Food & dining

Across the bay (and a world away) from Cancun on the Island of Women

Water view at Zöetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun resort.
Diane Bair for The Boston Globe
Water view at Zöetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun resort.

QUINTANA ROO, Mexico — While you are piling on layers of clothing and checking your weather app to see how many degrees above zero it is, somebody else (Alternative Universe you?) is sitting in a warm, bubbly saltwater pool, having their pressure points kneaded by a masseuse. Such is the life — and a lush life it is — at Zöetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun resort on Isla Mujeres in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Later in the day, after a lazy stint in a beach chair, you might be inclined to take out a paddleboard or pop over to see the white turtles (yes, they’re actually white) at the turtle farm (Tortugranja), a half-mile away.

And if you’re hoping to conceive (or to get an extra boost of healing power beyond the massage), there’s something else you should do: Visit Punta Sur and pay your respects to the Mayan goddess Ixchel. Here, on “the island of women,” women have been visiting Ixchel for centuries. “Ixchel was the goddess of the moon and she was associated with healing and fertility,” says Gustavo Rodriguez Orozco, director of tourism for Isla Mujeres. To that end, “Mayan women came to this island to seek her help.” Some people still believe that Ixchel will help them resolve fertility issues, he adds.

On the southernmost point of the island, remnants of Ixchel’s temple still stand, and there’s a more recent statue dedicated to the goddess. (There’s also a giant statue of an iguana that attracts actual, smaller iguanas, but that’s another story.) Baby-making magic or not, some say that Ixchel is responsible for the female energy of this 4½-mile-by-½-mile island. “You can sense a different energy here,” among women, says yoga instructor Marcia Collado of Zöetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun resort. “Since the island is sacred to the Mayan moon goddess, I think [its] history empowers us, allowing us to keep in touch with our femininity.” And these days, as women reclaim their power, a trip to the Island of Women feels right.


It’s also quite doable as a travel strategy. Thanks to numerous flights from Boston, Cancun, Mexico, is typically one of the more affordable tropical destinations for Bostonians. Isla Mujeres is just 8 miles across the water from Cancun, a 45-minute ferry ride. (It’s a 25-minute taxi ride from Cancun’s airport to the ferry dock; most hotels on Isla Mujeres offer transfers.) Those towering resorts along Cancun’s hotel zone will melt into the horizon as you ferry to the quieter, colorful island offshore.

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And here’s another thing: Isla Mujeres is a magic town. For real: The Mexican government has designated 113 places in the country as a Pueblo Magico, based on its history, gastronomy, and culture, and Isla Mujeres is one of them. Plus, there is something special and powerful on this island due to its geography, says 10th-generation resident Alexander Vallejos. “The island is the most easterly place in the country, so the sun rises here before anyplace else in Mexico, and we get sunsets and moonsets,” he says. On New Year’s Day, it’s a local tradition to bring a picnic to Punta Sur and be the first to see the sun rise on a new year with friends and family. And there’s pride in a history that goes back over 1,000 years, he adds, compared to Cancun, which was established in 1970. As for that female energy, he’s a believer. “When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found carvings of women all over the island,” Vallejos says. “Mothers and grandmothers are still in charge,” he adds.

Diane Bair for The Boston Globe
A woman selling beaded jewelry on Isla Mujeres in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Call it the anti-Cancun. This low-key island has a population of 22,000 residents, compared to Cancun’s 725,000, and, other than a Senor Frog’s gift shop, the island has no high rises or franchised anything, just a four-block downtown of colorful fishing cottages and a smattering of small resorts. Zöetry Villa Rolandi, with just 35 rooms, is a standout, thanks to its rustic-chic vibe and best-on-the-island dining. Paul Bocuse-trained chef Daniele Müller’s cuisine for Casa Rolandi Restaurant is a delicious meld of Northern Italian and Swiss, with a nod to Mexico; at Le Metissage, his seven-course menu is a fusion of exquisite French-Mex tastes.

Typical activities here include yoga-with-a-view, touring the island on a rented golf cart, and boat tours. There’s the Tortugranja (the turtle farm, $3 per person), with aquariums devoted to local sea turtle specimens, and bike rides to Punta Sur and other scenic points. On this small island, you could knock off both of these in one energetic afternoon. Local restaurants worth checking out include Mango Café and Olivia. The tiny downtown is home to a co-op of women who sell beaded jewelry; you’ll also find a couple of stands along the road purveying seashell wind chimes and the like. (Skip the cheesy gift shops downtown in favor of these if you’re a shopper.) But indolence is a powerful lure here, in the form of a hammock strewn between two palms rimmed by crushed coral sand and an ocean that goes on for miles in 17 shades of turquoise. Hard to believe that, a few hours away, ice dams are forming in Massachusetts.

Admittedly, we’ve avoided Cancun recently; it is just too party-hearty and commercial for our taste. (If we wanted Miami, we’d go to Miami.) And Playa del Carmen, to the south, has morphed from a sleepy fishing village to a trendy hot spot for the Euro set (and now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo.) Even sweet little Cozumel has been overwhelmed with visiting cruise ships. It’s probably lovely still, or parts of it, anyway, but it can’t possibly be the same as it was.


In choosing Isla Mujeres, we wanted a real escape and the chance to ditch the 24-hour news cycle for a couple of days. (We confess we watched the Golden Globe Awards, which were strangely entertaining in Spanish.) Most of the locals we met, within the resort and outside of it, were kind enough not to mention that wall, or the US president who favors it. It was a major relief not to have to explain all that.

Diane Bair for The Boston Globe
A statue of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess associated with healing and fertility.

One can create a DIY healthy retreat on Isla Mujeres, if so inclined. The activity menu might include paddle boarding, yoga, a bike ride to Punta Sur to see the remains of Ixchel’s temple, kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling or diving with a local outfitter. Schedule siesta time or a spa treatment for midday, when the sun can be scorching. Dine on a healthful array of local fresh fish and vegetables. Our red snapper baked in banana leaves at Casa Rolandi restaurant was flavorful and filling but guilt-free. Skipping the margaritas could be the challenging part.

Later, as you swing in a hammock at the resort, you notice there’s no piped-in pool music: The soundtrack is supplied by Mother Nature until a party boat from Cancun sails past with its bass thumping. And then it’s gone, and all is peaceful again. You’ll tune in to the thrum of waves against sand, watching as a silvery fish skims along the water and disappears under a froth of surf. You’ll discover that it’s incredibly easy to unwind here, and realize that nearly everyone at poolside is reading “Getting Back to Happy.” Coincidence? We think not.

If this is female energy, bring it on. Open a book, grab a beverage, and consider it multitasking.; 888-4-Zoetry. Winter rates from $574 per person (Endless Privileges plan), includes wellness activities, entertainment, meals, and top-shelf beverages.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at