Isla Holbox Trip Report, March 2019

Mar 29th, 2019, 03:27 PM
  #1  
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Isla Holbox Trip Report, March 2019

CONTEXT: Two middle- to late-aged guys from Minneapolis. Able-bodied. Looking to unplug. Six days on Holbox.

Here’s a brief tour report of our March 22-28, 2019 trip to Isla Holbox. I’ll try to limit comments about usual features like the weather, the beauty of the beach/water, luminescence, whale sharks and other things you can find by Googling “Holbox.” I’ll report what we had hoped this trip would be, what we experienced once there and specific activities/businesses we enjoyed (or didn’t).

I’ll start by saying that we had an absolutely wonderful time on Holbox and hope to return, though we will take certain learnings with us and do some things a little differently.

This trip was a long-awaited celebration of a big birthday, for which I decided I wanted nothing more than to be on a beautiful beach, doing next to nothing. Since my birthday unfortunately fell during Spring Break and since we had neither the time nor the resources to head to South America or Vietnam to avoid the noisy crowds, I started searching for remote and special getaways within reach of Minnesota. Hence, Isla Holbox. In the months leading up to the trip, we found that only a few of our American friends—even the well-traveled ones—had heard of Holbox. More on this in a moment.

We flew to Cancun and from there, since we were splurging a bit, hired a private shuttle (Holbox Shuttle) for the 2 hr. drive to Chiquilá. We scheduled and purchased those tickets months in advance and corresponded via email with the company before arriving. The driver met us with a printed sign, immediately stopped at a grocery for us to get water and snacks, then we headed out. The drive will take either 1.5-2.0 hrs. depending upon traffic and whether you take the toll-road. We opted for this on the way there and paid the 125p toll; the driver on the return took the “slow” road and it took about 30 minutes longer. Especially as you get near Chiquilá, there are lots of speed-bumps to slow down progress. Once at Chiquilá, we purchased tickets (125p/person) for the Holbox Express “fast” ferry to the island (red logo and red kiosks). The journey took about 25 minutes in a very comfortable large ferry. Arriving on Holbox, there was a line of orange golf cart taxis waiting, which our hotel hosts suggested we take to the hotel. Fare was 40p. If we had had less luggage and weren’t as travel-tired, we might have carried our bags the mile across the island to the hotel.

Again, because this was a special celebration and my “non-negotiable” was that I wanted to stay someplace where I could walk right out onto the beach, we booked a room at a new 5-room hotel called Casa Cat Ba. It opened this past December and the French couple, Pierre-Marie and Collette, have created a beautifully appointed, yet vaguely rustic getaway. Very comfortable. Breakfast was included, cooked and served by two local women and frankly, these were some of the best meals we had on the island. Pierre and Collette were very helpful and attentive, though respectful of our space, especially since there were only five rooms and one common area. They opened their bar in the afternoons for guests only, and we enjoyed meeting our fellow travelers, especially a 30-something couple from Berlin.

Aside from relaxing, we were interested in enjoying the local culture, nature and fresh seafood. We spent time exploring via bike and walking. We hung out in the central square many times a day to watch local basketball games or group exercise sessions in the evening. There are dogs everywhere, which we particularly enjoyed since we had recently said goodbye to our 13-year old Lab. We also enjoyed this because the dogs seemed generally well-cared for and looked after (and picked up after), and there were incredible varieties. On our final day, we visited the animal shelter (Refugio Holbox) where we left a donation and took two of the shelter dogs for a walk along the beach. A few other tourists were there to do the same.

Telephone and cell reception is spotty throughout the island and varied daily, which didn’t bother us since we were trying our best to limit screen-time and unplug. There is a free wifi hotspot in the town square and we’d stop there occasionally to download email or read the news.

While a few shops and restaurants accepted VISA or US Dollars, we found using pesos the easiest, once we discovered where and how to get and exchange money. There are two freestanding ATMs just off the square that dispense US Dollars. We’d withdraw money there, then walk a half-block to the Money Exchange (the one with the flashing/moving sign above) and convert to pesos. The fees in both cases were minimal.

Some other things we did:
  • We rented bikes near our hotel for 75p/person (2-hour minimum) and rode aimlessly both through the small town and along the beach, but also through the residential blocks.
  • We had heard how you could walk in the shallow water for about a mile to Punto Mosquito to view the flocks of flamingoes. But you can’t actually get to Punto Mosquito anymore since it is a protected bird sanctuary. And apparently we were there 5-10 days earlier than the flamingoes would arrive. Nonetheless, it’s fantastic to take this early morning walk suggested by our host: walk west along the beach, going as far as possible until you pass the last hotel. Around where you see the famous HOLBOX letters out in the water, turn into the ocean and keep walking until you hit the sand bar. Then you can continue on for quite a while, walking in only shin-deep water. A beautiful view and experience.
  • We took a 3-hour boat tour that stopped at three points: Isla Pasion (a tiny island nearby which we walked completely around and climbed a lookout to see birds), Isla Pájaros, a protected bird sanctuary where we again climbed lookouts, and Yalahau, a cenote on the mainland. The tour was a good overview of the area, but ultimately unsatisfying, especially since the last stop was an hour at the cenote. If you didn’t want to swim, there was literally nothing else to do or explore. But it was lovely. From speaking with others, it’s worth asking around about the various tour experiences and individual tour operators (such as the one our hosts work with) who offer more specialized options.
Overall, in terms of the crowd, our experience was that Americans were in the minority (which was fine) as it seems news of Holbox is just now getting to the US. But it clearly has hit Europe, both with tourists and entrepreneurs. The majority of the other tourists we encountered were French, followed by German, then U.S., then Italian.

Food. The last night, we ate at an amazing restaurant called Big Fish, recommended to us by the couple from Berlin. Local ingredients and cuisine, fresh fish and seafood, traditional favorites like aquachile and tostados but elevated (Mezcal in the tostado?), friendly service, and all cooked in a very small kitchen by a local chef and her crew. When they are busy, waits can be long but if you’ve adjusted to island-time, it doesn’t matter. For casual lunches, we liked eating tacos with tourists and locals at La Botana, where one server taught us some Mayan words; the “spanish tortilla” at La Tortelleria; and though it’s hard to miss with pizza, we particularly liked the marisco mixto at Edelyn’s. Also fresh mango from street vendors.

Unfortunately, those were our only culinary highlights and Big Fish was the only dinner of note. We wished we had been able to find more places like Big Fish. Our hosts recommended three restaurants for dinner: Luuma (Italian/Argentian-owned), La Parilla de Juan (Argentinian) and Casa Nostra (Sicilian). We went to Casa Nostra and Luuma and they were just fine (Luuma is lovely), but they felt completely removed from Holbox. We may have ordered the wrong things to appreciate what these restaurants bring to the island other than variety, but to us they felt dropped in.

The impact of Holbox’s international popularity and development is evident throughout the island and the locals we spoke to talked about it with that mix of excitement and sadness that comes with gentrification. Apparently, there is a proposed 300-room hotel and it is meeting resistance from the local municipalities. There is clearly a health/wellness vibe growing; you can’t walk a block without seeing more than one yoga and/or massage studio. The general change in clientele from the east end of the island to the west (where the larger hotels are, though still not that large) is pronounced as you see more “beautiful people” as you walk west. Though there were beautiful people everywhere we went: grandmothers driving golf carts, early morning joggers, kite-surfers and beach-rakers, topless sun-worshippers, families gathering in the park.

It will be interesting to see whether Holbox can balance growth while preserving the local culture and what is so special about the island. We hope development invests wisely in the community and supports local entrepreneurs as well as internationals. We would definitely return and may explore less-deluxe accommodations as there were plenty, both small and large, all along the oceanfront.

ascoli is offline  
Mar 30th, 2019, 03:14 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2003
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Thanks for the report!
MichelleY is offline  
Mar 30th, 2019, 08:15 PM
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Nice report. I had mentioned it'd been 10 years since we'd been there but on re-thinking, it's been more like 20. I wanted to see where your hotel was, so I zoomed in on Google maps and was astounded at the development that's taken place, but not surprised. We had stayed at the Hotel Puerto Holbox which at that time was the last property on the western end of town. Nothing else past the airstrip. No roads. No ATM's. No credit cards accepted. No regular ferry. We just paid a fishermen a few pesos to take us to the island. No golf carts waiting. We have gone there 3 times back in the day, and it always felt like you were at the end of the world, which in some ways Holbox is. I likewise hope that major developments are kept in check.
baldone is offline  
Mar 31st, 2019, 02:25 AM
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Thanks for taking the time to share your trip with us - great report!
hopefulist is offline  
Mar 31st, 2019, 10:40 AM
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Really interesting to read this. Sounds like there is an international, rather than Mexican vibe, but I guess that is what to be expected nowadays especially in Yucatan. So glad you both had a great vacation!!

Baldone: Is there ANY coastal area with good swimming, good local eating, and decent hotels (clean and with a/c) that is not developed within an inch of its life??? I've been to most coastal areas but my travels have been many years ago....seems that ever one of the areas I can think of has been over-developed long ago. Anyplace on the coast of Michoacan, for example??
ekscrunchy is online now  
Mar 31st, 2019, 02:53 PM
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Eks, so as not to hijack ascoli's TR, I'll do a brief report on what I know of the Michoacan coast. But there are fewer and fewer places that have what you're looking for I think.
baldone is offline  
Apr 1st, 2019, 03:56 AM
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Whoops. Just realized that I switched east and west in my report.
ascoli is offline  
Apr 1st, 2019, 11:15 AM
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nice trip report. thank you
tom42 is offline  
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