Where is it and why?
Well, it’s an absolutely beautiful Mexican island with almost no cars whatsoever in the Caribbean sea, so the “why” you should go to Holbox (pronounced: Hol-bosch) is a pretty easy one. But let’s start at the beginning.
Right after Christmas, Enrique and I were spending some time with his family – brothers, sisters, parents, nephews, nieces, in Cancun for four days. We stayed right in the middle of the hotel strip at a nice hotel with a great view. I had a wonderful time with his family and the ocean was great. But to be perfect honest: I really dislike Cancun itself in almost every way. It’s not my “type” of place to begin with, which is fine – everyone has their style – but I was surprised at exactly how much I hated most things about the place. I thought for sure I’d find something redeeming, right? I mean, it’s not as if I am immune to the powers of a nice hotel and clean beaches. It turns out that Cancun is actually even worse than I imagined and had exactly two redeeming qualities: I was with excellent company (Enrique’s family are wonderful people), and the showers had plenty of hot water and great water pressure.
The food was awful and expensive pretty much everywhere, and this is a tragedy. It is a tragedy to be in Mexico and eat awful food. It is a tragedy to ask for an “agua de sabor” and be told there are no flavored waters – not even jamaica – but they can give me a limonada (sparkling water with lime juice and sugar) for roughly 4 euros. I was anticipating the “expensive” part, but was not prepared for eating the same type of “Mexican” food that I could find in the Netherlands. The service in restaurants was also awful, which is another not-typical thing – I’m used to having friendly, quick, delightful service in Mexico (hey, tip culture, that’s what happens). There was no fresh juice on offer anywhere (another unheard-in-Mexico thing for me), only bottled. I’ll make another tragic statement: the best meal quality and service-wise I had the entire time was at a mall. A mall restaurant where some guy was walking around with giant sombreros offering to take pictures with people. The kind of kitchy Mexican restaurant you would except to find in any American mall. Except we were in Mexico.
I detested how tall the hotels were, and how they blocked out the sun after 3pm when I was on the beach. The landscape was ruined, the beaches were tiny and receding. To put it simply, other than hearing Mexican-accented english, I would have no idea that Cancun is even in Mexico. It could be Florida, California, Texas, or any other random place in the world.
Anyway, this is just a bit of backstory to how we ended up in Holbox. I knew we would be in Cancun until the 30th of December, and I knew we wanted to spend New Years Eve on a beach somewhere, and that somewhere should be within a 5-6 hour bus ride of Cancun. I also knew that we were not the only two people in Mexico to come up with the idea of “be on a beach for New Years Eve,” so we started planning this out WAY ahead of time. After a ton of research on places all over Yucatán and Quintana Roo, I found Holbox. It seemed to be the anti-Cancun. A tiny island with about 1,500 residents. Popular activities seemed to include swimming with whale sharks, looking at birds, doing nothing, and chilling out. The Lonely Planet description pretty much nailed what I was looking for. Enrique had never been to Holbox and didn’t really know anything about it. So, that’s the story of why we chose Holbox, and we chose very, very wisely. Go to Holbox if you want the anti-Cancun atmosphere.
I would personally avoid the Island during hurricane season (if the storms get very bad, even most of the residents will evacuate) and I’d also avoid it during rainy reason. Rainy season will bring a lot more heat, way more mosquitoes, and very muddy “roads.”
How we got there:
Isla Holbox is about 3.5 – 5.5 hours from downtown Cancun, depending on how lucky you are with traffic and bus/ferry schedules. Here’s how we got there:
1. From the hotel strip in Cancun, we took a bus to the downtown Cancun bus station. This was about 40 minutes (more or less, depending on traffic). The bus ride was easy and there’s no reason to take a super expensive taxi.
2. Once at the station, we bought bus tickets to Chiquila – the port city that will get you to Holbox. We had to stand on line for a solid 20 minutes to get tickets, so alllllwwwwaaaaaaaays leave yourself time when traveling in Mexico. Fortunately our bus was ready to leave about 5 minutes after we got tickets.
3. Our bus ride from Cancun to Chiquila was uneventful. Getting there took over 4 hours. The bus stopped several times when we passed through the smaller towns, and a couple times people came on board to sell food (which I welcomed – turns out I was the kind of pregnant woman who needed to eat every 3 hours). There are no bathrooms on the buses and no bathroom breaks along the way. Use the bathroom at the bus station (cost: $5 MXN) before you leave.
4. We eventually arrived at the end of the line and got off in Chiquila. I quickly found a bathroom at one of the restaurants, and then we walked over to the ferries. This is impossible to miss, there’s only one real direction to go, and most people are going the same way, so just follow the crowd. It’s a roughly 5 minute walk, max.
5. We bought a ticket for the ferry (roughly $100 MXN one-way, if I’m remembering correctly). We went with the ferries that had both inside and outside seating, and plenty of space for luggage. There are also small boats that fisherman operate that you can chose to hire. I don’t think there’s really any real “posh” option, but our boat was just fine.
6. We said goodbye to the mainland and took a 30-40 minute ride over the lagoon to Isla Holbox. I didn’t feel seasick at all – these are calm waters, and the boats are rather fast. It doesn’t feel like sailing. I’ve been seasick before on sailboats, and I was a month into pregnancy at the time, so I feel pretty safe saying that unless you are extremely sensitive, you don’t have to worry about sea-sickness.
7. Upon arriving on the island around dusk, we were greeted with palm trees and sand and sun and everything else you would expect an island to have. And absolutely no cars or paved roads. I was in heaven. There were bicycles and golf-cart style “taxis” for transportation. We jumped in a golf cart taxi and got to our hostel (with all our stuff) for about $30 MXN. The taxi drivers seem to know all the hotels/hostels, so there’s no need to worry about that. We traveled down the dirt roads and I immediately felt like I was back in Mexico.
8. To return we basically did the same thing in reverse. There is no need to purchase tickets in advance for either the buses or the ferries.
TIPS: When you leave Holbox to go back to the mainland, there are two different ferry companies leaving from the port. There’s no visible difference in quality between the two (they are both totally fine and offer inside and outside seating), just be sure you get on the correct ferry. They leave once an hour up from about 5am to 8pm or so – you can pick up a schedule when you arrive. You can also buy your bus ticket from Chiquila – Cancun from the port in Holbox, which is what we did.
When you get back to the mainland in Chiquila, make sure you get on the right bus! There might be between 2-4 different buses from different companies, and if you bought your ticket from “Company X” you can’t get on the bus from “Company Y.” I saw this happen to a couple travelers and felt pretty bad for them. You can buy a new ticket for the right bus once you’re there, but who wants to pay double? For the tourists I saw, the problem was that the bus they should have gotten on had left about 3 minutes before hand.
Remember the buses have no bathrooms. A little advance planning can go a long way. Don’t worry about the buses stopping to pick up local passengers as well, that’s all totally legit. They are not luxury buslines that only run from Ciquila to Cancun, but the buses are totally fine and comfortable, the roads are good, and the scenery is beautiful. However, in the smaller town you will be going over topes (speedbumps), and that’s just… Mexico. Strangely after 4 days in the non-Mexican-hotel-strip-Cancun area, I was delighted to roll over my first tope.
How we got around:
We strolled around on our own two feet a lot, we rented bicycles, and we took the golf cart taxis when we needed to get to and from the ferry port with our bags. The island is really, really small (approximately 41.84 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide, according to wikipedia) and only a fraction of it is inhibited. The rest is totally wild. If you stay for more than 3 days you’ll have it all pretty much figured out, and can easily do it all by bicycle or foot.
Where we stayed in Holbox:
We spent the first four days at Villas El Encanto Holbox Hostel, and we stayed in the private double room on the ground floor. We shared the bathroom with one other room, which was a family-style room of four people. The plus side about the hostel: The owners and employees were incredibly friendly, fun, and kind. Our room was spacious and cleaned daily, the double bed was comfortable, the A/C worked, and the internet connection was pretty decent in our room (oddly enough, I had to work while there, so that was important for me). It was right off the zócalo and about a 3-minute walk to the beach. The minus side of the hostel: our room was next to a very popular and busy (and absolutely wonderful and delicious) restaurant, and we could hear every single word, shout, etc., from the staff and customers. It was as if they were in the room with us. What can you do about it? Just deal with it, keep the window shut and the A/C on. I kinda hate using A/C and would have preferred to keep the window open, but that wasn’t possible. The other disadvantage is that depending on who is staying in the other room, the bathroom can get a bit scary. Again, hostel life. We were a bit unlucky with inconsiderate neighbors the first two nights who apparently didn’t know how to not put the toilet paper in the toilet (hello, clogging!) and who didn’t really understand the bathroom wasn’t private (hello, mess!). The second two nights our neighbors were much more considerate and everything was fine. One more minus, though I didn’t realize this at first: This hostel isn’t on the beach. Sure, it’s only a 3-minute walk. But trust me, being on the beach is best. Anyway, I would still recommend it, we had a great time there, had lovely service, rented their bikes, used the kitchen, and enjoyed the hot showers.
Immediately upon arriving in Holbox we knew we wanted to spend more than the four nights I had booked. We wandered around the island looking for other accommodation – and while most things in our budget were booked, we found a brilliant hostel/hotel combo right on the beach called Casa Maya. This place offered tents for people to camp, dorm rooms to share, or private bungalows. We went for the private bungalow at $800 MXN per night. On the beach. With access to a huge kitchen. WE LOVED IT. Very friendly, laid-back staff who cleaned the room every day and offered us coconuts to drink. We could leave the window open at night and just use the ceiling fan on low (though each room does have air conditioning), and couldn’t hear any distracting noise. The shower was great. There was a picnic table, hammocks, kayaks, body boards, etc., to use. Casa Maya was simple and perfect and suited us perfectly. Oddly enough, even though they told me the internet only worked well in the large common area, it worked perfectly in our room as well – which had a small table and chairs next to the window. Talk about the perfect work environment!
Holbox has accommodation of all types, including super swanky. The true budget accommodation is a tent on the beach, which I’m sure I would have loved when I was younger and in the mood to party more at night (pregnancy does decrease one’s ability to stay up around a campfire, drinking and dancing and drugging). But if that’s your style, that is there. Dorm-room hostels are in abundance as well, and like dorm-room hostels everywhere, they are what they are. What we did – getting a private room in a hostel-ish type place – is more our style of travel these days. We don’t like paying a lot for accommodation, especially if we’re going to be outside all the time. Plus, we still enjoy being able to meet travelers and socialize – we just want to be able to have privacy at the end of the day.
I have to say, if I was going to go on a “splurge” vacation and pay a bunch of money to stay somewhere swanky, I’d do it in Holbox. So many of the nicer hotels are absolutely stunning, and they have very strict rules about being eco-friendly and not building up anything too tall (anti-Cancun!!). I also never felt a snobby/exclusive attitude from any of the nicer hotels – they don’t try to “own” the beach around them in an obnoxious way.
Impressions of Holbox, how we spent our time, and what we ate:
We stayed in Holbox for 8 nights, which was perfect for us. We didn’t partake in any whale-shark swimming, or boat trips, or any excursions, so 8 days was absolutely enough time (I would have been ok with one day less). The industry in Holbox is fishing and tourism, and that’s that. Tourism is really starting to take off – I heard a few times that the island had never been so full, so booked up in advance. What I loved about Holbox is that it was a place full of Mexican tourists as well as Americans/Europeans/Aussies/etc. The people who live and work there are friendly and laid back. It’s a very safe place, with kids and dogs running around all the time – we didn’t even have locks for our bikes. And the food is excellent, so let’s start there.
After 4 days in not-real-Mexico (Cancun), my mouth was watering at the menus outside the restaurants and real street food options. We may have gone a bit overboard at our first dinner, but I drank down my agua de horchata like I had never had one before. Corn tortillas, meat, tons of grilled fish, guacamole, real spicy salsas, queso fundido with chorizo… we ordered pretty much everything at the one place we could find that would accept credit cards (more on that later). We were in a state of bliss – Enrique even more so than me, after polishing off a few beers and some proper mezcal. The next day we spoke with a few locals to find out a bit more about the food. Here’s what we were told:
The fish that comes from the island is whitefish, lobster, octopus, and … maybe the calamari, I can’t remember. The shrimp gets shipped in from Campeche. There is a tortilla factory, so getting fresh, corn tortillas is no problem. Harder to find is local vegetables and fruit. You’ll figure out what fruit is in season pretty quickly, but you may not always see it available in the very small market that is off the zócalo. Coconuts are everywhere (really, all over the ground and the trees). You can buy fish from the fisherman directly, and obviously if you do that, you’ll get much, much cheaper prices. However, you might need to invest a bit of time to befriend a fisherman, figure out when they come in, etc. And of course you’d need a place to cook. Absolutely splurge on a lobster dinner – the lobster is amazing. Splurge on the loud restaurant next to the Villas de Encanto hostel – it was worth it. Service is friendly everywhere. And train yourself to a few eating “rules” of Holbox: breakfast is maybe until 11am, and you’ll have eggs of all types as well as other Mexican-style breakfasts (meaning tacos). Lunch is up until 2pm, maaaybe 2.30pm at the latest (a bit different from the rest of Mexico), and you should get a bigger portion of food. One of my favorite lunches was grilled octopus with rice and beans (and of course, a basket of warm corn tortillas and fresh salsas). Dinner is after 7pm and up until about 10pm (it ends earlier here than other parts of Mexico), and many restaurants seemed to start dinner even earlier and be full of blonde children around 6pm.
There are street food and comida corrida type options around the zócalo, and there is also an amazing, cheap taqueria (that took us until our 6th day to find) with more Mexico City and northern Mexico-style taco offerings. Avoid eating anything that isn’t Mexican food, really. Mexican food is what Mexicans do best (as opposed to say, pizza). Make sure you ask your server for tortillas any time you want – those should be given to you unlimited, and always warm. If you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, you’ll have options, but they will be more limited in Holbox versus other parts of Mexico.
Beyond eating fish to our hearts content, we also spent a good deal of time cycling around absolutely beautiful white, sandy beaches. We watched the sunset over the ocean on New Years Eve on a beach where there were maybe three or four other people off in the distance. I read books, hung out in the hammock. We swam and sunbathed. We had to make really hard decisions like “should I eat a mango or a melon?” “should I buy two tamales or three?” We talked to people and made friends. I must say, if you are a newly pregnant woman, there are few better places in the world to be than Holbox. I had the huge advantage that I had very, very little nausea and could eat just about anything I wanted, and wasn’t affected by the boat ride or bus ride (other pregnant women might find those parts to be torture). I felt amazing to be in the sun all day with the little tiny collection of cells starting to form into a person inside my uterus. I was 100% relaxed, well-rested (even more so when we re-located to the beach), and calm. It was the first New Years Eve where I didn’t have an alcoholic drink in my hand. After the clock struck midnight on the 31st, the Mexicans danced salsa in heels and ironed shirts, the non-Mexicans formed a conga line immediately (to which Enrique wondered “is it something in the genes that makes white people do that?”), the kids broke a huge pinata and screamed and yelled, and Enrique and I kissed and danced and welcomed yet another new year, together.
Some final general tips:
Mosquitoes are part of life on an island in the Caribbean Sea. So are ants, cockroaches, and animals in general. Do what you need to do to be okay with all that (one day the cleaning woman killed a roach for me – I had no shame, and she was a pro).
Holbox is not really a budget-friendly vacation spot. It doesn’t have to be expensive – if you can manage to make some of your own food and spend your time just enjoying the beach, swimming, cycling, etc., there really isn’t even so much to spend money on. But accommodation – even at hostels – isn’t cheap, and neither are restaurants. However, you can feel good that these really are small, local businesses and many of them take huge efforts to be kind to the environment. Remember as an island in the middle of a hurricane zone, they need to get a lot of things shipped in, and they aren’t that close to a major city. Chilquila is a small town, nothing more. If you’re after a very budget-friendly beach style holiday in Mexico, go toward the Oaxaca beaches on the pacific ocean.
There is one ATM on the island and it runs out of money pretty regularly. Come to the island with cash (we didn’t, and wished we had – we were super lucky we found a place to eat the first night!). Very few places will accept credit cards (though I was able to pay with a card at both hostels).
Remember if you’re going out to eat, try to make sure you’re sitting down somewhere by 9pm, 9:30pm at the latest. During busy times, the restaurants fill up quite a bit. While some stay open late, many don’t.
Make sure you find that taqueria. Just ask around. It’s only open at night.
Be kind to the environment. Limit your waste, absolutely do not litter, and don’t put your toilet paper in the toilet (it goes in the trash can which will be close by – and that trash can is emptied every day).