This tiny island is north of Isla Mujeres and Cancun and is only 26 miles long and offers visitors in search of a “Robinson Crusoe” experience the perfect escape. Long, sweeping beaches beckon with water sports, snorkeling, sport fishing, and total R&R. A shallow lagoon gives sanctuary to thousands of flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds and creatures, allowing visitors the perfect spot in which to commune with nature. Several good restaurants and hotels are available and tours to area attractions can be arranged by ferry and small plane. Getting around the island is via bicycle or golf cart.
Marquesitas, the Yucatecan Treat
What do you get when you cross a crepe with a waffle cone? – Marquesitas, the sweet Yucatecan street food that originated in Mérida and has thankfully found its way to sleepy Isla Holbox. When the hum of generators fills the humid night, and lights begin to twinkle, you may find yourself drawn to the sandy main plaza by the wafting aroma of vanilla and caramelized sugar. Follow your nose to a cart that serves up treats that delight locals and visitors alike. The vendor pours sweet batter onto a hot, cast-iron griddle and gives it a quick, waffle-iron-like press to create a fragrant, golden wafer. While the crepe is still soft, the treat is spread with your choice of filling, from the traditional, shredded “bola de queso” (Edam cheese) with “cajeta” (goat’s milk caramel) to Nutella with bananas. The hot treat is deftly folded into quarters, given a quick press on the griddle and then handed to you in a wrapper, in all its hot, gooey, sweet crispy wafer deliciousness.
Walking on Water
Whale shark tours might be Isla Holbox’s main tourist draw in the summer months, but seek out the island’s lengthy sandbar and you’ll be walking on water. At low tide, walk along the beach out of town towards the furthest hotel on the strand, Las Nubes de Holbox. Wade out to sea in ankle to knee-deep water until you reach the gleaming, white sandbar, surrounded by turquoise waters. Pay attention as in some spots you may sink into deeper silt, so this walk is not recommended for those who cannot swim. Head for the sandbar on a sunny day when you can discern the depth of the water and clearly see the sandbar. Walk for miles along silky, rippled sand, following the tracks of sandpipers and keeping an eye out for conch shells and tide pools filled with tiny fish. Near Punta Mosquitos, your sandbar vantage point will give you a clear view of a colony of brilliant, squawking, pink flamingos, feeding in the shallow flats. Be mindful of the tide and retrace your steps before it starts to rise, making your way back to town in time for one of Isla Holbox’s spectacular sunsets.
Whale Sharks - The “Domino” Effect
The clear waters off the coast of Isla Holbox are one of the few places in the world where you can swim and snorkel with whale sharks. The season runs from mid-May to mid-September, but you’ll have the greatest chance of encountering these magnificent fish in July and August. Called “Dominos” by the locals, polka-dotted whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, measuring up to 40 feet in length. Don’t worry, the gentle whale sharks are filter-feeders that subsist mainly on plankton and krill and have no taste for bathing suit-clad snorkelers! When the captain yells, “Now!” it’s time to jump in so fast that you don’t have time to be scared as the whale shark’s gaping maw materializes before you and this Mack truck-sized, spotted, gray behemoth gracefully glides by, with hitchhiking remora fish, and in two swishes of his or her tail, is gone. On the day I went, our licensed guide explained the rules of not touching the sharks and allowing only two tourists and one guide in the water with a shark at any given time. Despite the fact that the whale sharks did not appear to be bothered by our presence, I had mixed feelings about this ecotourism experience that appears to be taking off faster than sound conservation strategies can be formed and implemented.
Isla Holbox – Two Coca Colas and You’re There
Getting there may not be half the fun, but the journey to remote Isla Holbox is relatively painless. If you arrive into Cancún International Airport in the morning, you can be lounging on the beach by the afternoon. From the airport, it’s most efficient to take a comfortable, 2-hour taxi ride from the airport to Chiquilá, followed by a 30-minute ferry to the island, with a brief, golf cart taxi to your hotel. Budget travelers can save money by hopping an airport bus to the Cancún ADO bus station and then taking the “Mayab” bus to Chiquilá, arriving at the ferry in 3 to 3 ½ hours, with stops along the way. If money is no object and small planes are your thing, it’s possible to book a charter flight on AeroSaab, departing from Cancún’s private plane terminal (FBO) to Holbox. On the way to Isla Holbox, I booked and prepaid for a one-way transfer through Holbox Transfers (www.transfersholbox.com), which included a private ride to Chiquilá, ferry to Holbox and drop off by golf cart at my hotel in Holbox. With my promised driver nowhere in sight as I exited Cancún airport (found nursing a beer in the airport bar, close to one hour later, after several calls to Holbox Transfers), I was not impressed with the service. On the return, I easily arranged the same transfers on my own at a lower cost.
Go off Grid in Isla Holbox
If Isla Mujeres isn’t off the beaten path enough for you, there’s still Isla Holbox, where you can really get off the grid. No cars are allowed here, so everyone moves around on foot, bicycle or in a golf cart. Beach bumming is the primary visitor activity though bird watching and whale shark viewing are popular, as well. The island has a sizable population of flamingos, as well as other wild birds, some of which are endangered. To get to Isla Holbox, take a ferry from Cancun; as long as weather conditions are favorable. The ferry leaves several times each day. This is more than a day trip, so consider booking an overnight at a hotel in Holbox.