I pulled my bag off one of the golf carts that serve as taxis on Isla Holbox and lugged it through the door of the thatch-roofed bungalow we’d rented for a week. Although the sun had recently set and, in the darkness, I couldn’t see the white-sand beach just outside, I could hear waves tumbling onto the sand.
The day’s tension dissolved. That morning my family and I had waked to a chilly Pacific Northwest drizzle. Now we were on a small Mexican island, stashing our luggage and ready to head out for a dinner of fresh seafood, caught by local fishermen only hours earlier.
The island of Holbox (pronounced “hole-bosh,” Mayan for “black hole”), off Mexico’s northern Yucatán Peninsula, is a largely undeveloped sliver of white-sand beaches and emerald water, just over a mile wide and about seven miles long (plus miles of waterway-laced sand banks).
About 2,000 people live on the island, most in one little town of about a dozen sandy, potholed streets with a central square, or zocalo, surrounded by cafes and small restaurants. Beyond the little town are swaths of deserted sand, shared only with palm trees, dune grass and pelicans.
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Holbox is about a 2.5-hour drive and 30-minute ferry ride from Cancún — the resort town with the nearest main airport — and a world away.
Holbox is the anti-Cancún. There are no tour groups and no high-rise hotels. Instead, there are about three dozen small hotels and guesthouses for every budget, from about $5 for a campsite to more than $500 for the most luxurious lodging.
We stayed at Villa Los Mapeches which, under new ownership, was recently renamed Hotel Zomay. A comfortable two-bedroom bungalow with a large terrace for hammocks was perfect for myself, my husband and our 12-year-old daughter (and cost $160 a night).
Instead of Cancún’s American-style chain restaurants, such as Outback Steakhouse and Bubba Gumps Seafood, Holbox has only local eateries — from taquerias, with snacks such as tacos and empanadas, to fancier places serving homemade pasta with lobster.
The tourists we met on Holbox were an international bunch — from other parts of Mexico, South America and Europe, as well as from the United States. Most come to Holbox for the peace and quiet, although during whale-shark season, from June to September, hordes of tourists migrate from mainland Mexico resorts to swim with the huge filter-feeders found just off the island’s coast.
But we were there at a quieter time, and in our week on Holbox we slowed down and enjoyed a more peaceful way of life. Instead of the alarm clock jarring me awake, I woke to birds’ singing and the sound of the surf.
Most mornings, my husband and I wandered down a sandy street (Holbox roads aren’t paved) to Panaderia Ky Waa, the bakery in the village’s main square, for a leisurely breakfast of cafe con leche and pastries while our daughter slept in or read in the hammock.
When we’d finished our meal and tired of people-watching, we’d walk a few blocks to our favorite fruit and vegetable store, La Concepcion, and pick up plastic bags of fresh orange juice and fruit — papaya, tiny sweet bananas and mango — for snacking throughout the day.
After a morning stroll on the beach, I’d collapse on a hammock with a book. Sometimes I read, but I often let my book fall aside to watch pelicans divebomb into the sea for fish or bob in the placid jade-colored water.
People could bob in the water, too, since it’s fairly shallow and safer than the Caribbean coast (Holbox faces the Gulf of Mexico), with fewer waves and no dangerous undertow.
We occasionally pulled ourselves away from the hammocks to borrow kayaks and paddle around the bay (many hotels offer complimentary kayaks and other water toys to their guests).
The calm waters are also excellent for windsurfing and kiteboarding — Holbox is a good place to learn those sports. And for those who want to keep both feet firmly on the land, many hotels have bicycles available.
Late one afternoon, after the sun’s glare subsided, we hiked along the beach for an hour to the mangroves on the eastern end of the island, watching the surf for dolphins. We didn’t see any, though there were many pelicans and other birds. But we were on Holbox at the wrong time of year for pink flamingos, which live on the island from April to October.
Holbox is an excellent place for wildlife. The entire island is part of the Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protected Area, a wildlife preserve. Manta rays, whale sharks, sea turtles and more than a hundred species of birds make appearances at various times during the year. (And, during the rainy season, from June through October, a less popular member of the animal kingdom is abundant — mosquitoes.)
Holbox is also known for its fishing. Many islanders earn their living as fishermen, catching tarpon, snapper, barracuda and lobster. On the main beach in the early morning and late afternoon, small boats are moored just offshore, and their ropes and anchors make strolling on the beach a bit like a game of hopscotch.
If you like seafood, you can find the day’s catch on your plate at night at the many small restaurants in town or on the beach. It costs about $5 to $15 for a fresh fish dinner with rice and fresh vegetables.
Too soon it was our last day on Holbox. After one last swim, we caught the golf cart/ferry/taxi to the Cancún airport. We arrived back home to overcast skies and Northwest drizzle. Unpacking my bag, I smiled as I found a souvenir: a little pile of white sand from Holbox.
Sue Sanders is a Portland freelance writer.