Isla Holbox: The Un-Cancun

Isla Holbox: The Un-Cancun

Most vacationers flying into Cancun International Airport head directly to the glamorous shopping, high-rise beach resorts, bustling nightlife and traffic-filled streets found in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera. But there’s a nearby destination that includes none of that — but so much more.

On Isla Holbox, an island north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the shopping consists of a few shacks peddling jewelry, sandals, beer and the like. The island’s handful of hotels are small and don’t rise much higher than palm trees. The nightlife revolves around quiet beach bars where barefoot patrons are as likely to sit on swings or hammocks as they are on seats. As for the traffic, the island has no cars. However, we’ve been told that on occasion two of the island’s golf cart taxis meet up at an intersection.

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    Pay With Points

    Using Pay With Points, available through American Express Travel, you can do more than merely book airline tickets. Hotels, rental cars, cruises, dining experiences, entertainment packages and even purchases through Amazon.com are payable with points.

    For our trip to Holbox, each plane ticket cost us 34,900 points. The rental car was 11,820 and our stay at the island’s best hotel, La Nubes de Holbox, was an extra 47,578 points. Finally, a good road map—suggested for the drive to/from the airport to the Holbox ferry—set us back another 1,016 points.

    space Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun

    Learn more about how we put together our trip using American Express Membership Rewards points

Most of Isla Holbox, in fact, is uninhabited and reveals few signs of human existence. Holbox town is only a few square blocks. The vast majority of the 42km (26 miles) long island is an untouched nature preserve. Mangrove forests line the lagoon side of the island. Pristine beaches run the length of the Caribbean side. Between the two you’ll find flamingos, pelicans, exotic birds, lizards, the occasional small crocodile (and plenty of mosquitoes).

Among the natural features you won’t find are rocks. The island doesn’t have any. No wonder the people who live on Holbox go around barefoot!

Spot Cool Stuff came to Isla Holbox (pronounced “hole-BOSH”) on a challenge issued to us by American Express—to turn 150,000 Membership Rewards Points into a trip for two with WOW factor.

We chose Isla Holbox in part because it is one of those special places that provides the feeling of having traveled to an exotic, hard-to-get-to locale without dealing with the hassle and expense of traveling to a place that’s actually hard to get to.

Those heading to Holbox from a major airport in the United States or Canada: You could literally leave on a flight in the morning and be on a car-less Mexican island by sunset!

And if that isn’t enough to draw you to Isla Holbox, the chance to go swimming with the world’s largest fish certainly should be.

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golf cart taxi on Isla Holbox

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Getting to Isla Holbox

holbox airport Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun follow me on pinterest button Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun Resorts and tour companies around Cancun can arrange land transportation to Holbox for an exorbitant fee—upwards of US$300 per person. Even more expensive is flying to the island’s grassy airstrip and comically small “airport.” Spot Cool Stuff suggests renting a car and making your own way to Holbox. It is a three step trip:

Drive to the mainland town of Chiquila. Driving time is about 2 hours 20 minutes (using our short cut) from Cancun Airport, 3 hours from the center of the Cancun Zona Hotelera and 3 hours 30 minutes from downtown Playa del Carmen. There’s safe overnight parking available in Chiquila for 40 pesos per calendar day.

Take a 45-minute ferry from Chiquila to Holbox. At the time of writing, ferries departed at 8am, noon, 2:30pm, 5pm and 7pm and cost 75 pesos per adult. Private boats can also be hired to make the crossing for 350 pesos.

Ride a golf cart taxi to your hotel. If your hotel doesn’t arrange for a golf cart to pick you up, a driver will take you anywhere on the island (or, at least anywhere do-able with a golf cart) for 50 pesos. If you are staying at a place in town (eg. Hotel Corel) you could walk from the ferry port in 8~10 minutes, but it is hot and the sandy streets make rolling bags tricky.

Click here for our detailed driving directions from Cancun Airport and Playa del Carmen to Chiquila


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What To Do On Isla Holbox

Lounge. Drink. Relax. Swim. Repeat.

holbox hammock l Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun follow me on pinterest button Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun Isla Holbox is remarkably easy going. Crime of any sort is rare. Seeing someone in a hurry is more rare still.

So bring a good novel, order a cold cervesa (or two, or five) and settle into a hammock. Or go for a swim. The beaches are pristine. The water is warm, clear and calm; it is also colored a mesmerizing hue—Isla Holbox sits at the point where the green water of the Gulf of Mexico meets with the blue water of the Caribbean.

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Swim with whale sharks

whale shark holbox Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun follow me on pinterest button Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun It’s the opportunity to go snorkeling with the world’s largest fish that draws most travelers to Isla Holbox (from early June through September). The experience of doing so is amazing. Click here to read our review of whale shark tours and learn how to arrange one.

Explore the island. Go bird watching.

Isla Holbox has a very limited network of roads (eg. sandy paths) but you can rent a golf cart (120 pesos/hour) or a bicycle and explore the area from the town west up until the first river that bisects the island.

To travel further than that you’ll need some sort of water craft. Guests of La Nubes de Holbox get complimentary use of the hotel’s kayaks. You can also hire a boat to take you on a tour around the island; or to drop you off at a remote beach.

Dotted around the island are little bird watching towers. Anyone is welcome to climb up into one, but you’ll have greater avian success if you go on a bird watching tour. Which brings us to . . .

Take a Tour

To entice travelers off their hammocks, enterprising travel agents have created several island tour experiences. The two most popular are bird watching tours—Isla Holbox is famous for the abundance and variety of its feathered inhabitants—and deep sea fishing tours. You can also go horseback riding on the beach and take kite surfing lessons.

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Exploring west of Holbox town by golf cart


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The Downside of Paradise?

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. Though Spot Cool Stuff is a huge fan of Isla Holbox, three points of warning for those planning to visit:

holbox restaurant Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun follow me on pinterest button Isla Holbox: The Un Cancun First, Isla Holbox is mosquito-full. We rarely got bit from mid-morning through late-afternoon. But around dusk and dawn, as if cued by the sun, the mosquitoes turn vicious. Fortunately, the risk for malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases is low-to-none. But that doesn’t make being covered by mosquito bites more enjoyable.

Less problematic are the island’s horseflies. We didn’t notice them in town or around the hotels. They are out in force around the rest of the island and, unlike mosquitoes, don’t seem to take siestas during the afternoons.

Second, the food on Isla Holbox is sub-optimal. Not bad, but overpriced (eg. US$12 to 25 per entree) and not at all Mexican. For reasons we could not uncover, Italian is easily the island’s dominant cuisine. Literally, it is far easier to find a restaurant serving five kinds of homemade pasta with bolognese sauce than it is to find one with fish tacos on the menu. One noteworthy exception was the ramshackle “Slow Food Restaurant” on the beach just west of town.

Finally, here’s the hardest part about taking a vacation on Isla Holbox: At some point you’ll have to leave.

published: 1 Sept 2011
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Taken with a Sony Nex-5 on Panorama Sweep mode. Click to see full image in a new window. Warning: big file!

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Foosball arcade in the Holbox town square

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If You Go

When: Isla Holbox is a year-round destination, but rain and the threat of hurricanes put off most tourists from September through mid-December. Whale shark swimming is from early June until around mid-September.

What to bring: Insect repellant! We also suggest insect repellant clothing. There are no ATMs or banks on the islands. Some of the higher end hotels will exchange US (and perhaps Canadian) dollars cash at fair rates, but better bring all the pesos you think you’ll need.

Family friendly? Absolutely. (Spot Cool Stuff traveled to Holbox with an 8-year-old.) Calm sea waters make for kid-friendly swimming . Sand bars along certain stretches of beach (eg. off of La Nubes de Holbox hotel) mean you can walk out a long way into the water and be only knee (or even ankle) deep. Isla Holbox is extremely safe and the hygiene standards at tourist-oriented restaurants are high.

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Responses

  1. sharon says:

    I am gong with 2 kids age 4 and5 in December/ Jan this year and was wondering if anyone could recommend nubs holbox or casa sandra hotel. I know nubs is out the way but would this be a problem. We have rooms at both and can’t work out chic would be best for us.

    any suggestions would be a great help,

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Sharon,

    If your budget allows, I’d suggest Nubes. It is only “out of the way” relatively speaking. You can walk into town (on the road or along the beach) in about 10 minutes — or drive a golf cart. Our review of Nubes is at:

    http://travel.spotcoolstuff.com/mexico/review/las-nubes-de-holbox-hotel

    Have a great trip!

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Tiffany says:

    We are thinking about going to Holbox next February. Does anyone know if there are banks or places to exchange money?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    There are no banks on the island. There are places to exchange cash and higher-end hotels (like the Las Nubes de Holbox, where we stayed) take credit cards. Still, for spending money, best bring all the pesos you need.

    Have a good trip,

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Anne says:

    Hi,

    Can you speak to your experience renting a car? Were there unexpected costs? Did you use a company in the airport? We’ve seen a lot of discouraging posts about renting in Cancun. Are you able to share the company you used? We’ve seen per day costs of $10-$20, but are skeptical.

    Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Hi Anne,

    I think you are right to be skeptical of the $10~20 a day rental car. We’ve rented cars in Mexico on previous trips for that price and, in addition to being crap rides, they came with all kinds of restrictions in regards to the miles, the speed you can drive, etc. Once they made us buy extra insurance at an exorbitant price.

    On this particular trip we rented our car through Hertz. At Cancun Airport they have a franchise location, not a corporate one, so they weren’t nearly as efficient or high-quality as you’d expect to find at an airport in the U.S.A. or Western Europe. But they were certainly good enough.

    Once we got our car, the most difficult part was finding our way to the Chiquila Ferry Port — that’s why we posted our detailed driving directions between the airport and Holbox. There were no other unexpected costs. Things often aren’t well sign posted (off of the main roads) in Mexico but other than that there were no hassles. In general, we’ve found the Yucatan to be a pretty good place to explore by rental car.

    Hope that helps,

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. xshot team says:


    Twitter:
    We went to Holbox a couple years ago and it was pure paradise,I hope it will stay like this and never look like Cancun. The Horseshoe crabs on the beach are amazing, one of the oldest creature on earth.
    xshot team recently posted..XShot Camera and iPhone accessories featured in Splash Magazines Father’s Day Gift IdeasMy Profile

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. keith says:

    My wife and I are going to Holbox in mid-may. I noticed the fees for taking us there are quite steep. I thought I would rent a car and drive there. I saw your direction on how to get there and wondered if you ever felt unsafe driving through the roads. We do not speak a lick of Spanish (except Cervesa) and wondered if there was a chance of being in a compromising situation? We are not one to shy away from an adventure but want to make sure we aren’t being unsafe either.
    Any restaurants or bars not to miss?
    Thanks,
    Keith

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Hi Keith,

    Yep, the fees companies charge to take you to Holbox are exorbitant. You are much better going on your own. We took a wrong turn and ended up in an area that felt a little sketchy. But we never felt like we were in any imminent danger. And we specifically published our Cancun-Holbox driving directions to help people avoid our missteps. If you follow that you should be fine. But if you are worried you can drive via downtown Cancun, though that hour is about an hour longer and is probably easier to get lost on.

    As for bars and restaurants, none are outstanding. We liked the very local Slow Food restaurant on the beach south of the main town.

    Have fun. And let us know how your trip goes.

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

    Kell Reply:


    Twitter:
    Great service you provide with the driving directions! Gracias

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. steve horne says:

    thanx for all the great info and pics. we are going to holbox in feb. i am wondering if i can take my fishing rod and buy a license on holbox and fish off the shore anywhere? thank you steve

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Steve,

    I didn’t try this, but I do know that the water is VERY shallow — as in, you can walk in it shallow — for quite a ways out from Holbox. So I suspect there’s no much fishing off shore. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt to try.

    SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

    Kelli Reply:


    Twitter:
    No license needed! Bring a rod and fish off the beach anytime! The west point has snook. The east side river has mojarra and baracuda. Get someone to take you out for Corbina (sea trout).

    [Reply to this comment]

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