A plaster, paint-chipped whale shark hovers over the docks and glances below, greeting toothless as you disembark onto Isla Holbox (pronounced “ole-bosh”). It is a close—if not true-to-size—scale of the creature that’s brought divers to the island for quite a while now, along with electricity in the 1980’s. However, even with a name that means blackhole in Mayan, Isla Holbox can no longer hide from the larger tourism industry.
Situated at the Northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, accessible from Cancun by a two-hour drive, sits the town of Chiquila where one can grab a 20-minute ferry to the Mexican hamlet of Holbox. Having adapted to tourists who seek authenticity over Riviera Maya’s all-inclusive resort coastline, the local townspeople are—first and foremost—the owners of a fishing village. At the docks, there are more dinghies than taxis golf carts. But for pesos, a driver will putter to your accommodation, bouncing sandy unpaved streets through the town square. You’ll pass palapas—a dangling hammock tucked under shade for a mid-day siesta—and walls painted with the colorful murals of Mayan ancestral dreams.
The driver gives a nod to neighbors and friends along the way; everyone knows everyone in Holbox.
The driver takes a sharp turn toward an ocean breeze where the main drag runs parallel just between the sea and a stretch of boutique resorts. Most accommodations are eco-certified bungalows built from materials cleared from that very plot of land; thatched roofs of dried palm leaves, lacquered mahogany and conchs for lamp shades. Taken to your room by its hospitable keeper, you’ll likely just drop off your bags and cool off before heading back into town for a cerveza and, if you plan correctly and grab a room with a mini-fridge or kitchenette, swing by a bodega to stock up on essentials.
Heading out to the town square, you’ll be overwhelmed at the number of restaurants, cantinas and taco trucks of Spanish, Italian, and even Japanese cuisine. Holbox is home to a few renown chefs with 4-5 star joints. There’s even a yearly Holbox Gastronomic Festival.
Holbox is a fishing village and everything you order is caught locally that day. A foodie can’t complain, but they might have to be patient. If you’re interested in Chef Erik Winckelmann’s El Chapulim, be prompt to stand at the menuless, unassuming entrance. Once inside, you’re met with a dinner choice of four dish specials. Served up until they’re 86’ed, it’s common for doors to close prematurely until tomorrow’s catch.
In fact, once in Holbox you soon realize: It takes a slower rhythm, un poquito Espanol, and a respect for their sustainable way of life.
Our Three Tours
In an attempt to do it right, with the hours between spent falling into routine with the locals, we booked three official tours, plus one day renting a golf cart.
Yalahua Lagoon and Isla Pájaros
Our first tour, we spent at Yalahau Lagoon, the name given to the small island and the shallow cenote argued to be a natural spring. When we first arrived, only locals were taking a dip. The water was cold and as I braced myself to jump I heard a countdown “tres, dos, uno”, followed by laughter. As the cenote became shoulder-to-shoulder packed, we ate at the only cafe on the tiny island, serving fresh grilled fish along with refreshing coconut water and it’s flesh with lime and salt. From there we visited Isla Pájaros, or Bird Island, also off Yalahau Lagoon. From the walkway and two observation towers, you can spot species such as flamingos, herons, osprey, and ibis.
Yum Balam Nature Reserve
On our second tour, we took a paddle through the mangroves of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve. Not five minutes into our paddle we witnessed an osprey soaring over with a freshly caught catfish still flopping in his talons. Floating quietly by an island, we could hear the squawks of flamingos. The guide told us there was a hidden oasis tucked behind the mangroves where the pink birds loved to hide. Although he spoke less English, we learned more from this guide than any other. The exchange of broken dialogue and hand gestures was tiring but very rewarding.
A Whale Shark Tour
Saving the grand finale tour until the last day, we boarded a runabout alongside a family from Mexico City, to set off and find what industry can’t bottle and sell: The whale shark. We traveled north into the Gulf and kept our eyes peeled for a breach in the waves, fooled countless times by dolphins, mating turtles (getting busy means too busy to swim below), and even whitecaps themselves. But no whale sharks.
On one hand, I am disappointed. On the other—I respect why they wish to remain elusive.
Chatting with the family from Mexico City, their son was attuned to strides taken to secure Holbox from unwelcomed builders. Rumors are that they “found a way in”, a phrase which speaks volumes of the type of loophole sneakiness used around red-tape laws and preventative measures activists—seeking to protect the untouched mangrove forests—put in place.
As a community, Holbox faces its own civil disputes on whether to allow the undeveloped lands to fall to the waste side and, like most untapped paradises that have gone before, the motive is greed. Condo’s aside, even shops in town reflect the changing attitude: Trinkets and chotskies of flamingos on mugs and hipster designerwear of Frida Kahlo or Che Guevara. Unauthentic and factory-produced, these cheaper items sell. There are shops that still offer handmade folk art and local goods—embroidered dresses, leather handbags, barro negro (black clay) pottery and Huichol yarn paintings—but some tourists are hard-pressed to pay their worth when the plastic mold of a whale shark is an attainable bargain.
In Isla Holbox, the whale shark isn’t only a mascot; it appears to embody their way of life. The whale shark never asked to be bombarded with curious tourists. It simply did as it always did, paying no attention to the divers who came fascinated, year after year in larger numbers, looking for that one-of-a-kind, first-hand experience. But today, only with some adept maneuvering can it sustain a livelihood against an industry eyeing to make a quick peso.
If you wish to visit the lovely Isla Holbox, please be a responsible eco-tourist and use this itinerary as a guide. I’ll give a breakdown and details on where to stay, what to eat, and how to help Holbox thrive just the way it is.