A Mexican Hidden Gem
Want a real Mexican getaway experience? The tiny island of Holbox is a true island experience, with relaxing beaches and cabanas by day, and a street-dance, party atmosphere by night. It’s not easy to get to. Unlike some of the more commercialized islands off the Mexican coast, you really have to make an effort to get there. With patience and an adventuresome attitude, when you arrive you will be amazed at the beauty and tranquility. Before you set out, exchange your dollars for pesos. It’s just easier, especially for tipping and cab rides.
Isla Holbox, pronounced “Hol-bosh,” is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, on the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. This is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, which makes it an ideal destination for fishing. It is part of the Yum Balam Nature Preserve and home to flamingos and pelicans, among other island animals. From the United States, you can fly into Cancun International Airport. From there, you can drive, catch private transportation, or fly to the island. By car, it is about 3 hours away.
We had already rented a car because we would be in the area for a couple weeks, so we drove to Holbox. I only recommend driving yourself for the most adventuresome travelers. The 3-hour drive from Cancun takes you though some very small villages, a tollway, a check point, and down a section of the most pothole-ridden roads you can imagine. Whatever you do, don’t drive at night, and pay attention to the road. It’s a nice drive and you will be tempted to look at the scenery. As soon as you look away, you’re gonna hit a pothole that feels like you should be missing car parts. Cell service is scattered along the way, so if you break down you may have a long walk for help. It is a real adventure. If you decide to drive yourself and avoid the potholes, you can park in the village of Kantunikin (easy for you to say). There, with some effort, you will find a fenced parking area. Once parked, you can take a 40-minute cab for about $3.50US the rest of the way.
If you don’t want to drive, there are several transportation companies that will take you right from the airport in Cancun. The upside is, let them dodge the potholes. The downside is, you share the van with others and are dependent on their time schedule. Either way, you will eventually arrive at the coastal, fishing town of Chiquita. If you drove yourself, there is a parking lot to leave your car for about $10.00US per day. From Chaquita, hop on the ferry (about $10.00US each) for a 20-40 minute boat ride to paradise. Like I said, it isn’t easy to get to, but well worth the effort when you get there.
For the not-so-adventuresome with a little bit bigger vacation budget, or if you just want to get there faster, you can hop on a small plane at the Cancun airport and be in paradise in about 30 minutes. The plane costs about $500.00US each way, and only holds up to 5 people. So, if you’re with a group, that’s about $100 per person each way. On our next trip, we will take the plane. You can check their prices and transportation options here or on the photo above. They are super easy to deal with and very friendly. In my mind, by the time you rent a car, pay tolls, fuel, and parking, and save about ½ a day both ways, it seems like it's well worth it.
Once on the island, the first thing you notice is there are no cars. When you get off at the ferry dock or land, there are plenty golf cart taxis lined up to take a couple anywhere you want to go for under $5.00US. It is a real island experience. There are no grand resorts, just quaint hotels and roads carved into hardened sand. I’m sure they grate the roads every now and then, but they were very rough on this trip. Dips in the roads fill with water when it rains and they are just wide enough for two golf carts to pass. You can rent a golf cart and drive yourself, but why risk getting lost? It’s cheap and fast to get someone to drive you?
The town is like old-style Mexico, lined with small, personal shops and restaurants. No fast food, no chains, no giant hotels. Just an island atmosphere and a quaint village vibe everywhere you go. Most of the hotels are on the Caribbean side of the island, opposite the ferrys. It’s about 10 minutes by golf cart. We stayed at Las Nubes, which is about as far down the beach as you can go.
The hotel has its own restaurant and friendly waiters to bring you drinks on the beach or on the large deck. Their beach area has chairs, lounges, hammocks, and a beachside massage cabana. While out exploring one evening, I think we found a different place to stay. Next time, we will try the Amaite Hotel and Spa. It’s in the middle of the hotel area and closer to downtown. It has a larger beach than Las Nubes and an outdoor eating and entertainment area. We went there in the evening for drinks and were met by a friendly manager and entertained by a live band. Based on a quick check online, the rooms range from $100 to about $400 per night. Amaite also has snorkeling, diving, and other water activities very close by. If you’re on a budget, there are some hotels in town too, but I highly recommend being beachside. It’s kinda the whole purpose of traveling to an island.
The Caribbean here is absolutely breath taking. The beach is lined with white, powdery sand (you know, the kind that doesn’t stick to you like mud). The water is so clear and a light shade of green. From the beach, you can wade about waist-deep for about 50 yards to a huge sandbar. On the sandbar, the water is barely shin-deep and stretches for about a mile along the coastline. The sandbar is so wide, you can walk out until you are almost out of sight from the beach. It’s a great place for a relaxing walk in the water or just to sit and bask in the sun.
While at Isla Holbox, Don’t miss the most beautiful sunset you can imagine. Sometime before sundown, catch a taxi to Punta Coco. There you’ll find a quaint bar where you can pick up some cocktails and walk out on the large pier to watch the sun dip down into the ocean. Bring your camera. You’ll want to capture this moment. Don’t be late. Once the sun gets close to the bottom of the sky, it moves very fast and will disappear before you know it.
After dark, downtown comes alive with live party music and dancing in the street till late into the night. Grab a bite at any of the restaurants. Then take a walk down the streets. If you’d rather, there are some really tasty food and treats for sale by the local street vendors. Try the street corn. It is yummy! If you are thirsty (and you will be), you can get a cocktail from any of the bars and vendors along the way. After that, you can dance the night away. The music is lively and varied. Just walk till you find the band you like. There’s even a large city pavilion where you can sit and watch the local kids play basketball and soccer. Keep in mind, after midnight the cab rides are double priced. I asked why and they said because they have to stay up late. Whatever the reason, it's still a bargain. Just remember to save some money for the ride back to your hotel. Once back at your hotel, you can wind down. It's quiet and relaxing.
We were only there for one night. Given the difficulty of getting there and the beauty of the island, I highly recommend more time. You'll need at least 4 days so you don't feel pressured to catch all of the scenery and nightlife, and not feel so pressured to squeeze it all in. However long you stay, I can tell you that you won’t want to leave. This is paradise, and a hidden gem in Mexico.
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