Learn to Snorkel in Cancun's Isla Mujeres

Rarely do I have negative travel experiences. Usually I am a perky, positive, and optimistic tourist, willing to try new things and overlook negativity such as rude waiters, overpriced attractions, and days where I find myself hopelessly lost in strange quarters. 

But sadly, my first experience snorkeling was my second-most negative traveling adventure to date (the first being trapped overnight in the Philadelphia airport baggage claim area with no luggage, a laptop for a pillow, and a homeless man snoring in the row of seats next to me - more on that in a later post).

The Gypsy Breeze, my ride out to Isla Mujeres for the day.

The day began nice enough. I was in Cancun, Mexico in March of 2011 for my Spring Break solo trip. To keep myself busy, I had booked a 'trip a day' through Grey Lines Cancun, a tourist company. By day three, I had already been on a couple of Grey Lines tours and they had all been fabulous (see the Chichen Itza post or the Swimming with Dolphins post). On this particular day, I was booked to journey on a catamaran to Isla Mujeres, where I'd try my hand at snorkeling, something I had never done before. Needless to say, I was extremely excited.

The catamaran ride was absolutely gorgeous - the water was an uncanny shade of blue, nearly turquoise, and the wind whipping through my hair was warm and salty. I secured a spot at the front of the catamaran, where the netting dipped precariously close to the surface of the sea. When our boat lurched on a wave and came bouncing down, I was sprayed with a cool ocean mist (and this was very nice, seeing that by day three in Mexico my skin was redder than a cooked lobster).

The amazingly blue waters of Cancun.

Unfortunately, during the catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) the wind picked up a lot. When we finally docked at Isla Mujeres to let off the non-snorkeling passengers, our tour captain informed us that the snorkeling trip would be rough, but they were not canceling it. Instead, he forewarned us that we might not have much visibility, and may not see much for ocean life. 

Stubbornly, I persisted: I had paid good money to participate in the dive, and wanted to see as much of Mexico as I could. I wriggled into the awkward and shabby life-jackets they handed out, strapped my underwater camera to my arm, and shoved on my flippers. Nothing would stop me!

Our first sighting of the tropical Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

It took me about three seconds after diving into the water to figure out the tour captain had not been lying. I drank a mouthful of sea water as wave after wave slammed into my face. We were not deposited into some sheltered and peaceful cove or reef, but smack along the shoreline of Isla Mujeres, with looming black rocks slick with seaweed just a kick and a splash away. I realized that very quickly, if I wasn't physically swimming against the waves, I could be drug into those nasty looking rocks. Desperately, I reached out to grab the line rope the instructor had set out for us.

This is where it gets really sad. It took me about two hours to fully recover from my grief... As I reached out to grab the rope, a powerful wave washed over my body, wrenching my underwater camera from its little strap and into the sea. I didn't even notice, as I was intent on grabbing my lifeline. When I absently reached down to handle my camera, I discovered it was gone.

Using my goggles, I looked down below me: there was my little red Olympus, never been used, awaiting retrieval amongst the seaweed below. It wasn't that deep, so I figured I could quickly dive down to get it. I had just begun to slip the life-jacket off me when my dive instructor yelled at me, "No life-jacket, no snorkeling! Put it back on!" He was pretty harsh. No one wanted to listen to my story that my lonely little camera was drowning just below my flippers. So I had to leave it behind, as the rest of the group was leaving me behind. RIP little camera.

The sights of Isla Mujeres - a beautiful island.

As we moved along, the pounding waves continually shifted my goggles, leaking water into my eyes and clouding the plastic visor. I had to constantly look up to ensure I wasn't getting pushed by the current into the scary black rocks. Time and again I had to abandon the snorkeling part of the activity to swim out further into the ocean to prevent breaking a limb on the rocks. I saw a lot of little yellow and black fish, and couple of neat blue ones, but the ocean fauna was seemingly bunking down until the wave intensity subsided.

We had been promised an hour or so of snorkeling, but after about half an hour, we were instructed to once again board the catamaran. Our catamaran was accompanied by what I can only assume was a Mexican coast guard boat. Apparently, the waves were so rough that our company probably shouldn't have let us out into the water, and the coast guard shut down our snorkeling tour early. We did not receive any refund for this. I was bitterly disappointed: it had turned out to be a very expensive activity for the value I received.

The Cuban-esque beaches of Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The boat docked in Isla Mujeres and we were given some time to explore and shop. I loved the beach on the island - it looks more Cuban than Mexican. I watched as one vendor dried a freshly delivered conch shell (his buddy had literally pulled up in his boat, and handed over the shell he had just dived for). I wanted it to be a conch horn, so he drilled a hole in the top and taught me how to blow into it properly in order to make a low, loud, baritone note.

The rest of the island was a bit too commercial for me: stores upon stores with pushy vendors grabbing at your arms, trying to get you to enter and shop. I chose the one store where the vendors were sitting on the porch drinking shots: they sold me a lovely dress (of course, after I bartered with them. Man, I love bartering!) and then we drank some beer and almond-flavored tequila. The grief over losing my camera was, at this point, beginning to subside. I walked back to the boat, and the tour company sailed us to an inlet where we stopped for a buffet lunch.

Having some fun with the crazy tour leaders on our way back to Cancun!

The company did work its butt off to make us happy on the cruise back. Because of the short duration of the snorkeling, we had some extra time to putter around on our catamaran. They provided us with an open bar and zumba dancing lessons on the deck (I was the second victim to be chosen as the tour director's dance partner, and I nearly fell of the side of the boat as I am very uncoordinated). We even set anchor just outside Cancun, in the bluest of waters, to have a diving competition. I met two lovely ladies from Montana, and we will hopefully have the chance to travel together again.

Trying to dance (unsuccessfully) on the catamaran.

I still want to try snorkeling again, but I think next time I will simply rent my own snorkel equipment (or buy it - it can't be that expensive) and set my own day, time, and place to snorkel. Someone also told me Xel-Ha in Mexico is great for snorkeling, as it is very sheltered and you don't have to worry about getting crushed by massive black rocks. I don't want this one traumatic experience to forever shadow 'snorkeling' for me. If anyone has ideas on where and when to try snorkeling again, I would love to hear them!


  1. I know this is an old post, but I read it and then saw on your bucket list that visiting Hawaii isn't checked off. If you ever do visit Hawaii, in particular Maui, you can get some great snorkeling without paying for one of these excursions. The last time I was there, we did a boat excursion to snorkel, but the fish were all so far down and I couldn't dive that far. It was fun, but not that great. However, at the end of the beach which our resort faced (the resort was called Ka'anapali Ali'i) was a black rock formation, that was dangerous on one side but calm on the beach side. Just there, barely off the beach, I saw so many colorful fish right at my finger tips. I even fed a sea turtle that swam up. It was a lot more fun than the trip we payed for, and I know you can see that sort of thing at various other beaches, too.

    1. Oh, how I wish to go to Hawaii! I have friends going there in a month - maybe I'll fold myself up into their suitcase! Thanks for the great tips - how amazing would it have been to hand-feed a sea turtle?! You are a lucky lady.

  2. Hey! Does the rate of your posting depend on some thing or you compose blog articles when you have a special mood or write entries if you have sufficient time on it? Waiting forward to hear your answer.

    1. Hi J! I try to post at minimum once a week - sometimes it is much more, sometimes, sadly, it is less. I am not a "new nomad" and I don't take extended trips that last for weeks or months on end, so sometimes it is challenging to come up with enough material for frequent posts. I find once a week works well, and I can draw on my experiences to support that. If I am in the midst of travel, or have recently returned from a great trip, I might blog more often. Does that answer your question??

  3. Great reading. Sorry that you didn´t spend much time in the water. Underwater Cancun looks amazing, it´s always good to read tips for snorkeling on cancun to know where its better to do it and the different tours there are.

    1. I hope to go back and do more snorkeling - I really want to snorkel / scuba in a cave cenote! :)