“Sunrise, sunset… Sunrise, sunset… Swiftly flow the days!” -from Fiddler on the Roof
Fascination with Sunrises and Sunsets
Almost all of us of a certain age remember that haunting melody from the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof. It is an audio memory that is easily retrieved from the memory bank, keyed by those haunting words ‘sunrise, sunset’, sung with a rhythm that mimics how swiftly they pass. Most of us probably also have favorite photos of a sunrise or a sunset in a family photo album. If you keep your photos digitally, you probably have your share of sunsets on your computer or your phone as well. Probably since the dawn of time, men and women have been fascinated with the beauty of sunrises and sunsets.
For those who make their way by sea, sunrises and sunsets have always been thought to predict weather events, resulting in the famous quote, “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.”
C. Joybell C. wrote, “Never waste any amount of time doing anything important when there is a sunset outside you should be sitting under.”
John Steinbeck described a sunset this way: “A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone”.
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” That was from Jack Kerouac, in On the Road.
Sunrises and sunsets are not only memorable, they are often inspirational.
Sunsets In Yucatan
There are few places on earth where the sunrises and sunsets are more stunning than the Caribbean Basin. Along the Riviera Maya, sunrises are over the sea, often with the sun rising from a bed of fluffy silvered clouds along the horizon. Along the Yucatan Gulf Coast, sunsets are over the water in most places, dipping into the Gulf of Mexico. But in many peoples’ opinion, the very best place in the Yucatan for viewing sunrises and sunsets is Isla Mujeres, where you can see both over the Caribbean from the same spot on the north end of the island.
The first time I visited Isla Mujeres was in 1981. The island, which is approximately five miles long and one-half mile wide, was sparsely populated at the time and very few tourists made the trip from Cancun. Tourist shops and restaurants were scarce and the activities of most people on the island centered around fishing. We stayed in the old Hotel Rocamar perched on a cliff facing the sunrise. There was no air conditioning… for a little air, you threw open the shutters and let the wind roar through the room. About 6:00 AM, the first rays of light would peek into the room and within minutes, the horizon would explode with brilliant rays of yellow and gold as the sun made its appearance. Just twenty minutes later the sun had burned most of the color out of the sky, and another day had begun. To this day, we still set our alarms so we can observe the serenity and beauty of a new day dawning on Isla Mujeres.
Later that afternoon in 1981, I met a young college student on the beach. I told him about my experience of the sunrise. He scoffed and told me the morning show put on by the sun was nothing compared to the evening drama. Then he turned and revealed his t-shirt. It had two palm trees bending toward each other with a magnificent orange and red sun between them, just about ready to dip below the horizon. In bold letters below the scene was printed “The End of Another Lousy Day in Paradise”. He invited me to join him on North Beach for the sunset that evening, which I did. Since that day, I have seldom missed a sunset when visiting Isla Mujeres.
The Anatomy of Sunrises and Sunsets
Why are sunrises and sunsets so dramatic? What causes those explosions of yellow, gold, orange, and red hues? The National Aeronautics and Space Administration informs us that our eyes are sensitive to light which lies in a very small region of the electromagnetic spectrum labeled “visible light”. This “visible light” corresponds to a wavelength range of 400 to 700 nanometers with a color range from violet through red, and that is why we love a good sunrise or sunset. What? Maybe we can simplify that concept.
The angle of the sun’s rays has a lot to do with the color of the sky along with the wavelength. The short wavelength rays, violet and blue, are able to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere when the sun is high in our midday sky, therefore we observe a blue sky. At sunrise and sunset, the long wavelength rays successfully penetrate the atmosphere, so we see the yellow, gold, orange, and red hues. The colors can be accentuated by the presence of salt crystals in the atmosphere from the process of evaporation. These crystals scatter the blue-colored rays, making it easier for the yellow, gold, orange, and red-colored rays to dominate. This is why sunsets are often more dramatic along ocean coastlines. Additionally, high relative humidity, almost always present along the coast, also scatters those blue-colored rays, increasing the effect.
In addition, Isla Mujeres allows a view of the sunset with the Yucatan landmass situated to the west. Convectional updrafts over the land area produce clouds that scatter the rays and allow a greater contrast of colors. If you head to the beach disappointed by the fact that there are clouds in the sky, do not give up. Frequently, just before the sunsets, the cloud cover will begin to break up, allowing a color display more beautiful than you expect.
Where to Watch the Sunrise
If you are on the east coast of Isla Mujeres, Cozumel or anywhere along the Riviera Maya, the sunrise will come to you. If you face the Caribbean Sea, you will be facing the sunrise. While sunsets are usually more colorful, there is something about a sunrise that is awe-inspiring and poetic. We have woken many mornings on a beach in Tulum or Akumal or Puerto Morelos, looking out to a sea of grey underneath a pale grey sky. As the sky lightens, clouds on the horizon show their silver linings, which turn to gold just as the sun bursts forth like Hope itself. Sunrises are early and often hard to catch if you have enjoyed the tropical night before, but usually well worth the effort of waking up early.
Where to Watch the Sunset
If you have lodging accommodations on Isla, you will find it easy to take part in the sunset experience. If you are staying in Cancun or elsewhere on the Riviera Maya, the final ferry departs to the mainland at midnight, allowing you plenty of time to catch those last colorful rays of the sun on Isla Mujeres, have dinner and go back to your hotel.
North Beach is definitely the place to watch a sunset on Isla Mujeres. It is an easy walk to North Beach from the hotel-restaurant zone or from the ferry dock for viewing the evening spectacular. No more than ten minutes should be necessary to reach the beach. You can follow Medina Street, which runs along the waterfront facing Cancun, or you can stroll down Avenidas Juarez, Hidalgo, Guerrero, or Carlos Lazo to reach your destination.
Once you reach the beach you will encounter an eclectic and friendly crowd. Grandparents, young adults, children, foreigners, and locals all arrive for “the moment”. The upscale crowd favors the Sunset Grill, while the t-shirt and flip-flop folks favor Buhos, with its swing bar and fabulous view. Offshore, you can see yachts and small boats anchored in Bahia Mujeres for their own viewpoint of the sun’s end of the day. There is always a crowd, because everyone knows that this is THE place to watch the sun set.
Getting to Isla Mujeres
There are three ferry departure locations for travelers to choose from when traveling to Isla Mujeres.
- Grand Puerto Cancun at Puerto Juarez:
The first of the ferry terminals you will reach if you are driving from the airport or hotel zone is also the newest facility. The Ultramar ferries that service this port are very new, air-conditioned, and comfortable. The cost of a round-trip ticket is $140 pesos and the trip takes about 15 minutes. The ferry departs from the dock every half hour from 5:00 AM to 8:30 PM, and then every hour at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30 PM. When you purchase your ticket, get a schedule of the return trips from Isla Mujeres.
- Transportes Maritima Magana at Puerto Juarez:
This ferry departs Puerto Juarez every half-hour from 6:30 AM to 8:30 PM with two late ferries at 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM. The departure dock is approximately one-half mile north of the Grand Puerto Cancun location. It is also a high-speed, air-conditioned ferry with reliable service. Ticket and departure time information for the return trip are available at the Isla Mujeres dock.
- Naviera Contoy Vehicle Ferry at Punta Sam:
This is the only car and truck ferry that travels to Isla Mujeres. A one-way ticket for a car is $256 pesos. For passengers only, the cost is a very reasonable $14 pesos. It takes 45 minutes, as the ferry is slower, but it is a great ride from the top deck watching the water change every color of blue along the way. Ticket and departure information for the return trip to Cancun are available at the Isla Mujeres dock.
A Part of All That
So now you know where to go to see the sunrise and sunset along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Bring a friend, your loved ones, someone you just met… and by all means, bring a camera! Enjoy the spectacular show and let it bring out the poet, the artist or the songwriter in you too.
“Well, the sun rose… with so many colors, it nearly broke my heart.
It worked me over like a work of art, and I was a part of all that.” -Dar Williams