Isla Holbox popped on my radar when I was planning our trip to Utila, Honduras last year. When trying to decide if it was worth the effort to try to see the famed whale sharks that migrate through Utila each year, I found an article about Holbox.
Pronounced Eeeeyaa Olbosh…… it sounded like a whisper.
I couldn’t get the image of the sleepy little island out of my brain.
A mere wisp of an island, some 2.5 hours from Cancun, this is not the Mexico of jello shots and spring break tattoos. Holbox is the anti-Cancun. The un-Playa-del-Carmen. It’s compared to what the more popular locations in Mexico were 20 years ago.
“Paradise on earth,” “heavenly,” “under the radar,” “hippy chic,” “bohemian,” “Mexico’s Eden,” “Mexico’s best kept secret island,” these were the words used to describe Holbox.
The big secret? It’s apparently not a secret anymore. The last few years have brought a great deal of publicity to this perfect little beach town. The good news? It doesn’t appear that it has had much of an impact yet. So far, Holbox isn’t defined by infinity pools or all-inclusive resorts and you don’t need to dress up for dinner. Travel and Leisure may be writing about it, but it still seems to be relatively undiscovered.
This definitely pulled me in.
A late bloomer on the tourist scene, Holbox didn’t have anything modern until recent years. Locals will tell you with a sigh that “things aren’t what they used to be before Coca-Cola showed up in the 1970s.” Apparently, carbonated beverages paved the way for electricity and television, which inevitably led to Telenovela, and apparently, this led to divorce, as the people of this innocent fishing village learned the ways of the world from soap operas.
Sure, it sounds hokey, like some south of the border Mayberry, but Holbox is the real deal. None of the roads in the town are paved and the people here have an unreasonable fear of cement and the development it could bring. Developers are eyeing the island like vultures, as one of the last untouched spots in the Yucatan.
Holbox is currently caught between two worlds – still a small and simple island with low rise eco-chic hotels but it is heavily on the radar of developers who want to turn it into the next big thing.
I decided that I wanted to see it before it became the next big thing.
I knew Holbox wasn’t easy to get to, but most of the places I go aren’t. This wasn’t a deterrent for me.
An early morning flight from East TN landed us in Cancun just before noon. I saw all I wanted to of Cancun in the time it took me to get through the airport and climb into the cool, air-conditioned van that was waiting outside for us.
Two hours on potholed, chicken-crossed roads later, I was beginning to question my decision to come to such a remote destination….in Mexico. We passed by luncherias with simple thatched roofs and mini supers with dusty dogs lounging on the front step. Mostly we passed nothing….just endless miles of nothing.
At least I had opted for a private transfer. After our DIY experience in Rio de Janiero, I didn’t want to take any chances by driving ourselves, thankyouverymuch. And I didn’t want to share a van…what if we ended up sharing with a family that had 7 kids???? I also couldn’t fathom the thought of jumping on a hot, crowded bus or shuttle after a long flight, one that would likely smell like a dirty shoe and that would have the grime of three decades ground into the seats.
We were solo in air-conditioned comfort with a basket of snacks and cold drinks, pre-arranged by our hotel.
After 2 ½ hours, we arrived at the port of Chiquila. It was particularly unimpressive.
There was a superficial layer of waste and the port itself stark and unkempt. A few dogs wandered around and a woman had a cooler set up and was selling unmarked juices out of it. For a brief moment, I wondered again if I had made a mistake.
We were given our ferry tickets (again arranged by the hotel) and, after a short ferry ride, we found ourselves on Isla Holbox. This port wasn’t much more impressive than the last one. It was fairly utilitarian and had nothing in the way of amenities and there was a pervasive odor from the sea that was staggering, an offensive combination of diseased fish and human waste.
Seriously….had I really screwed up this time? Had I finally let my wanderlust propel me into a pit of doom where I would be forced to spend a miserable week with the smell of dead fish while trying to find a decent meal at the mini super?
Our hotel had a golf cart waiting at the ferry for us and we loaded up our bags and bumped our way along roads made entirely of sand.
While the port at Holbox had not made a stunning impression, at the golf cart’s snail’s pace, the layers of the island began to peel away revealing colorful huts, a riot of flowers, incredible art, and carefree locals running barefoot through the sandy streets. The beauty of Holbox began to emerge as we slowly passed by.
We had to cross the entire island to get to our hotel. This took about 4 minutes. The island was less than ½ mile wide.
We were still marveling at the pretty little town we had passed through when suddenly, Casa Las Tortugas stood before us, a huddle of curvaceous, brightly painted palapa-roofed buildings winding through a tropical garden. As someone tended to our luggage, we were ushered into a tropical courtyard dripping with bougainvillea, past a deliciously glimmering pool, and into a beachy chic reception area where we were quickly checked in.
We were handed 2 small shells to be exchanged at the bar for welcome drinks and were shown to our room. As we walked, I caught glimpses of the turquoise waters just beyond the palm trees. Flowers waved in the dappled sunlight from thatched roofs and I could hear the waves tumbling onto the sand in the distance.
The day’s tension dissolved.
We were on Holbox and it was exquisite.
Rather than setting about the business of unpacking, we found ourselves stashing our luggage, clutching those two little seashells like they were gold doubloons, and heading out for our free cocktails at the hotel’s breezy open air bar.
As I settled into a cushy sofa that faced the turquoise sea, palm trees swaying gently above me, sipping an ice cold margarita crusted deliciously with salt, I knew this vacation was going to be special.
With a bit of a tequila buzz, we returned to our room, Tucan, a delightful 2 story affair right on the beach. It was tucked back into the trees for privacy and had a porch that led inside to a wonderful sitting area and table with fresh drinking water (that was refilled daily) on the bottom floor. A winding staircase led to the huge top floor with a king sized bedroom and a quirky bathroom, topped by a high palapa roof. Outside the door was a large balcony with seating and a hammock, perfect for post-margarita naps.
It was very Robinson Crusoe meets boho chic.
We were in love.
We returned to our room to unpack and get settled and then headed out for some much needed food.
At this point, the only thing we’d had since breakfast had been a turkey sandwich from the Charlotte airport and a basket of curious Mexican snacks that we enjoyed, but could not quite identify, en route from Cancun.
Casa Las Tortugas had a sister property next door: Luuma. Set in a beautiful sandy courtyard, it seemed like the perfect place to grab some cocktails and a light bite before our late night dinner reservation.
“Light bite” was definitely a misstatement. We ordered 2 spring rolls and what we thought (based on the modest price) was a small platter of seafood. This was the small platter of seafood:
And it was delicious. Everything was fresh and expertly prepared. We scarfed it down as we enjoyed several of Luuma’s inventive cocktails. Watching the bartender make the cocktails was almost as enjoyable as drinking them. The time she spent with each one was impressive, and oh…..were those cocktails good.
We had 8:00 dinner reservations just down the beach at Casa Sandra’s Esenica’s Cuban Night.
We took a short, but pleasant stroll down the beach as the sunset filled the sky with soft pastel hues.
Casa Sandra was elegant.
Their on-site restaurant, Esencia, was beautiful.
On Saturdays, they offer a 4 course Cuban dinner. We dove in with enthusiasm. Minty mojitos were followed by appetizers, soups, mains, and dessert.
The service was impeccable, the food was outstanding, and the setting was stylish and lovely. Imagine our surprise when the bill came and 4 cocktails, a 4 course dinner each, tax, and tip came to right at $60 US.
This was, quite literally, the most awesome island in Mexico.
I woke up early, too eager to explore to sleep in. I crept out of the dim coolness of our room to let Matt sleep while I prowled around the hotel.
Every nook and cranny offered something unexpected and delightful. Even the outdoor bathroom by the pool was something special.
I had come to Holbox because I wanted something authentic, not resorty, but I also wanted enough “posh” to feel like I was on a vacation. Holbox and Casa las Tortugas served up that perfect combination. The hotel was graceful, with a hippy-chic vibe and the postcard perfect beachfront led to a powdery white coastline with clear jade waters.
After checking out my beautiful surroundings, I grabbed a cup of coffee and settled myself on a beachfront daybed to relax until Matt dragged himself out of bed.
When he finally slept off travel day and stumbled out on the beach, looking refreshed and happy, we wandered over to Mandarina, the hotel’s beachfront restaurant for breakfast.
Breakfast each morning was included in our stay. The breakfast at Mandarina was so good, it became something I looked forward to each day of our stay.
We were started off with fresh squeezed juice (the flavors changed each day – you never knew if it would be watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple, guava….) and tea or coffee along with a basket of freshly baked bread with butter and home-made jam.
Each day you could choose a plate of fruit with yogurt and granola or the “hot breakfast.” I went with the hot breakfast every day. It was exceptional.
On our first day, I was introduced to chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are essentially breakfast nachos.
HOW HAD I GONE 47 YEARS WITHOUT KNOWING THESE EXISTED??????
Chilaquiles changed my life.
One of the things we noticed immediately about Isla Holbox was the abundance of dogs. Not sad, skinny dogs that made my heart ache like we see on many other islands…these were fat and happy, running free, and living the life of Riley.
We LOVED the dogs.
With breakfast over, we did nothing more than spend the rest of the morning parked on a daybed with the iPod playing and alternating between reading, dipping in the shallow water, and dozing in the sun.
The beach on Holbox is simply one long stretch that pretty much goes as far as you can walk. While it lacks the soft white sand and clear turquoise waters that I love so much in the Bahamas, it had its own beauty all the same. The beach on Isla Holbox was crushed coral, endless tiny seashells, and insanely clear jade waters. Tangles of dried kelp and coconut husks scattered about lent it a natural wildness, unlike the manicured beaches of an all-inclusive-resort, but it was clean with no trash or debris. The shallow emerald water stretched out for ages. I had to wade an extremely long way before finding waves that lapped at anything more than knee height.
It was perfect for lounging and cooling off.
We were finding Holbox simple….quirky….rustic….and we loved it.
The only thing I didn’t love so far was the heat. As the sun rose higher in the sky, I realized this island was hotter than I was accustomed to. For Pete’s sake, it was hotter than hell and half of Texas.
The only relief came from dipping frequently in the cool water of the ocean and sipping on cocktails from our shady daybed.
Literally too hot to move, we debated our lunch options.
1) We could lay on this day bed until we died; or
2) We could drag ourselves out of the shade and head down the beach to find food and hope we managed to do so before we self combusted.
We decided on option 2 because it at least carried some small hope of survival. We strategized before we peeled our languid bodies off the swinging daybed.
Our lunch destination was 1000 feet away. This was simply too far to go in one push. Have you seen the movie Hidalgo, where the man and the horse are trudging through the cracked desert? That was my vision of trying to walk 1000 feet down the beach in that heat.
Barquito at Posada Mawimi offered cool drinks and a shady palapa only 130 feet away. We’d start small and simply try to make it there before heat stroke set in. If we made, it, we’d cool off with beverages before attempting a longer leg of 600 feet to Raices, where additional cocktails would be required before attempting to proceed to Casa Iguana, another 400 feet away.
We could do this.
We became battle ready by slathering on a layer of sunscreen so thick we looked whitewashed and made our way to Barquito.
Barquito was a delightful palapa style bar and restaurant on the beach next door to our hotel at hotel Posada Mawimbi. It quickly became one of our favorite places to grab a cocktail, not just because it was close enough that we could make it there without getting 3rd degree burns on our feet, but it served awesome drinks, they were cheap, and the view was impossible to beat.
We sucked down a couple of strong, frosty $5 cocktails (seriously!!!).
Sufficiently refreshed, we slithered down the beach to the next stop – Raices.
In my online perusing, Raices had gotten mixed reviews. Some people said it was the best seafood EVER and other said they have rested on their former reputation too long and the quality has diminished. After a quick look around, I decided that I agreed with those that advised to get a drink, enjoy the view, and move on.
The setting was casual and cool, the bar swings were awesome, and this was one of the best margaritas of the trip.
I didn’t change my mind about the food, though.
We moved on.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know EXACTLY where Casa Iguana was. I didn’t realize it was practically next door to Raices because it was set back from the beach, and we set off on a hot death march down the beach.
About 10 minutes later, and nearly dead, we realized we had missed it. Matt gave me “that look” (the same one he gave me the time I got us stuck in the back of a rangy alley in Rome with no way to turn our car around) as he hailed a golf cart taxi.
We hoisted our sweaty bodies into the vinyl seats and asked him to take us to Casa Iguana. When we arrived pretty much back at where we started, Matt gave me “that look” again.
All was forgiven when we slid into two chairs in the breezy shade of Huacalilto, the beachside restaurant at hotel Casa Iguana. I would say it was one of the best meals of the trip, but to be quite honest, we had so many good meals on the trip it’s really hard to choose.
Strong cold drinks mixed with time and care were brought out along with a plate of fresh, tangy ceviche and hot, crispy, salty tortilla chips.
Matt’s fish looked gorgeous, but it paled in comparison to my coconut crusted shrimp topped with pineapple salsa.
It was a 15 minute walk down the beach to Alma Bar and we knew we’d never make it, so we hailed another of those delicious little golf cart taxis and rode in breezy comfort.
We found Alma on the roof of hotel Villas Tiburón, with a cool pool and a stellar view.
We cooled off in their pool hammocks with a couple of spicy frozen mango margaritas.
We ended the afternoon back at Casa las Tortugas alternating between daybed naps and floating in the refreshing water.
Up to this point, we hadn’t ventured into town with the exception of the ride from the port to the hotel, so we cleaned up and decided to wander around a bit before locating some sunset cocktails.
The village is small and tight, and Casa las Tortugas sits right on the edge. The streets were paved with sand and there wasn’t a car in sight. Golf carts and scooters whizzed down the sandy lanes, and dogs of every shape and size appeared in doorways or simply lay in the middle of the street.
It was a riot of color and art. Several years ago, Isla Holbox participated in Mexico’s first Festival Internacional de Arte Publico (FIAP) and invited artists from around the world to come experience this seaside fishing town and create inspired street art for everybody to see. I absolutely loved the murals painted on every available space I could see.
We wandered to the central village square, only a block from our hotel. At night, this seemed to be the hub of all activity. The streets were filled with the smell of sweet batter as small carts selling marquesitas, freshly cooked, thin crepes cooked on an iron until crispy and then filled with tangy cheese and Nutella. As the light of the day faded, people seemed to emerge from nowhere, spilling into the square. Music drifted out of open doorways, tiny birds hopped from coconut trees onto streetside tables, and a group of boys played soccer in a sandy corner. A tiny cart sold watermelon juice to people passing by.
Unusual for Mexico, there is very little crime on Holbox which is probably why the island’s few policemen were sitting on a wall unwrapping homemade pork and potato tacos from tinfoil.
Even with the heat, it felt nice here. This was a good place.
Not wanting to miss the sunset, we headed back to the beachside in search of Il Chiringuito, a small thatched bar on the beach in front of Hotel Zomay, rumored to have amazing drinks and the best sunset view.
We found both to be true.
Despite the fact that the bar was TINY, the bartender took a tremendous amount of time and care making each drink. This seemed to be the norm for Holbox. We watched as he careful peeled and cut a mango, blended it, added rum and coconut cream and then crafted it into a tasty cocktail for Matt.
A huge fan of margaritas, my goal was to sample as many as I could while I was on Holbox, so I opted for the traditional margarita. It was hand shaken.
The sun dripped into the haze in an eruption of color as we enjoyed the distinctly bohemian vibe of Il Chiringuito. An eclectic crowd of unconventional types sipped sunset drinks, drifted lazily in swings, and kicked soccer balls around the beach while a menagerie of odd dogs barked happily at their feet.
Eventually, our stomachs called and we had to answer.
We walked the dusty streets through town to Rosa Mexicano. One of the newer restaurants on Holbox’s dining scene, this open-air restaurant drew us in with its sand colored walls and inviting smells.
Matt’s watermelon martini was refreshing and my mescal margarita was spectacular.
Drinks were followed by fresh guacamole and queso fundido, and we rounded the meal out with shrimp enchiladas and chicken mole.
As Matt and I covertly slipped bits of chicken and cheese to the sweet dog laying across our feet, we knew we were falling under the spell of Holbox.
It was our second morning on Holbox, and as usual, I was awake before Matt. As my suspended daybed swung lazily back and forth, I watched the morning come to life.
I looked around and saw the hotel staff cleaning off the beach chairs with a brush, chairs that would soon be filled with lazy tourists lounging on the beach all day. At this time of day, there were more fishermen than tourists, and I watched as they carried their equipment down the beach toward boats docked at a distant pier.
Small wooden dinghies banged softly together at the water’s edge, with rows of pelicans perched on their bows, scanning the water for breakfast. A short distance down the beach, a small woman sat in a plastic chair repairing a net. Nearby, inside a sun-worn palapa, someone was setting up cold beer as a smattering of lazy puppies and a chicken or two wandered about. A cart rolled down the beach, it’s vendor preparing to sell freshly baked banana bread and prickly pear juice so sweet it would make your teeth hurt.
The air smelled like the sea and the sweet honey that Casa las Tortugas used heavily in all of the bath products. I breathed it all in.
Eventually he wandered sleepily out onto the beach and we enjoyed fresh squeezed watermelon juice and warm, crusty bread, smeared thick with mango jam and a hot breakfast of chicken and cheese enchiladas.
The day was bright and beautiful. We had learned yesterday that, in the heat, it was too hard to do any more than spend the day simply melting into the warm sand, coming up for air only long enough to take a cold sip of a tangy margarita and lick the crusty salt from our fingers.
So that’s exactly what we did.
For lunch, we walked a short distance down the beach to Villa Mar, a casual beachfront restaurant that was rumored to have amazing fish tacos.
We enjoyed frosty margaritas crusted thick with salt, fresh ceviche, and their famous fish tacos.
The food was more than we could eat, but we had a little help from a friend.
We spent the heat of the afternoon lounging in the sparkling pool.
That evening, we headed back to Barquito for evening cocktails. They were as lovely as they were delicious.
The night before, as we sat and noshed on our chips at Rosa Mexicano, we noticed El Sushi de Holbox next door. Sushi? In Mexico?
That sounded like a good way to get a nice bacterial infection to me, or, at a minimum, a good case of diarrhea. We were surprised to see the most amazing looking food coming out.
After 2 days of ceviche and Mexican food, our taste buds wanted something different, so we decided to be bold and try El Sushi de Holbox.
I quickly understood why it is rated as one of the best restaurants on Holbox, despite how weird Mexican and sushi are together.
The ramen was a delicious start followed by several of their specialty rolls. Everything looked as good as it tasted.
So far, our meals on Holbox had been OUTSTANDING. The food on this island was spectacular. And so cheap!
We walked back to Casa las Tortugas along the quaint streets of the village, watching the multitude of happy dogs run about, enjoying the string lights that stretched across the streets, and hearing the laughter of children playing in the square. The cinnamon-and-sugar smell of fresh churros wafted into the air from a row of sidewalk food vendors who were selling tacos, fruit drinks and crepes.
It was only 9:30, but the ease of Holbox had seeped into our bones. We wanted nothing more than our cool room and blissful sleep.