Isla Mujeres represented a lot of “firsts” for me. It was my first big assignment for my new job, my first time traveling to Mexico, and my first time traveling to a romantic beach destination alone.
I arrived in Mexico as I arrive in most new countries: Sweaty, hair matted from dozing against the headrest during the flight, and furiously determined not to let some fast-talking cab driver grab my bags and hustle me into his taxi before negotiating a rate. For the first time (yet another first), I was going to be reimbursed for my taxi expenses but I was determined to get a fair rate anyway. I’ve taken hundreds of cabs in dozens of countries, and naively overpaid for far too many of them.
The driver asked if I wanted the air-conditioning on, but instead I wanted the windows wide open. This was in part because I was chilly from walking through the airport, which, like movie theaters, are always aggressively air-conditioned. But I also wanted to feel the humid heat, smell all those unfamiliar scents, and say hello to Mexico.
Traveling for work turned out to be both exhausting and thrilling. Thrilling because I was getting paid to travel, a true dream job. Exhausting because my schedule was packed. I usually travel ultra-slow – I’ve been more of a serial expat than a long-term travel over the last few years – and this trip was the complete opposite. It was hyper-speed.
Not only did I have just a week on the island, but 90% of that week was filled with assignments. As a result, food became my focus. I reasoned that while I might not have time to go diving or visit the turtle farm, I could instead get to know Isla Mujeres through its food. In general, I find myself increasingly drawn to food as a traveler. I rarely feel connected to a country through exploring its sites. I’m never quite sure how to properly appreciate a site. I can marvel at it and snap a few photos, but it doesn’t feel tangible somehow. But food? Food, I can take in my hands and taste. Food, I know how to appreciate. Food shows me everything I need to know about a culture. The ingredients used, the way it’s prepared, even how it’s served and eaten – all of it reveals so much about the country’s way of life, customs, and values.
Like many people who aren’t accustomed to traveling alone, food was also one of my biggest challenges. I didn’t see many solo travelers on Isla Mujeres, mostly couples and families. Going to a restaurant meant slapping on a smile and deflecting the looks of concern and direct questions from well-meaning servers wondering why I was all by myself.
I think that’s why the most magical meal I had was at a tiny open-air restaurant on the beach, called Minino’s Cocteleria. A Twitter acquaintance had recommended I try their ceviche. So I did, and it was perfectly tangy and fresh, served with thick, crunchy tortilla chips. I sat at a plastic table with my feet in the sand, and watched an impossibly pink sunset make its way over the ocean. A mariachi band came and serenaded the table behind me. Distracted by the band and the sunset, no one seemed to be paying attention to the fact that I was alone.
On my day off, I took a taxi to the south end of the island to see the Mayan temple. It was a long drive, during which my driver and I pointed at different passing objects and taught each other the words – him the Spanish and me the English, of course.
Worn down by hurricanes over the centuries, the temple is a crumbling little building covered with colourful bits of paper. It sits on the Cliff of Dawn, where frothy waves and swirling winds batter the rugged coast. It’s the easternmost point in Mexico, and the first place where the sun touches the country each morning.