Isla Holbox. Justin had talked of this place as if it was some kind of Shangri-La, and I had seen pictures, but nothing could have prepared my eyes for the beauty and tranquility that awaited us on this small, secluded island. Although it is only a couple of hours northwest of Cancun, it feels worlds apart as the culture, size, authenticity, and atmosphere uniquely separate it from other “touristy” parts of Mexico.
The town of Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh) is small, incredibly colorful, and reminds me of the kind of place you would discover only in the movies. You will not find any large resorts, and development has been limited to luxury boutique hotels, budget hotels and hostels, smaller restaurants and cafes, and the occasional tiendas (shops) and mercados (markets). There are about 2,000 people living on the island, which is roughly a mile wide and 26 miles long, though the vast majority of it is completely undeveloped and undisturbed. The entire island lies within the 940,000 Yum Balam Biosphere, Mexico’s largest ecological reserve.
As my husband would say, it took a car ride, two flights, taxi shuttle, boat, and golf cart to get to our resort at Casa Las Tortugas. The travel was easy and we were all checked in to our beautiful room – the Mandarina oceanfront bungalow – by 5:30pm, giving us enough time to get settled, explore the resort, have dinner at the hotel restaurant on the beach (also called Mandarina), and go for a walk in the sand. Stress and tension from traveling quickly melted away.
Over our seven-night stay on the island, we quickly found ourselves settling into a routine each day. Our mornings usually started with an early morning run around 6am to beat the heat (if that was possible as the temperature was usually around 78-80 degrees at sunrise) and to enjoy the calmness of the sand and sea while most people were still in bed. Running was always slow and steady on the hard packed sand along the ocean, but it was the perfect way to wake up and start each day.
After our morning exercise, we always enjoyed breakfast at the Mandarina restaurant, which was included in our stay. I mainly ate fruit, yogurt, and granola each day because it sat well in my tummy, but Justin ventured out and had something different every day including montaditos, chilaquiles, empanadas. He was always kind enough to give me a bite if the dish looked appealing.
Breakfast was typically followed by relaxing, reading, and wading in the ocean for a few hours until the breeze picked up. The routine was basically lounge, ocean, pool, lounge, repeat. I couldn’t imagine a better place for a BABYMOON. Five months pregnant and rockin’ my baby bump!
Our resort had an immaculate area for lounging in a combination of sun and shade. As someone who has always loved being in the sun, I found myself enjoying the shade and indirect sun far more than any other trip I had been on. The sun was hot and unforgiving. Perhaps being pregnant didn’t help either. I finished The Art of Racing in the Rain in two days, before moving on to and finishing Mockingjay. Next time I definitely need to bring more books.
Late morning and mid afternoon was usually full of adventures and activities around the island. During this time we would also stop for lunch at one of the local authentic eateries. One of my favorite meals while on the island were the grilled fish tacos at Villa Mar. They were some of the best tacos I have ever had, which shouldn’t surprise me since there were always a lot of Holbox locals eating there as well. By the end of the trip, I think we had earned semi-local status as we ate lunch there three times.
After finishing our afternoon activities, we would come back to the hotel, take a dip in the pool to cool off, relax on one of the many swinging canopy beds, and get ready for an evening on the town. Once the sun begins to go down, the town comes alive with kids playing soccer in the zocalo (central park), the sounds music coming out of every restaurant, and people chatting about in the streets. It was fun to people watch and dine at different restaurants. There was even a cute little gelato place called Porque No (“why not?”) that we would stop at on our way back to the hotel each night. Mexican chocolate gelato is muy bueno! Why not indulge a little?
Holbox Quirks and Novelties:
There are no paved roads on the island and no cars (aside from the occasional truck delivering food/drinks around town). The roads are packed with sand and the primary modes of transportation are golf carts, cruiser bikes, and your own two feet. We did a lot of walking.
The town is extremely vibrant and there are beautiful murals everywhere. The International Public Art Festival was held there in April, with street artists coming from around the world to paint murals around town. Justin did a lot of exploring when I wasn’t feeling up to battling the heat, and took a number of photos, capturing the magnificence of the images. Here are a couple of my favorites.
Oddly, there is a huge Italian influence here and you will come across a blend of Mexican and Italian cuisine almost everywhere you go. Apparently there were a number of Italian pirates that settled on the island in the late 1700s, leaving a unique cultural imprint that thrives today. If you want lobster pizza, fresh seafood pasta, or gelato with a Mexican twist, this is the place for you!
Friendliness was contagious. We met and talked with a number of people during our stay on the island. The locals, workers, and other vacationers were all easy to interact with and talk to, and we felt at home. The language barrier isn’t too bad either, as English is pretty prevalent on the island. And Justin is conversant in Spanish, which helped from time to time. Aside from a few instances, communicating with the locals was, for the most part, easy.
Some of the restaurants did not even have a menu, like El Chapulim, which we ate at on the second night. You sit down, the chef comes out and describes four dishes he is preparing for the evening (basically whatever was caught that day), and you roll the dice. It wasn’t our favorite meal, but it was sure fresh. The experience was pretty inimitable (my husband had to look up the word inimitable when reading this) as well.
There is ALWAYS a fierce sunset. We tried to watch the sunset every evening before heading out to dinner and there was always a bright orange ambience in the air.
Along those lines, Justin nicknamed Isla Holbox “selfie island” while we were there. We were certainly guilty of our fair share of them, but it was entertaining to watch people try to take the perfect selfie on the beach, in the water, or at sunset. I swear some people spent 10 minutes trying to get it just right. I, on the other hand, spent my time trying to capture the sun.
Great prices. There is something for everyone on this island, and it caters to a diverse group of visitors. As an example, the amazing fresh lobster with homemade pasta dinner at our favorite restaurant, Casa Nostra, was only 240 pesos (about $15), and our daily staple of fish tacos was 100 pesos ($6.50).
Because it is a fisherman’s paradise, and remains their primary economy even though tourism is a close second, there is plenty of fresh fish and shellfish caught each day. You could always tell when the fishermen were mooring on shore because the birds would flock to those locations seeking scraps and leftovers.
It is very likely that any seafood you are eating – whether fish, lobster, shrimp, crab, octopus, mussels, clams, or conch – was swimming around in the ocean earlier that day or the day prior. Speaking of octopus, Justin ordered a seafood stew for dinner at Viva Zapata! one night that came with two whole octopus tentacles, each almost a foot long, that he swore were as tender and tasty as a filet mignon. It was hard enough for me to watch him eat them, so suffice it to say I didn’t take him up on his offer to see for myself what he meant.
Highlights and Things To Do:
The resort!!! Casa Las Tortugas, only a few steps from town, was definitely the nicest place to stay on the island. It is not your typical “hotel” and each room has it’s own style, vibe, and theme. We stayed in three different rooms due to availability when we booked, and fell in love with the ocean front bungalow (Mandarina) and colorful room overlooking the pool (Azucar).
There is a beautiful pool centrally located which was a nice alternative to jumping in the salty ocean. The beach area was out of this world, with swinging beds, plenty of loungers, hammocks, and the finest, softest sand you have ever felt. They even have a groundskeeper named Matteo who spends a few hours in the early morning raking and sifting the sand. That’s right, SIFTING the sand. Heaven forbid a guest might step on a coconut husk or palm frond! ☺
Get your cruiser bike on! We rented cruiser bikes on a really hot, windy day (not the best idea) but still found it fun to ride around and get in a workout. Trust me, riding a cruiser bike on the sand, into a headwind, in 90-degree heat, is a calorie burner.
Rent a golf cart for a few hours and explore! Justin and I realized that riding cruiser bikes to different areas of the island in the blazing sun was too much for my pregnant little body. We did the next best thing (or best thing, in my opinion) and rented a golf cart. It was quite the adventure and at one point our cart would not click into forward gear, forcing us to drive in reverse for about 10 minutes. It was hilarious.
Visiting Punta Coco via golf cart and driving along the sandy roads near the beach. Not only is this area more secluded and great for a dive in the ocean, there is also a beautiful private dock that made for a breathtaking photo op. This part of the island truly validated the deep emerald color of the water.
Visiting Punta Mosquito (not as bad as the name sounds) via golf cart and walking as far as the eye can see through the shallow waters onto small sandbars that are hundreds of feet from shore. It was one of the most picturesque surroundings I have ever been in. Watch for horseshoe crabs and stingrays – they are everywhere!!!
Find a hammock, let it swallow you up, and enjoy. There are bright, colorful hammocks strung along the shores for all to use. Personally, over the water was where I wanted to be.
The house made Hidratante water served at the hotel restaurant was the best thing ever. Infused with honey, lemonade, tea, hibiscus, and mint, it was the perfect “pregnant” alternative to an adult beverage.
Take a snorkel trip. I can’t say that this was my favorite activity, only because I had high hopes of swimming with whale sharks, but it was still worth the morning cruise along the stretched out beach of Holbox island. Our captain Alberto took us on a private excursion to a giant reef, where we snorkeled and swam with turtles, hundreds of fish, eels, barracuda, and lionfish. We even got to get close to a school of 50+ playful dolphins, which was pretty incredible.
After snorkeling, we ventured through a small channel that cuts through the island where we stopped in a national wildlife preserve, enjoyed a beverage, and ate lunch. At this time we learned there are jaguars, monkeys, turkeys, and crocodiles that inhabit the areas detached from the main island.
We were also able to see Flamingos during our snorkel cruise and slowly drifted by a flamboyance of flamingos (like a flock of seagulls, a gaggle of geese, or a murder of crows, a group of flamingos is known as a flamboyance) as they waded through the water and kept a close eye on us.
Holbox is as opposite as you can get from Cancun, so maybe enjoy a little time in each. Personally, I would spend five days in Holbox and five days in Playa Del Carmen/Tulum, to get a little mix of the two cultures. Skip Cancun altogether, unless you want to party and socialize.
One of our primary reasons for booking the trip to Holbox was to swim with whale sharks, but unfortunately the government pushed back the dates in which they allow for tours and we missed it by a couple weeks. June-September seems to be the best time to venture out there if you are looking to swim with the big giants of the sea, but that also coincides with the rainy (mosquito) season. Obviously we will go back, bug spray in hand, as this is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with a whale shark. So, until next time Holbox… cheers.