We left a rainy Sydney airport on a nondescript Monday morning in June, and boarded our flight from Terminal 1 with minimum fuss. It was going to be a long while until we got to Holbox Island Mexico. Despite the month of planning and preparation, it didn’t feel like we were embarking on a year long journey that’d see us take in 15 countries and 2 continents.
Arriving at LAX we picked up our connecting flight after a little drama with customs. I’d left my laptop behind in the xray scanner and had to run from the plane (after obtaining permission), 15 mins back through the shops and lounges, then plead my way back into the security area. Luckily it worked out and I was able to retrieve the brand new computer I’d picked up especially for the trip without too much fuss.
Touching down in Cancun, Mexico the heat hit us in the face as soon as the aircraft doors were opened. I remember leaving the terminal and having ten guys all shouting at the same time in Spanish trying to get us into their taxis. It was all a bit overwhelming and confusing, kind of like leaving a nightclub at 6am after one too many. Our intention was to stay one night in Cancun then hot foot out asap up to Holbox (pronunced Holboshhh) Island on the northern coast. We’d heard of a hostel up there called Tribu which was apparently paradise on earth for a backpackers budget.
Getting from Cancun to Holbox was simple enough. We took the fairly comfortable Mayab bus from the Main Terminal to Chiquilla (3hours, $7 US) and from there planned to take the Holbox Express ferry (30 mins $6). However we’d just missed the ferry so jumped in a fishing boat for the same price. He ploughed along so fast we overtook the Holbox Express and were there in no time at all. Same price. No cars are allowed on Holbox but enterprising locals have shipped in a fleet of Golf Carts that act as all forms of transportation on the Island. It was rainy season and many of the roads had flooded, leaving a brown clay like mud for us to wade through on arrival. The golf carts work as taxis, churning up the roads as they wheel spin their way through less than idea conditions.
Holbox is a small island, mostly untouched by the huge boom in tourism experience by other parts of the Yucatan Peninsular, of which it sits atop of. The ramshackle streets have an undeveloped charm. It seems as though everything here is in a state of flux and constantly under construction. Telephone and electricity wires are hastily being erected to keep up with the demands of modern day life. Yet it retains a laid back vibe where there’s always time to stop and chat and life is never taken too seriously.
Tribu Hostel was a few hundred meters walk from the dock and from the outside slightly resembled the Lost Boys tree house in the 1991 fantasy/action film ‘Hook’ staring Robin Williams. Made from locally sourced wood, painted with bright vivid colours and featuring interesting murals, it had bohemian ramshackle vibe. However everything was constructed well and with good design in mind. Our room had cupboards made from driftwood and a colourful mosaic coving most of the bathroom. There were hammocks in the communal area to lounge in and a huge shared kitchen to cook meals. At 6am and 6pm there was yoga on the roof terrace and each evening the bar had a happy hour and some kind of live music.
The beach was around 100 meters from the hostel and while it didn’t have with the softest whitest sand in the world, it was blessed with one of the greatest sunsets I’ve ever seen. We grabbed a few beers from a small shack nearby and settled in to watch the huge orange ball slowly drop into the sea, while massive pelicans used the last of the light to catch their evening dinner by nosediving at breakneck speed into the water below. Just a shame about the incessant mosquitoes eating us alive!
One of the big ticket attractions to Holbox is the visiting whale sharks who arrive from June to September each year to breed. You can hire a tour boat from many of the operators along the main strip and head out for an early morning mission to try and find them. They are truly wonders of the sea and despite their name are not whales at all but the worlds largest fish. Totally harmless to humans, they can grow up to 12 meters long and weigh 15 tons. We’d heard this was the place see them long before we got to the island and were excited at the prospect of swimming alongside these gentle giants. However we got talking to several people who’d already taken the tours and spotted nothing but empty sea. It was a bit disheartening as we didn’t want to spend $100 US on a boat ride around the island to see nothing. We deliberated and said maybe it wasn’t worth it, but one evening got chatting to an American guy who was going the next morning and asked if we’d like to come along. We’d had quite a few beers by then, but said we were in.
Anyway 5am came around too quickly and the alarm went off. Lying in our warm bed we convinced each other we’d be fools to spend $100 to see nothing but a few coconut trees. We rolled over and went back to sleep happy with our decision. Low and behold around lunchtime we were in the kitchen and the American guy comes back full of tales about seeing the biggest group of whale sharks that’s been spotted for months. On top of that there were giant manta rays jumping out the water and he’s got it all on his GoPro. And it looks fantastic. So we made an error, a monumental one. To this day we still haven’t seen a whale shark despite them frequenting Utila, Honduras and the Galapagos. Lesson learnt. If you’re in Holbox get out of bed and take that chance!
There’s a fair amount of mid to upper range tourist accommodation on Holbox and a lot of the restaurants tend to reflect that. However it can be pretty cheap to eat in town if you look in the right places. There’s a load of street food carts that hang around the main square each evening from 6-8 or whenever they run out. Tacos are available all over the place with various toppings and will fill you up for $3 US. We frequented the permanent cart of Taco Queto on more than one occasion as they had the best burritos on the island, stuffed full of delicious gooey cheese. There also Edelyns Pizza near the square where you can get a large pizza loaded with toppings for approx $7 US. For good daily coffee and damn good bread and cakes, try Le Jardin, a French owned place just around the corner from Tribu.
If you’re feeling adventurous head to the port around 4pm where you can buy catch of the day from the returning fishermen. We got two decent sized flatheads for $2, cleaned them on the beach using utensils from the hostel and cooked them back in the kitchen using butter and lemon. Healthy, fresh and delicious costing around $3 US in total for a massive feast. If that sounds a bit like hard work there’s countless places offering ready made cerviche fresh daily and marinated in spicy lime.
We chose Holbox as our first stop so we could wind down and settle into the idea of being away for a year. With it’s relaxed island vibe, long unspoilt beaches and dramatic sunsets this shouldn’t have been a problem. Unfortunately it rained most of the time we were there which is pretty common in June being rainy season. However we’d heard from other travellers it had been bright and sunny the week before so I guess we were a touch unlucky. The big issue we had with Holbox were the unrelenting mosquito’s which never stop biting whatever time of day it is. The locals call it Mosquito Island, and we now know why. If you’re going I’d recommend taking plenty of 50% deet insect repellent and consider slathering on baby oil which is supposed to work wonders. Bring both of these from the mainland or expect to pay island prices. If it had been sunnier with less mozzies and we’d seen the elusive whale sharks then I think Holbox would’ve been a little paradise on earth.
Holbox Trip At a Glance:
Flights – Sydney to Cancun via LAX via United Air- $700
Accommodation in Cancum – Corazon Hostel, cheap and near the Bus Station. $30
Bus from Cancun to Chiquilla – Mayab Line – $7, 3 hours.
Ferry from Chiqulla to Holbox – Holbox Express $6, 30 mins.
Enterprising Fisherman’s Speed Boat as we missed the ferry – $6, 20 mins.
Tribu Hostel, Holbox – $50 per night for a private room w/ bathroom.
Whale Shark Diving – approx $70-$100 – negotiable with many operators in Holbox.