My love for Mexico always has me traveling throughout the country looking to find new experiences and treasures. I have gone on countless journeys exploring Cancun/Riviera Maya down through Tulum and it wasn’t until two years ago that I heard of the nearby ‘hidden paradise’, Isla Holbox.
Development and tourism keeps pushing down south the coast of Cancun, but for some reason, no one ever thinks about the destinations to the north. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because to the north are pristine islands like Isla Contoy and Isla Holbox that hopefully, forever stay that way. After day in and day out hearing about how great Isla Holbox was, I finally made my way to visit. Hesitant that it would be overrated, I was delightfully wrong. Isla Holbox is a true paradise and one of those places that can not be adequately described through words…..you must live it to believe it.
About Isla Holbox
Located northwest of Cancun, Holbox (pronounced hol-bosh) is a small island separated from the mainland in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It is only about 25 miles in length, less than 2 miles wide, and makes up part of the Yum Balam Ecological Reserve. The shallow lagoons where the Caribbean Sea converges with the Gulf of Mexico create a picture perfect refuge for visitors of all types including flamingos, white pelicans, and other exotic birds. From June to September, the protected waters also attract whale sharks – the largest fish in the world. There are almost always refreshing winds blowing towards the island, creating relief from the hot sun and making a day at the beach very enjoyable. The water is shallow and gentle, radiating a blue oasis and seeming-like infinity-edge pool that has no end.
Life on the island is very laid-back and traditional. The residents of Isla Holbox are a unique mix of Maya, Spanish, and Cuban, many of which make their living by fishing. It is not uncommon to see most people walking around barefoot given that the streets are clean and completely made of sand. Very few cars are allowed access on the island in order to protect the environment so the preferred mode of transportation is either golf cart, moped or bicycle.
Getting to Isla Holbox
There are a few ways to get to Isla Holbox. The most common is via public transportation. Leaving from the Cancun Terminal de Autobuses is a Maayab bus headed to the town of Chiquilá ($80 pesos) followed by a ferry ride ($100 pesos) to get to Holbox. The red ferry gets you to and from Isla Holbox in about half of the time than the blue one! In total, this trip takes about 4.5 -5 hours. The journey can feel a bit long, especially when the buses make several stops. The preferred way to arrive to the island is to arrange private transportation. Since cars are not allowed on the island, renting a car is not recommended. There are many private transfer companies (including Journey Mexico) that will help arrange this for you and the travel time takes about 2.5 hours. For those in a hurry to get to paradise, the fastest (and coolest) way to arrive is to fly in from Cancun or Playa del Carmen in a Cessna aircraft. With a birds-eyes view in a plane, the vistas of the Riviera Maya coast and surrounding islands are incredible.
What to Do in Isla Holbox
Still considered a virgin beach destination unspoiled by mass tourism, Holbox is a place of natural beauty where one comes to just rest, relax, and recharge batteries. Boutique hotels can be found beachfront and offer plenty of hammocks, loungers, and palapas to soak in the Mexican-Caribbean sun. Mid-day is a good time to walk around town or rent a bicycle and explore the island’s parameters. The town only spans several blocks and is mostly made up of restaurants and artisan shops. Punta Mosquito (to the east) and Punta Coco (to the west) are both fantastic beaches to escape to and spend a few hours in complete seclusion. Right before nightfall, it is a must to witness the famous Isla Holbox sunsets.
Outside of town, nearby attractions include: Isla Pájaraos, a small mangrove island with an vast diversity of birds; and Cenote Yalahau, a crystal-clear freshwater lagoon/spring and magical place of pirate folklore and history. Both are only accessible by boat. During the months of June through September, whale sharks are known to visit the open waters near the island allowing visitors the chance for up-close and personal encounters via a swimming with whale shark tour.
Where to Stay
There are boutique hotels and hostels all along the shore of Isla Holbox ranging from a backpacker’s budget all the way to luxury indulgers. Casa Sandra Boutique Hotel is a quiet place that incorporates artistic flairs, personalized attention to guests, and a very ‘welcome home’ ambiance. Other popular choices include Las Nubes, which has a bit more secluded location away from town, and Casa de las Tortugas, a colorful and trendy boutique hotel that is an all around great place to relax, dine, drink and experience.
Where to Eat
Restaurants are plentiful in Isla Holbox, mostly serving, as one can imagine, seafood. A must-try when visiting is Lobster Pizza –it has become a Isla Holbox tradition and very easy to find. For authentic, the originals are at Restaurant Edelyn and for delicious, Cariocas serves it up perfect with two glasses of wine.
A delightful place for a light breakfast is at Casa Sandra. They serve fresh fruits, mouthwatering banana bread, a divinely rich coffee from Chiapas and refreshing hibiscus-lemon tea (almost identical to Stabuck’s Shaken Iced Passion Tea Lemonade!) For lunch, Las Panchas is a very popular place for both locals and visitors and has the best ceviche on the island. Their menu only features seafood and it is both fresh and served in very reasonable portions At night, a great option for dinner is Rosa Mexicana where they specialize in what they call, nueva cocina Mexicana— a refined take on traditional ingredients. While the goat cheese stuffed chicken with plantain covered in mole poblano was indeed a fantastic explosion of flavors, I recommend sticking with a seafood dish. Another great option for dinner is Mandarina, an acclaimed Mediterranean restaurant serving fresh, organic food including pastas, breads, and meats – a perfect break from all the seafood!
Where to Drink
As with restaurants, bars are everywhere. My suggestions are the following: La Diosa Kali for a inexpensive bucket of beer on the beach; Casa Sandra for the best Cuban mojitos on the island; Las Nubes for a Coco Loco (spiked coconut water served in a coconut) at sunset; Cariocas pop-up palapa on the beach for a fresh caipirinha; Los Peleones at night for a “La Reyna de Mi Corazon de Puebla” (a watermelon spin on the traditional mojito); Arena Lounge for a free coronita; and finally Casa Las Tortugas for a fantastic selection of mezcals. During the day, Casa Las Tortugas also has a menu of what they call “Water Therapy” — their Vitaminica is the perfect fix to dehydration after –or during—a long day in the sun.
This post is part of my #JourneyHolbox trip – reporting live from Casa Sandra Boutique Hotel on Isla Holbox. You can read my insider’s tips (orginally shared in real-time) on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare with the hashtag #JourneyHolbox