Holbox: Mexico’s Most Stunning Beach You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of
In this post, I’m going to share with you one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets: the island of Holbox! Located off the northern coast of Quintana Roo (the same state in Mexico that’s home to famous destinations like Cancún and Playa del Carmen), Holbox, pronounced “hol-bosh,” is fairly large island with an absolutely breathtaking beach that even most avid travelers and Mexico enthusiasts haven’t yet heard of.
From Cancún, Holbox is about a two-hour bus or shuttle ride away, but it’s well worth the effort to visit. In addition to its unbelievably beautiful beach, Holbox has a little town that’s cozy and welcoming. There are a couple of activities you can do here if you like, but in general, this island is the perfect place to slow down, read a book, and relax on the beach.
At least for now, Holbox seems to attract mostly small groups of French and German travelers, but I suspect that the island is likely to become a favorite among Americans and other tourists in the next five or ten years. There’s already a lot of development taking place here, which made me really question whether the island will remain as beautiful and unspoiled as it is now. At the end of this post, I discuss those thoughts in more depth.
But for now, let’s dive into what makes Holbox such a wonderful and idyllic place to visit in 2019! This is a longer post since I took so many pictures here, so feel free to skip to any of the sections below that pique your interest!
Holbox's World-Class Beach
The main beach on Holbox, which runs all the way along its northern shore, is probably the best beach in Mexico, and quite possibly the best beach in the greater Caribbean. The beauty of it is absolutely unreal; it’s like something out of a dream. What makes a beach unique to me are the combination and gradient of colors in the water, and the shallow water here has some unmistakable greens and turquoises that I don’t think can be found anywhere else in the region, for example in the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles.
Another fascinating thing about the Playa de Holbox is how shallow it is. There are dozens or hundreds of acres of sand right off the shore that are covered in water that only goes up to your ankles. This means you can wade out to sea for multiple minutes and still only have the water come up to your knees.
Because the beach is so shallow, there are also a bunch of expansive sandbars, especially if you head east past the last resort in the Zona Hotelera.
It’s no wonder that with relatively few beachgoers and white, puffy clouds above, the beach at Holbox ends up looking and feeling so atmospheric.
As I mention at the beginning of this post, Holbox isn’t exactly the kind of place where you’ll be booking a bunch of activities. I wholeheartedly recommend leaving noon to 6:00 p.m. each day totally unscheduled to relax on the beach, rest, or sip some beachy cocktails! However, there are at least two guided tours that you might consider doing at some point during your time here: the bioluminescence tour and the “three islands” (tres islas) tour.
Bioluminescent Plankton at Punta Cocos
This was a totally unique natural phenomenon that you really must see if you’ve already made your way to Holbox. While you technically don’t need a tour to see this, I recommend that you book one, and I explain why below.
What is it?
I’m in no way authorized to explain what’s going on here, but simply speaking, there is a large concentration of bioluminescent plankton living in the water surrounding Punta Cocos (you can see it on the open ocean side, but it’s supposed to be better on the lagoon side, located here). If the water is disturbed, for example by your hand or foot, by a swimming fish, or by a big enough wave, these plankton emit a momentary bit of light that collectively look like a bunch of dim sparks in the water.
Do you really need the tour?
The short answer is no, but I recommend it anyways. I didn’t book the tour, and I still got to see them (for free), but the roads on the western side of the island were really muddy, and in many areas were totally flooded. There are also almost no street lights here, so biking or walking from town to Punta Cocos in the dark was kind of a struggle. While safety didn’t appear to be an issue on Holbox, it may not be the wisest decision to walk all the way out to the beach (especially alone).
For these reasons, I’d recommend booking the tour, if only because they can provide a ride from the center of town all the way out to the beach and back. I’m sure the guides would also be able to explain what’s going on scientifically, but if you’re curious and want to read more on your own, you can check out this blog here. I think you should expect to pay about 200 pesos per person, but I’m not completely sure.
Unfortunately, it’s not “Instagrammable.”
I have to admit that one thing that disappointed me a little bit about this experience is that it was totally impossible to capture with a camera or video recorder. I think I just assumed it would be the perfect spot for an amazing photo since many of the booths advertising the bioluminescence tours have pictures of people swimming among brightly lit water, and those Photoshopped signs are simply not what the actual experience is.
In order to see the water light up, you have to disturb it (i.e., splash in it with your hand or foot), and it only remains lit for a fraction of a second. Trying to record this as a photo or video would be ten times harder than trying to capture a field full of lightning bugs. The truth is that it needs to be pretty dark for you to see the dim flashes of light in the water, and since the illumination isn’t sustained, there’s just not enough light to take any meaningful photo.
However, don’t let that stop you from going to see these incredible microscopic organisms! Unless you’re a marine biologist, this is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and you’re definitely going to remember it even if you can’t grab a picture or snap of it.
On a side note, it’s recommended that you do this visit on a night with no moon (because the darker it is, the easier you can see the bioluminescence). I happened to do just that, and another really amazing thing about this outing is that you’ll be able to see the stars in the sky incredibly clearly.
Three Islands (Tres Islas) Tour
In contrast to the bioluminescence, the three islands featured on this boat tour are only accessible with the help of a guide and a captain, so if you want to see the attractions featured below, you’ll have to book this tour. My boat departed around 9:00 a.m. and returned to town at noon, so it’s a great way to start the day and still have the full afternoon to enjoy at the beach.
Like most other tours offered on the island, the three islands tour is advertised in literally hundreds of places around town, so just find a tour booth with someone working and ask for a ticket for the following day. I was told to try and get a price around 300 to 350 pesos per person, but was charged 500 and didn’t bother to try and bargain it down.
First Stop: Punta Mosquito
This is the first stop on the tour, which is basically the northernmost point of Holbox Island. It’s a quick stop where you won’t disembark, but the tour guide will briefly explain how this point got its name and that visitors shouldn’t be walking this far down the beach because it’s a protected wildlife area.
Second Stop: Yalahau
The second stop is a bit more interesting, and it’s actually on the mainland (so it’s not really an island). You’ll get out the boat once it docks at Yalahau, then have a bit of time to explore the nearby “ojo de aqua,” which is small, bubbling spring surrounded by woods. If you want, you can swim here, but everyone who got in looked like they were freezing.
There’s also a little cafe here, which sold various snacks and drinks, including shark and manta ray empanadas. I tried one of each, and both just ended up tasting fishy, so who knows if that’s actually what they had inside!
Third Stop: Isla Pájaros (Bird Island)
The third stop on the tour is the tiny Isla Pájaros. It’s aptly named, because this piece of land is home to an insane number of marine fowl! Since it’s a protected space, you’ll pull up to a dock which is connected by wooden planks to two lookout towers that are offshore. This way, you can still see the birds without disturbing them. Holbox in general is a sanctuary for seabirds, which thrive on the eastern part of the island that isn’t inhabited by humans.
Fourth Stop: Isla de la Pasión (Passion Island)
Last on the list is Isla de la Pasión, another small piece of land that’s much closer to the town of Holbox than Isla Pájaros. There’s not really anything too special about this one, but your tour guides will give you about half an hour to explore this island on foot.
Those are the two tours I recommend at least considering for a trip to Holbox. There were also a number of signs for horseback riding tours, and in the summer months, you can take a tour to see the whale sharks that come to these waters each year. All this activity is probably going to leave you pretty hungry, so read on to learn about the dining options once you get back to town!
I’ll be the first to admit that Holbox’s main attraction is its beach, and the food simply didn’t compare to the culinary experience I had on my recent trip to Oaxaca. With that said, there are still a bunch of interesting places to try in town, and most of the seafood I had here ended up being pretty good. Food prices here seemed to be a bit higher in general than in other places in Mexico, but that’s not too surprising since most ingredients probably have to be be brought to the island via truck and ferry.
The easiest and most touristy option for meals is to eat (and drink) at one of the many bars or restaurants along Holbox’s beach. It’s pretty much what you’d expect: sort of expensive but well-made drinks along with burgers, wings, and standard seafood offerings. I’d say try one or two of these establishments, but don’t forget about all the restaurants near the main square!
My Favorite: El Sabor de las Nubes
My favorite beachfront restaurant was El Sabor. I just had a couple of mojitos followed by a burger here, but I really liked their outdoor seating with a great view of the water as well as overall vibe. Give it a try if you can’t decide on a place!
This is Holbox’s signature dish, which is served by a bunch of different restaurants on the island. I tried it at Edylyn’s Restaurant, which claims to be the original creator of the dish. A glass of white wine went perfectly with this simple yet satisfying pizza!
Places in Town
The other area to look for food besides the beach is the center of town. Holbox is centered around an outdoor performing arts stage, a basketball court, and a park, and the town is small enough that you really can’t miss it. If you don’t see a restaurant you want to try, consider some of the following.
Viva Zapata for a Casual Dinner
This large restaurant with tons of seating seemed to attract a lot of families. I ended up trying a shrimp dish with chaya, a local leafy vegetable that is native to the Yucatán Peninsula. If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward dining experience, this is the place to go.
El Cafecito or Básico for Breakfast
Básico is a chic little restaurant that offers an extensive breakfast menu complete with tons of fresh-squeezed juice options, coffee, and food. I ended up trying a pesto egg toast with egg, which was pretty tasty.
I honestly liked El Cafecito more as a cafe than a place to eat, but they do have a food menu if you want to try it for breakfast. I didn’t really see any other coffee places on the island, so if you want a latte or cappuccino at any point in the day, head over here.
El Chapulim: A bit overpriced, but still good
This restaurant received mixed reviews online, and perhaps that makes sense: they boast not having a fixed menu and only using whatever seafood and ingredients are available fresh that day. The restaurant definitely looks interesting from the outside and will attract the attention of anyone walking by, so I decided to take a risk and try it.
After I was seated, I tried both of their house cocktails: a rum-based mango flavored drink and a mezcal-based one. I liked both, although the mango one was really unique and refreshing. For dinner, they had four different options: shrimp, lobster, fish, or steak. I went with the spicy shrimp and thought it was pretty flavorful. It was served with some fruit that were marinated in a spicy sauce mix that was also very good.
It ended up costing a lot (even by Holbox standards), but if you’re willing to splurge a bit, I’d say give this place a try!
1. Getting Here
The best way to get to Holbox is by ferry or bus. If you’re arriving to Cancún International Airport, you have a couple of options, but most tend to depart in the morning. I used this list of buses and booked a 5:30 p.m. shuttle from downtown Cancún and took it without problem. Note that the shuttles and buses will drop you off near the ferry port in Chiquilá, so you’ll have to take a ferry to get to the island (more on that below). To return from Chiquilá, simply book a return shuttle at one of the many tour or information booths on Holbox, ideally the day or two before you leave. One-way tickets between Cancún and Holbox seemed to be 350 pesos regardless of which company you book with.
On Holbox, they’re going to tell you to take the ferry thirty minutes before your shuttle departs, which only arrives into port a couple of minutes before your bus or van takes off. Because there are a number of companies offering shuttle services, be sure to find the correct one! When asking for help locating your ride, show the ticket that your received when you purchased it; otherwise, you could be directed to the wrong bus. If you want to be extra safe, take the ferry from Holbox to Chiquilá one hour before your ride, that way you won’t be in a rush to find the vehicle you’re looking for.
2. Taking the Ferry
The ferry to and from Holbox is pretty straightforward. You’ll be prompted to pay 150 pesos for a one-way ticket, and the ride lasts about 25 minutes. They depart from both Holbox and Chiquilá every half hour, and run from early in the morning until 9:30 p.m. (I think). This appears to be the only ferry route in the area, so you shouldn’t have to worry about specifying where you’re headed.
3. Taxis & Golf Carts
Once you arrive to Holbox, most things will be within walking distance. If you’re carrying a lot of luggage, or are staying at one of the hotels or guesthouses that’s farther away from port, hire one of the many golf cart taxis cruising around the island! Like on many small islands in the Caribbean, golf carts are the main mode of transportation here, so you’re going to see many more of them than actual cars.
4. Don't Miss the Sunset!
This isn’t much of a hint for how to make your way around Holbox, but be sure to check out the sunset while you’re here! At least in February, the sun set over the ocean in the west, so crowds gathered on the docks each night to watch. It was a great way to end each day, and it’s finally a chance to cool down.
In spite of all its natural beauty, Holbox has an undeniable sense that it is developing and commercializing – fast. Throughout the center of town, there’s a lot of construction, and if you walk just a few blocks, you’re bound to see bulldozers and construction workers diligently and building countless new structures, most of which look like new hotels or luxury condos.
Nowhere is this rapid growth more obvious than on western part of the island, where dozens of tall, white boutique hotels tower over the dense, green vegetation and often-flooded dirt roads below. Despite their thicket roofs and attempts to seem “tropical,” these ostentatious, shabbily-localized McMansions (or condos, or hotels) look wholly out of place, since this part of the island has almost no homes or other businesses.
So many questions swirl in my mind. Who is paying to build these hotels? Are locals being hired to construct them, or were contract workers brought in from other parts of the country who will take their earnings back home once the buildings are complete? Will the hotels hire local residents as receptionists, chefs, and maids, or will more people have to move to the island to fill these positions? What effect will it have on the locals if Holbox becomes a playground for wealthy vacationers and retirees who drive up prices of everything from food to rent?
Holbox has already undergone one transformation, from a fishing village to a small but growing center for tourism. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think that this has totally destroyed the local culture of the island. Residents may now guide boat tours instead of fishing for lobster or shark in order to make a living. And in some ways, economic changes can be beneficial, e.g., environmentally. I’m not sure if this is true, but one person here said that the shift from fishing to tourism has actually been good for the local shark population, which now is a major attraction for visitors in late summer and early fall.
Another obvious question is: what role do travel bloggers play in publicizing lesser-known places such as Holbox? What about the average traveler, who is bound to show off how beautiful the beach is on Facebook or Instagram? Of course, bloggers want to expose our readers to stunning new places and inspire them to visit. But once we publish a post, we can’t control how many people it influences, or whether the people we encourage to visit end up being conscientious visitors that support local businesses and respect the local wildlife.
So what does it all mean? It’s simplistic to say that things like development, growth, and tourism are either good or bad, but it does make me a bit melancholy to think that in 10 years, Isla Holbox may not be the lush, green and blue paradise that it is today. Would these beaches be just as gorgeous if they were crowded with ten times as many people as there are today? What about a hundred times? It’s hard to say.
Even though development on Holbox may result in the western half of the island eventually looking like a miniature version of Cancún, I’m hopeful that as long as the beach is maintained and properly cared for, it will remain a beautiful and breathtaking place for many generations to come. As a visitor to this (or any) small community, the least we can do is aim to support the families that call Holbox home and be mindful of the impact our presence has here.
Holbox was undoubtedly one of my favorite beach destinations in Mexico (the other would probably be the lagoon at Bacalar). If a trip defined by huge tourist crowds, nightclubs, and all-inclusive resorts sounds more like a chore than a vacation, then Holbox should absolutely be your next tropical destination!
For my next post, I’ll be discussing what it was like to go from this sleepy beach town to one of South America’s biggest and most dynamic megacities: Buenos Aires! Keep an eye out for that, and until then, stay warm, friends!
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