Isla Holbox is a sandy peninsula connected to the Yucatán mainland by marshy lagoons, rather than a true island. It lies at the point where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea and is part of the Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protection Area. This is a very small place, only 25 miles long and between 1/4 mile to just over a mile wide. There is one small village and a number of hotels and resorts. Although tourism is a growing industry for the island, the local economy is still largely reliant on fishing and visitors can expect lots of fresh fish on the menu at local restaurants.
Most famous as the jumping-off point for whale shark tours during the summer, this is a laid-back beach town the rest of the year. It’s what I imagine Playa del Carmen was like after it had been discovered by tourists, but before the mega resorts moved in. The beaches of Isla Holbox don’t compare with those of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, but they are nice enough and they aren’t crowded.
We ended up on Isla Holbox as an alternative to spending two weeks at an all-inclusive in Playa del Carmen, which was my cousin’s original plan. (My response to that plan was only slightly more diplomatic than “That sounds really boring.”) I was really excited when they suggested moving to Isla Holbox for one of those weeks, based on a bit of quick research . . . “laid-back island life”. . . “what Playa del Carmen was like twenty years ago”. . . “swim with the whale sharks”. . . “see thousands of flamingos.” Only later did I realize that the island’s whale sharks and flamingos would not be present during our visit, but that the mosquitos would be. In the end it didn’t really matter, as Isla Holbox proved a great spot to just relax and enjoy life.
Exploring Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is a little place, but only a small portion of that is easily accessible. While much of the island is lined with sandy beaches, most of the rest of the area is marshy or covered in mangroves.
Isla Holbox has miles of sandy beaches, many of which are lovely and suitable for swimming. A few hotels rake their beaches, but beach maintenance here is limited compared to those of the Cancun and the Maya Riviera. It’s a good place for beachcombing, as there are quite a few smaller shells to be found.
In addition, just off the village, the water is so shallow at low tide that you can walk far into the sea without getting wet much above your ankles. As you walk on the exposed sandbars, you’ll have gorgeous views and plenty of seabirds for company.
The beaches are public, but as is true everywhere, beach furniture and facilities are private. Bikes are allowed on the beach, motorized vehicles are not.
Isla Holbox is best known for its whale sharks; particularly the opportunity to swim with these bus-size fish. The whale sharks are only in the area from May through September, so plan accordingly if this is your reason for coming here. (And plan a responsible visit to see these amazing creatures.)
The area is also noted for its abundant bird life. Shorebirds and pelicans can be found everywhere. Boat tours can take you to Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) where pelicans, frigate birds, and many others nest and to secluded lagoons that sometimes host large flocks of flamingos. Note that visitors are not allowed on Bird Island, but two rickety observation towers let you see the nests.
I don’t fish (I like to look at fish and eat fish, but have zero interest in trying to catch them), but Isla Holbox is apparently a great area for fishing and a variety of fishing trips are available.
Rusty single-speed bikes are available for rent on the island for about $10 a day.
They are perfect for traveling the island’s sandy roads or for touring along the beach.
- Biking on the Beach
Many companies offer a Holbox Island eco tour that includes a boat trip to Bird Island, swimming at the Yalahau cenote, and a stop at Lizard/Passion Island.
- Three Islands Tour
For a small place, Isla Holbox has an abundance of bars and restaurants, most of which are quite good.
There are a few shops with local crafts and a couple with general merchandise and souvenirs. You have to search a bit, but there are treasures to be had. (I found some beautiful sisal purses in one shop.)
The central square makes a good place to stop and see what the local residents are doing. It’s particularly busy in the evening, when everyone is out socializing. When we visited there was a fair of some sort set up alongside the Christmas decorations, performance space, and ad-hock soccer games.
The city has a few quaint buildings and quite a number of painted wall murals. There is what appears to be an Art Moderne Catholic church (which I didn’t really get to see because it seemed to be continually in use for a prayer vigil when I visited) along the square and a religious shrine maintained by the community’s fisherman near the city dock. In addition, there are always at least a few fishing boats and fishermen to be found near the dock.
Getting There and Around
While Isla Holbox is a bit off the beaten path, getting here straightforward enough, if a bit slow. Buses and shuttles run regularly from Cancun to the port at Chiquilá, with the trip taking anywhere from two hours to almost four. The bus is very inexpensive (about $6), while a shuttle will cost at least $50 for each person, each way. (We used shuttles and paid $150 for two of us to get there and $50 for the two of us to return to Playa del Carmen with another couple. It pays to find someone to share your shuttle.) Shuttles are available from Valladolid as well, but are much more expensive. While shuttles are not the most economical way to travel, they are comfortable and convenient. If driving, cars can be left at the port in Chiquilá, as you won’t need or want one on Holbox. You can fly to Holbox and back from Cancun, but this is quite expensive.
The passenger ferry departs every hour or two throughout the day. It costs under $10 each way and most shuttle transfers include it in their price. Travel time on the ferry is about ½ hour.
There are no paved roads on the island and very few cars or trucks. Most islanders get around using bikes or golf carts. Heavy-duty versions of these are used as taxis and they haul goods and tourists alike around the island.
Tourists can also rent a bike, motorcycle, or golf cart. Just be aware that the rain sometimes floods the streets and, once flooded, it can take days for the water to drain or evaporate. In the village the roads are generally pure sand, although in some areas they may get a bit mucky when wet. Use caution when driving a bike or golf cart through large puddles.
Lodging in Holbox
under construction . . .