At the northeastern tip of Quintana Roo where the Caribbean Sea mingles with the Gulf of Mexico, and completely within the Yum Balam reserve, Isla Holbox (hole-BOASH) is one of the last obscure islands along the Yucatán Peninsula.
The town of Holbox is a fishing village with sand roads, golf carts instead of cars, no cell phone service, no hospital, and no post office. (There is one ATM, though it’s often empty.) Instead, you’ll find brightly painted homes, palapa-roofed hotels, and a handful of Italian and Spanish expats who have opened bed-and-breakfasts and small restaurants.
The water here is emerald—not the clear turquoise of Cancún and Tulum—and while the sand is thinner, the beach is loaded with seashells and is no less scenic. Holbox is becoming well known as a place to snorkel with behemoth but harmless whale sharks—present from June to September—and also has great opportunities for bird-watching, kayaking, and sportfishing.
Above all, Holbox offers a sense of peace and tranquility that is increasingly hard to find on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and the feeling of a place as yet untouched by big business.
Getting to Isla Holbox
To get to Holbox, you first need to get to the small coastal village of Chiquilá. There are direct buses from Cancún and Mérida. If you’re driving, take old Highway 180 (not the autopista) to El Ideal, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Cancún. Turn north onto Highway 5 and follow that about 140 kilometers (87 miles) to Chiquilá, passing though the town of Kantunilkín. You’ll have to leave your car in Chiquilá. Several families run small overnight parking operations, charging around US$4 a day; ask about weekly rates.
Ferries operated by 9 Hermanos leave Chiquilá for Isla Holbox (US$5/3 adult/child, 25 minutes) at 6, 8, 10, and 11 a.m., noon, and 2, 4, 5, and 7 p.m. Returning boats leave Holbox at 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11 a.m. and 1, 3, 4, and 6 p.m. Going to Holbox, it’s a good idea to get to the dock a half hour early, as the boat occasionally leaves ahead of schedule. Private boatmen make the trip in either direction for approximately US$25–35 for up to six people; ask at the dock. Note: Private boats are prohibited from ferrying passengers to/from Holbox after dark.
From Chiquilá, second-class buses to Cancún (US$7) leave the dock parking area at 5:30 and 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; all wait for the boat arriving from Holbox. To Mérida, there’s just one bus at 5:30 a.m. (US$14.50).
Taxis also often are available at the dock to take travelers door-to-door to Cancún (US$65–85), Cancún International Airport (US$90), Playa del Carmen (US$100), and Valladolid (US$43); be sure to agree upon a price before you step into the car.
If you get stuck in Chiquilá, the Hotel Puerta del Sol (tel. 984/267-1004, US$27 s/d with fan, US$33 s/d with a/c) is your only option, located a short distance back down the main road from the dock. Rooms here are very simple but have TV and private bath. If you can swing it, opt for an air-con room—they are newer and considerably nicer than the fan rooms. There also is a string of basic restaurants, most with a focus on seafood, facing the dock.
If you’ve got the money and the stomach for itty-bitty planes, AeroSaab (20 Av. Sur near Calle 1, Playa del Carmen, tel. 984/865-0804, www.aerosaab.com, 7 a.m.–7:30 p.m. daily) offers a memorable full-day tour to Isla Holbox. Using Cessna airplanes, the trip begins with a scenic one-hour flight up the coast to Holbox, followed by a tour of Isla Pájaros and Yalahau Spring, lunch, and a chance to explore the village and beach (US$309 pp, minimum four people, plus US$6–25 airport fees). Overnight trips and/or whale shark excursions also can be arranged.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition