The Bow-WOW House: Houses and Gardens of Isla Mujeres

Why not paint your house orange and green, or cobalt blue and purple, or spotted black-and-white like a Dalmatian, or every color of the rainbow? Or put a palapa on the roof? That’s what they do in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

I’ve always remembered my first visit there, in the late 1970s, as one of the most serene vacations of my life: Beach, snorkeling, seeing the island from the back of a scooter expertly driven by the woman friend I was traveling with. After driving across the Yucatán in a rented VW bug and taking a short ferry ride from Puerto Juarez, a town that’s just half an hour from Cancún, she and I found the ultimate budget travelers’ paradise on a Caribbean island about four miles long and a quarter of a mile wide. It was as if time had stopped.

Last week, a third return trip was just what the doctor ordered, what with endless snowstorms here and a break in my husband Julius’s school schedule. Julius and I decided to stay at the same place we’d enjoyed eight years ago, Na Balam Yoga-Oriented Hotel. It was still lovely, on a beach that development and hurricanes haven’t been able to destroy. (Read my review on TripAdvisor, and don’t heed the “terrible” reviews written by people who must love to complain about everything.) Yes, there is no TV, phone, or Internet access in the room. That’s what you go there for. And for the excellent yoga classes, and to be able to walk to town in five minutes—and as a great base from which to tour the island. Bow-WOW!

From the funky abodes in the downtown tourist area, which have been transformed into shops and restaurants, to the lavish private beachfront estates and lodgings along the east coast, to the more humble homes of the colonias, the residential neighborhoods in the center of the island, the houses and gardens of Isla make the adjectives ‘colorful’ and ‘creative’ seem inadequate.

The big questions every day were where to eat (see my newest recipe under FOOD FROM THE GARDEN) and what kind of transportation to use: bicycle, scooter, or golf cart? I never thought I’d rent a golf cart, ever, but the weather was a bit wet and stormy, so we opted for a golf cart, like just about everyone else. It actually was the perfect way to get around. I could hop off whenever I saw a house or garden I wanted to photograph, which was everywhere.

You see the influences of Luis Barragán (1902-1988), one of Mexico’s great 20th-century architects. As it says in his official biography, “Barragán transformed the International Style into a vibrant, sensuous Mexican aesthetic by adding vivid colors and textural contrasts and accentuating his buildings’ natural surroundings. Light and water were his favorite themes.”

What better place for this to play out than Isla? You also see influences of Moorish architecture, of the temples at Mayan archeological sites, of science fiction and fantasy: Why not a house topped with a giant caracol, a seashell, or painted like a spotted dalmation? Palapas—the hatched-roof, open-sided homes of the descendents of the Mayans who live in the Yucatán, typically covered with woven, dried palm-fronds—have become roof decks and entrance porticos as well as beach bars and restaurants. In addition to lots of dazzling white, you see every imaginable color combination: pink and yellow, orange and turquoise, lavender and chartreuse. Or all of the above. Whenever you turn a corner, there is another source of inspiration, accented by palms, agave, and the bougainvilleas that are blooming right now: pink, red, orange, magenta. ¡Disfrute! Enjoy!

Just when you think you’ve seen every possible color combination, texture and pattern, on the next block there’s one even more astonishing—or all of them together!

And then back to Na Balam Yoga-Oriented Hotel. Aaah… namaste.

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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2 Responses to The Bow-WOW House: Houses and Gardens of Isla Mujeres

  1. Beautiful pics…captures the essence of the place.

  2. Urban Gardens says:

    Hey, looks like you were in the Mexico just before me. I had always heard that Isla Mujeres was beautiful. Wow, the colors. And a yoga hotel, sounds pretty great.
    Love your photos.

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