A clear blue sky and warm turquoise waters complement the pastel-hued buildings in town. Fishermen walk through the colorful village swinging their catch of the day. Calls from sea eagles provide a calming staccato, and a backdrop of tangled red mangrove trees form a picturesque border.
Welcome to Isla Holbox.
Holbox, which means “black hole” in Yucatec Maya, is a 26-mile-long island separated from the mainland of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by a shallow lagoon. It’s one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets, a short ferry ride from the small town of Chiquila, which is a two-hour drive from Cancun.
Adventurers flock here for the kitesurfing and fly-fishing opportunities, and foodies indulge in the quaint restaurants, which serve fresh lobster and grouper caught by locals. Wildlife-watching is unsurpassed (as part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, Holbox hosts a bounty of horseshoe crabs, white pelicans, flamingos, whale sharks and other exotic species).
The authentic, slow pace of life (instead of cars, golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation) and warm, welcoming locals create a unique destination, truly one of the last sleepy Mexican beach towns.
The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, about 45 minutes offshore from Isla Holbox, are home to the pride and joy of the island: whale sharks. The shark’s double dorsal fin, intricately spotted body and 5-foot-long mouth that seems like a never-ending smile delight locals and tourists alike.
The world’s largest fish, which can reach lengths of 40 feet, is safe to swim alongside. Murals, T-shirts, souvenirs and wooden signs throughout the island beckon people to “Swim with Whale Sharks.”
“Are you nervous?” Asks Wilbert, my guide through VIP Holbox Experience, a tourism agency. I respond in the affirmative when we locate a whale shark in the vast blue sea after almost an hour of searching by boat.
“Good, you should be excited,” he responds.
Fins, moving with enthusiasm and peeking out of the water, give the whale sharks away. I jump into the sea with my snorkel, and one of the giant fish swims inches from my face. The fish is so close I can easily reach out and touch it, but I am stopped by the knowledge that they are sensitive and swimmers should avoid contact.
I am more than happy with my magical moment staring into the whale shark’s eyes, watching the huge mouth suck in plankton. After each guest has a turn making contact with these amazing creatures, we leave to snorkel in shallower water 20 minutes away.
The area teems with marine life and I encounter many treasures: freckled hawksbill turtles, manta rays, nurse sharks and bright, tropical fish.
After a day of adventure, the only thing left to do is indulge in a hearty island meal with drinks.
Mandarina Beach Club’s multivitamínico juice is just what the doctor ordered: a heavenly mix of fresh mango, mandarin oranges and strawberry whipped up fresh at the bar.
The restaurant’s bohemian-chic décor flows out past the dining area, where curtains drape the cabanas and blow in the evening breeze and colorful hammocks dangle from the trees. I take in the scenery while feasting on succulent grilled shrimp seasoned with garlic; delicious avocado and sweet-corn tartare completes the flavorful entrée.
Mandarina’s claim to fame is being one of the island’s truly organic restaurants. The kitchen sources all ingredients locally, serving freshly caught fish, fruit from local purveyors and vegetables, produce and spices from the hotel’s own farm in the nearby village of Solferino.
Argentinian chef Jorge Melul’s menu puts emphasis on the sea, serving seasonal seafood freshly caught by local fishermen. Melul previously ran an Italian-Argentinian restaurant in Buenos Aires, and he brings those touches to Holbox through such dishes as rack of lamb with mustard, honey and rosemary, as well as homemade ravioli with salmon.
“There are a lot of Italian and Argentinian ex-patriots that live on Holbox, so we wanted to bring these locals flavors that they may be missing from their home countries,” says Mandarina Beach Club owner Francesca Golinelli.
Originally published here