It's hard to believe that Cancun was founded only in 1970. Now one of Mexico's busiest beach resorts, only three people lived there when Mexico's tourism department decided Cancun would be its next big thing. It was a spectacular success! The city now has over 700,000 residents, while resort hotels line the coast -- adding thousands more package tourists to the general population on any given day. The main beach boulevard is always clogged with traffic, and in truth, Cancun's Zona de Hotelera feels a lot more like Florida than it does Mexico. Cancun has become a non-stop party. If you're looking for a quiet beach getaway, Cancun is probably not going to be the place to go.
But a nearly perfect escape lies just a couple of hours away. Isla Hobox is the island that long-time visitors wish they could keep secret. But an island this beautiful was destined to be discovered. There have been stories written about it in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and an article last fall from Conde Nast Traveler prompted me to take a look, and a week's vacation.
[Villas Flamingos, Isla Holbox]
Isla Holbox is an island where the highlight of the day is often the sunset. Each day, we made a point to check out the sunset from different vantage points. Each day, the sunset was spectacular. It's an island without high rise condos, an island without cars, and without a lot to do. And that is exactly the point.
Most of Isla Holbox is part of the Yum Balum Biosphere Reserve, the largest such nature reserve in Mexico. My wife and I stayed at Villas Flamingos, a hotel right on the edge of the protected zone but still just a quick 20-25 minute walk into town along what passes for a busy stretch of beach on Holbox. There's a sandbar right in front of the hotel, and it's a primary walkway on the island. It was always fun to see people who appeared to be walking on water, but we knew the sand was just beneath the surface. One morning, we decided to take a walk along that sandbar, out into the nature preserve. We'd been told there were flamingos to be sighted up around Punta Mosquito, so we got into our bathing suits, grabbed some water and the camera, and took a barefoot walk into the wild. At times, the sandbar was totally submerged and we were up to our waists in water. Most of the time, it was like having another beach. We saw plenty of Pelicans, and it was fun to watch them diving for food as a group; but we never did see the flamingos. Still, we were completely absorbed in the experience. We walked, we took pictures, we stopped to swim; and we didn't get back to the hotel until nearly four hours later. One of the most memorable walks of my life.
[On the fast ferry to Holbox at sunset]
Most days weren't that active. We started with breakfast at the hotel, which was included in the room rate and offered a nice variety of Mexican and American foods. At the egg/omelette station, I'd point at something and ask how to say it in Spanish. By the end of the trip, I was ordering my Huevos Revueltos con jamon y queso y champinoñes y tomate. Sadly, I'd learned all those words in high school and had simply forgotten. Language unused is often language forgotten.
[The beach has a sandbar that's great for walks]
After breakfast, it was off to the beach chairs for a little relaxation and a little swimming; and yes, maybe a margarita or two. Hey, no cars... no driving! And then, following a truly lazy day; we'd walk into the little village of Holbox to grab a nice meal. Surprisingly, there are many good restaurants for a place this small. And like seemingly everyone else on the island, we always stopped for the sunset.
That. Spectacular. Sunset.
[Another day, another sunset]
Sadly, it's not all perfect on Isla Holbox. The island is understandably being discovered, and with that large influx of tourists, there are some infrastructure issues. Specifically, the sewer system isn't always up to the task to handle human waste. If you're in the village, you can sometimes smell it. And after a lot of rain, we're told the system can have real problems. Seaweed is another smell visitors have complained about. I didn't really notice much of either -- a little seaweed, but only rarely. My wife also claims I have a terrible sense of smell, so maybe I'm not the best source of advice. But the sewer issue is a problem that the local authorities will have to figure out as quickly as possible. Isla Holbox isn't going to become undiscovered anytime soon. If anything, it will grow faster -- with growth capped only by limitations on the available space to develop properties outside the Yum Balam protected zone.
[Bandstand in the town square, Isla Holbox]
We spoke to a few tourists from Montana who'd been coming for years. They actually like that it's grown some, but noted that the island is far busier than when they first started visiting. The town center is fairly lazy by day, but it comes alive after the sun goes down. At The Hot Corner, you might even think you're in Cancun -- thanks to that bar's non-stop party atmosphere. But look toward the dusty streets, and the yellow golf cart taxi cabs, and you'll know you're in another place. Maybe even another time. Isla Holbox is a cash economy. Your hotel will take credit cards, but few other businesses will. And the ATMs frequently run out of money. Good advice: Get cash from an ATM at the airport in Cancun, and if you think you'll need more during your stay, start checking the ATMs on the island well before you need the money.
After six days, we didn't want to leave. But a vacation isn't a vacation unless it comes to an end. We departed on the fast ferry, and our 20 minute trip back to the mainland also took us back to our car. Back to the 21st century. Back to the busy highways. Back to Cancun. But it was a week to remember, a week to revel in the beauty of nature, and to simply unwind in a Gulf Coast island paradise.
[Mason and Debby take a selfie at sunset]
Getting there: The easiest and cheapest way to get to Isla Holbox involves a flight to Cancun Airport. Since Cancun is a busy tourist hub, flights to CUN are relatively inexpensive. We flew from New Orleans to Cancun for less than $250/round trip.
From Cancun: For a relatively quick trip over to Cancun, you can drive a rental car. We rented with Hertz for less than $20/day and simply parked the car in a protected lot at Chiquila', across the water from Isla Holbox. Parking is around $5/day. There is a toll road that takes you part of the way. The free option is a busy two-lane road. Best advice: pay the toll.
Take one of the fast ferries that run every 30 minutes (about $7.50), and you're there. The two companies are Holbox Express and 9 Hermanos. Both are about the same.
If you don't want to drive or have the expense of a rental, there are other options: a private transfer or a shared shuttle (Holbox Shuttle is $40 each way). More adventurous types could take the ADO bus, which is a reliable and inexpensive option from Cancun.
[Holbox Express is one of 2 fast ferry companies that operate to Isla Holbox]
Getting around: Isla Holbox has an abundance of taxi cabs. They're yellow diesel golf carts with bigger tires to handle the unpaved roads. It cost 50 pesos ($2.69) for a ride, 100 pesos after midnight. The cabs were waiting at the ferry terminal and took us right to our hotel. Walking is another good option, and chances are that you'll stay in a hotel that will loan you a bicycle. Distances are small, and you'll never have to walk (or bike) very far.
Money: Do not depend on ATMs or your credit cards on Isla Holbox. There are several ATMs, but they are frequently out of cash. Most businesses do not take credit cards. Carry enough with you, or go to the ATM when you land at Cancun Airport. It's a good idea to have about $100 per day (1862 pesos) for your stay.
Crime: There must be some crime, but we didn't hear or read anything about it. Drug violence has come to the state of Quintana Roo, in which Holbox lies; but it hasn't made it to the island. And we're hoping it never will. Take normal precautions, but don't be too worried about it.
Prices: Compared to Isla Holbox, Cancun is sticker shock. Things are much less expensive on the island than in Cancun, where prices are more like you'd see in the USA. If you want to save on drinks, drink beer. It's cheap at 35 pesos for domestic (under $2). Wine is closer to $4, and Mexico makes some good wines that don't make it to the USA. Cocktails are closer to $6. Food prices everywhere are very reasonable.
Where to Stay: We loved Villas Flamingos, and I'd recommend it based on its location east of town. It's right near the edge of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve's protected zone, yet still just a short walk to town. Some people avoid being so far out of town, but distances are short and a cab ride is cheap. And if you're sensitive to smell, the sewage issues which are focusing some negative attention are mainly an issue in town, and (I've read) further west of the center.
Where to Eat:
- Milpa -- Has the best reputation and usually requires reservations, often days in advance.
- El Chapulim -- Only four things on the menu, and you'll be told what's available by the chef. Whatever you try, you'll love it. This was our favorite meal.
- ROOTS -- This pizzeria has friendly service and tasty pizza in a unique atmosphere. The lobster pizza is the only real expensive thing on the menu (because lobster), but it's also deliicious.
- Rosa Mexicana -- Excellent Mexican food, uniquely prepared.
There are also a couple of popular Italian restaurants which we didn't get to try (Casa Nostra and Los Peleones).
Postal Services: Good luck mailing a postcard. We were able to find three stamps for our four postcards at a pharmacy, just about a block south of the main square, on the road that leads to the ferry terminal. We never found a way to mail those postcards. Seems snail mail is going out of style faster in Mexico (or at least on Isla Holbox) than it is in the USA. That's okay, Mexico's postal system was always notoriously slow.
Insects: The island has more than a few mosquitoes and no-see-ums. It wasn't any worse than being outside in our backyard here on the Northern Gulf Coast, but it's a good idea to take and use insect repellent. We found that a non-DEET natural repellent kept them at bay just fine, but you may need something stronger after a rain. As usual, the biting insects are more prevalent at dusk and dawn -- not so much during daylight hours.
Internet: You're not on Holbox to stay in touch with the workplace, but it's still nice to have an internet connection. Our hotel's internet was terrible during our stay, and we relied on the local cellular networks. The internet seems to work well in town, but it gets weaker and more sporadic as you move away from the town center. Check your provider; a lot of them now provide Mexico in their plans as if it's domestic usage.
Passport: Remember, you may be staying on the Gulf Coast but you're leaving the country. Make sure you bring your valid passport.
[On the Holbox Express ferry at sunset]