To start off a month long vacation this year, my friend and I decided to head to Isla Holbox, Mexico. We’ve been working at our 9-5’s for years and have been accumulating this vacation time during the pandemic, but also reluctant to use it because we both knew we needed a longer break from the day job.
We decided to spend our month off in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It was already a heavily-travelled area during the pandemic since people were flocking to Mexico since the early months of the pandemic since Mexico did not close their border. We were already fully vaccinated and figured it may be best to stick to a heavily tourist trodden path to be around other tourists and areas that are familiar with dealing with travelers during this time, since there IS still a global pandemic going on.
I had remembered hearing about the name “Isla Holbox”, an Instagram geotagged location a travel influencer I follow went to many years ago (maybe 2018). I recall from her Instagram post that the waters were blue and it sounded like a small chill town. It was also not a place I had heard of before (like Cancun or Tulum) so I thought it would be worth checking out someday.
For the beginning of this trip, we were looking for a place that was better for relaxing and did not have much going on so we could focus on our projects. Isla Holbox seemed like the perfect place because it is quite small (the town itself) and from other blogs, Holbox is described as a good place to just…relax.
Though Holbox has resorts, it does not have the same kind of resorts nor attract the same resort crowds since 1) Holbox as an island with less developed infrastructure due to it’s location and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions and 2) it is a bit of a trek to get there. You’d have to be willing to ride 2.5 hours through emptier rural roads then ferry to get there. The alternative is a private plane that costs like $500 per person (that’s a nope! from me).
The trip was initially meant for 7 days, but it got extended to ten days due to some other trip changes. While researching Holbox, most blogs suggested that a short trip was sufficient to get to do everything there is to do on the island. After the trip, I agree. If one’s goal is to see all the sights to see on Holbox, 3-4 days is sufficient. However, Holbox was a decent place to also stick around longer – that is if you’re a fan of beach life (aka lazing around on the beach for hours a day and partying it up all day), which I learned after this trip, that beach life is… not for me. The beach IS very beautiful though and after traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula for the rest of the month, Holbox beaches were by far the nicest.
On a map, Isla Holbox is a tiny little piece of land protruding part out of the north of the Yucatan Peninsula. It does not even look like a full island (surrounded all parts by water). There is a tiny part that does connect to the mainland. However, as I quickly learned, only a small part of Holbox is actually inhabited by people and can be traversed by foot. The town of Holbox is on the western side of the island. If you look it up on Google Maps and zoom in, you’ll see roads mapped out.
The rest of the island (like 2/3) is basically all nature reserve that you can’t really see unless you sign up for a boat or kayak tour. The nature reserve cannot be easily accessed. One might think there are hiking or bike trails through the entire island — there are none. We decided not to take any tours to the rest of the island since we were not feeling like doing it particularly, also during our stay there were many bouts of rain and storm.
Speaking of rain and storm, Holbox and the Yucatan Peninsula in general is vulnerable to hurricanes. There is history of strong hurricanes coming in and causing significant damage. Since all the roads are sand-based, when it rained, the streets became rushing rivers. The puddles would remain for days since the roads would never dry evenly. I can only imagine how consistent heavy rains and hurricanes can cause significant flooding and impact infrastructure.
HOLBOX FIRST IMPRESSIONS
- Holbox turned out to be less touristic than I expected, but still quite touristy. I had imagined it to be an island full of tourists and only had hotels and restaurants catered towards tourists, like some of the more tourist-y places I’ve been to (e.g. Cusco, Peru or Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal), but nope, Holbox had the vibe of a small beach town reminiscent of parts of Goa and the Dominican Republic (from my travels). Yes, there were hotels, resorts, tourist-catered restaurants, but they were pretty spread out amongst a normal lil town!
- As expected, pretty extreme differences juxtaposed against each other (e.g. hip trendy restaurant next to local hole-in-the-wall place) though the differences were not too drastic. It was not touristic the point it was draining and you can tell there are people who live on this island and just living their regular lives not necessarily working in the service industry.
- Walking on the main road vs. the beach road was a starkly different experience! For the first few days, we did not know about the beach road so we just walked on the main road. We didn’t see as many tourists on the main roads, and walked by small convenience stores and regular shops. But the beach road on the other hand, had resorts lined up next to each other and therefore travelers and tourists were always around, either at the restaurant, or on the beach, or in the ocean. I guess it makes sense the main roads were more quiet, if everyone took the beach road. The beach road was also better to walk on since the sandy beach dried faster than the puddle-ridden main roads.
- In terms of history and social context, that is information that can be found through a Google search. Since I’m not here to introduce Isla Holbox formally, but rather wanted to highlight some facts that stood out to me, I’ll share them in bullet point form.
- “Holbox” stands for “black hole” in Mayan
- Before the growth of the tourism industry, the island’s main industry was fishing.
- Holbox has a history of providing refuge for those seeking it and are able to escape from the mainland.
- Flamingos and Whale Sharks are a big draw for tourism to the area. Whale sharks are typically around Holbox 4 months a year (~June to September)
- According to this WSJ piece on Holbox, the island was a convenient stopover for Italian pirates!
- A hurricane in 1886 “completely destroyed the island” but it was rebuilt afterwards. On that note, Isla Holbox is in a location quite vulnerable to hurricanes. Due to its geographical location, it is prime for getting the brunt of natural disasters arriving on the shore.
- There is a lot of street art found in Holbox. There was an International Public Art Festival was hosted in Holbox in 2014 that focused on reviving street art there. During this festival, various artists were able to contribute their ideas and make murals. Many of which are still seen on the island today.
WHERE WE STAYED + HOW WE GOT AROUND
We arrived to Holbox via a private taxi (we used this service). They picked us up from the airport directly and drove us to Chiquilá, a small port town across from Holbox. From Chiquilá, we took a boat taxi (or you can take the ferry) and crossed to the island. The ferry ride is 20 minutes. On the island, we took our rolling carry ons and braved the muddy roads and walked 12 minutes with all our bags to our Airbnb. The island looked pretty walk-able on the map, and we discovered it is indeed the truth. Just be ready to sweat and/or get your legs muddy!
We decided to stay at an Airbnb given the length of our stay, and given our budget for two people, there were a few good options on Airbnb. It was only after I was there that I learned Holbox has a lot of beach-side hotels and resorts. Though since it is a smaller island, the resorts are not as big as the ones that are in Cancun.
Our stay was close to the beach as well as the main road (Calle Kuka). We got around 99% of the time by walking. The only time we took a golf taxi was heading back from Punta de Coco one evening (it was a 40 minute walk from our room to Punta de Coco). By the way, the only vehicles you’ll see are golf taxis since the roads are all sand/mud based (no concrete). No cars are on the island, that is with the exception of the occasional small truck carrying water and produce.
Since the town is so small, you can walk to all the main spots in less than 30 minutes. Instead of taking the muddy puddle-ridden roads, we walked along the beach to get to the main part of Holbox where a lot of the restaurants and food are located.
WHAT WE DID
Not much! A lot of lazing around, sitting for hours in the ocean, laying on the beach, getting some reading and time for creative projects in, and lots of eating! (Twice a day, to be exact).
I spent a LOT of time in the ocean everyday. Since the ocean had a huge stretch of shallow area, you could walk pretty far out in the water and still be able to touch the ground. This means it is the perfect kind of ocean for folks to sit or stand around in the water all day.
We would sleep in in the mornings, head out for brunch, then spend the afternoon either swimming or working on our personal projects. We’d get dinner then spend the rest of the evening indoors at our Airbnb.
There was one day where we walked to Punta de Coco which is a beach on the west side of the island. It is supposedly usually emptier than the main beach, which we found to be true-ish. It wt as less crowded, had more fish, but still had people around. It is slightly more out of the way which is why there are fewer people. It was a 40 minute walk from our part of town to Punta de Coco.
The only other excursion we did was to Punta de Mosquito to see more clear water and practice drone flying.
Bioluminescence tour: Expectations vs. Reality moment
We did end up going on one tour and that was the bioluminescence tour. I had already planned for it, and knew that the earlier days we were there would be better because it was closer to the new moon (which meant darker skies and hopefully more bioluminescence).
The photos advertised online and even posters we saw in person about the bioluminscence were the kind where the entire ocean along the beach is glowing in light blue color. I didn’t know how realistic it was, since this is the only kind of image I see online anyway. Of course, I hoped reality was like this… Well, reality was not what we saw in the advertisements! I was not surprised and okay with it. But the disparity between expectation and reality is so different that it’s just funny.
The tour involved meeting up with our group around midnight. The time is different everyday, depending on the weather and moon’s conditions. Our tour included a taxi from our place to the meeting point. We ended up waiting 30 minutes for a 5 minute taxi ride to a location that could have taken us around 7 minutes to walk, haha.
We met up with the rest of the group, a combination of Spanish and English speaking individuals of folks from around the world. After our guide gave us the down low of what bioluminescence is and what the night’s agenda was, we headed out in pairs of two on our kayaks. Our guide said something I won’t forget — he said we were going on an expedition, not a tour. Way to go for making us feel really cool.
We kayaked to Punta de Mosquito, which by the way, is totally walk-able. The waters are incredibly shallow, so sometimes when kayaking we’d just end up stabbing our paddles into the sand floor. The one amazing part of the evening was that the night sky was clear, the moon had descended by the time we left, and we could see a sky full of stars! I also noticed that the water was dark all around but each paddle in the water created a few glowing dots.
Once we got to Punta de Mosquito, the guide had us get on our knees and swipe at the sand frantically which resulted in seeing more green glowing dots. We had some time to put our faces in the water (with snorkeling masks on) to agitate the water to see the bioluminescence, before we headed back on our kayaks.
All in all, the reality of the bioluminescence was not close to any of the advertising we saw, but we DID see bioluminescence. I can’t say I got scammed, when maybe I felt like I did a teeny bit, but the cost of the tour was 600 pesos (~20USD), we got to kayak at midnight, see a beautiful night sky (milky way too!), and see some bioluminescence. Not a bad night all in all.
Other things to do on the island that we did not do
The three other most commonly advertised tours are the Whale Shark tour, the 3 Island tour (where you can hopefully spot flamingos), and the kayak-through-the-mangrove tour.
The Whale Shark tour is to go out to find whale sharks and swim with them. Based on the other blogs I’ve read, Whale Sharks come to the Holbox area around June (even mid-May) to September, and it’s part of a touristic thing for people to come here to try to swim with them. We were technically in Holbox around the beginning of the Whale Shark season but I did not go on the tour for a few reasons.
- As much as I would love the opportunity to swim with a whale shark, I do not particularly enjoy the sake of seeking out a wild animal JUST to see it, experience it, or get a photo of it. After some previous experiences, and what the marketing looked like, these whale sharks (if found) probably get crowded by multiple tour boats and people to get close to it. Also, the tours are on the more expensive end and there is no guarantee you will see them. I don’t want to swim with a whale shark that badly.
Anyways, you do see whale shark paintings and drawings all over the town, so it is a huge sell for tourists.
The other tour I had considered was the 3 island tours. The boat tour takes you to 3 spots on Isla Holbox, one of them being an actual small island, the other two spots being on Isla Holbox. I did not look too into it but apparently there is the chance of seeing flamingos at these spots, as well as to the Yalahau cenote. I believe some of these spots are walk-able (you can wade through the water from Punta de Coco to reach these spots).
Lastly, was the tour that involved kayaking through the mangrove swamps. This was in actual nature reserve territory so it would have mean seeing parts of the island we would not have been able to see on foot. I heard there is the higher chance of seeing flamingos and crocodiles here.
All the tours! All the nature! All the animals living on this island! I’m just glad that they’re there, hopefully enjoying their life with minimal human interference.
WHERE WE ATE (& my ratings)
We had made the decision to eat out every meal because we were on a budget that could afford it, and eating food in another place is a primary way we experience new cultures.
*by the way, the ratings are completely arbitrary. They’re my ratings based on how I felt about the food. I value food quality as well as “was it worth it for the price?” most so that’s how I am rating the food.
- Mahi Holbox — 3 out of 5 stars
Before getting to Holbox, I had bookmarked this restaurant because the photos looked good. Lots of ceviche and fresh fish. When we got there, it was one of the hipper, and therefore, pricier restaurants in the area. We were tired and hungry at that point, so we went with it. Since it was a fancier restaurant and possibly foreign-owned, our server also seemed like a foreign white guy. Or potentially white Mexican not local to Holbox. He may have had a French accent? I don’t know.
All I recall is that we ate in the dark and our only light was this moon-light on the center of our table. There was a DJ playing techno music that was actually really good. The atmosphere reminded me of the electronic/techno clubs in Berlin. We ordered ceviche, aguachile, and some tacos. The food was fresh and decent! But definitely on the pricier side for local standards.
- The local mercado (market) for the carnitas stand and aguas frescas — 4 out of 5 stars
There is a little market by the Holbox airport that has a great carnitas taco stand. We went for lunch on our second day and enjoyed some affordable pork tacos and aguas frescas from the neighboring stand.
- Antojitos El Abuelo (salbutes, tortas, empanadas) — 5 out of 5 stars.
Our host recommended this spot for some cheap eats. Antojitos basically refers to street food, snack, “sudden craving”. It was my first time having a salbute, which is a popular street food in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It’s made up of a crisp (fried?) tortilla with fillings on top.
We were not allowed to dine in here so we took it to go and sat on the beach with our “little cravings”.
- Arte Sano Cafe — 5 out of 5 stars
This cafe was advertised as being vegan friendly, so we decided to come here when we figured we needed more vegetables in our diets. I got a vegetarian quesadilla that used hibiscus and cheese as the filling. It was delicious! My friend got hot cakes (pancakes) which was served with fresh fruit. They also had a generous serving of aguas frescas. We came here twice. The next time I got hot cakes and my friend got the “Green Goddess burger” which was a lentil burger that was also really good!
- Taco Queto — 4 out of 5 stars
A food truck turned store. The perfect spot for your classic Mexican food cravings. We also went here twice — once at the beginning of our trip and once on the last day. It’s basically fast food because they serve it very quick. Their chips and guac stood out as being especially good (and they serve a lot of guac). The tacos, burritos, and quesadillas (what we tried) were all solid.
Another nice place for affordable tacos was Tacos Mateo which was also near the park. Tacos were 20 pesos (~$1 USD) each. (I learned soon after that in other parts of Mexico, tacos can be much cheaper).
- Painapol — 4.5 out of 5 stars
This was one of my favorite restaurants. It is your classic health conscious brunch spot for all the tourists and expats in town. They had all kinds of smoothie bowls, jars, sandwiches, and salads. I urged to come here for quite a few lunches, since I found their prices reasonable and their juices fresh.
It’s the kind of place with green juice and other “detox” or “cleansing” juices. I don’t particularly believe in the function of detoxing or cleansing my system from a 3-ingredient juice, but I DO enjoy the taste of sour and freshly squeezed juice paired with a BLT sandwich. My palette is sadly, quite basic (haha) and Painapol fulfilled that basic palette perfectly. (It was also a good break from heavy dinners).
A restaurant with a similar vibe was Manglu (4/5 stars). We went on our last morning and had some good chilaquiles, waffle brunch, and aguas frescas there.
- Roots Pizza — 3 out of 5 stars
Most of the Holbox blogs we read suggested going to Roots foots or their lobster pizza. I wanted to try it just to see what the hype was about. We saved the dinner for a day where we were craving pizza (aka wanted something that was not Mexican food). The Roots pizza is located in the outdoors and there was a little stage for live music. We saw drummers drum and then a woman sing Nina Simone. Funnily, we saw the same drummers almost everyday performing at the beach in various locations, and the same woman singing at other restaurants. It’s a small town!
The pizza was alright. It was like a regular cheese pizza, just with lobster meat scattered on top. And the lobster shell added over it as decoration. The whole thing was 600 pesos (30 USD) which was on the pricier side…but hey, I did it for the ~hype~
- Street vendor food — 5 out of 5 stars (bang for your buck)
Every evening by the park in Holbox, there are street vendors lined up across two sides of the park. You’ll find marquesitas (crispy crepe-like that can be sweet or savory), elote, tortas, burritos and tacos. We had a dinner where we just grabbed a torta each and ate it while hanging out in the park.
(Btw, I’m a street vendor foodie at heart, since Taipei’s (where I grew up) food scene thrives off of street food)
- Mediocre tourist food with a beach view — 2 out of 5 stars
There were two meals that involved eating at one of the restaurants with a beach view. Most of the restaurants on the beach strip are attached to hotels. Our host had recommended Mawimbi hotel as a good place to get grilled octopus and had good wifi. For an evening where we needed wifi, we decided to eat here. The food was incredibly mediocre (too salty, not particularly tasty, overpriced) but hey at least we got decent internet, ate on sand floors, had great service, and had a beach view.
The other restaurant was called Punta San Telmo and also had a distant beach view. The food was on the pricier end (average cost of a meal in the US) and was pretty mediocre. I had gotten an octopus burger where the octopus didn’t taste like much. A similar restaurant was Viva Zapata. The food there is a bit tastier (3 out of 5) and they also had decent internet. We hid out from an afternoon of rain at Viva Zapata.
- Alma Bar
Okay, last place is not a restaurant but a bar. I was recommended to go there for the view by a friend who was traveling through Holbox the same week I was there. My friend and I spent our last afternoon at Alma bar. They had decent cocktails, and a pool and deck overlooking the beach. The pool’s water cleanliness was…questionable, especially given that many people drink and hang out in there. But hey, being waist-deep is not too bad. They also had a nice lounge area by the pool with clear glass so you could see the view from there. I enjoyed this spot for the view and how chill it was during the afternoon.
The “Meh” parts
In my opinion there are “meh” parts to ALL parts of travel and all destinations. I mean come on, it’s impossible for a place to be “perfect” – that just does not exist. Sure, some places are promoted as paradise, but bugs exist! Faulty internet! Crowded areas! Exploited workers! And so much more… If there is no “meh” part to the place or travel, then it might be a place only the very rich can access? Haha, I don’t know. Nature is bound to always have “meh” aspects.
Ok, so the below are some of what I found “meh” at Holbox. They were not dealbreakers for me in my own travels, but they might be dealbreakers for some.
• Bad WiFi connection
After spending the rest of the month in the Yucatan Peninsula, I found excellent WiFi and service in other areas. It is likely that the internet just isn’t so great since this is a small island with a LOT of resorts, hotels, houses, competing for WiFi. Our first Airbnb did not have good WiFi for most of the day (when the island is awake), but improved later. We moved to a different Airbnb owned by the same host, and the Wifi was significantly better, but not good enough for me to feel like I can work on my blog without speed issues.
• Lots of mosquitoes and bugs
As someone who grew up in Taiwan and is used to living in a tropical climate, mosquitos are the norm and to be expected. Not the biggest deal but it is a situation where you’d want to have bug spray with you. We lived like a 3 minute walk away from the beach, and making it from the ocean water back to our room was enough to get bitten multiple times.
The infrastructure was a bit less “developed” than what you would get in Cancun or Tulum. What I really mean, is that the infrastructure is to be expected for a small beach rural-ish town. The internet/signals are slower, the roads are not made of concrete (all sand/mud), I imagine there is no real proper sewage system, and I don’t know if hot showers are guaranteed. All of this makes sense because it’s literally a small island, so getting resources like food, water, materials over takes more effort than getting it anywhere on the island. This was not really a “meh” part, but rather I think it’s something to be aware of. Don’t expect quality of infrastructure and life that you’d get from a Global North country, let alone even mainland big city Mexico, let alone mainly small town Mexico!
There was a ton of construction going on. Looked like constant building of resorts and hotels both in the town, and also basically for the entirety of the second half of our walk to Punta de Coco. To be honest, the construction looks like a huge struggle. With the constant rain and intensity behind transporting resources, it did not look like an “easy” place to build big.
We walked by one huge resort looking building situated right next to Punta de Coco, and though it looked like it may still be under construction…it looked like a huge resort that was haunted. I cannot imagine a pool and strong sewage/drain systems to be built there. But hey, if people manage to build these kind of buildings in literal deserts, maybe it’s possible here too… (though, I am personally against it and hope they stop with the resort building, or at least if they build more tourist-centric spots, to make it more eco-friendly).
• Muddy + puddle-ridden roads
As to be expected as a town with no concrete roads. Totally chill IMO but may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It rains fairly often, as is the norm for a tropical island. So that means the sand roads turn to mud roads where your feet will literally sink into the ground as you walk. There were a couple storms during our stay, and wow the way those roads literally flood. I walked through the water with my sandals, but if you don’t want to get your feet wet, it’s like a video game finding spots to jump from one place to the next. I saw many locals walked around with bare feet, and some with rainboots.
Watching my friend jump through the floods was quite entertaining. As was watching the golf carts drive through and sink deep into the puddles.
• Sitting in the ocean all day = fish nipping your legs and waves hitting your face
This is “meh” but truthfully, I find quite hilarious. From afar, the ocean looks so blue and peaceful. You see groups of people sitting in the water, looking like they’re relaxed and having a great time. Well, when I went in the water, the water was not as peaceful as it looked on the surface. There were constant waves, and the only time the water was most still was when it was lightly raining. When there are constant waves, it’s not easy to sit completely relaxed (at least I had a hard time with it).
The other part that prevented true relaxation were the fish that would nip your legs! It happened the deeper in you went. But not even that deep, usually waist to chest deep, was the right time for the fish to attack. Mind you, I never got to see these fish because the water was not that clear. Sometimes I saw shadows.
But wow, it was almost predictable that by the time I was shoulder deep, I could expect aggressive nips on my legs. These nips are not like from the fish you’d get at a fish spa. No, no, these fish are bigger and it’s like when they nip your leg, they are very clearly telling you to get off their territory. After the first nip comes, many more come!
After a few days of getting used to the fish, my hobby became people watching other people get nipped. I’d watch a family or group wade into the water, and sit there wait for the first in the group to scream and run back to shore.
• Sand everywhere!
Ok, this is not news for a beach town. You will have sand everywhere in places that don’t naturally have sand. That includes your backpack, your camera lens, your denim shorts, your tablet. After a few days, even my skin felt perpetually sandy…It wasn’t a big deal for me, but something I noticed since I wasn’t used to it.
Morgan, the dog
This is just a fun lil bonus section. But basically, our landmark for exiting the beach to the road to access our Airbnb, was a little beach hut where they sold tours and rented out kayaks and seats…etc. The owners of this hut had two dogs, one of them was a white husky named Morgan (we learned). The owner had some signs with paintings of Morgan.
Anyways, Morgan is white, Morgan is fluffy, Morgan is wolf-like. Morgan also blends into the sand at night given that the sand is also white-ish in color. The first few nights walking back, we would walk and almost step onto Morgan who was curled up on the sand ground. Another night, we were walking back with a clear path ahead of us, then BOOM a white wolf crosses our path. Oh yeah, that’s Morgan.
It would take us by surprise then we would laugh about it. There were many shaggy looking dogs on this island and at first we wondered if Morgan had an owner, then quickly learned that he did — and that all the other shaggy dogs always covered in sand and mud around the island, also likely have owners.
Anyways, Morgan became the landmark for us to get back home. He was not always there every night, but when he was, he was fast asleep and at peace. Though, I did also hear people passing by wonder out loud if it was a dead dog given how still he slept.
The undoubtedly awesome parts of Holbox
The beach, the nature, the food, the vibe! The ocean waters are so clear and beautiful, that it was easy to see fish. I’ll also share some drone footage of the many blues the waters in this area have. I enjoyed how walk-able the island was and how good food could be found all over. Whether you were in the mood for affordable street food, sit-down tacos, or a place that suits a hip or fancy night out, the options are there.
I also liked that Holbox had a genuine small town vibe. A place where locals and tourists co-existed. It appeared like there were locals who lived there and just lived their regular normal everyday lives and not necessarily worked in the tourism/service industry. Locals were friendly to tourists, and had their own lives, and tourists came in and out. Just seemed like a place with good co-existence between tourists and locals.
All in all, Holbox was a wonderful relaxed beach town with a few surprises along the way, perfect for those looking to chill out for a few days, if that’s your thing.