Mexico’s Island Eden: Isla Holbox by NatGeo

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Posted by Ceil Miller-Bouchet in Beyond the Guidebook on October 29, 2015. Follow the links to check more of her articles!

“Holbox reminds me of Tulum, ten years ago.”

“Yeah, or Playa del Carmen back in the day, when the Blue Parrot was the only place on the beach.”

Okay, I was eavesdropping; a Holbox Island newbie sitting beside a group of silver-haired norteamericanos in faded board shorts and boat shoes who looked like they would be just as comfortable on Martha’s Vineyard as on this remote Mexican island northwest of Cancun.

Though I half envied them—and others from my parent’s generation who had wandered the Cancun-Tulum corridor before the advent of expressways, all-inclusive resorts, and yoga retreats—I shared their happiness.

Why? Ever since my family moved back to the States from Asia, I’d been searching for a place that reminded me of the castaway beaches we loved so much in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam.

At last, I thought, as the sun set behind the rickety pier, I’d found it.

Holbox isn’t for everyone, though. If your ideal Mexican beach vacation involves Infinity pools, piña coladas, dressing up for dinner, or getting from point A to point B by gasoline-powered vehicle, you’ll be disappointed.

But if you crave a low-key, low-rise place where hammocks swing from most every palm tree, backpackers drink micheladas with their tacos al pastor, Maya children splash alongside vacationing citizens-of-the-world in the sea, and golf carts ply streets of sand, then look no further.

But pack your biodegradable sunscreen, because ecotourism is the leitmotif here.

The slender 26-mile-long island is part of a vast ecological preserve—Mexico’s largest—called Yum Balam (Lord Jaguar), where the local Maya and their allies have sought to establish and enhance a sustainable and economically viable society.

Today, Holbox (“Black Hole” in Yucatec Maya) is under increasing pressure from those seeking to over-develop this natural paradise. So our family did our best to support local businesses involved in sustaining the environment and culture while we visited.

Isla Holbox, or Holbox Island, is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. (Photograph by age fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Here’s how we tried.

Where to Stay:
A dozen or so thatched-roof “hotelitos” line the main beach. Though I heard good things about Hotel La Palapa and Hotel Villas Flamingos from fellow travelers, we stayed at Casa Las Tortugas, a collection of impeccably kept, thatch-roofed adobe buildings (including a beach-front restaurant, bar, and small spa) surrounding a swimming pool.

I was totally taken by the “Dear Guest” welcome letter from the Italian family that opened the hotel in 2003 and has developed it into an environmentally sensitive mini-resort. Here’s an excerpt: “This house was built to receive families and friends, recreating an atmosphere full of colour, warmth, and love…We would like to make you feel as we once did the first time we came here, in harmony with the nature that surrounds this incredible island.”

Mission accomplished, with the help of fresh, soothing décor, swinging daybeds on the beach, and unobtrusive, spot-on service. I also liked the hotel’s ban on bottled water. Instead, guests refill the carafe in their room from stations around the grounds.

What to Experience:
Swimming with whale sharks—the largest fish in the sea—felt surreal. Thousands of these brown spotted giants migrate to where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean every year to gorge on plankton (not people!) from May to October.

I was glad to be back on the boat, though, when a stealth bomber-like manta ray swooped by just inches below my swimming husband and daughter. They were delighted, for the record.

Our experienced guide, Gustavo, from VIP Holbox Tours, told our group of 10 that before the Yum Balam biosphere was formed in 1994, many fishermen were afraid of the whale sharks because of their size.

Now, about 40 boats go out each day during high season. Though good money can be made from whale shark swimming, Gustavo continued, adjusting his Oakley sunglasses, “we’re very careful not to disturb them. The younger generation, like my son, love the sharks and want them to be here when they grow up.”

In addition to our whale shark swim, the six-hour boat tour included a pause for snorkeling, a sail up the Rio Largo mangrove estuary, a view to flocks of feeding pink flamingos, and finally, a boat-side lunch of freshly caught (and prepared, by Gustavo and the captain) grouper ceviche on a gorgeous deserted beach.

The Holbox Kiteboarding School—run out of Casa Las Tortugas by the owner’s Dutch son-in-law—was closed while we visited, but from December to April, the island is one of the best spots in Mexico to partake in the sport due to the steady winds that blow over the shallow, unobstructed coastal sea.
Given the kind of people who seem to find their way to Holbox Island, I wasn’t surprised to find a budding art scene.

As we were wandering around scruffy “downtown” Holbox, my daughter noticed a slew of creative, colorful murals adorning many of the cinder-block buildings. The wall art was made by a group of international artists who literally painted the town during the annual International Public Art Festival (IPAF). I also spied a new gallery-café going up across from Casa Las Tortugas.

What (and Where) to Eat:
Perhaps because most of the island’s expat residents are from Italy and Argentina and so many tourists hail from Europe, there is a bevy of eatery options on Holbox.

Viva Zapata—with its rustic bar and palapa-style dining room—was our favorite place for seafood. Since the owner has his own fishing boat, you’re literally eating the catch of the day. By the time our entrees arrived, we’d already gorged ourselves on the grilled octopus starter and salsa and chips, so our waiter packed up half the delicious turbot we’d ordered, throwing in a few tortillas “handmade by my friend” to enjoy later.

For lunch, family-owned Las Panchas, on a road near the beach, is a casual, cheerful spot with tables under a broad awning where a mix of locals and tourists chomp on delicious empanadas and ceviche, all made to order from fresh ingredients in the clean, open-air kitchen. Another option is Tacoqueto, a food truck with excellent tacos al pastor and burritos.

When we’d had our fill of fish and tacos, we tried La Tortilleria de Holbox, for Spanish-style omelettes and El Cafecito, a sweet café off the main square, for breakfast and lunch with strong coffee, croissants, crepes and gourmet sandwiches.

La Mandarina—the beachfront restaurant at Casa Las Tortugas—is definitely the most upscale place on the island, but you can still dine barefoot. The Mediterranean-meets-Caribbean menu focuses on local bounty like lobster, scallops, and fish. “It’s not difficult to do organic here,” hotel owner Francesca Golinelli told me, “because everything is that way. But we are trying to be always more sustainable.”

After spending four spectacular days on the island, I sincerely hope Holbox doesn’t become the next Tulum. Sometimes, the best way forward is just staying the same.

Ceil Miller Bouchet is a travel writer and the author of a forthcoming memoir, The Bordeaux Diaries, about her year studying wine at the University of Bordeaux. Follow her on Twitter @CeilBouchet.

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