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Isla Holbox: the not-so-sleepy fishing village

semi-overcast 27 °C

This is by no means the first time we have been the oldest people in the room, but in Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh), we are learning what it feels like to be invisible. Holbox, billed by the likes of Conde Nast as being the Next Big Thing, has been discovered by the It Crowd, who wander the streets in tiny thong bikinis and big attitude. It is easy to feel like you got on the wrong party bus.

Our theory is this: in previous travels we have met up with many fellow travellers of similar ages and backgrounds, but since Covid, people our age are less likely to travel, so the age differences have become quite pronounced. No matter, we are finding this island extremely fascinating - there is a whole lot more to Holbox than first meets the eye. For all the tourist invasion it remains solidly Mexican and has a Caribbean island feel. A glossy restaurants sits right next door to someone's modest private home, and you have the feeling it will take a lot to change the tenor of the island.

Holbox is not easy to get to - it is a two-hour bus ride from Cancun, followed by a half-hour ferry ride. The island is tiny - just 26 miles long and one mile wide and is separated from the mainland by the Yalahau Lagoon. The main town is tiny and easily walkable; much of the island is uninhabited.

Our hotel was a 10-minute walk up from the ferry: a seven-room boutique hotel that combined great style and warm hospitality. Our room was huge, with thoughtful little details like a woven beach bag and high-end toiletries provided.

This is the lobby:


The street scene from our front door:


Holbox is a car-free island. Aside from utility vehicles, the only form of transportation is golf carts or bicycles. None of the streets are paved and the day we arrived, we had to navigate mud and deep puddles - a major rainstorm had blown through the day before. Since the dirt is clay, the water is very slow to drain. These scenes are common during the rainy season.



We had thought to rent bikes during our stay, but many of the roads were impassable in parts and impossible to detect rocks and potholes.


Even without water hazards, the roads are in a very bad state - deep potholes and ruts. We watched a young woman as she steered her bike through a puddle, began to wobble and was then forced to plant her sparkling white sneakers into about 5 inches of mud.

The upside is that if you were involved in an accident, there would likely be little damage -it is impossible to gain any speed. We saw this truck numerous times - La Benedicion de Dios (The Benediction of God) - perfect for Holbox and it doesn't owe the driver a peso.


Naturally, much of Holbox's activities revolve around the water. While the beaches here are lovely to look at, the water is not clear at this time of year for snorkeling and a long sandbar runs most the way round, so you have to wade out a bit to be able to swim. We discovered a beach club not far from our place that offered comfy sunbeds under palapas, and a really good kitchen. Two of our days here we spent several hours just relaxing, reading, eating, swimming and napping.

Our view:


Everyone gathered on the beach each night for the sunset. Here, watching the people was almost as much fun as watching the sinking sun.




The Three-Island Boat Tour was being offered everywhere - three and a half hours on an open boat to visit two islands and the Yalahau Lagoon. We would see 150 species of birds in their protected habitat, walk around another small island and swim in a cenote - it sounded like a lot of fun. We showed up for our 9:00 am departure and met up with eight other people - two Mexicans, two Americans, a German woman, an Italian woman and two young women from Chile and Argentina. it was a convivial group, and our captain spoke a little English, so we set off in great spirits.

We had no sooner set off than we spotted a pod of dolphins, which according to the captain, was supposed to be good luck.


We began our tour by heading across the lagoon to the cenote. As luck would have it, we were the first boat to arrive, so we had the cenote to ourselves for about 10 minutes.This one did not involve any jumping heroics - just an easy hop into crystal clear water. If you notice the slight agitation in the water, that is called the Ojo de Agua - the freshwater geyser that is springing up from the bottom of the cenote. Just delicious swimming, or rather floating, as we were all trussed up in the mandatory lifejackets.


We got back into the boat for our next destination - Isla Pajaros, or Bird Island. Now we knew very well we would not see 150 species as a) it was now about 10:30 a.m. and b) we were not allowed on the island - all viewing was done from a tower.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, but suddenly our sedate plowing through the waves became a frenzied race. It seems that our captain lost his hat and was retracing his steps to try and find it. Of course, we had no idea what was going on, and why we were suddenly heading back out to sea, then spinning around again. Amazingly, his hat was still bobbing in the water and he was able to retrieve it, but now we were behind in our time. The rest of our boat travel became almost hysterically speedy, with a steady wake of water splashing up onto the deck, all of us drenched and chilled and our captain steering, his face frozen into a grinning rictus.

By the time we pulled up beside the dock to Isla Pajaros, we were all a bit discombobulated. Obediently, we climbed up the tower to observe the birds. We saw cormorants and gulls and ibis and egrets and pelicans nesting in the trees.





Back into the boat and incredibly this time, the boat went even faster. We all huddled with our faces down, trying to survive this latest assault until we arrived, 15 minutes later, at Isla Pasion. It was not really clear what we were supposed to do here, other than wade through calf-deep water around one side of the island until we reached the lookout tower, where we would presumably, see more birds. Once again, we obediently disembarked.



We saw birds, we climbed a perilous-looking tower, and we got back in the boat. Our final trip back to the dock was so uncomfortable, so miserable, that I could not imagine this was the common experience. It was not possible that several boats would go out every day, and their passengers would be subjected to being bounced and drenched for three hours. "I hope you had a good time," said our captain as we all silently disembarked. I'm still wondering why we said nothing.

We had much better luck with a beach-side stroll we did on our own - a four or five-km. walk to Punta Coco - the westernmost point of the island.

We saw birds.


We saw hammocks. Hammocks are the Instagram fave of Holbox visitors, but this year there were very few out.


We saw horses.


And on to the town of Holbox. The murals of Holbox, under the direction of Pina o Muere (Paint or Die) - a collective of urban artists, has become a real tourist draw. It is a lot of fun to wander the streets and try and discover as many murals as you can - the quality of the artwork is outstanding.





The houses of Holbox are so distinctive - many of them quite small, but crayon-box bright and beautiful.




There is no shortage of great restaurants and cafes here. We have eaten very well, especially really fresh fish and seafood. It's quite remarkable to think about how this works. Everything, except for fish, has to be brought over from the mainland. There are a number of very tiny little supermarkets - glorified corner stores, really, and a couple of vegetable stands. So how do the restaurants keep up with the tourist demand, and how do the 2000 residents feed themselves in a reliable fashion? We noticed a couple of businesses that had a curious cross-pollination of goods and services. One was a high-end ladies clothing store that had tables set for dinner, snuggled right up to a display of linen dresses. This store, a purveyor of "Fine and Rare Spectacles" was not to be outdone.


Our time in Isla Holbox has been so enjoyable. It is a place that is full of contradictions. It is well set up for tourists, but is not overtaken by them. It is an island that is not convenient to get to, but is well worth the effort. It is surprisingly cosmopolitan in its offerings of hotels, restaurants, music, and shopping, and yet the streets are unpaved and you can walk into the jungle in 10 minutes. Wifi is spotty and there is just one ATM that may or may not have money. We watched a family of coati ( a cross between a raccoon and a cat and a monkey) wobble their way down our street in the early dawn hours. The birds are out there - we just need binoculars and an alarm clock to go find them. It is still unspoiled, but probably not for long, so we're happy we made it here when we did.

We're off to Isla Mujeres tomorrow and will be there for a week. See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 19:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged murals holbox isla 3_islands_tour pinta_o_muere aurora_hotel punta_coco yalahau_lagoon

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I so enjoyed this blog: laugh out loud funny in parts [especially the boat tour], award-worthy photography and your usual lively and poetic descriptions. Thank you. Hugs, linda

by linda ogle

As one who was seasick on the ferry to Cozumel....I would have swam back to shore (as if) to avoid that boat ride.

by Annie

Too funny! Boating aside you always find the beauty!!

by Deb and Al

Love the picts of the colourful homes and wall art! Wow. Were there any in progress? Could you watch any artists?

by Robin Louise Pile

Loved the Mexican seagulls!
I might paint them ?
Cheers v

by Vikki

I would have been sea sick, on a big boat going out to the Barrier Reef, I was so sick. Love your blog.

by Joy

Enjoyed your blog. What adventures you have.
Love Lyn

by Lyn Morris

The local wall murals are becoming an impressive hallmark of your blog and it is amazing how you find the variety that you do. It says something about the artists living in your destinations. FYI- the “IT group”, or maybe Gen Z, have also hit Cabo with their throng bathing suits this winter and served as a major distraction for retirees.

by Bob Pfister

We are impressed by your ability to research places to uncover hidden gems on your travels. Although Isla Holbox is not as “hidden” as it once was, it still has much to offer those who make the effort to get there. The murals your camera captured are amazing! Such talent and no charge for admission!

by Heather Scott

Another wonderful blog, you never cease to amaze me with your beautiful photos and stories behind them. Enjoy isla mujeres.

by Sharon Errington

Looks like you are having a ball !good for you guys

by Vikki

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