Refugio Animal Holbox, Isla Holbox, Mexico: Rescued dogs get support from tourists

The last thing I expected to do on a tropical getaway was to leash up a couple of hard-luck street dogs and take them for a walk.

But leading Pollito and Negrita about the palm-lined paths of Mexican tourist haven Isla Holbox was one of those moments that, as a traveller, I was searching for.

While humanity's love of man's best friend rarely extends to dogs brawling and scrapping around the backstreets of developing countries, Refugio Animal Holbox has fused a bond between tourists and the often-shunned creatures in its care.

Beginning in 2009 with an injured raccoon who, through its continued residency, now assumes it's a dog, the shelter sees a steady stream of holidaymakers dropping in to play with the pooches, or take them for a walk.

According to shelter volunteers, many tourists end up adopting the dogs after the experience, taking them back to the US, Canada and European countries such as Denmark.

"You are used to going to a touristic place and everything is perfect because everything is prepared for you to enjoy, but here you touch the reality," says Antonela Fric, a volunteer at the shelter.

Isla Holbox is a sickle-shaped island a short ferry ride north of the port town Chiquila, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the touristy Yucatan Peninsula.

Less built up than Isla Mujeres, which sits off the tourist mecca of Cancun, Isla Holbox commands an increasing level of popularity, both with short-term holidaymakers and seasoned travellers from the Americas and further abroad.

With the usual trappings of white sand beaches and warm Caribbean water, Isla Holbox has the added natural drawcards of whale sharks and flamingo colonies. Not to mention stunning, unimpeded ocean sunsets.

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Resorts are being erected along the length of the island, and those that are already there cater brilliantly for those who wish to lay poolside or sit by the bar.

Compared to its neighbouring restaurants and villas, Refugio Animal Holbox isn't much to look at: a small compound with pens surrounding a house, and the expected sounds and smells that come with accommodating animals.

What it does well is inject a sense of community spirit into an otherwise indulgent getaway.

Though not completely altruistic – you get to play with animals, after all – visitors who walk the dogs ease the workload of staff and volunteers. Donations to help with the upkeep of the refuge are also accepted.

"We give them a leash and a plastic bag, just in case, and they can walk all the time they want. It's a nice experience," Fric says.

And, of course, the latent benefit is that you gain a bit of perspective.

Many of the animals are rescued from communities on the mainland. Some have been maimed by cars or have been significantly injured in other ways. Residents of Isla Holbox who need to travel are also able to bring their pets in for a few days at a time.

The shelter doesn't only care for domesticated animals: Its premiere resident being the aforementioned 10-year-old raccoon.

"His name is Benancio," Fric says. "The shelter started to work to function in 2008 and it was because with the arrival of Benancio. He thinks he's a dog, he acts like one. He plays with the dogs and all the day, hanging around asking for food. He's like the law here, everybody respects him."

Five more things to do in Isla Holbox

–  Several companies run day tours from May to September for tourists to swim with whale sharks. These colossal creatures, the largest fish in the world, thankfully feed on a diet of mostly plankton.

–  Flamingos can usually be found at Punta Mosquito, a 45-minute walk northwest of the township, through shallow Caribbean waters to the crook of the island. There are also boat tours to Isla Pajaros (Bird Island) to view a variety of bird life.

– Pizza with lobster topping is a thing on Isla Holbox and, unsurprisingly, it's delicious. The town is littered with restaurants advertising the specialty. Pizzeria Carioca's and Edelyn are among the most popular places.

– While it looks like any other dozy island bar during the day, the Hot Corner hosts a party that spills well onto the street at night, featuring a steady rotation of high energy bands and DJs.

- With very few cars on the island, golf buggies are the main mode of transport. But a much cheaper, more flexible and more tranquil way to explore Isla Holbox is to hire a bicycle. Don't worry, there are no hills, though you may have to dodge a fair few potholes.

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