Holbox Island: The Rustic Mexico You Never Knew
I’ll be honest: I didn’t do too much research on Holbox Island. It was recommended to me in a Facebook forum for female travelers, and it sounded pretty cool, so I put it on the itinerary. So when I stepped off the ferry and onto the dusty, sandy street, I was taken aback.
Where were the hordes of vendors, trying to sell me a tour or taxi ride? Where we the signs for polished megaresorts? In fact, where were the signs to anywhere?
We gathered our things and made our way to the taxi stand, a line of golf carts driven by men and women in yellow shirts. We gave the name of our hotel, and soon we were bumping along an unpaved sandy road. As the buildings whizzed past, I wondered if we were even in Mexico anymore.
Holbox Island: A Laid-Back Dream
Holbox means ‘black hole’ in Yucatac Maya, and that’s exactly what Holbox Island (pronounced Hole-Bosch) is. A place where the tourism that has swallowed up whole cities on the mainland has been sucked away into nothingness. Within 12 hours, I was thoroughly in love. The roads aren’t paved, the signs are hand-painted, murals are splashed on bare walls all over town, and just as many Mexicans vacation here as foreigners. It reminded me of Otres Beach in Cambodia or the backpacker village in Koh Lanta, Thailand, but with a thoroughly Mexican bent.
Getting to Holbox Island: Worth the Journey
Getting to Holbox isn’t the easiest — you need to take a 2.5+ hour bus ride from Cancun on ADO Bus Lines through jungle villages and over some dubiously-paved roads. Fortunately, an air conditioned bus ticket isn’t more than $8USD… just pack a sweatshirt! They blast that air con the whole way, and you might find yourself shivering.
Come Play with the Wildlife
Okay, not literally. But Holbox is situated smack in the middle of the Yum Balam nature preserve, off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and about 3 hours by bus from Cancun. The preserve is home to a wide array of exotic marine animals: manatees, six different species of sea turtle, saltwater crocodiles, and whale sharks. The biggest draw is the whale sharks, which migrate through the waters from May to September.
There are also several species of birds that bring visitors from far and wide, the flashiest of these being the flocks of pink flamingos that bathe in the shallow waters just offshore. Several species of pelicans and a unique sand swallow call Holbox Island and the surrounding area home, so birders and wildlife enthusiasts will be in heaven here.
Where to Stay at Holbox Island
If you’re the all-inclusive, super-fancy resort type and expect groomed beaches and snappy service, Holbox isn’t for you. The locals have worked hard to keep property developers at bay, trying to preserve the rustic feel of the island and keep the exotic wildlife in the area safe. In fact, they recently voted down a proposal to have the undeveloped part of the island turned into a condo resort (go Holbox!). There’s also a local ordinance preventing construction of any structure over 3 stories high (double go Holbox!). But that doesn’t mean that everything is sand floors and squeaky fans. Here are my recommendations for every budget:
Casa las Tortugas
$$$; there are a few fancy resorts on the island, and Casa las Tortugas is one of the nicest for your money. Whether they’re simply the best at getting the international writers into their beds or not, they’ve received positive reviews from writers all over the world. From the beach, the loungers, hammocks and oceanfront rooms all look cush and wonderful. Site: http://www.holboxcasalastortugas.com/ Rooms from $175USD
Ca’Rita Rooms and Residences
$$; this midrange mini apartment building is set back a block from the beach (behind Casa las Tortugas, actually) and gives you the location for less than half the price. It may not have the beachfront amenities of the fancier resorts, but it has clean rooms, strong air conditioning, and just enough little touches to make it feel luxurious. Make sure the proprietor knows when you’re arriving, as we ended up waiting an hour to get into our room! Site: http://www.booking.com/hotel/mx/residence-ca-rita.en-gb.html Rooms from $50USD
$; there are a few hostels to choose from on Holbox Island, but Tribu is a brightly colored gem not far from the main drag in town. The WiFi situation could use some improvement, but the rooftop bar and beachfront location should make up for that lack. Expect a fun, social experience, but be sure to get air conditioning. Site: http://tribuhostel.com/index.html; Dorm Bed from $10USD
Where to Eat and Drink in Holbox
Most of Holbox Island’s restaurants and bars are simple affairs — don’t come here looking for white tablecloths and Michelin stars. However, some restaurant owners are starting to wise up to tourist dollars and work hard to create a unique atmosphere. Here are a few places worth checking out — just be sure to brush up on your Spanish before you order!
This restaurant will lure you in with their Mexican menu (there are a shocking number of Italian restaurants on Holbox). While we found the guacamole to be heavy on the acid and salt — to the point where we thought maybe the salt shaker broke open — their fish ceviche was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life. Chunks of whitefish drown in a pureed lime-cilantro-jalapeno emulsion that was phenomenal. Don’t skip it.
Half a block down a side street from the main town square is this expansive restaurant and bar. While it’s not a bad spot to pop onto the swings and test your Spanish skills with the bartenders for a few beers, they also have a pretty stellar kitchen. Their guacamole never disappointed, and paired with their shrimp ceviche or ceviche mixto — a great combo of shrimp, fish and octopus — it’s absolute heaven. They treat seafood very well, with a chaya and shrimp wrap smothered in a savory butter sauce that’s amazing. Looking for something land-based? Their fajitas are pretty good too!
This is a spot where the owners have worked hard to create a unique atmosphere. Los Peleones means ‘the fighters’ in Spanish, and images of luchadores — the famous masked wrestlers — adorn the signs and placemats. Not a detail is left out, from custom glass plates to candle holders that look like a boxing ring. Sit on the outdoor open-air terrace and dine under the stars overlooking the main plaza in town. Just expect to pay for it — our meal here rang up at about $80USD, easily the most expensive meal of the trip.
There’s not a very good chance that you’ll miss this spot on a weekend night. Live music blares from the corner and attracts people from the plaza, who crowd the street when seating runs out at the bar. By the time the band shuts down after midnight there will be impromptu dance parties in the sandy street. Pro tip? Show up early to get a seat at the bench on the roadside, and make friends with whoever sits down next to you.
Cariocas Beach Bar and Restaurant
This is where the afterparty goes on the weekend. Cariocas is not much more than a wooden bar and palm roof stuck right into the sand of the beach, replete with swings for barstools and hammocks strung between the roof supports. But they are willing to take music requests from tequila-soaked Americans with a craving for The Chainsmokers… or so I hear. 😉 This is a great spot to lounge and day drink while swinging in a hammock, if that’s your gig.
What to Do on Holbox Island
Holbox is a great place to… not do a whole lot. But with so much wildlife around, you won’t find yourself limited by choice. My advice for the planners? Do not book any of these tours ahead of time. Everything will cost you twice as much if you try to book online. Book in person, and haggle haggle haggle. Here are a few of the coolest things to check out.
Swim with the Whale Sharks
If you’re in Holbox between May and September, put this on the must list. These toothless sharks are some of the ocean’s largest, and spending time with them is a borderline spiritual experience. Their feeding grounds are right where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico — which is where Holbox is conveniently located. Check out my friend Scott’s amazing videos of this experience here.
Take the Three Islands Tour
You’ll see this tour getting hawked at just about every tourist kiosk in town, and it’s only a few hours long and about $15USD, so give it a go. You’ll be taken to three small islands off the coast of Holbox: First, Isla Pajaros (Bird Island). Here you can see hundreds of gulls, pelicans, swallows and maybe even the occasional flamingo nest, feed, and fight. Then you’ll make your way to Yalahau. A freshwater cenote is surrounded by mangroves and beckons you for a swim. Lastly, you’ll make your way to Isla Pasion (Passion Island, ooh la la). This spot isn’t that impressive but boasted a full flock of flamingos just offshore for our photographic pleasure!
Kayak with the Crocodiles
The odds of actually seeing a crocodile are pretty low, but paddling through the mangroves in the uninhabited part of Holbox is a fun way to get a little exercise. There’s also a good chance that you’ll be able to get up close and personal with some of the ospreys, flamingos, and pelicans that make the Yum Balam preserve so famous.
After a day, I couldn’t believe that Holbox Island was even in Mexico — it felt so removed from the polished and touristy towns I had visited throughout college. But I’m glad I listened to those girls in that forum, because I think I may have found my new favorite spot in Mexico.
What’s your favorite laid-back spot that you’ve experienced in your travels? Let me know in the comments!