Travelogue: Isla de Holbox, Mexico

A crack-of-dawn flight to Cancun, a drive to the small port of Chiquila, and a ferry crossing to Isla de Holbox: so began our family’s week in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo—the Mayan Riviera.

I’d read about Isla de Holbox years ago, in an article about the whale sharks who gather by the hundreds during the summer off its shores, but had sort of forgotten about it until I started looking at travel guides for trips around the Yucatan. Part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, the island sits between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and is separated from mainland Mexico by a lagoon, which welcomes all kinds of sea birds—and even, sometimes, flamingos.

We would be too early in the year to see those gentle giants, but I was right to think we’d appreciate the island for plenty of other reasons. I would find myself thinking about it and appreciating it more every day after, everything from the color of the water, the feel of the sand, the stickiness of the mangoes, to the spottiness of the wifi was just right.

Here are some of the highlights of our three nights on the Holbox. Later I’ll post about our visits to the ruins at Cobá (and nearby cenotes) and a stay in the resort area of Mayakoba…

We pulled into Chiquilla about an hour before sunset; it took us around two hours to get there from Cancun. There were family-run parking lots lining the road to the port, all charging 50-100 pesos per day, that were waving cars in with flags, and a few places selling tickets to the two ferries that alternate departures every 30 minutes. We had just enough time to buy some fresh mangoes before ours left the dock.

When the ferry docked, golf-cart taxis and pedi cabs were waiting to shuttle passengers around the island. Our hotel was about 10 minutes away, and we the kids and I spent the ride looking backwards as we bumped along the all-sand roads and talked about what they noticed was different from home—like all the dogs and a lack of stoplights.

We’d reserved a room at HM Palapas del Mar, a really beautiful assortment of palapa-inspired rooms set across from the beach around a central pool and restaurant. Our room, just beside the lovely lobby, shared a little plunge pool with the neighboring palapa. At first I was worried that they might mind our kids splashing about in it, but they had children of similar ages whom ours immediately befriended, which meant we got to talking with the grownups during our stay! (Actually, we have Hudson and Skyler to thank for so many friendly introductions on this trip!)

Everything was white-washed, with a very minimal aesthetic that felt just right for its low-key surroundings.

We started checking in, but interrupted the process so we could rush out to the beach and catch the last of the sunset. We watched the groups of kayakers paddled out in search of bioluminescence, and then dropped our bags to head out for dinner.

We followed the beach into the small town square, and felt lucky to snag a table at a popular taco spot called Taco Queto. The street-style tacos with al pastor and chorizo were the perfect first-night fare (we ordered seconds), washed down with BYO cerveza from the convenience store next door. I honestly could have repeated that meal the entire week and not felt like I was wishing for anything more.

Afterward, we took a stroll around the lively square—kids were playing on the playgrounds and playing soccer in the middle—to choose at which one of the many marquesita carts to stand in line. Marquesitas are crispy, rolled-up crepes, traditionally filled with melted shredded cheese and a sweet filling like cajeta or nutella. Hudson preferred the cajeta, a type of caramel sauce, while I went for nutella and banana. And we came back for our fill every single night.

I loved hearing Hudson practice his Spanish while placing orders, by the way. He started off shy, but gained confidence as we went, and sounded amazing!

The next morning, after sleeping in considerably (mercifully) long by our children’s standards, we tried a little of everything at the breakfast buffet—I’d forgotten just how much better papaya tastes when it’s fresh. Aron and I, of course, went a bit overboard—the siren song of so much variety… as well as the presence of chorizo and fried plantains—while, of course, the kids, without the peanut butter for their usual breakfast combination, ate mostly cereal and then told us they were hungry a mere 45 minutes later.

After breakfast, we headed straight for the sea.

The wind was up slightly, but the water was so shallow that there were still never really waves to contend with. Most everywhere on the island, one has to walk a long ways out before the water will even reach their knees.

The beach was just steps from the hotel, but across a little road where bikes and golf carts would pass, so one did still have to be careful with letting the kids run ahead. It appeared that some stretches of beach get busy, but ours stayed very quiet throughout the day.

Every now and then, vendors would pass with mangoes or coconuts or other snacks—which we all loved. And there was a massage shack set up, where Aron and I took turns going for half-hour sessions while the other supervised sand-castle construction and shell-searching.

For lunch, we walked a few minutes down the beach to Raices—a rastafari beach bar known for its fresh catches. As soon as we walked in, the kids spotted a small play structure and trampoline set up, which meant that we were left to sit down on our own, to watch the sea birds rise with the winds, and order guacamole and margaritas. (Score!)

Our little ambassadors made friends right away, of course, and we got to spend lunch with a lovely family!

Back at the hotel, the kids played in the pool and we started to think about making some plans.

We looked into tours to see the nighttime bioluminescence. The most appealing option involved a paddleboard and kayak combination, which felt a little too risky with Skyler. The alternative was to ride on a golf cart out to Punto Cocos around 9pm and swim out, which felt a little too late for us.

So we opted instead to book at boat tour for the next morning and then look into some evening transportation of our own. Golf carts only tend to be an option up until 8pm, so we chose bike rentals instead. If you are doing either, we found the prices are lowest the further away from the beach you get.

The only hiccup? Finding kids’ bikes. Skyler was still able to fit into one of the baby chairs on the back of a bike, but for Hudson we needed a bonafide kids’ bicycle. Somehow, we stumbled upon a little liquor store that also had a kids’ bike for rent, so we borrowed that from there and two adult bikes (one with the mounted chair) from another shop in town. But that wasn’t even the real issue. To our dismay, Hudson felt embarrassed to ride the bike (something about the turquoise color and the girls’ frame) and it almost derailed the whole thing! Kids are so crazy!

I don’t know that he ever full got over it, but by the time he realized we would be riding the bikes on the beach he had started to smile again.

For my part, I don’t think I ever stopped! There was something so incredible about seeing the island by bike, riding through town as everyone was starting to set up for dinner, and feeling the warm breeze against our faces as we peddled out toward water. At some point we turned a corner out to the beach and the whole sky just opened up before us with these huge, fluffy clouds—it was so pretty.

Punto Cocos is all the way at one tip of the island and we reached it just after the sun had set. People were leaving in carts and on bikes to head back into town—it must have been a bit of a beach scene during the day—and for a brief time we seemed to have it all to ourselves. Just the bats were there, zig zagging so quickly past our heads in search of mosquitos, as the last light faded in shades of coral.

As much as we wanted to stay and see if there were any sign of bioluminescence after dark, we only had one granola bar in our bag  so we propped up our iPhone flashlights in the bike baskets and headed back. The nighttime snorkelers were all being driven out to the beach as we went the other way, and the dark road felt busy at times—so ideally you’d make the trip with more than just that to help you light the way.

I would have never suspected we’d order pizza on our second night in Mexico (if at all), but apparently lobster pizza is a bit of an island specialty. Everyone told us to try it at Roots, a few stops off the central plaza. Who would have thought it, but the flavor combination was awesome—the cheese had a buttery-ness that felt like a natural pairing. Everything is wood-fired and there are other interesting options, like Poblana Pizza made with mole,  or the Oaxaqueña Special with grasshoppers and mushrooms. The drink menu was great, too—creative combinations with regional liquors like mezcal or Bacanora.

There seem to be a few classic boat tour combinations offered around the island—you either circle the island, stopping at a local cenote, on a three-hour-tour—or you head further out to sea to go snorkeling at Cabo Catoche, the continental divide between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of México. We chose the latter. It was supposed to be from 8am to 1pm, but we ended up getting back at 3pm. In hindsight, we found it to be frustrating, as it really took over the whole day and sort of cost us that chance to just relax back at the hotel in the afternoon. But one could also say that we got an extra long boat ride. I would suggest confirming this sort of detail a bit more ahead of time.

Our first stop was to go “yo-yo” fishing. It was sort of fascinating: they just gave us all spools of fishing line with a hook and wished us luck. And it actually worked! I caught just one, but the captains were pulling in fish hand over fist!
Unfortunately, we did travel a long way off the coast before this, so I’m afraid that even with the very calm skies the kids did start to feel a bit queasy at this part, bobbing up and down as we leaned over the edge. Skyler remedied it by sleeping for much of the ride, and Hudson felt better once we finally got to jump in an go snorkeling.

I don’t want to be all complaints—because just being out on a boat in the beautiful water was pretty wonderful (we even saw dolphins!)—but the snorkeling itself was pretty disappointing. We spotted some interesting life—a moray eel, some lion fish—but there wasn’t much reef. I think this added to our sense that the trip was a bit too drawn out. I’d probably suggest others opt for the shorter tour or a single-activity excursion.

That said, perhaps the best part was pulling up onto shore for a lunch of fresh ceviche—made with the fish we’d just caught. It was so delicious!

(When dad puts on sunscreen.)

The kids also wanted me to remember that they also met lots of animals (dogs, cats, a parrot) at the beach bar there; Hudson caught one more fish that got away as well as fed a fish to a pelican; and they found so many cool shells.

And then, on the way back, we explored some of the mangroves around Punta Mosquito—looking out for herons and seabirds. We also spotted a sting ray swimming by the boat.

When we pulled back up to shore, Aron went off in search of a working ATM to pay our balance (he never found one, so bring plenty of pesos), and the kids and I went back to the hotel for some pool time. Even with the brilliant blue sea steps away, kids really love a swimming pool. They splashed around and made more friends, before we all changed for a last walk down the beach.

That golden light, the wide sandbar… it felt pretty magical. It’s such a beautiful place. It seemed like we’d just hit our vacation stride and we were going to have to pack up.

I remember wondering if three or four days might feel like a lot—especially when there’s so much else to see in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo—but it doesn’t at all. We would have liked at least one full day more to do nothing at all, and one full day more to go everywhere we didn’t. (Or, at least, some of the places we didn’t.) This, we agreed over dinner, is why we would definitely like to come back.

That last dinner was a spot called Barba Negra, and the tacos we had there were maybe the best tacos we had on the entire trip. Everything from the drinks to the chips to the tacos was fantastic. It’s also the spot where Skyler decided to yank out a wiggly tooth! Memorable for many reasons!

When it was time to go the next morning—after breakfast and one more swim—we caught a taxi back to the port, purchased more mangoes for the ride home, and waved farewell to the island.

As you can imagine, there is some push to keep this place a secret, and I’m sensitive to the concern. Isla de Holbox is exactly the sort of little island that could prove too beautiful for its own good, should it attract an unsustainable level of tourism. Much of its charm comes from a sort of off-the-beaten path feel. At the same time, the secret is already out. European travelers in particular, it seemed, have been coming for years. On a positive note: some of the move to eco-tourism has meant an extension of protected marine areas, and increased regulations on tour operators. The trade of keeping the whale sharks safe is now more valuable to the island than fishing them once was. One hopes that the value of the island’s ecosystem will continue to drive good practices when it comes to development.

I know I felt really lucky we had a chance to visit it, and would love a chance to return.

Have you been to Isla de Holbox? What would you add? 

P.S. Our Yucatan road trip, pre-kids.

Up Next: Stops in Tulum, Cobá, and Mayakoba.


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