Quintana Roo, Riviera Maya, Mexico
So how come you can walk in Holbox barefoot? Because the streets are not paved; they are covered with white sand instead. Yes, it is that kind of island. Caribbean feel, hippie ambience, no cars.
The slender island (41km long and 1.5km wide) is surrounded by azure waters. Holbox is considered a virgin tourist destination. Saying so, in the last few years the island has been changing. It has become a victim of its own success. Trendsetters are now heading here and prices are rising; new high-rise hotels are now appearing or are in negotiation (not to mention the new Starbucks). But Holbox decided in the autumn of 2018 not go that way and prohibits development of high rise hotels. A smart move! Their existing infrastructure would otherwise not cope.
A developing art scene is another draw. The International Public Arts Festival is an annual event in April. There is as yet no gallery but there are plenty of interesting murals about that the artists leave behind.
Holbox (hol-bosh) in Mayan means 'black hole', named after the tiny lagoon in the southern area of the island (not accessible). The bottom of this lagoon is dark, giving the impression of being black. Different rivers cross the jungle mangroves dividing the island into three separate sections. Only the smallest one is inhabited. Before the Spanish conquest, Mayans inhabited the island, prospering from its coconut plantations and fishing. The adjacent mainland was frequently attacked by Maya rebels during the Caste War of Yucatán (against the Spaniards, but damaging many villages) and people sought refuge on this island. The government wanted to keep people from living here but the citizens refused to leave their homes. Hurricanes in 1886 completely destroyed the island, but it was rebuilt.
Holbox has several alternative ways of enjoying nature. You will need to decide what you want to do, as you can't do it all if you come here just for a day or two. I came here in May 2016 with my husband Rhod, son Rhodri and his girlfriend Daniela. We drove from Playa del Carmen and then took a ferry from the port of Chiquilá. We came for two days and this is what we did.
By the time we arrived, it was lunchtime. We walked from the ferry along the main street, Calle Tiburón Ballena (Whale Shark Street), which leads to the main square and the main beach on the other side of the island.The white sand in the street turned to clay, as it was raining. Most people walked barefoot and we followed suit. We spotted a painted Volkswagen van sitting on the main street and it turned out to be a small restaurant. We sat behind the van. The owner is French and he knows how to cook. I had a great sandwich and my husband had the best steak of his life. The owner had the TV on and we got sucked in by the jolly ambience and watched as well. It was the European Football Cup and Wales (my husband's country) played Portugal. The whole place was supporting us (despite that support, Wales lost).
The next move was to rent a golf cart. We had a great ride along the main Playa de Holbox beach, lined with small boutique hotels, until we came to a dead end, with a marvellous empty beach and a mangrove forest on the other side. We treated ourselves to a shot of tequila or two, which we had with us (well, it was raining, after all!). We did not want to swim in the rain and decided rather to start searching for a hotel, as we had not pre-booked (we never do; it is part of the fun to browse the place).
Six or seven hotels that we approached were all full but we did find a place in the end, and we loved it. Ca Rita hotel, located in the very quiet Paseo Kuka, is about 50m from the main beach (and about 5 minutes walk from the centre). We had hammocks on our terrace and the rooms were very stylish, with polished concrete floors, minimalist white furniture but colourful Mexican bed covers and some great art on the walls.
We chose Cariocas beach bar for dinner as we wanted to stay on the beach at night. The meals were average (and so was the service) but our chairs had the legs literally in the sea and our table was lit by candles. A romantic moment!
The romance continued to the night. We jumped into our golf cart and went back to the beach by the mangroves. We lay down on the sand and gazed at the stars. I had a new app for detecting the star constellations we were watching and the sky was so black without the city lights. That was the best star gazing that I have ever experienced. I felt I could reach out and touch the stars. Also, I saw my first shooting star ever, very exciting. I found my favourite Orion in the sky and, apparently, you can see the Southern Cross from here but we could not detect it.
But we got more than we bargained for. We saw some night paddle boarders, paddling very quietly in the middle of the night; they appeared from nowhere. We watched their silhouettes for a while and then spotted illuminated sea-fireflies. Apparently they can produce light through chemical reactions within their bodies. This is known as bioluminescence. By now watching the sea intensely, we spotted bioluminescent phytoplankton, an amazing sight! It was like having two starry skies, one up, one down! I certainly recommend spending an hour or so on the beach at night here. Have you ever been in complete darkness in the nature?
The only issue was the mosquitoes, of which there were plenty (particularly in the evenings), and we got pretty bitten. Holbox is between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, known for its mosquitoes.
The following day we spent the morning in the hotel pool and on the beach, just chilling. After lunch we drove to the other side of the island, to Punta Cocos, located on the western edge of the island (about 1.3 miles south-west of downtown Holbox). We had a hilarious drive. We passed a lot of residential houses. This side of the island is pretty quiet and we did not meet anybody during our drive. The white sandy roads in the residential streets were full of puddles.
Our bodies were sprinkled with white spots and we looked pretty tribal. We had to get off a few times and push the cart out of the puddles. Then our cart engine died on us, in the middle of a large puddle. We were knee-deep in the white 'clay' puddle but we did manage to push it to Cocos beach. What an achievement! By now we were white all over our bodies.
I felt as if I was in the film The Gods Must be Crazy, a South African comedy, in which the biologist Andrew is trying to get Kate, the newly hired school teacher, to a tribal village. His Land Rover also got stuck, in a stream. He attached his winch cable to a tree to get it out of the river and the next thing he knew, it was hanging in the tree.
Well, we did not have a cable but we had tequila! We sipped and pushed that cart and pushed, through the deep puddles, all the way to the Coco beach. Dirty but happy, we walked along the long beach (we were the only people there). We could not get to the pier as it is closed to the public so we just had a dip in the sea (the sand was so soft that it was up to our ankles when we walked in the sea) and watched some birds. After all, the island is part of Mexico’s largest ecological preserve, called Yum Balam (Lord Jaguar). And surprise! By our return the golf cart had dried out and the engine started.
We drove back along the beach (to avoid the residential streets with the puddles), passed a few hotels and a horse farm. We wanted to have a ride, but they only take half a day bookings, not short rides.
Our itinerary may not be the recipe that fits for all but it suited us to go with the flow and not do anything planned or formal. You can choose to do other activities. The most popular tour in Holbox is the Whale Shark Tour (only in the summer season). We swam with whale sharks from Isla Mujeres the year before and I must say it is an extraordinary experience.
The Yalahao Lagoon is a cenote with crystal clear waters for swimming, 30 minutes by boat from Holbox Island. From the 16th century it was used as a refuge by the famous pirate Molas (who buried treasure here).
If you are a bird watcher, go to Isla Pasión (Passion Island), a small island 15 minutes by boat to see the flamingos or Isla Pajaros (Bird Island), a bird sanctuary 30 minutes by boat. You can observe birds such as frigates, white ibis, snowy egrets, cormorants, pelicans, herons, and of course, flamingos.
Furthermore, Holbox has one of the safest beaches for learning how to kiteboard.
You can also take fly fishing and deep fishing trips.
If you are after infinity pools and dress-up dinners, this may not be the place for you. If you do decide to come, bring biodegradable sunscreen and mosquito repellent as ecotourism is the trend here. You won't need any shoes (just kidding!). Also, there is only one ATM; plan accordingly.
How to get there:
From Playa Del Carmen there is a toll highway that leaves from Avenida Colosio and cuts diagonally across the Yucatán Peninsula. At the end of the highway it is well signed and a straight drive to the tip of the peninsula to the small town of Chiquilá. On the way, in the town of Solferino we spotted a sign for a 1,000-year-old tree and a small garden that sells orchids. Sadly, we did not investigate the place, we just pressed on. When you arrive in Chiquilá you will need to park your car. There may be people in the village waving to you to park with them. Ignore them and continue to the seafront; there are plenty of little private car parks there, to be as close to the ferry as possible. The price depends on whether it's for one day or more. We paid 50 pesos per day.
The ferries are fast and convenient. The catamaran journey takes 15 minutes. When we went in 2016, we paid 80 pesos one way per person.
Alternatively, ADO does have one bus daily to and from Chiquilá to Playa del Carmen. It leaves in the morning from Playa del Carmen and arrives around noon. The other option is a private transfer company. If you really want to splash, a small airline, Aerosaab, flies tours to Holbox from Cancún and Playa del Carmen.