Holbox: Mexico’s Enchanting and Remote Tropical Island

Just a 25-minute boat ride off the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a sliver of an island called Holbox (pronounced ol-bosh). In the Mayan language it means “black hole.”

For the increasing number of visitors (as well as a small number of pioneering—mostly part-time expats and full-time business owners) who make their way here it’s a tropical getaway that’s quite different than spots like Cancún and Playa del Carmen on the nearby Riviera Maya.

Holbox is funky, bohemian, and laidback. Life is all about the white-sand beach and being in or on the water, which, by the way, is a clear light turquoise. You can spend your day eating fish tacos and ceviche in a thatched-roof restaurant watching the world go by.

Development has increased in Holbox in recent years. The completion of a road on the mainland makes access to Chiquilá, where you catch the ferry to the island, much easier to get to. But you won’t find any condo towers, gated communities, or large resorts. Construction is on a smaller scale here, so it doesn’t feel too commercialized. The island is 26 miles long but only a small portion is developed.

And it’s still a bit rough around the edges as far as services are concerned. There is limited medical care, for example. There are few ATMs and many restaurants, hotels, and shops take dollars or pesos only—so be sure to bring enough cash for your stay. On a positive note, the high-speed internet is reliable and you can get good cell phone service.

There aren’t paved roads on the island and hardly any cars either. Most people get around by bike, golf cart (the favored mode of transportation—you can rent one for $80 for 24 hours), or four-wheel ATV. The inhabited part of the island is tight knit, so you can get to most places on foot too.

Head to the beach and you’ll find beach bars and restaurants with tables set up under palapas (an open sided palm front roof structure) set in the sand. The water is warm year-round and the white sand is soft. The perfect place to spend a lazy day. Stay hydrated with a chelada, a beer cocktail of lime juice, ice, and a lager beer, with salt on the rim that is popular throughout Mexico but seems perfectly suited to the beach.

At night the main town square comes alive with music spilling out of the many restaurants (featuring cuisine from Mexican to Italian and beyond) lining its sides. There are street food vendors and fun street performers. It’s a great place to just stroll, perhaps check out an arts and crafts shop, or enjoy a margarita from an outdoor table at one of the many eateries.

During May to September, Holbox does receive a rush of visitors. What’s the occasion? It’s one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks. The world’s largest fish (they get up to 40 feet in length) congregate in the waters around Holbox and feed on plankton—don’t worry, they are harmless to snorkelers and divers.

If you’ve missed whale shark season, you might be able to visit during flamingo season, which is April to October.

Holbox, although popular with expats living on the Riviera Maya for weekend visits, isn’t home to many foreigners. It might not be ideal for long-term living, but it’s certainly worth a visit.

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