Is Isla Mujeres safe?

Our expert answers readers' questions about Mexico, artists' colonies, Belize and touring Java by train.

Published April 8, 1999 1:14PM (EDT)

How safe is travel to Isla Mujeres in Mexico this summer? I'm planning a
trip there with one of my female friends and have heard some of the press
about the dangerous situation in Mexico recently. How much of this is hype? Do
you have any suggestions for a safe trip to that area?

Isla Mujeres, located a short ferry ride from Cancun off the Yucatan
Peninsula, is tame territory. The island is only about five miles long and
the atmosphere is unhurried, uncrowded and, except for the precautions you'd
take anywhere, not targeted by the U.S. State Department's warnings. Those
warnings focus on border areas and Mexico City.

For a good source on safety issues
in Mexico, visit the site of "Mexico Mike" Nelson and click on "safety tips." There also are links to other Mexico sites,
including a discussion area for contacting people who already have visited
your destinations.

A good description of Isla Mujeres, complete with maps of the island's few
roads and main town, can be found in the recent guidebook "Yucatan & Southern
Mexico," by Nick Rider, a Cadogan guide distributed by Globe Pequot Press (1999).

For really local advice, Mundaca Travel, a travel and real estate agency based
on Isla Mujeres, has a Web site and a toll-free number (from within the United States) for inquiries at (888) 420-3613.

I am a recent graduate with a B.A. in graphic design. I work full-time as
a Web designer, but I find that there is not a very strong artists' community in
my town (Raleigh, N.C.) -- it's especially hard to find young, intelligent artists who are
motivated and doing a lot of new and different stuff. Anyway, where
in the world are the best artists' communities? Places to be accepted as an
artist and also surrounded by inspiring people?

Whether you're looking to relocate or simply vacation, the question of
artistic community is neatly addressed in "The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America: Discover Creative Communities, Fresh Air, and Affordable Living," by John Villani (John Muir Publications, 3rd edition, 1998). Besides
places you'd expect, such as Santa Fe, N.M.; Key West, Fla.; and Carmel, Calif., the book
spotlights a wide range of towns that loom small on the map but large in the
realm of artistic possibility.

Most of them offer more than just art -- they have pleasing settings, fresh air
and outdoor diversions. Durango and Telluride, Colo., are among them, as are
Sun Valley, Idaho; Jackson, Wyo.; Eureka Springs, Ark.; Oxford, Miss.; Athens,
Ga.; Beaufort and Hilton Head, S.C.; and Charlottesville, Va. Many of these towns
have universities nearby, or tourism industries that help support a hearty
arts community.

North Carolina fares well, actually, with four small arts cities: Chapel Hill, Beaufort,
Morehead City and Wilmington.

Most of the chapters are two pages long, with descriptions of local
lifestyles, the arts scene and basics such as art spaces, art events,
hangouts, bookstores and public radio stations. There's also an "art talk"
interview in which one or more artists speak to the local scene. The book can
be found in stores, on Web booksellers or through Muir at (800) 888-7504.

I have a question about Belize. Where would you spend more time in this
country: Dangriga (near Jaguar Preserve and Cockscomb Park) or Ambergris
Caye (near the town of San Pedro, a beach and snorkeling site)? We are interested in seeing
wildlife and experiencing the local culture. Also, do you have any tips or ideas for what
is exceptional to see or do, or what we need to know about this destination?

Belize is a fascinating place, but don't get your hopes up for spotting
jaguars. Despite its titillating name, the park's rangers will be the first to
tell you that the reclusive cats are virtually never seen in the wild. Still,
the country has plenty of wildlife and soothing scenery to make you feel
you're discovering something new. You might want to make the eco-savvy Belize
Zoo west of Belize City one of your early stops, so you'll have an idea what
kind of animals you're looking for on the rest of your trip.

I suggest you try to spend time both on Ambergris Caye -- the traditional
Belize holiday, with sand, surf and sunshine -- and in the interior, where you
have many options for seeing the real Belize, meeting people and taking in
the preserves and other natural features. Many wilderness lodges have sprung
up, and using them as your base, you can take various trips to explore ruins.
From San Ignacio in the far west, you can take a canoe trip operated by locals
or jeep excursions to waterfalls and verdant valleys. ( You can also take a
day trip to the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala.)

If at all possible, rent your own vehicle for getting around, at least for
part of the trip. Using public transit is tedious and the routes are limited;
in the interior having your own wheels is the way to go.

Two good guidebooks that include itinerary possibilities are "The New Key to
Belize," by Stacy Ritz (Ulysses Press, 3rd edition, 1998) and "Explore Belize," by
Harry S. Pariser (Hunter Publishing, 4th edition, 1998).

Also for planning, look at Belize Online. The Belize Tourist Board can be reached by calling (800) 624-0686.

Another way to scout out the local scene before arriving is to look at
newspaper Web sites. On Ambergris Caye, check out the San Pedro Sun.

Other sites for gleaning information prior to your trip are Belize by Natural Light and the Belize Times.

I'd like to see Java by train. Are there any rail tours available?

It is indeed possible to cross Java, Indonesia's biggest island, by train,
and there are many rich destinations on or near the rails, including the
cultural capital, Jogkakarta. But I expect you would have a hard time
finding a tour company with Java rail packages, at least from the United

The Javanese train standards generally don't live up to what international
tour operators expect for their package tours, and the recent economic
uncertainties in Indonesia have created a climate that makes international
operators shy away. (The exception might be Dutch operators, who have a
history of putting together tours in this former Dutch colony.)

Still, you could plan your own tour, keeping in mind that you probably won't
be able to make reservations until arriving in Indonesia. If you scout around
the Web, you may find someone who has already been there and done that.

A good site for tracking down rail trips around the world is

Lonely Planet's travel survival kit "Java" (first edition, 1995) has good
information on train travel in its "getting around" section, including a map
of rail routes. For online information about Java, including links, go to
Lonely Planet's Indonesia site.

Another site with good links is the official Tourism Indonesia site.

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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