Your Weekend Guide to Isla Holbox
So. It's a three day weekend, and you're at a loss for what to do. You don't feel like camping, you don't want to spend half of the first and last days driving, but most of all, you're in the mood for something a little more... exotic.
We've got you covered.
We're rapidly discovering how awesome Mexico is. From its beautiful landscape, history, and architecture, to its incredibly rich and diverse people, deep cultural heritage, and (my favorite) complex yet simple cuisine. If you haven't spent a fair amount of time there yet, don't sleep on Mexico. It's becoming one of our favorite places to go. (a note from Tiffany: "I want to live in Mexico City. Like, for real.")
For the purposes of this article though, we're going to zero in on a tiny little island off the coast of the Yucatan called Isla Holbox. This island (pronounced HOLE-bosh), only a little more than 25 miles long, is a beautiful little fishing community and nature preserve, home to about 1500 people as well as flamingos, pelicans, and innumerable other fauna.
The town of Holbox is a young and blossoming tourist destination, so it isn't overcrowded yet (we were there in peak season), and more importantly still retains its soul and personality, with sand roads devoid of cars (they aren't allowed on the island), great little restaurants and bars, and beautiful, hospitable people. More on the island in a minute though, because first, you have to get there.
Flying into the Cancun airport, you'll have your choice of a bus (120 pesos/$6 or so) or private transport to the coastal town of Chiquila, the former taking about two and a half hours, the latter roughly two. For our trip, we partnered with My Cancun Transportation, a private shuttle service to Chiquila and other areas in and around Cancun. For a moderate but reasonable fee, a very polite and professional driver will meet you outside arrivals with a sign, load up your luggage into a nice, clean SUV, and drive you comfortably to Chiquila.
We landed in Cancun late at night so we arrived in Chiquila too late for the ferry to the island. The owner of the shuttle service, Eduardo, offered to arrange a private boat to take us across the channel to Holbox for a nominal fee, and while definitely more expensive than the ferry, the experience of being out in the ocean in the dark with nothing but the stars and a full moon to light the way was one of a kind and totally worth the expense. All in all, should you want a private service to Chiquila for a reasonable price, you can do no better than My Cancun Transportation.
Speaking of the ferry, Holbox Express, it runs from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm and is fairly punctual so be sure to arrive 10-15 minutes early to buy your tickets, which 80 pesos (about $5) per adult, one way. It's comfortable, air-conditioned, and only takes about 20-25 minutes. We took it back to Chiquila from Holbox on our return home and it was a very nice experience, eating our breakfast tacos and watching the sea go by outside the big picture windows.
Once in Holbox, a short walk of 5-10 minutes will take you into the town square. There are a number of options for lodging, ranging from full-on hotels to beach camping hostels.
Should you want a quieter or more luxurious option, the east side of the island offers incredibly affordable hotels and resorts, some of which are very well appointed. When we go back, we plan to stay at Hotel Puerto Holbox, a promising suite style hotel with a serene garden area right on the beach.
After you're settled in, head into town and find yourself a seat at ¡Viva Zapata!, the coolest bar on the island, and have a drink. The island special and my personal favorite drink of the trip, the michelada, is this delightfully refreshing cocktail made from essentially handmade spicy bloody mary mix and light beer. I chose Tecate and man, when it's 110º outside, it is unbelievably good and at 40 pesos (about $2.50) you can knock them back all siesta. After you've had a drink wander over to the pristine beaches or take a look at some of the shops, all locally owned and operated and pick up a little souvenir. Holbox is a great place to relax during the day, but it really comes alive at night.
When the oppressive sun drops below the horizon, make your way back to the square. Right in the middle you'll find a sizeable amphitheater and every evening, dancing and music and festivities fill the air and you really can't help but smile. When all of that dancing works up an appetite, you have a number of options. There is a phenomenal array of little taco stands around the square offering homemade tacos and they're all delicious.
In this region of Mexico, the little corn tortillas are first flash fried in oil or lard, then smeared with frijoles and topped with various meats and seafood, onions, and cilantro. They are amazing and are only about 80 cents a piece so fill up to your heart's content. For a sit-down option and an interesting culinary fusion, try ROOTS, an outdoor pizza spot with live music and masterful cocktails.
Also, give Las Panchas a try! Situated near the beach, you're guaranteed amazing views, stunning ocean breezes, and ridiculously good fish tacos. We ordered ourselves up some shrimp and fish tacos with a Pacifico, of course. Cover your tacos in slaw and hot sauce and you're in for a crazy satisfying meal.
Below you see the wonderful Chakte convenience store located in the very popular "Hot Corner" area of the island. So, I put this hear because of 1. the beers there are way cheaper than at restaurants and you can totally walk around with said beer and 2.) they have AC. Very few places on the island have AC and this is one. We would often go in there just to cool off. The heat was intense, y'all. Intense.
The main attraction of the island, however, is not the food, or the lodging, or the shops. The main attraction is the whale sharks. People come from all over the world to take boats out from the north harbor of Isla Holbox, setting out early in the morning to find the gentle giants. Being filter feeders, the spotted fish are imposing but entirely harmless, which is great since you'll be within arm's reach of them. Here's how it works. You set out first thing in the morning for a two-hour boat ride several miles off the coast, crossing out of the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and into the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea along the way.
The whale sharks tend to return to the same area to feed each day so the boat captains know where to go and what to look for. Once you find them, you don your life vest, flippers, and snorkel, and climb out onto the side of the boat. The vessel then slowly circles around the whale sharks and you and your guide jump off the side of the boat directly into the large fish's path. Swimming along, you will be amazed at how vast and beautiful these creatures are, the sun playing across their dappled skin as they silently and slowly skim the surface, feeding on the tiny organisms that live there, not concerned by the awed humans in the slightest.
(Above is a very short GoPro video that doesn't nearly compile the amount of amazing footage we got. We've been having some major technical difficulties with our Macbook and are, after nearly 7 years, tossing it out and replacing it! Once our new computer comes in we will be better able to edit video properly!)
It is one of the most singular, incredible experiences of my life and a must do for anyone visiting Isla Holbox. Back on the island, take the opportunity to find a beach bar, grab a michelada, and have a seat in one of the hammocks in the shallows to watch one of the most spectacular sunsets you'll see in your life.
Whether you're looking for a weekend getaway or want to add something a little different to your existing itinerary, be sure to add Holbox to your list.