Isla Holbox: Mexico's tropical island paradise that's a well-guarded secret

If there's one way to enforce relaxation during a holiday, it's to break your ankle two weeks before departure. Add to that a three-year-old travelling companion (whose legs also only seem to work intermittently) and her weary mother, and life on the road is reduced to a slower pace from sheer necessity.

Fortunately, my family couldn't have chosen a more appropriate place to put our sore feet up and enjoy the good life, despacito, than Isla Holbox, a tiny barrier island located off the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Our arrival into Cancun Airport alongside hordes of aggressive spring-breakers desperate to get to their all-inclusive resorts and trashy nightclubs doesn't bode well, however. But after a two-hour drive north and a chugging 30-minute ferry trip from the scruffy port of Chiquila, we arrive on a different planet where time has not only been wound back, but discarded altogether.

Pirates, it's said, discovered Holbox (pronounced "Ol-bosh", meaning "black hole" in the Mayan language) in the 17th century; since then, its myriad treasures, buried or natural, have been kept a well-guarded secret by its population of 2000 fisherfolk, with the island somehow, miraculously, escaping the mass tourism of the Caribbean Coast.

Holbox is a tropical paradise torn straight from the pages of a storybook: white sand, azure waters, swaying coconut palms.

There are no paved roads, no cars (transport is by golf buggies, bicycle or on foot), no high-rises and no global brands, just a strip of boutique properties built in traditional palapa style with adobe walls, thatched roofing and a barefoot attitude. Apart from a smattering of Europeans, most visitors are Mexican, and American accents are few and far between.

Electricity only arrived on Holbox in 1987; and even today, the infrastructure is charmingly inadequate, with ancient plumbing, dodgy Wi-Fi and frequent power outages making the handful of ATMs unreliable at best. For those who want to stay connected during their vacation, perhaps look elsewhere – Holbox is all about switching off, with island time definitely in play. The reward, however, is more subtle sensory overload: the waft of freshly caught fish barbecuing over an open fire; the discordant strains of a mariachi band emanating from the town square; the silken caress of crushed coral sand between the toes.

And the colours – oh, the colours, so dazzling, so vibrant! Fifty shades of turquoise, the mesmerising opal waters of the Gulf of Mexico where white yachts bob in gin-clear shallows; vivid greens, hot pinks and canary yellow shopfronts, adorned with naive street art masterpieces; and the flash of pinky-orange as a distant flamboyance of flamingos (yes, that really is the collective noun!) takes to the skies.

Then, as an ode to the great Mexican tradition of the siesta, hail to the unofficial symbol of Isla Holbox – the hammock. Rainbow-hued hammocks are strung on every conceivable hook – between coconut palms, decorating beach bars, even dangling over a sandbar, strung between wooden poles adorned with brightly-coloured letters that spell the name of the island.

Advertisement

Inside our gorgeous two-bedroom villa at CasaSandra – one of the few upmarket hotels on the island – lavishly crocheted hammocks provide a daytime alternative for snoozing; and we soon fall into the habit of escaping the afternoon heat with a book, swaying ourselves into blissful slumber. Attempts at exercise seem perfunctory: a morning yoga class, a dip in the pool, a stroll on the beach, my granddaughter dashing ahead to collect shells and dig for that promised buccaneer's treasure.

A three-hour golf cart rental takes us to the extremities of the island, dodging muddy potholes with squeals of laughter before reaching deserted beaches and the pristine Yum Balam Nature Reserve, home to endangered species including jaguar, tapir, nesting Hawksbill turtles and flamingos.

Unfortunately, my injury prevents me walking the kilometre or so along a sandbar for a closer view of the island's most famous pink residents – but by all accounts, these rare and beautiful birds are a magical vision, well worth the effort for the able-bodied.

As night falls and the clouds of voracious mosquitoes that descend at dusk dissipate, we join local families in the zocalo for a little souvenir shopping, street food snacks, mariachi entertainment and a cheeky beverage at one of the mezcal bars lining the square.

To counter our days of sloth, we do have one day excursion planned – a boat trip to swim with whale sharks. Between May and September, the plankton-rich waters off Isla Holbox traditionally host the largest congregation of these gentle giants on the planet; this year, however, the sneaky fellas have decided to base themselves further afield, off Isla Mujeres in the Caribbean.

Three hours into a buck-jumping boat ride in search of the whale sharks – with one unhappy, windswept toddler, her sun-fried mother and a nauseous, crippled grandmother desperate to pee – there is still no sign of the elusive giants, despite the combined search efforts of up to 70 boats, in constant radio contact with updates. With even rougher open water ahead, I decide to pull the plug on our quest – a disappointing but prudent decision, as it turns out, with the whale sharks refusing to make an appearance at all that day.

With the benefit of CasaSandra's private boat charter, we instead turn the epic failure into a more passive marine safari, happily spotting dolphins and bobbing turtles before mooring at a rustic beach restaurant. While the gracious hostess whips up a bowl of delectable ceviche from fish plucked straight from the ocean, little Ellie and I play in the shallows, laughing at scurrying hermit crabs. Meanwhile, my daughter is ferried out to a kelp garden to snorkel amongst swooping stingrays and curious turtles – not quite as jaw-dropping as swimming with whale sharks, but a satisfying consolation prize nevertheless.

Back at CasaSandra – stylishly decorated with the rather provocative personal artworks of its Cuban owner – we wander across the road to our favourite afternoon hang, Raices Beach Club – an open-air bar featuring live salsa music and ubiquitous reggae beats under a tatty Jamaican flag.

We, of course, make quite the entrance – the moonboot-wearing grandma, the sunburnt blonde and the cute toddler who is immediately greeted with cries of "Hola, Ellie!" before being whisked away by local kids to bounce on a trampoline. Meanwhile, my daughter and I make a beeline for some hanging cane chairs, where we while away the afternoon over margaritas and fish tacos, soaking up the casual family atmosphere and infectious smiles of the bar staff.

A storm is brewing over the Gulf of Mexico; shards of light pierce the ominous grey as thunder rumbles in the distance. But the sun makes a determined re-entrance, peeking out from the fury before dipping over the horizon in a ball of fire, painting the ocean with a flamingo-hued palette. The boys from the bar dash to the water's edge, jump onto a gnarled driftwood log and raise conch shells to lips, saluting the sunset with a mournful wail. The crowd that has gathered to watch this evening ritual erupt into spontaneous applause, an effusive tribute to Mother Nature, who has blessed this secret island with such rich bounty.

"Another day in paradise," my multi-talented waiter grins as he returns to work behind the bar. "Another margarita?"

SEASONAL ATTRACTIONS

Peak season on Isla Holbox coincides with the annual visit of the region's star attractions, the whale sharks and flamingos. But note that this is also the wet season; with that comes high temperatures, humidity, frequent storms and hordes of mosquitoes, which seem impervious to every repellent on the market – run for cover when dusk falls.

Also note that wildlife can be unpredictable – there's no telling where the whale sharks will be based, often necessitating a long and gruelling boat trip to find them. Consider carefully before taking children and non-swimmers on these trips – conditions in open waters are often rough, and motion sickness is not uncommon.

With only two people allowed to approach the whale sharks at a time, and a queue of up to 70 boats waiting their turn, be prepared for the worst with seasickness medication. Having said that, those fortunate enough to finally swim eye to eye with these docile creatures are usually blown away by the experience, making any prior discomfort well worth it.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/mexico

holboxisland.com

FLY

The quickest route from east coast Australia to Cancun is via Los Angeles; for ease of connections, consider flying with United Airlines, who have regular flights from LAX to Cancun. See united.com. Isla Holbox is a two-hour drive north of Cancun, followed by a half-hour ferry trip. Shuttles are available for about $US150 per van.

STAY

A Superior Standard room at CasaSandra from May to September costs $US262 per night, with Beach Front rooms $US300. A luxury Whale Shark and Fishing Experience package including private air transfers from Cancun, two nights' accommodation, a whale shark and fishing excursion, wellness treatments and a private beach dinner costs $US3052. See casasandra.com

Julie Miller was a guest of CasaSandra.

Comments