary, and the colorful street art is some of the most spectacular we’ve seen in Mexico.

The vibrant town is a shopper’s paradise, and indulging in local island cuisine and delightful cocktails, with feet in the sand under palapa-thatched roofs and swaying palms is unforgettable.

All this and more made it easy to fall under Isla Mujeres’ magical spell.

Isla Holbox: Mexico’s Best Kept Secret

Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox. Photo by Noreen Kompanik.

The tiny island of Isla Holbox (pronounced hole bosh) is located 75 miles to the northwest of Cancun. Just 26-miles wide and 1.2-miles long, it is separated from the mainland by a shallow lagoon serving as a sanctuary for thousands of flamingos, pelicans, and other exotic birds and sea creatures.

The true beauty of the island is that it’s pretty much unknown. There are no paved roads (rather they are made of packed white sand) and no vehicles with the exception of a few work trucks. All visitors arrive by ferry from the town of Chiquila on the mainland, by small plane, or making the 2.5 to 3-hour drive from Cancun.  Once on the island, the way to get around is by foot or bicycle.

Isla Holbox offers miles and miles of undeveloped beaches with powdery white sand and sparkling Caribbean waters teeming with marine life, including the gentle giants of the deep — docile whale sharks. It’s truly an undisturbed paradise.

Most of the island residents are fishermen, so you can imagine how amazingly fresh the seafood is, as well as the authentic Mexican cuisine prepared with love by the locals. Holbox Village, the main town on the island, is also known as “El Pueblo.” The village offers a range of accommodations and restaurants serving fresh seafood as well as a collection of boutiques, local shops and colorful street art.

What else is there to do in this off-the-beaten-bath pristine piece of heaven?

You can swim with the whale sharks from June to September, bask on pristine beaches, walk a never-ending sandbar, nap in hammocks strung between palm trees (one of my favorites), swim in a crystalline cenote, take a boat tour or kayak the mangroves.

Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox.
Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox. Photo courtesy of Visit Cancun

At night, Isla Holbox offers a unique spectacle of bioluminescent plankton. When disturbed, these tiny organisms emit a bright blue glow, creating a magical experience for those lucky enough to witness it. That’s a lot of laid-back fun for a tiny isle.

In addition, the Yalahau Lagoon and surrounding areas are a paradise for bird enthusiasts. Numerous species, including flamingos, herons, pelicans and ibises can be spotted in the lagoon and mangrove forests.

Let’s just say this island is about perfect escapism.

The next time you’re heading to Cancun, treat yourself to an island paradise you won’t forget.

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  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 1,000 published articles in a variety of digital and print publications.