trips

Holbox Island, Mexico

December 23, 2015

40 miles northwest of the chain resorts of Cancún, Holbox island feels like it’s on another continent. It’s an unpretentious paradise with sand roads, golf carts as the main form of transportation, an authentic town square and one ATM machine on the whole island. This is one of those rare beach/island destinations where the locals actually still live and vacation here themselves. Granted, that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are put off by the idea of placing your TP in a trashcan next to the toilet, as opposed to flushing it, this probably isn’t your kind of place.

Whale sharks are what Holbox is most known for, but we were visiting out of season, so we spent the majority of our days just chilling on the beach and stuffing ourselves with the local cuisine. It’s easy to catch a golf cart taxi if you want to explore some of the more remote beaches. Beyond that, activities include kayaking, paddle boarding, birding (be on the lookout for flamingos) and boat trips to nearby uninhabited islands. The lack of distractions leaves you with plenty of time for walking on the beach, feasting on the freshest ceviche, taking siestas, swimming in calm waters, and collecting seashells. Peek into the doorway of a sand-floored home and you’re likely to catch someone napping in a hammock. And be sure to check out the great murals that are all over town.

THE DIGS
Ida y Vuelta Hostel & Cabanas
As the name suggests, this was not a luxury resort. There are several upscale and mid-range boutique options if you’re looking for a more pampered experience, but given that we spent more on airfare than we’d like (it was X-Mas week, so there weren’t any good airfare deals to be found), we needed to keep our accommodation costs on the lower side. Plus, we liked the idea of Jade and Foster, both 9, and who both attend a spanish-immersion school, getting to have a more communal, backpacker type of experience.

Ida Y Vuelta is run by David and Sasha, a husband and wife team, who live in the main house with their kids, and could not have been more sweet. This is clearly a labor of love for them, and they’ve created a charming little haven, with accommodations ranging from a hammock (you can literally rent a hammock for the night and sleep under the stars) to a rustic house with a small kitchen that sleeps 4. We were traveling as a group of 7, with 5 adults and two kids, so we rented the casita ($150/night during peak season) and two of the bungalows ($85/night during peak season), all with ensuite bathrooms. There’s also a camping area, a few sand-floor cabins, some dorm-type cabins with bunks and a large communal kitchen & bath house.

They serve a full breakfast menu. The equivalent of a continental breakfast is included in the nightly rate, but you can apply that as a credit toward any of the other menu items. Breakfasts were super tasty including eggs, fruit with yogurt & granola, and freshly baked pastries. They don’t serve lunch or dinner regularly, but on special occasions they host a prix-fixe feast ($30/per adult, $15/child, including drinks). We partook in the Christmas Eve feast, which was extra special because they had their extended family staying with them who helped cook the meal, and we all agreed it was the best fish any of us have ever had in our lives (grilled simply with lemon and olive oil). We lost track of how many courses we ate, but everything was exquisite.

Rustic would definitely be the best word to describe our bungalows. And it’s tight quarters. There are 2-3 open shelves, a table with two stools, and a bathroom. There was a surprising lack of hooks to hang anything on (even in the bathroom), so we ended up draping our towels over the wooden rafters and doors. It’s a camping-type setting, so you can hear people talking at night, even in the private bungalows. Most people quieted down by 10pm though, with the exception of our drunk neighbor who got locked out of his bungalow at 3am one night.

The casita was roomier than the bungalows, with a kitchen, two double beds, and a fun tiled bathroom including a shower made from a conch shell. Perfect for a small family.

If we had some suggestions for improvements, it would be adding the aforementioned hooks in the bungalows, as well as some more comfortable seating options. The benches that are in the dining and communal areas are super cute, but not very comfy after a few minutes. It would also be great if there were beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent.

We can’t say enough good things about David and Sasha – their smiling faces were truly a highlight of of the trip. So if you’re up for a backpacker sort of experience, two blocks from the beach, this is your place.

WHERE TO EAT
Mexican cuisine is one of our absolute favorites, and Holbox does not disappoint.

El Chapulim
The best restaurant of the trip. We loved everything about this place and Foster said it was the best steak he’s ever had in his life (granted, he’s 9, but we tried it and it was a damn good steak). See Jocie’s review here.

Ukulele Grill
Calle Igualdad S/N, Holbox Island 77310, Mexico
We LOVED the drinks and guacamole here. And the service was excellent. We weren’t blown away by the tacos, but applaud their creativity.

Villa Mar
Av. Pedro Joaquin Caldwell and Tiburon Bellena (right near the pier)
This became our go-to lunch spot. Totally authentic (as in plastic floral table cloths and lots of locals), right on the beach. Highly recommend the coconut fish or shrimp and the shrimp ceviche.

Viva Zapata
1/2 block west of the main square | Calle Damero 67 Solar 14, Holbox Island 77310, Mexico
Swings at the bar, locally owned, delicious and hoppin’. This place is very popular, so arrive early or be prepared to wait and service can be on the slow side.

GETTING THERE & AROUND
Even though it’s only 40 miles from Cancun, Holbox Island is a bit of a trek, which is probably a large part of why is has been able to maintain its authenticity. You fly into Cancun airport, from there it’s a 2-2.5hr drive to Chiquila where you catch a 30min ferry to the island. So you’re looking at 2.5-3hrs of travel from Cancun.

A tip when booking your airfare: book the earliest flight possible out of your home city. The last ferry from Chiquila to Holbox is 9:30pm, and if you miss it, you’re not getting to Holbox that day. We learned this lesson the hard way. Our flight out of Philly was a late morning flight but was delayed a bit. Once we finally got into the air we all noticed a terrible smell coming from the back of the plane, so an hour into the flight the pilot decided to turn around and go back to Philly. It was another 4 hours on the ground before they were able to get us a new plane and crew. We finally arrived in Cancun around 11:30pm. Our driver was still able to get us as far as Chiquila by 1:30am, and we hadn’t given up hope as we’d been told that there are a handful of fishermen that will take you to Holbox in their private boats after the last ferry. But apparently the harbor had been shut down for high winds, so we were out of luck and had to spend the night in the only “hotel” in Chiquila (which involved waking up the proprietor to let us in – not fun).

Once in Holbox, you can get around to most of the restaurants and shops on foot. But for the more remote beaches, or if you’re dealing with luggage, just grab a golf cart taxi. The golf carts are also available to rent by the day or week if you’re staying a bit far from town.

THINGS TO KNOW
There are clouds of mosquitoes at dusk: bring repellent with the dreaded Deet (the eco-friendly natural stuff couldn’t stand up to these guys).

As previously mentioned, there’s only one ATM on the island, and it was actually down for a few days while we were there. So bring cash. US dollars are accepted most places, but you’ll get a better rate by paying in pesos. Some, but not all, of the restaurants and hotels take credit cards.

We booked this trip for December in the previous June, and most of the hotels we were interested in were already booked up. So if you’re planning to visit during the high season (winter), book EARLY.

It’s a mostly European crowd tourist-wise. If topless sunbathing bothers you, this probably isn’t your scene.

Paddle boarding: the water is is pretty calm, so it’s an ideal place to try for first-timers.

The water is not the translucent turquoise common to most of Quintana Roo, because here the Caribbean mixes with the darker Gulf of Mexico. It’s still lovely, just not that traditional Caribbean blue.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Gabi February 24, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Great site for Holbox – you get a good feeling from the place for sure. And as soon as I read coconut shrimp, it made me really hungry for it! Guess I”ll have to just go!

    • Reply Tesia February 24, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      Two months later, and thinking about that coconut shrimp still makes my mouth water.

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