Escape the touristy beaches of East Mexico: flee to Isla Holbox

The East Coast of Mexico is well known for its long stretched white sand beaches, azul blue sea, ceviches, and of course wild nightlife. This has to do with the hundreds of Americans that celebrate Spring Break in Cancún or Playa del Carmen.

Not looking for another week full of screaming, drunk, sun burned tourists but looking for a nice beach and beautiful nature?
Isla Holbox is your answer.

Isla Holbox is situated 50 kilometers north-east of Cancún – a popular and cheap airport when traveling to Mexico. However, since it is part of the Yam-Balam Biosphere Reserve the road from Cancún to Isla Holbox covers about 165 kilometers. The island is separated from land by only 10 kilometers of shallow lagoon.

Isla Holbox is about 1,5 kilometers wide and the mangroves that are part of the island make it in total 42 kilometers in length. You will probably not go to walk that marathon, since the part that is inhabited is about 5 kilometers long, so a morning walking tour can cover the whole island.

Cancún is a good transportation hub. From the central ADO bus terminal you can catch busses to about every large city in Mexico.

Buses to Chiquila, the port from where the boat leaves to Isla Holbox, leave at least 4 times until lunch time.
Prices and travel time depend of the type and class of bus. The cheaper buses – about 70 pesos (about $4) – take a detour and stop in every tiny village they cross. Making commuting time 2,5-3 hours. The faster buses – about 120-150 pesos (about $6,5-$8) travel the distance in 1,5-2 hours.

In the harbor of Chiquila boats leave every 30 minutes. There are 2 operators: 9 Hermanos and Holbox Express. Tickets for the 45 minute boat trip cost 140 pesos ($7,75), no differences between the companies. If you are traveling in a group, you will have the luxury to arrange a private boat, so you can take off immediately. The prices on a small fishermans boat are the same as the ferry, as long as you speak a little Spanish and the group contains of at least 2 people.

Once on the island you can easily walk to your hotel or hostel, since distances are small. However, if you can’t handle walking in the heat with a backpack on your back, you can take one of the golf cart taxis (they will charge you about 30 pesos – $1,20).

Once you took out your book and settled yourself on one of the beautiful beaches, you will probably don’t want to leave.

However, in case you want to continue your trip:
Take the boat of 12:00 which will set you off in the harbor of Chiquila at about 12:30-12:45. (You can risk taking the boat of 12:30, however, that’s very tight in terms of catching your bus.)
There’s an “express” bus going to Cancún and Cancún Airport that leaves about 13:00.
Half an hour later the regular (and cheaper) bus to Cancún will leave.

The bus stop is easy to find, it is the one you got off when you arrived in the harbor. Exit the harbor and walk right, you will find a lady selling tickets sitting on one of the benches.

The island is uncomplicated and quiet. Apart from a couple of golf carts and a few cars you won’t find any motorized vehicles.

You can rent a golf cart to explore the island, however, it is just as easy and nice on a bike. Bicycle rentals can be found on about every corner and cost about 30 pesos per hour, 100 pesos for half a day ($5,50).

Cycle to the west coast, with nice beaches and a jungle kind of vibe until you will hit the water and will have to turn around. Continue cycling and head eastwards, where you will first cycle along the beautiful white sand beach with endless blue water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Make a pitstop at the Isla Holbox sign with the hammocks in the sea for a jealous making holiday picture.

Continue cycling East to enter the Yum-Balam Reserve area. A long stretched area full of mangroves and shallow lagoons. Park your bike at the gate and walk as far as you like over the sandbanks and enjoy the stunning views. Head back and cycle to Raices Beach Club to get a well deserved cold bottle of Sol beer and fresh lobster.

Since about 85% of the island consists of mangroves and lagoons, the best way to explore the area is by kayak. There are several tourist offices and hostels that rent out kayaks and offer kayak tours.
I would suggest you taking a tour, since kayaking from the beach to the mangroves is already 4 kilometers – which you would have to kayak against the current either back or forth – and the best part is really inside the natural reserve.

We booked a trip at the Tribu Hostel and really enjoyed the flamingos, other birds, and duckdiving and hiding in our kayak as we had to pass the narrow streams to reach our destination. Apparantly crocodiles and crabs really like this area, unfortunately, we didn’t see any around.

You can find a long stretched beach on the north side. If you enter the beach at the Tribu hostel and walk to the left, you will find a small bay with a lot of cover by trees. A perfect spot to hang out for a day, with some beach bars nearby. Also a great spot to watch the sunset.

At the west part of the island, you will find Punta Cocos beach. A little remote, and quite a walk (about 2 kilometers, better take a bike or a golf cart to get there), but very quiet.
At night this is a good spot to watch the bioluminescence: the noctiluca scintillans (microorganisms in the water) will glow and give a blue light as you move the water while walking in it. It is especially visible here (in summer), since it is far away from the lights of town.

At the east side you will find the mangrove area. At the edge of this area you have beautiful beaches with barely any visitors. Walk into the water for 300 meters and find the sandbanks for some sunbathing in the middle of the sea. Bring a camera, it is like you walk on water.

Snorkling with whale sharks
If there is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life, it is without a doubt snorkling with whale sharks. Unbelievable how tiny and humble you can feel while swimming above them. Some where 14 meters long! I took this trip from Isla Mujeres, but Isla Holbox is also a good place from where you can take the whale snorkeling trips. The best time to see them is from mid-June till September. Trips are quite expensive (from $100) but it is definitely worth it!

There are quite some hotels and hostels on the island, comparing to the amount of houses and inhabitants.

On a budget? The Golden Paradise Hostel and Tribu Hostel are good picks. Both equipped with a kitchen. Dorms about $10 and double rooms from $30.

There are some nice hotels near the beach as well. We liked the vibe and design of the Hotel Villas Flamingo (not in our budget, but beautiful rooms from $180). If you can’t afford to stay there, just drink some cocktails on the beach in front of their restaurant.

Isla Holbox offers a lot of cozy, simple restaurants with either empanadas or seafood on the menu. Be prepared: start looking around for a good restaurant early in the evening, because from 20:00 they will surely but steadily start to clean up and store up their tables and chairs.

We loved the seafood at Raices Beachclub and Marina, during our one week trip this was definitely the best spot. No wonder it is full of locals. A plate is plenty for 2 persons and full of fish, shrimps and lobster.

If you are looking for a budget option, walk to the main square in the center of “town”. You will find plenty of food carts which sell tortillas, marquesitas, empanadas, churros or hamburgers from 15 pesos ($1).


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