Isla Holbox: A Slice of Mexican Paradise
To the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, 2-3 hours from the hub of Cancun depending on how much you’re prepared to part with for the bus journey, lies Isla Holbox. When I call it paradise, I’m in no way overexaggerating. Perfect white sand, strewn with beautiful shells? Check. Crystal clear, turquoise blue, warm, shallow waters? Check. Deserted beaches? Check. Fascinating wildlife? Check. Fresh water swimming holes? Check. Salsa under the stars? Check. Add all that up and, in my book, you’ve found heaven on earth.
The first thing you need to do on arrival in Holbox, after ditching your bags and donning your swimmers, is to go for a long beach walk. Don’t do this in the middle of the day as the Mexican sun beats down hard, but early in the morning or later afternoon. The day we arrived it was raining, so we went for a beach walk in the soft drizzle, and walking just a few hundred metres down the beach meant we had it all to ourselves. Perfect for a bit of contemplation of the perfect blue sea blending into the pale grey of the sky.
There’s plenty to explore on the island, and many people decide to rent a golf buggy to go exploring (this comes at a price!) or go under their own steam, renting bicycles. Both north and south of the main village there are incredible spots to visit. As we only had two days and wanted to make the most of them, we decided to take the classic three islands boat tour which was advertised everywhere.
This takes you to Yalhau, where you swim in a cenote (sinkhole) called Ojo del Agua, supposedly a fountain of eternal youth (I’ll let you know if there’s any truth in that in 10 years). Passion Island is next, a tiny island where huge white herons nest in the tree tops and iguanas bask in the sun, surrounded by ankle-deep turquoise water. From the watchtower they’ve constructed you can see for miles, and, looking down, you may well spot stingrays darting around on the sea bed. Lastly, you visit bird island, where there are more pelicans nesting in the trees than you can shake a stick at.
Now obviously I can’t write an article on Holbox without mentioning the whale shark, one of the main draws to the island. They flock to the waters around the island in the summer months, so we, in April, were a shade too early. They come to feed on the bioluminescent plankton which thrives in the warm waters at this time of year, another sight that you just have to see if you’re there. Prepare yourself for crowds as people come from far and wide to swim with whale sharks and frolick in phosphorescence. Be sure to choose a responsible tour operator who complies with all of the regulations to make sure you’re helping protect these incredible creatures.
There are plenty of other tour options for you to look into once you’re there, but don’t forget to give yourself some serious relaxing-on-the-beach-with-a-margarita-in-hand time. Take advantage of the fact the wifi on the island is practically non-existent – digital nomads be warned – to cut yourself off from the outside world and relax like it’s going out of fashion.
Fuelling up and dancing the night away…
In Mexico, food and drink are incredibly cheap, relatively speaking. Prices in this area of Mexico are, however, far above average, and Holbox, being an island, is no exception. Those on a budget should head to the little market next to the main square to fill up on cheap Mexican fare for lunch. In the evenings, little food carts set up in the main square serving tacos and quesadillas. Those with more to spend can indulge in seafood and the island’s famous lobster pizza.
Those determined to do so will seek out 1 dollar beers and 2 for 1 cocktails for a cheap evening out. Carioca’s, a bar on the beach, serves 40 peso cocktails all day. Hot Corner is a salsa bar one block from the main square that you can’t miss thanks to the live music. The drinks aren’t cheap but the music’s great and this is where people congregate in the evenings. As it’s such a small island, everyone does the same bar crawl. The party moves onto Carioca’s, where you got your 40 pesos cocktails during the day, which morphs into a beach nightclub, ups its prices a little and plays reggaetón. The indoor section of the club then takes over, playing cheesy tunes and latino classics. Dance the night away whilst paddling in the waters of the Caribbean, drinking margaritas under a Mexican sky (someone should write a song about that).
Getting to paradise…
The Island is just a bus ride away from Cancun, which has an international airport that most people fly into when visiting the area. You may choose to sample the delights of Cancun’s legendary nightlife whilst you’re there (just hang onto your wallet and leave your iPhone at the hotel), and visit its beaches, but Cancun is best used as a launch pad.
The bus station in the town centre is where you can buy your tickets to Chiquila, the tiny port that’s the gateway to Holbox. Buying online can be a headache for those with international credit cards, so try and buy your tickets in person in advance to save disappointment, as there are only a few buses a day to Chiquila. You have the choice of the first class, air conditioned buses or the second-class ones that can turn into a bit of an oven in the middle of the day and takes an hour longer. If you’re on a budget, however, it’s worth putting up with a bit of discomfort, as the second class bus is half the price.
Ferries leave Chiquila for Holbox and vice versa every half an hour, and, at the time of writing, will set you back 140 pesos per person. If the weather’s fine, sit up top (with plenty of sun cream on) and keep your eyes peeled for dolphins. If there’s a storm brewing, you still might want to sit up top to enjoy the tropical rain (and escape the interesting Enrique Iglesias covers being played by the guy ‘entertaining’ those seated in the cabin). From the port on Holbox, head straight down the main street, as most accommodation is found beach-side.
Where to lay your head…
If you’re backpacking and looking to socialise, Tribu hostel has won prizes for being the best hostel in Mexico and has a great bar with cheap drinks and cracking social areas. If you’re looking for something rustic but a bit more private, Eco Hostal Casa de Las Aguas is a great choice. Sweet cabins have been lovingly constructed by the owners who pride themselves on their eco credentials. With comfy beds ensconced by mosquito nets and hammocks to relax in after a hard day’s sun worshipping, this is back-to-basics comfort, your own hut on (or one block from) the beach.
Looking for something slightly more upmarket? Take your pick. The beach front is lined with beautiful, tasteful hotels that offer those with a slightly healthier budget a sea view. You’ll be pleased to know there’s nothing remotely high-rise on the island.
Stuff you should know…
There are a couple of cash points on the islands but they often decide not to work and run out of cash before you can say whale shark, so make sure you stock up on cash before you get the bus to Chiquila (there aren’t any cash points in Chiquila either).
Bear in mind, though, that local thieves are well aware that anyone travelling to Holbox is going to be pretty cashed up, so keep a close eye on your belongings whilst on the bus journey there. A body belt is probably a smart option on the journey, to keep your cash, cards, passports etc extra safe. Although you should always have your wits about you, once you’re on Holbox you can relax a little, as it’s such a small island that if someone suddenly produces an iPhone from nowhere their fellow islanders will be asking questions.
Any ideas on how to pronounce the word Holbox? Those crafty Mayans have us all nicely confused here, as the second syllable of Holbox isn’t pronounced ‘box’ but ‘bosh’. The letter X features heavily in place names on the Yucatan Peninsula, but thankfully you don’t need to know how to pronounce them to appreciate the draw-dropping beauty of this part of Mexico.
Everyone on Holbox will tell you the same thing. Locals aside, they came for a weekend and stayed for a month, or they came for a month and have been there for 5 years. I stayed for 2 nights, and am already dying to go back. Visit Isla Holbox, and I defy you not to fall under its spell too.