Just two hours north but a world away from the bright lights of Cancun – sleepy Isla Holbox is the bohemian beach hideaway tipped as the Tulum of twenty years ago. A sweep of silver sand and virgin jungle strung out across the top of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, you’ll find sandy car-free streets, authentic eats and an irresistible barefoot island lifestyle. If you needed any further justification, here are 10 reasons to slip off your shoes and go now – while it’s still relatively under the radar…
1. Street Art Spotting
You might not expect to find a thriving street art scene on a hideaway Mexican island but from 2012, artists have been invited to share their artwork as part of the International Public Art Festival. As a result, Holbox’s colourful homes are covered in these beautiful murals, depicting everything from fantastical sea creatures to dreamt-up beasts. Follow the @ipaf_festival on Instagram to see some of the artists at work and more of their mural festivals in Cape Town, Tepoztlan and Monterrey.
2. Get off the grid
Historically a hideout for pirates, today Holbox is still a place those looking to get away from it all. The island only got electricity in 1987 and you get the feeling that it could still easily still manage without. The streets are unpaved and the island maintains a sleepy, low rise kind of vibe – still happily devoid of the all-inclusive resorts and scene that have swept up other areas of the Yucatan. There’s not a lot to do, but that’s kind of the point.
3. Boutique Beach Abodes
The island may be free of mega-resorts for now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some seriously cool places to stay. We were lucky enough to stay at Casa Impala, a super-chic Moroccan inspired apartment just five minutes from the main square. With whitewashed walls dotted with dream catchers, a curated selection of coffee table books and best of all, roof terrace complete with hammock for star-gazing, it could not have been more perfect. Marco the owner also owns Casa Sol y Mar, which has similarly sensational reviews and a beachfront location. If you’re looking for a hotel rather than an Airbnb, Casa Las Tortugas and Hotel Mawimbi are among the top picks.
4. Authentic Eats
From local food trucks forking shredded pork into fresh-pressed tacos to the more high-end eateries have set up shop here – Holbox has a seriously strong food game. Start with an epic breakfast of chilaquiles (spicy Mexican eggs) at local spot Colibri – a pretty pink cafe peppered with portraits of hand-painted hummingbirds. For a laid-back beachfront eats, Casa Sandra is another great spot while for lunch, try tacos al fresco with a passion fruit mojito on one of the swings at Las Hamacas. For dinner there’s a myriad of options, from upscale Rosa Mexicano’s creative take on traditional Mexican food (we stumbled in here on the first night and went back more than a few times) to food truck et Voila, a no-frills VW van in the main square with plastic chairs, very loud football and an unbeatable atmosphere.
5. Golf carts
One of the first things you’ll need to do when you get to Isla Holbox is rent a golf cart. There are no cars on the island, so golf carts and bikes whizz down the sandy streets, pastel houses passing in a blur. I defy you not to find it the most fun ever. While the town centre is small enough to easily walk around, for heading up to the east end of the beach and for general ease, it’s great to have a golf cart on hand if you can -, particularly in the hotter months. We went in September so biking longer distances was a sweaty affair!
6. Whale sharks and Wildlife
With over three-quarters of the island entirely uninhabited – Holbox is a haven for wildlife, with wild rainforest, maze-like mangroves and swathes of untouched shoreline. Most visitors come to swim with the island’s whale sharks, which from June to September gather in dappled herds offshore. It’s one of the most reliable places in the world to see them but if like us, you do manage to miss out – you can still head out on a boat trip to explore the islands uninhabited side. Barter with one of the fishermen down at the pier and they’ll take you east, past a seemingly endless jungle encroaching on untrodden beaches. Here you can stop for a snorkel and some freshly caught ceviche on a private sandbank and can even catch a glimpse of the island’s elusive flamingos.
Holbox is renowned for many things, but perhaps none more so than it’s sunsets. Most visitors to the island will tell you as much, and although I’m not sure why they are something special. The best place to soak up one of these famous sunsets? In the hammocks strung up between the Holbox sign – where you can sit with a cold beer in hand while the sun sets the horizon alight.
Oh, the beaches. Blindingly white sand, white marbled water graduating to deep blue – all the ingredients of a quintessential island paradise. Drive to the furthest point east possible and you can ditch the golf cart and wade out to an offshore sandbank where we sat for a few hours among the flocks of pelicans and a few flamingoes. Better still, with miles of deserted coastline, you’re unlikely to have to share your spot with another soul.
Dangerous but delicious, for a small island Holbox has a great selection of bars and Mezcaleria’s. Aside from the beach bars which all serve a serious selection of margaritas, Viva Zapata Grill is a must for mezcal cocktails and live music. Most nights though, we found ourselves camped out on the rooftop at Casa Las Tortugas, snacking on fresh sushi washed down with something strong. This is a great spot to catch Isla Holbox’s famous sunsets while indulging in a few expertly made cocktails.
10. Cheap flights to Cancun
Depending on what time of year you go – you can usually bag some pretty cheap flights to Cancun. We used our favourite SecretFlying.com to get flights from London to Cancun for around $300 dollars each return. Aeromexico also flies incredibly cheaply but you do need to stop in Mexico City for a few hours – which could also be a great add-on to the trip if you built in enough time. Once you’re on the island, it is relatively inexpensive in comparison to other areas of the Yucatan like Cancun and particularly Tulum.
- If you’re driving from Tulum I’d recommend stopping at the Mayan ruins at Coba. Indulge your inner Indiana Jones and scramble to the top of Nohoch Mul, the highest Pyramid in the Yucatan.
- If you’re here to swim with whale sharks, make sure you visit from June to September.
- Bring cash. There is 1 credit card machine on the island (which doesn’t take Amex) and most places won’t take credit card. There are also huge queues as it only gets filled up 1 day a week.
- If the harbour master tells you it’s too rough to go out, it is too rough to go out. We ignored the warnings and went in search of whale sharks paying a local fisherman to go out – which was still amazing but did entail 2 hours of roller coaster waves and my other half being stung in the face by a jellyfish during an ill-advised snorkel. Lesson learnt.
- Make sure you take enough mosquito repellent as the island’s lagoons can make them pretty bad when it rains.
- If you’re walking through the shallows out to a sandbank – take a stick to prod in front of you for any lurking stingrays.
- We flew Thomson from London to Cancun. We rented a car at Cancun airport as we were driving first to Tulum and then to Holbox, but you can just as easily get a bus from Cancun direct to Chiquila which takes 2 hours. We ditched the car in one of the many local parking spots in Chiquila (you have to pay daily for these but they are inexpensive and the car is secure), and finally took the 15-minute ferry across to Isla Holbox.