Was it Tuesday or Saturday? It was hard to say, sitting with a michelada in hand, its glass sweating in the noonday heat. A simple thatched roof kept out the beating sun but welcomed the sound of the surf.
Madera Food & Art, a roadside restaurant/gallery on Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, is the kind of place that makes it easy to forget the password to your work computer. And the fact that you have a job and a house and a couple of kids waiting for you back in Minnesota.
And yet, there was something uncannily reminiscent of home. The pendant on the waitress’ necklace: Was that Lake Superior? And did she just ask if I wanted the cheese on top of the burger, or inside it?
Indeed, nearly 2,000 miles from Matt’s Bar, my husband and I lucked into a plump Jucy Lucy on a homemade bun. The waitress was, in fact, from Minnesota (the necklace was a token of the months she’d spent circumnavigating Gitche Gumee in a kayak), as was the chef. He’d cooked at Saffron in downtown Minneapolis and then opened his own place on this tiny island less than 10 miles from Cancun.
The burger arrived with a burst seam, orange cheese flowing like lava. It tasted as good as the original — maybe better. And we may not have discovered it without our island host, Steve Broin.
Broin owns Casa Sirena, the small boutique hotel where we were staying, which we’d learned of through a friend’s recommendation. “The owner is from St. Paul,” our friend had mentioned offhandedly. And that small fact stuck with me.
My husband and I aren’t timid travelers who expect to be coddled or have our whims catered to. But we also weren’t up for summiting Everest or hitchhiking across Syria, either. In traveling to a place we’d never been, in a country whose language we spoke with the proficiency of toddlers, a hometown connection couldn’t hurt.
The island of women
About three weeks each month, Broin oversees Casa Sirena from its fourth-story rooftop bar, where the ocean is visible on all sides, like the crow’s nest of a ship.
The nightly happy hours that Broin hosts make his six-room hotel feel far more personal than a big resort. He pours margaritas by the pitcher, introduces his guests to one another, and then lets conversations take their course. He’s what you might call an analog influencer.
Broin’s eyes are as blue as the Caribbean Sea and, at 64, his hair and mustache have taken on the color of the island’s white sand beaches. He looks Norwegian enough to be the mascot of St. Olaf College, where he went to school (“Um! Ya! Ya!”) after growing up in Robbinsdale. Broin spent the first part of his career running a graphic design business from a Lowertown loft before “reincarnating,” as he likes to say, as an international hotelier at age 50.
He chose a spot Minnesotans can’t seem to visit enough. Cancun’s airport remains the most popular international destination from MSP for good reason. Nonstop flights clock in at just under four hours and during Minnesota’s daylight savings, you don’t even have to switch time zones. Once you’ve landed, it takes about a half-hour by bus or taxi to get from the airport to the ferry terminal, followed by a 20-minute boat ride to the island.
Boarding the ferry to Isla Mujeres, my husband and I chose seats on the sunny upper deck where a guitar player sang “Bésame Mucho” (“Kiss me a lot”) and a vendor sold cans of Sol beer. The vibrant turquoise water glowed neon. It felt less like the final leg of the journey than the start of the actual vacation.
Isla Mujeres means “the island of women”; it originated as a sanctuary for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, who oversees fertility. While Cancun’s hotel zone is visible on the horizon, Isla Mujeres feels a world away from one of the world’s most notorious spring break destinations. To curb rowdy behavior in the mid-1990s, the government made the hundreds of thousands of American college kids descending on Cancun read through a list of the country’s laws about drinking, drugs and public nudity upon arrival, then sign it and keep it with them during their stay. Though today’s partyers largely stay out of trouble, Cancun’s reputation remains strong enough that MTV chose to reboot its “Spring Break” franchise there last spring.
Casa Sirena is a few blocks from the ferry terminal, near the zocalo (town square), where locals play basketball and food-cart vendors extrude what seems like miles of churros. It’s just a short walk from the beach and the main strip of restaurants and souvenir shops. After landing on the island, we took the long way to the hotel, wandering through narrow streets lined with small, brightly painted buildings decorated with murals.
You can’t escape the tourist trappings entirely on Isla Mujeres — Señor Frog’s grinning mug beckons visitors as soon as they disembark — but, overall, small independent businesses outnumber the chains. Within a few blocks, we found a seamstress who makes custom bathing suits; a guy selling cold coconuts from a bicycle-powered cart; and a couple of workers pressing maize into discs at a literal hole-in-the-wall tortilleria.
The island didn’t feel as kitschy or congested as I’d expected of a place a tortilla’s toss from Cancun — especially since it’s drawing more visitors who are bypassing nearby mainland beaches that have recently been infested with so much seaweed that the Mexican navy intervened.
When we arrived at Casa Sirena, I noticed the hotel’s cute little white tuk-tuk, or motorized rickshaw, parked out front. It was emblazoned with a slogan that expressed a sentiment about the island I’d already sensed: “Undiscovered. Unforgettable. Un-Cancun.”
How was this tropical paradise not overrun by pale-skinned visitors sporting fanny packs and Mickey Mouse T-shirts? (I saw only one of those on the ferry.) Perhaps tourists frequenting Cancun’s all-inclusives weren’t seeking anything more authentic than a Totino’s Mexican-style Party Pizza?
Sunset for the fun set
Casa Sirena’s general manager greeted us with cold, damp towels, a welcome gesture of hospitality in the 80-degree heat. We relaxed by the courtyard plunge pool as she talked us through the hotel’s amenities, from communal breakfasts to loaner beach bags, before heading upstairs to unpack. The room’s artisan décor — original art, handmade wooden furniture, hand-painted tile — made towel swans roosting on the bed, their necks forming a heart, come off as endearing rather than cheesy.
The accommodations feel luxurious for anyone who can go without television and flushing your toilet paper, as per the local custom. (Responding to a guest who complained about both in one of Casa Sirena’s four “Terrible” reviews on Trip Advisor among nearly 1,000 “Excellent” ones, Broin suggested that if the guest had shared her concerns immediately, he would have offered a full refund — and a one-way ticket to Cancun.)
After we had settled in, we walked around the corner to El Torito for tacos with fresh, handmade tortillas and then joined Broin on the roof deck for happy hour.
Our host poured tequila into shot glasses that said, “Sunset for the Fun Set,” and began his story.
He’d discovered Isla Mujeres in 1992, after many years traveling the world during breaks from design gigs — “I wandered around with a little backpack and a hammock and was the oldest person in the hostel,” he explained. The first time he set foot on Isla, there were hardly any tourists: paradise for a guy who practically had his name plate on a beach chair.
At that point in his life, Broin didn’t know what his obituary might say, but he certainly didn’t want it to read: “He died at his desk, designing yet another logo for yet another law firm.” So after many more visits to the island (and picking up tips from other expat innkeepers he’d stayed with around Mexico), he bought a dilapidated four-bedroom, Colonial-style house and transformed it into Casa Sirena. “I wanted the final third of my life to look very different from the first two-thirds,” he said.
When he opened the hotel in late 2006, Broin’s customers were all people from Minnesota who were curious about his new life in Mexico. (Today, about 20% of his guests hail from his home state.)
Though he now has Mexican citizenship, Broin continues to return to Minnesota a few times a year. His 93-year-old mother, who still lives in Robbinsdale, visits Mexico every Christmas, toting homemade kransakaka (the Norwegian ring-shaped dessert) in a plastic ice cream pail. “Most kids run away from home in their 20s,” Broin mused. “I waited until I was 50.”
My husband and I spent the rest of happy hour chatting with a friendly Australian couple staying at the hotel and a few of Broin’s island-dwelling expat friends that he’d invited to stop by. We soon had gathered more than enough recommendations for how to spend our next three days.
Isla Mujeres is less than 5 miles in length, and half a mile across at its widest point. Ferries land at the north end of the island, El Centro (downtown), where most of the hotels and restaurants crowd around the island’s main beach, Playa Norte. The island’s west side is calmer and sandier than its rockier Caribbean edge. Its southeastern tip, Punta Sur, is the easternmost point in Mexico.
We spent one day circling the island on rickety bikes, and another doing the same in a rented golf cart, the most popular mode of tourist transport. This gave us a feel for the paradox of Isla Mujeres: that it isn’t already more built up. Amid a smattering of fancy new hotels, condos and vacation homes, buildings turned to rubble sit on real estate gold. Even the island’s dump has a million-dollar view.
Along the way, we made brief stops at a few of Isla Mujeres’ main attractions, including the tortugranja sea turtle sanctuary that protects the endangered creatures’ breeding ground and releases hatchlings into the ocean. Its small aquarium provides information about several turtle varieties and gave us a close look at their marvelous spotted bodies and striped shells.
We also made a stop at Guadalupe Chapel, noted for its glass-backed altar that gives worshipers a panoramic ocean view, fusing the natural and man-made worlds within its sanctuary.
And we pulled over at Punta Sur, along with enough other tourists to cause a golf cart traffic jam. Fortunately, the crowds thinned out as we walked toward the tip of the island where waves crash against rocky cliffs surrounding a rusting sculpture park, lighthouse and Mayan temple ruins.
Our circle tours still left plenty of time for swimming and lounging on various postcard-worthy beaches, which have such a relaxing vibe that some of the waterfront clubs set up platform beds on the sand.
It was too early in the season to swim with the whale sharks that congregate off the island’s coast each summer. (One of Broin’s friends had gushed about the experience as she showed us amazing underwater photos of her floating alongside the docile, bus-size filter-feeders.) But we saw plenty of tropical fish during a half-day snorkeling tour — and ate a few at Mar-Bella, a waterfront restaurant that sells whole, fresh-caught fish by the pound and then cooks them to order.
Our last night on the island, Broin made sure we were prepared for our early departure (letting us know where the less-expensive taxis park and what fare to negotiate) and then connected us to an off-the-radar dining experience. One of his friends, a European expat and gourmet cook, operates a funky B&B called LoLo Lorena (one of the guest rooms looks like a treehouse) and serves multicourse dinners at a communal table in her backyard garden.
She creates the menu in an improvised style, based on ingredients that strike her fancy — duck, prawns and passion fruit on the night we dined. Our dinner could have been served at a white-tablecloth, multiple-wine-glass sort of place. But the environment made it feel more like a friend’s house, especially when one of the house cats hopped up to cuddle in my lap.
Could we have discovered this unique dining spot by trolling the internet? Maybe, maybe not.
In any case, it was a lot more fun to learn of LoLo Lorena while sipping margaritas at a boutique hotel with a touch of home, chatting with our personal trip adviser.