Brain freeze from a hasty gulp of a piña colada produced the only imperfect moment during five days on Isla Holbox. The idyllic island a two-hour drive and 20-minute ferry ride from the highways and high rises of Cancun is a bioreserve with 150 species of birds, sugary beaches, luxurious hotels and cheap hostels — and a true Mexican vibe.
Memorable moments of perfection during my stay in early January included watching pink flamingos peacefully bending for shrimp in a crystal-clear lagoon surrounded by mangrove forests. Standing beneath a brilliant, star-filled sky, watching the water turn luminescent in blazes of bright blue as my feet agitate phytoplankton — the fireflies of the sea. Hearing the ahhs of fellow passengers as dolphins frolic next to our small boat. Feeling the soft breezes while swinging on a hammock suspended on wooden poles over the water.
Until just over a decade ago, Isla Holbox was a sleepy village of fishermen and coconut groves, attracting only visitors from local towns and a few in-the-know foreign travelers. Today, the island has 73 hotels. American travelers haven’t caught on yet: Eighty percent of its yearly visitors are Europeans and Mexicans, with Europeans dominating in winter and Mexicans in summer.
Yet the destination occupies that rare and magical sweet spot, where authenticity is maintained yet everything a discerning traveler might want is on offer.
No building may be more than 40 feet high. Most structures along the beach are single-story buildings with soaring, Mayan-style roofs covered with palm fronds. The roads are made of sandy packed dirt, often potholed. There are no cars on the island — just bicycles and inexpensive golf cart taxis.
The island’s only town comes alive at night with colored lights and carts where men fry churros in vats and families work together to sell ice cream. Half of the people who work on the island also live there; the rest commute by ferry from the nearby town of Chiquila. In the town square, small children and teens cooperate in shooting hoops. You might see the woman who cleaned your room walking with her children, buying fresh tortillas made by an elderly lady standing at an open window in a storefront.
I never saw anyone panhandling and no one solicited me to eat at their restaurant or buy their wares. Even the dogs are laid back. Any real Mexican town has unleashed dogs; most Holbox dogs have collars and all are obviously well-fed. A few might deign to come when called and allow you to scratch their ears for a minute. But they never fawn; they go on their way as if they have important appointments to keep.
As part of the Yum Balam Reserve, Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-BOSH) might stay the way it is awhile despite developers who are salivating at seeing miles of empty, pristine beaches. A proposed mega-resort with as many as 900 villas and multiple restaurants and hotels was put on hold in 2017 after the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources challenged aspects of the plan. Meanwhile, local leaders have united to restrict massive development.
My first morning I took the three-island tour. Visitors can’t set foot on nearby Isla Pajaros, but they can mount a three-story tower to view the nesting sites of pelicans, cormorants, frigatebirds and many other species. At Yalahau, we swam in a chilly freshwater spring, or cenote — a reminder that these islands in the Yucatan were a freshwater source for pirates of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the short distance between the two islands we were joined by dolphins, who seemed to be deliberately putting on a show next to our eight-person motor boat.
Passion Isle is arguably the most beautiful of the three. We waded the powdery beaches before spotting flamingos. The best time to see them is April to December, before they head to Merida to breed. But at least a dozen adults were feeding on a sandbar off the beach.
We missed swimming with the world’s largest fish — the docile whale sharks that swim offshore from June to September. Fortunately, the plankton they eat bob around a beach a 15-minute ride by golf cart from the town square. That end of Isla Holbox is undeveloped, so the sky sparkles with constellations. I discovered — too late — that a tour operator takes kayaks to the beach at night, which must be even more amazing as oars agitate the plankton.
I’ve been enamored of the idea of kite surfing ever since seeing former president Barack Obama soaring over the sea in the British Virgin Islands right after he left office. Isla Holbox has professional instructors and ideal conditions for the sport. You could say I chickened out — or that I was satisfied lying on the beach, eating ceviche fresh from the sea and watching the sky fill with kites dragging other, more fit people into the clear, blue skies.
Meanwhile, a massage seemed safer. Options include treatments beneath a curtain-draped palapa on the beach or within multiple spas. A walk along the beach also reveals numerous signs for yoga and meditation retreats.
My love of Isla Holbox is in no way a criticism of Cancun or the nearby Riviera Maya. The beaches of Cancun are impeccable. And there’s more of everything — more restaurants, more hotels, more lively bars with more professional musicians, and more promotions of two-for-one margaritas.
Cancun also is closer to the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Coba, although you can arrange transfers there from Holbox. I’m the sort of traveler, though, who preferred Tulum about 15 years ago, before it became the Riviera Maya, when you could still go glamping on the beach or hang at small, family-owned hotels. A time not so long ago when the ruins didn’t have an entrance fee and you felt as if you were discovering them.
You’ll still find that sense of discovery, and sense of place, on Isla Holbox. For that reason, despite all the fabulous beaches all over the world, I’m hoping to return to Holbox.
Loose is a writer based in Billings, Mont.
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