Isla Holbox: A Tiny Mexican Island with Big, Big Fish

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Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh) is a small island located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, about three hours from Cancun by bus. It’s best known as a place to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish from June to September. At over 12 metres long and weighing up to 13 tonnes, whale sharks are the largest fish on earth, but since they only eat plankton, they pose no danger to swimmers.

For the rest of the year, Isla Holbox is simply a place to relax. With a population of less than 2,000 people, streets paved with sand, and no cars, it really is a world apart from any tourist locale. You often look around to realise that while you’re surrounded by pelicans, there are no other humans in sight. If you’ve ever wanted to indulge a desert island fantasy, this is the place to do it. Read on for a travel guide to Isla Holbox…

Where to stay on Isla Holbox:

The entire island is a working fishing site, so all stretches of beach are full of moored fishing boats, and there are tons of pelicans gobbling up the abundant fish. None of the beaches are as nice as those you’ll find in the Caribbean (the island’s waters are part of the Gulf of Mexico), but you’ll often have them all to yourself.

One stretch of beach has become known as Isla Holbox’s Hotel Zone. It’s a cluster of resorts, many made up of luxurious cabanas. The hotels charge in American dollars, with prices starting at $75 per night and going up to over $180 (much more during whale shark season).

An excellent low-cost alternative is the Ida y Vuelta campsite, located just behind the hotel zone, about 200 metres from the beach. Ida y Vuelta offers camping spots for $7 per person, beds in a shared cabana for $11 per person, or a private cabana for $45 (all prices are mid-season rates). With an excellent communal kitchen, hammocks all over the place, and the cleanest hostel-style bathroom I’ve ever seen, it’s a wonderful way to make the most of Holbox’s charms and make some new friends at the same time.

What to do on Isla Holbox:

Truthfully, unless you’re there for the whale sharks, Isla Holbox is all about not doing much at all. Island life is slow and laid back, and nothing in town really beats an afternoon spent in a hammock. That said, renting bicycles and riding around the island is an excellent way to spend an afternoon. For 80 pesos (less than $6) you can rent a bike for 24 hours. The bikes have some salt damage, no gears, and foot brakes, but they’ll get you where you’re going (and you won’t be going far, the entire island is only 40 km long and 2 km wide.)

If you are there during whale shark season, just about anyone on the island can put you in touch with a tour operator. Most of the snorkelling tours are operated by local fishermen, who cherish the whale sharks and conduct their tours in ways that don’t disturb the breeding and migration of the big fish. All-day snorkel tours are available for around $80 per person.

Riding, bird-watching, and crocodile watching is also available on the island, and from May to August there are tours to see nesting sea turtles on a pristine beach. All of these tours are available through Mextreme Travel

Where to Eat on Isla Holbox:

Isla Holbox has a large population of Italian immigrants, and the cuisine on the island is overwhelmingly Italian. Almost every restaurant serves up pasta, risotto, and other Italian specialities – and prices are not that much less that what you would expect to find in an Italian restaurant in any major North American city. Both Los Pelacanos and La Cueva del Pirata offer excellent homemade pasta in the town’s main square.

Of course, as a fishing village, Isla Holbox also has excellent seafood and it couldn’t be fresher. It’s rare for a fish to be more than 24 hours from catch to plate. The Buena Vista offers excellent grilled fish only a few feet from the beach. Some days, the beach bars offer fish straight from the boats that moor out front.

For a taste of Mexican food, start off the day with empanadas from Empanadas la Conquista or just buy a stack of fresh tortillas from the local tortilleria.

Getting to Isla Holbox:

Isla Holbox has remained tranquil for a reason – it’s a bit of a trek to get there. From Cancun, take the bus to Chiquila. It’s about a three-hour trip, and since there’s no exit to Chiquila from the toll highway, only second-class buses make the run. The second-class buses stop often to pick up passengers and drop them off, and they have no onboard toilet. The highway has more speedbumps than you’d ever expect a highway to have. The point is, it’s not luxurious – but it’s safe, and you will get there in one piece.

From Chiquila, take a ferry across the lagoon to Isla Holbox. It’s a 20-minute crossing that runs nine times per day. If you’ve booked with Ida y Vuelta, there will likely be a friendly face waiting to meet you at the ferry dock. You can take a golf-cart taxi to your hotel or the campground if you have lots of luggage, but it’s only a 10 to 15 minute walk to the hotel zone. You can access the Chiquila – Holbox ferry schedule

Relax: 

It’s not often that you’ll be able to see vast stretches of beach populated only by birds and fish. Take it all in and let the vibe of Isla Holbox wash over you. When it’s time to leave, you’ll be surprised by just how mellow you’ve become.

Photo Credits: All images @Christina Newberry unless credited below.Whale Sharks via iStockPhoto.com; Isla de Holbox by Not all potatoes can swim… via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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