Isla Holbox may no longer be Mexico’s best-kept secret, but this island paradise retains a bohemian vibe
While the Riviera Maya south of Cancun is swamped by American package tourists, Isla Holbox on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula has, so far, remained off the radar. Don’t get me wrong, I love (most) Americans, but I don’t travel to Mexico to see them.
Instead, Holbox is a place to meet laidback islanders, weary travellers, young and old hippies, hipsters, romantics and anyone in between. Mix a healthy dose of locals who flock here at weekends and you have a tiny island alive with energy, music, fabulous food and refreshingly low prices.
Mexico’s fantasy island
When arriving at the port, the idea of a fantasy island may seem far-fetched. New buildings are popping up (progress, eh?) and the place looks a bit of a dusty dump. Bear with it and soldier through to the beach side of the island – where the real paradise starts.
The obvious allure is those blindingly squeaky white beaches, the mellow waters perfect for swimming, and the car-free atmos. We found so many beaches in the Yucatan snarled up with traffic, but here it was bliss to wander round in a bubble with only bicycles and golf buggies to compete with.
You could spend weeks here flopping beachside, people watching with a mojito in hand, but if you can drag yourself away, my advice is to rent a bike and explore the whole island.
Relax & explore
We stayed at the incredibly welcoming beach hideaway Ser CasaSandra on Playa Norte and were able to take advantage of its free bikes, cycling along the beach to the national park (part of Yum Balam Nature Reserve). This is Holbox at its most magical – no buildings, just bright white beaches backed by mangrove swamps.
Watch out for crocs, hawksbill turtles, tapirs, huge iguanas and the Jurassic era leftover horseshoe crabs (misleading – they look nothing like crabs) which lurk in the shallows.
Oh, and rays. And pelicans! Lots of pelicans. Remember to check the tide times before setting out – at low tide you can walk or cycle on the sandbars which appear like wide expanses of incredible whiteness.
Also, watch out for the sun. It’s incredibly hot and there’s little shade out here, so bring a big old hat and slap on the sunscreen. You can cycle as far as the creek which is a natural barrier.
After a morning’s exploring, kick back and relax at the No Name beach bar next to Ser CasaSandra. It’s everything you want from a Caribbean watering hole: a bamboo thatched roof, plastic chairs and laidback dudes serving up pints of Mojitos and frosty beer in the bottle.
Weekend afternoons kick up a gear with a live band playing funky cover songs (think Pink Floyd done rocksteady style). I loved it – it’s not loud or intrusive, just really mellow with a fun, local crowd.
Sunsets & fish tacos
Sunsets on Holbox are a major deal and the whole island seems to make it beachside for the show: big, dramatic, colourful and with added pelican silhouettes for a touch of drama. Some sections of beach have bongos, others have sunset ceremonies, others yet have bar shacks with hammock cabanas full of sleepy louches. Walk the beach and find a vibe that suits.
The island’s ramshackle little town picks up in the evening, but it’s low key. There are plenty of local food stalls, restaurants and a few high-end snazzy places. For snacks on the go, fish tacos reign supreme: freshly caught and lightly battered. But foodies will be spoilt for choice.
My two favourites eating spots are El Limoncito, a cool little wooden shack on the main square run by a young team who served up the best (and cheapest) ceviche and guacamole of our entire trip; and Luuma, a super swanky design restaurant set in a tropical courtyard where diners dress to impress. It’s not cheap, but well worth the splurge.
The nightlife in Holbox is pretty much non-existent and things close down early – it’s no place for party people. It gets a tad livelier on weekends when the locals pour onto the island, but still, it’s all about the beach time.
If you’re planning on visiting the Yucatan and have pencilled in time for Holbox my advice is to double it, then add a few extra days. I promise you won’t regret it. If we hadn’t already booked the rest of our trip, we would have happily binned our plans and slipped back into hammocks until our flight forced us away.
Where to stay
Ser CasaSandra is a charming little hideaway with an excellent restaurant and artistic vibes. It’s located right on Playa Norte, one of Holbox’s best beaches. The owner, poet and artist Sandra Pérez, has created a lovely, laidback ambience with vast double loungers, stylish boho suites and a gorgeous pool.
By Air: Cancun International (160km away) is the closest airport. Alternatively, you can fly to Mérida (259km away).
From the Airport: There are daily buses from Cancún to the coastal village Chiquilá. From here, take the ferry (25 minutes) over to Isla Holbox. The ferry runs every 30 minutes.
Language: Spanish Currency: Mexican peso When to go: November-March Credit cards: Holbox has just 2 ATMs (so bring lots of cash) What to bring: Sunscreen, a hat, beach towels, insect repellent, and a smile How to pronounce Holbox: Hol-bosh