Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is jam-packed with tourist destinations. The bottom right hand corner of this enormous country attracts thousands of visitors, drawn by the white sand beaches, turquoise waters and the proximity of a wealth of Mayan archaeological treasures.
The sad thing about many of the best sites in this area is that they are firmly on the standard tourist route and get very busy. The not-so-cultural hotspot of Cancún also lies dangerously close to some of the most impressive attractions, meaning that parts of the peninsula are overrun with coach loads of over-sized day trippers from the resort’s mega hotels.
The good news is that Mexico is a big place, so there are plenty of ways to avoid the throng. One place where you’ll certainly be able to do this is on the relaxed tropical getaway of Holbox (pronounced ‘Holbosch’) island.
The first thing to note about Holbox is that the island has few concrete roads and cars are prohibited. The sandy tracks which traverse the island -- connecting the port with the town and the beaches -- are most frequently navigated either on foot or by the little golf buggy taxis which constitute the island’s main method of transport.
Cars are prohibited on Holbox: little golf buggy taxis constitute the island’s main method of transport
This little detail probably gives you a bit of a flavour as to what the place is all about. Holbox is a relaxed and low-key place. The main town is small and though it does contain a reasonable number of restaurants, bars, hotels and hostels, you will not feel spoilt for choice on these fronts.
If you’re looking for world-class luxury or a hedonistic nightlife, this probably isn’t the place for you. However, those who have a sense of adventure and appreciate amazing beaches, will love the place, as it is in these areas that Holbox really excels.
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In parts of Holbox you can walk along the beach for half an hour or more without seeing another soul
The island has a vaguely Cuban-esque cigar shape and benefits from large stretches of totally uninterrupted, undeveloped beach front. In parts of Holbox you can walk along the beach for half an hour or more without seeing another soul. In addition to these sandy stretches, there are a number of lagoons, little alcoves, inlets, bays and mangroves which are all waiting to be explored.
The island is surrounded by a large sandbar and has a host of other small islets located just of its shore. The water is shallow and very warm, making it easy to access all the sandy features which occasionally emerge from the sea surface.
Some of these little islands are much bigger than others. One of the largest is Bird Island which, as its name suggests, hosts a large variety of avian life hiding among its deserted wooden structures. And, if you’re lucky, you may even see some of the flamingos which call the island home.
Activities in Holbox
Independent exploration of the island’s geographical features is probably the best way to spend your time on Holbox, but more structured activities are also available. An increasingly popular pursuit, and one which has gradually brought more tourists to the island, is swimming with whale sharks. Various operators in the main town offer this, but only during the months of June to September when most sharks are in the area.
An increasingly popular pursuit in Holbox is swimming with the island's whale sharks
You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from some of the hostels, and a couple of establishments also offering kite surf classes and rental (Holbox is usually advertised as a place to learn to kite surfing, rather than as a particularly great place for those who already practice the sport).
For the most part, diving and snorkelling aren’t particularly rewarding pastimes here, due to the shallow waters and limited visibility during much of the year. Enthusiasts would probably do better to head further south to more established diving destinations like Playa de Carmen or Riviera Maya.
Holbox is a great place to experience the beautiful beaches of Mexico’s Yucután peninsular, without having to deal with masses of tourists. Though it has a couple of upmarket restaurants and accommodation spots, the island is better suited to backpackers and adventure seekers, rather than those who need their creature comforts.
The best way to get to Holbox is by taking the 45-minute ferry ride from the small fishing town of Chiquila. Buses and shared taxis to Chiquila run from Cancún. There is a tiny national airport on the island, but this is served only by five-seater planes and flights are quite expensive.