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.
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.
Getting to Isla Holbox
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.
What To Do On Isla Holbox
Lounge. Drink. Relax. Swim. Repeat.
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.
Swim with whale sharks
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.
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:
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.
Taken with a Sony Nex-5 on Panorama Sweep mode. Click to see full image in a new window. Warning: big file!
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.