A tiny magical island wants to keep it that way, writes Annabel Langbein.
About an hour into our trip from Cancun to the dog-eared port town of Chiquila, we all needed a bathroom stop. The road ran in a long straight line through the jungle, passing shabby villages and shacks selling cold coconuts and Coca-Cola. Our driver threw a look of dismay and veered off the highway.
We came to a small scruffy township, and stopped outside a small hospital. Our driver turned to us and pointing into the hospital announced "toilet OK here". So there we were, heading down the corridor of the local hospital. There wasn't a soul in sight and no loo paper nor soap to be found. The place reeked of disinfectant but nothing looked particularly clean. I made a mental note not to get sick.
As a tourist in Mexico (any Third World country really), you often just bubble around on the surface in a cosseted world of cocktails and swanky restaurants, seldom getting under the surface into the daily life of the people who live here. In moments like this, the raw poverty that exists for most people becomes a stark reality.
If you have visited the Yucatan Peninsula, you may recall the high-rise party playgrounds of Cancun and Playa del Carmen and the string of vast all-inclusive resorts that runs south along the Riviera Maya all the way down to trendy Tulum at the southern end of the peninsula's Caribbean coast.
Most people head down the coast when they hit Cancun, but if you want to escape the tourist droves, hang out on a gorgeous beach, see amazing wildlife, and enjoy a laidback scene with some great food, then head north. Here, magical Isla Holbox awaits.
The slender 40km-long island sits off the Yucutan Peninsula's steamy north coast where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean. It's more of a sand bar than an island, and is part of a vast ecological preserve — Mexico's largest — called Yum Balam (Lord Jaguar). A white coral-sand beach runs the entire length of its northern edge. To the south are lush mangroves and pristine freshwater lagoons. More than three-quarters of the island remains virgin beach, jungle and mangroves, separated by a narrow river from the inhabited part of the island. The majority of the local population (estimated at 2000) are Mayans, whose descendants fled here after the Mayan rebellions at the end of the 19th century, and descendants of the pirates who once hid themselves here.
Getting to Holbox entails a two-hour drive from Cancun, followed by a quick ferry ride. After our diversions for bathroom breaks, and a search for an ATM (the one at the airport didn't work and we had been advised the island's cash machines often don't have any money in them), it was pitch black by the time we finally arrived in Chiquil. After paying 140 peso each (aboutNZ$10) for our tickets at the little kiosk on the wharf, we joined a handful of backpackers waiting to make the half-hour crossing.
It was Sunday and after 10pm by the time we arrived on the island, but the town was thronging with people walking, shopping and drinking in little bars.
The developed area of Holbox is tiny, contained within a small grid of unpaved sandy lanes. Everything is close – only 5km or so of the island is inhabited. With the exception of a few rubbish trucks and delivery vehicles, everyone gets round in beach buggies and on pushbikes. There's no high-rise and no global brands, just little boutiques, and lots of bars and restaurants. Wi-Fi is patchy, there are no jet-skis, no water-bananas, no speedboats. Live music ends at midnight.
People say that Holbox is what Isla Mujeres, off the Cancun coast, was like 15 years ago and Tulum maybe 30 years ago. Mass tourism hasn't arrived here yet and hopefully it never will. Plans for a major development on the western side of the island have recently been quashed, and the island is vetoing the construction of new properties, such as hotels, golf courses or airports, as well as taking an environmental stand by banning throwaway plastics. All the buildings are painted in bright colours and covered with huge murals, which give the town the feel of one giant street art exhibition.
In the morning we biked a couple of streets over to the small fresh market for our breakfast. It's always a good sign when you see a line up of locals waiting, and we weren't disappointed - not only was our breakfast incredibly cheap (three tacos for about a dollar), it was also delicious. The market is also a great place to buy fresh juices made with exotic fruits and vegetables like chaya, a type of Mayan spinach. Several small stalls sell fruit and vegetables, and there's a tortilleria and other food shops.
But most visitors come to Holbox for the wildlife. Monster whale sharks migrate here in summer, from mid-May through to mid-September to feed in the island's plankton-rich waters. Giant otters can sometimes be spotted ambling up remote beaches, and everywhere there are birds - sea hawks, pelicans, frigate birds, ibises. In the summer the flamingos come with the whales.
We took a six-hour boat tour one day, joining a handful of young travellers from around the globe and heading out to sea in a small covered motorised boat. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, about 10km offshore we stopped to fish.
The captain set to baiting hooks, passing out handlines. In less than half an hour we had filled a big bucket with our catch: grouper, sea bass, mojara, Chac Chi and snapper. Then we were off again.
Our next stop was to an offshore reef for some snorkelling. Hundreds of pelicans were sitting in the water. As soon as we arrived they all flapped over and congregated around our boat. It became apparent why the birds were there as our captain busied himself with gutting and filleting our catch. He threw the waste overboard and the pelicans gobbled it down in a frenzy.
The prospect of getting into the water with all these pelicans was slightly terrifying but things got a lot worse once I actually put on my snorkel and looked down into the water. There had been a storm a few days earlier and so there was very little visibility, but through the gloom, there were stingrays everywhere I looked. It was like being on a crowded city street trying to get out of their way. Ohhh, and let's not forget the moray eels roving around. Above the water a squadron of pelicans and below a fever of sting rays. It's the first time I've ever snorkelled with my eyes shut – I went around the boat as fast as I could and then back on board again.
Whatever shortfall there may have been in the snorkelling experience was more than made up for by our lunch spot right down the end of the island in the Yum Balam preserve. Our captain moored the boat on a white sandy beach in one of the freshwater lagoons. We explored the mangroves and the beaches, spotting lots of beautiful birds and finding wonderful shells, while our captain quickly turned our catch into a delicious ceviche.
The fish was finely diced then soaked briefly in lime juice. In went some fresh chopped tomato, red onion, coriander, chili and a little salt. Garnished with avocado and served up with corn chips as scoopers, it was one of the best ceviches I have eaten.
Holbox is one of those places where you feel time slip away. There's not a lot to do except relax and hang out. You can learn to kite surf, go kayaking, take a Mexican cooking class, take a bird-watching tour or do a mezcal tasting. There are lots of different boat excursions and you can visit adjacent islands. I was told about a night tour right up to the northern tip of the island to snorkel in the phosporesence of the phytoplankton.
Life here is about the beach and the sea. There's a sense of freedom and a rhythm of nature that remains wild and untamed. It takes a while to unwind but once you do you can't imagine why you would ever leave.
ISLA HOLBOX: DINING, DRINKING AND SLEEPING
Dining options on Holbox run the gambit of beachside cafes, food trucks, classic restaurants and some high-end gourmet dining. There are lots of little shacks offering fish and tacos, Argentine steakhouses, sushi joints and cocktail bars. The island's signature dish is a lobster pizza. No matter where you eat on Holbox the seafood is super fresh. Eat local and it's cheap; dine at the top end and you're paying New York prices.
Raices Beach Club and Marina is a popular lunch stop where we enjoyed some delicious ceviche and grilled fish.
, an upmarket tapas-style restaurant follows the theme of trendy Tulum restaurants with a clothing boutique you can browse before or after you dine. Here the food is expensive but good – think octopus black empanadas with chipotle dressing, fish carpaccio with basil and garlic chicharron sauce, chaya croquettes with beetroot dressing and vegetable pakoras.
You can get a tent site on the beach for under $20 a night or pay more than US$500 a night for a fancy hotel room. Most of the hotels in Holbox are on the beachfront and follow the Mexican palapa style of thatched roofs and adobe walls. Many have bars and restaurants and you don't need to be a guest to enjoy a drink or a meal.
There are more than 200 Airbnb properties available to rent with prices from $20 up to $3000 a night.
On the beach, Zomay Bar is one of the best places to see the sunset and is a popular hang out with the locals. Around dusk here you'll see people practising acro yoga, but unlike Tulum there aren't too many people wafting around in starched white linen. There's a much more casual scene here. It's easy to while away a few hours and spend a pile (the cocktails aren't cheap but the mescal margaritas are excellent).
Another great place to see the sunset is the Alma roof top pool bar in the hotel Villas Tiburon. You can lounge in a hammock in the pool with your cocktail and watch the sun go down. Bar Arena , the Spirit hotel , and Casa Las Tortugas ' rustic bar are rooftop hotspots with dusk breezes and views. The Notorious Cocktail is a well-patronised sunset bar with live music each night.
Hammocks rule in Holbox and you can find them everywhere. Head to one of the beach clubs to get a beach chair or a lounger and enjoy a day watching the tide come and go, the birds and the light.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Houston from Auckland. One-way Economy class fares start from $899 per person (including taxes). The Houston hub accesses 25 cities around Mexico, and Cancun is a quick hop an hour and a half south. airnewzealand.co.nz