One of the best spots in the Yucatan is Isla Holbox, a small island off of the northeastern edge of the peninsula. The island came to my attention at least ten years ago when the owners of the former Caribe Blu hotel and dive shop starting taking guests there to snorkel with whale sharks during the summer. It has always been on our list of places to visit and we finally did so last week.

The island is what most people dream about when they hear the word “tropical island”: white sand, swaying palm trees, fresh seafood, cool bars on the water, and a slow pace of life. The slow pace of life is headlined by the lack of cars and paved roads (virtually none and none). You could spend a week here without wearing shoes and most people do. A few years ago the whale shark tours attracted a young mix of Mexican, Italian, Spanish and American entrepreneurs who have set up shop on the island and the island is better for it. You want anitpasto, lobster ravioli, spanish tortas or french pastry? You’ll find it here.

The northern shores of the island are kissed by the Gulf of Mexico waters, which are shallow, loaded with seashells – and lots of fish. The water clarity is a nice balance between the darker green gulf farther to the west and the blue Caribbean lying thirty or so miles to the east. You can walk for long distances along the shore, wading in water that is rarely deeper than your knees.

While tourism has definitely brought more tourists and part-time residents to the island, a significant number of men still fish for a living. One evening, two boats arrived with octopus. Most of the local boats are smaller 25′ lanchas or slightly bigger boats that are set up for hand line fishing, laying out two-meter nets or diving – hardly deep net trawlers. In other words, sustainable fishing.

Boat excursions for snorkeling and bird watching are popular during the winter when there are no whale sharks. Large numbers of flamingoes, plovers, gulls, egrets, ibis, several varieties of pelicans and águila pescadores (fish eagles) surround the island with its abundance of food. One morning, we went out with Tanchi, who arrived on time, had a nice, clean boat and described and pointed out birds as we made our way to Isla Pasion, where the birds congregate. Contact him by calling 984-106-6317 or email:

A fish eagle bringing nest materials to its lofty perch.

One restaurant owner from Bilbao, Spain said he lives on Holbox for the access to spearfishing, rhapsodizing about the large numbers and large sizes of the ocean life less than 10 kilometers from the island. Depending on the wind and the weather, the visibility can approach Cozumel’s clarity of 30 meters, but often, “you don’t see the big hammerhead shark until he is two meters away,”  he said.

However, the relaxed atmosphere, the thick stands of palm trees and the silky sand are best for spending your days experiencing il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). Take a walk and look for shells, listen to a musician playing on the beach (for himself – not us) or find a hammock with your favorite book. Holbox means “black hole in Maya, but it should mean “chill”. We loved our time on the island and hated to leave, but after all, we did leave one island only to return to another.

Getting there is easy, but not necessarily quick. The bus from Cancun takes around 3.5 hours  to get to Chaquila, and could accurately be described as a “chicken bus”, since it stops at every town, or for anyone who flags it down. Of course, private cars are available for significantly more than the bus. We were on the mainland with our car and drove there in about two hours and ten minutes from Playa del Carmen. The passenger ferries from Chaquila cost $40 pesos and take 30 minutes. Do yourself a favor and take a golf cart taxi to your hotel from the ferry pier. $30 – $40 pesos depending on the mood of your caddy.

Our next post is about the wonderful hotel where we stayed, Hotel La Palapa, and their terrific restaurant, Casa Nostra. The third story will be about the different eating and drinking spots on the island. So, stay tuned!

Have you visited Isla Holbox? What were your best experiences?