Smile Politely

Slow down at Mañana on Isla Mujeres

When eating out, we are most thrilled when we come across undiscovered joints or exotic menus with interesting stuff that we’ve never tried before. While on a recent sun-seeking trip to Mexico, something changed our minds. We decided that we would rather hang out in familiar and comfortable surroundings. The restaurant that changed our minds was called Mañana (that’s Spanish for “Tomorrow”, as in “There’s always tomorrow”). We discovered this little place on an island barely five miles long called Isla Mujeres (“Island of Women”).

Isla Mujeres is a laidback little place that’s just a 15-minute ferry ride from Cancun. Most people go to Isla for the beach and we have to agree that Isla’s North Beach is one of the best we have ever been to. With long stretches of soft white sand and turquoise blue waters that are waist-deep for at least 1/4 mile from shore, this is the picture perfect beach scene that you’ve always dreamed about.

Although there are resorts and condos here, most of the island’s local charm is still intact. Calle Hidalgo is the main street in downtown Isla and is lined with charming restaurants and shops for many blocks. Hotel rooms not listed on the Internet can still be found here for $20 a night. Without too much effort, we lucked into a $40-a-night apartment complete with a kitchen, a balcony, and an ocean view.

The food selection in Isla is designed to please an international clientele. One can find everything from gourmet Italian to authentic street food at reasonable Champaign-Urbana prices. In fact, that became the problem. Eating out in Isla is just like eating out in Champaign-Urbana minus the conch. Here we are on a beautiful Caribbean island and it’s hard to find Mexican food more authentic than our own El Charro or pizza that’s better than Papa Del’s. Eating out became boring and we began to miss home — that is until we discovered Mañana.

Mañana is an interesting combination of a restaurant and a book store owned by Paolo (the Italian), Matias (the rasta dude from Argentina), and Keren (the artist from Israel). The menu was nothing to write home about — omelettes and pancakes for breakfast, baguettes and bagels for lunch, hummus and burgers for dinner. The prices were tourist prices — $3 for toast with butter and jam, $5 for lox and bagels without tomatoes. But we couldn’t get enough of the charm and vibe of the place. The decor is hippie chic with an artistic flair. The music playing is usually reggae and the opening hours are somewhat flexible. As soon as we walked in, we felt happy. So we kept coming back.

Being a mom-and-pop restaurant, one of the owners is always at the counter with a welcoming smile on their face. Their relaxed attitude was contagious, the couch nice and soft, the colors bright and happy. Once you enter the place, you don’t want to leave. Since Mañana was a two-block stroll from our apartment, it was difficult not to stop in every morning just to see what was going on. So we ended up doing something we’ve never done before — we went back to the same restaurant almost every day for almost two weeks. Our favorite dish turned out to be their Greek Salad and our favorite drink was their Big Fruit Shake; both were prepared simply and tasted damn healthy.

Paolo, Matias, and Keren seem to be living their dream, running a little restaurant on a tropical island at their own pace in their own way. They seem genuinely happy and the restaurant reflects their inner glow. There are some lessons to be learned here. Life doesn’t have to move at a breakneck speed. Slowing down can make everything more enjoyable, including the simple and the familiar. And reggae music makes everything better. We’ll definitely be going back to Isla, and because we know Mañana is there, we might stay a little longer next time.

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