The maddening crowd can be far too close, but Stephanie Holmes finds a place apart.

Were we that way inclined, it would be very easy to make some self-deprecating "woman driver" jokes as my friend Alice and I tootle around Isla Mujeres on our lacklustre golf cart. This is the preferred method of tourist transport on this Mexican island, but our cart — which we've christened Lydia, in deference to NZ's biggest golf star — doesn't have much oomph.

Luckily Isla Mujeres — which translates as Island of the Women — is relatively flat so we can cruise along at snail's pace, enjoying the warm Caribbean breeze on this sticky spring day as we bunny-hop our way from one end of the 7km-long by 650m-wide island to the other, stopping occasionally to check out the sights.

It wasn't long after arriving on Isla that we realised we'd picked the wrong time to be here. Just a 20-minute fast ferry ride from the Gold Coast-on-steroids party paradise of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is buzzing. It's almost Spring Break, that traditional US holiday where teenage American college students head to Mexican resort towns to side-step their home country's drinking laws and get wasted on cheap tequila while baring their bodies to anyone who'll look — as well as anyone who doesn't want to.

Isla Mujeres is far smaller and more sedate than Cancun, but it's still far more touristy than we had bargained for.


Yes, the beach is stunning and the sea superlative, but the streets feel distinctly Mexico-lite. There are more Italian restaurants on the main street than there are Mexican ones, and every second shop seems to sell overpriced "authentic" gifts that if you look at closely enough bear a "made in China" sticker.

Luckily we had found the Mexico we were looking for in Tulum, just two hours south of Cancun, a few days earlier.

Justin Bieber was kicked out of Tulum for climbing on the ruins. Photo / 123RF
Justin Bieber was kicked out of Tulum for climbing on the ruins. Photo / 123RF

Friends for more than a decade, Alice and I have been mutually daydreaming about visiting this country for almost as long. The beaches; the sea; the history; the food — oh the food. Mexican cuisine is my favourite, and to finally be in Tulum, with my feet in the powdery sand so white and fine it squeaks underfoot, eating a fish taco and sipping a Pacifico, gives a feeling of pure bliss.

These days, the pre-Columbian Mayan walled city is laidback and bohemian. Many of the resorts have limited electricity and will turn off their generators for a few hours each night, and the best way to get along the dusty road that runs along the coast, adjacent to the jungle, is by bicycle.

Its rustic-vibe has become more mainstream over the past few years, with Tulum's beauty and relative accessibility attracting more tourists of a certain type, rolling in with their man-buns and yoga bodies, posing for carefully-staged selfies to brag about on their Instagram feeds.

But Tulum has lost none of its charm thanks to the picture-perfect beach, jungle-fringed roads, and impressive Mayan ruins that have been standing at the northern end of town since the 13th century.

The only feet that can step on the ancient stones belong to the local iguanas. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
The only feet that can step on the ancient stones belong to the local iguanas. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

It's these ruins that saw a little too much of Justin Bieber at the start of the year — the pint-sized popstar was kicked out of Tulum for climbing on them and baring his arse. What an ass.

Alice and I are far better behaved as we tour the ruins with our guide Jorge. These days, the only feet that can step on the ancient stones belong to the iguanas, who appear from the smallest gaps between the rocks, then stop in their tracks, helpfully posing for the countless photos we snap.

Jorge takes us around the carefully designated pathways, stopping to point out the buildings of most significance — El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God — while we swelter in the baking sun. The end of the tour gives a welcome cooling off opportunity; at the bottom of the cliff, down a steep wooden staircase, is a small stretch of beach and a roped off swimming area.

Tulum Beach. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Tulum Beach. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

Before long I'm bobbing blisfully in the warm Caribbean Sea, gazing back at the ruins on the cliffs aboveand wondering how many generations have floated in this same spot, admiring the same view before me? Tulum has weaved its magic on me, as it must have all those years ago when the Mayans decided it would be the perfect place to establish a seaport.

Other Mayan sites like Chichen Itza and Coba can be reached from Tulum on daytrips, but we are content to spend the rest of our trip meandering down the jungle road, browsing the boutiques and artisan stalls, lazing on the beach and thanking our lucky stars we could make it to somewhere so beautiful.

Donald Trump might not be a fan of Mexico, but we certainly are. He probably shouldn't visit anyway — he'd only ruin the view.

The writer travelled at her own expense.