I had first read about Isla Holbox, Mexico in a travel magazine that listed the island as ‘this year’s paradise‘. One Google search later and I was convinced: I have to find a way to add Holbox to our itinerary. Wes and I were travelling in Mexico for a total of 6 months and, since we were flying out of Cancun, I thought the island would be a great little treat before heading back to Canada. Funny enough, after reading that article, I kept hearing about Holbox over and over again. It was either from a backpacker in our hostel dorm or a local tour guide or through people’s photos on Instagram. After enjoying a week of basking in the sunshine, swimming in the shallow teal green waters and living the ultimate beach bum life, I can now see why Isla Holbox is rumoured to be the next Tulum. I’m just not sure if that’s such a good thing after all…
ISLA HOLBOX, MEXICO
Pronounced ‘hole-bosh’, this long and narrow island lies north of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo. The world Holbox actually means ‘black hole’ in Maya which is the native tongue to this region of Mexico. For now, the main industry on the island is fishing but you can tell that the secret of Holbox has been revealed and the number of tourists coming to see what all the hype is about will only grow over the coming years.
In several ways, the island still has that idyllic sense of paradise that was probably enjoyed in places like Tulum and even Playa del Carmen once upon a time. Instead of pavement, you’ll find dirt roads and the only cars around are golf carts. Few things will be open early in the morning in this sleepy paradise and business hours are reduced to whatever schedule suits the shop owner. There’s a growing expat community so English is somewhat understood (though this is a great place to work on you Spanish!) but the charm of a small Mexican town can be seen everywhere.
For the ladies reading this, Holbox is where the only makeup you need is a layer of sunscreen and your footwear options ought to be limited to either sandals or bare feet. The island is very carefree and no one is going to notice if you’re wearing the same shorts and bathing suit all week. Isla Holbox is where you come to escape the crowds and commercialism of Cancun and enjoy the simple life in a unique part of Mexico.
HOW TO GET TO ISLA HOLBOX
The best of hidden gems are often the hardest to get to and Holbox is no exception. Best reached from Cancun, you’re bound to exhaust all forms of transport before getting to your room. First you’ll need to get to the town of Chiquila, Quintana Roo and from there you can board a ferry that will take you straight to the island. For up to date times and prices, you can search bus routes on the ADO website (a site that has a mind of its own from my experience). Services will run more frequently during peak season and most buses are second class, making frequent stops depending on local needs. If there is no route available from the city you’re in, consider making your way to Cancun first where ADO has several daily routes to Chiquila.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR LUGGAGE if you’re travelling on any of these buses to/from Chiquila. We were warned ahead of time by our hostel that several incidences of theft and attempted-theft had been reported on these popular bus routes that are frequented by both travellers and locals. In our case, the bus was so full that several people were standing in the middle aisle. We were seated close to a group of backpackers who were also staying at our hostel when one of them starting yelling in Spanish. He had seen a standing passenger rummage through his friend’s bag in the overhead compartment and called him out on it and didn’t give up until the man got off the bus.
If you’re a napper (like me), keep your belongings close to you and avoid using the overhead storage – or just stay awake and alert! In our 6 months of travel throughout Mexico, this was the only safety ‘incident’ we witnessed/experienced and it happened when we were leaving Isla Holbox on the bus from Chiquila to Cancun.
ISLA HOLBOX FERRIES
Once you’ve reached Chiquila, the hard part is over. Getting off the bus, you can just follow the crowd toward the main dock. Two companies offer almost hourly service from Chiquila to Isla Holbox, Mexico: 9 Hermanos and Holbox Express. Both companies charge 120 pesos per person and the ferry ride takes about 30 minutes. Mexican nationals pay 70 pesos for the ferry. If you’re in a group you also have the option of hiring a private charter boat to save you from waiting for the next ferry. Prices on the small boats are the same as the ferry and you need at least 2 people for this option.
SO… Reaching Isla Holbox isn’t necessarily the easiest of tasks but it certainly is worth it in the end!
TAXIS ON THE ISLAND
The town of Isla Holbox is very small and easily walkable. The only time you’ll probably need transport within the town is if you’ve got loads of baggage and want to take a taxi from the ferry to your accommodations. Taxis (they’re golf carts!) are well aware of the ferry schedule and a whole row of them will likely be waiting for you once you’ve gotten off the ferry. We opted for a taxi to take us to our hostel for 30 pesos. If you’re counting on a taxi to take you from your accommodations to the ferry on your day of departure, give yourself plenty of extra time since we found one hard to come by on the day we left.
Though the town itself is easy to navigate on foot, the actual island is pretty long and there are plenty of tours and day trips you can plan in order to see more of Holbox. More rental options are listed below under ‘Things to do.’
ISLA HOLBOX ACCOMMODATIONS
The island has options for every budget, from basic camping to luxury suites. Our budget limited the choices down to a few hostels and we decided to stay in a 10 bed dorm at Tribu Hostel for about $12 CAD a night. We were there for 4 nights (May 2016) which is considered low season but also HOT season. With temperatures reaching over 30 degrees everyday, it only took one rather sleepless night to see if we could upgrade to a room with AC but they were booked until the day we were leaving so we had to stick it out. The sun on Holbox is no joke. Lesson learned.
If your budget allows it, I would recommend looking for a place with AC and one with backup generators would be ideal (though I’m not sure that’s common on the island). I say that because there was more than one power outage on the island during our stay meaning there was no electricity but also no running water since they use an electric water pump. Sleeping in 30 degree weather with no working fan and no chance to shower was pretty rough for us.
Despite some sleepless nights, we had a good time at the hostel. I love that they organized several events throughout the day and the staff were all quick to offer suggestions on where to eat and things to do on the island. The kitchen was well-equipped so we were able to cook our own meals and the atmosphere was pretty great. One thing that we found a bit annoying was that the common area connected to the kitchen closes at 11pm which meant that we would have to pack up the computer early (for us) since there weren’t any other tables close to power sockets. First world problems, I know.
There’s a growing number of Airbnb options on the island too and if you’re new to their site, you can get a free Airbnb credit for your first qualifying stay on us 🙂
CHEAP THINGS TO DO ON ISLA HOLBOX, MEXICO
Holbox is a great destination for those who want to do nothing but lounge on the beach but there’s quite a lot to do if you’re up for exploring some of this beautiful island. There are tons of expensive options when it comes to tours but there are just as many cheap ones for us budget travellers 😉
ADMIRE THE SUNSET: It’s not hard to enjoy a good sunset in Mexico but the ones at Holbox are memorable to say the least. Any spot on the north shore is great but Punta Cocos is a popular spot to enjoy the last rays of sun. Cost: FREE
ENJOY THE BEACH LIFE: The beaches on Holbox are pretty unique and vary throughout the island. Some are littered in seashells that wash up on the northern shores, others have perfect white sand that is so fine it will probably end up following you home. I loved strolling through the sandbanks and you can walk out several metres while the water barely reaches your waist! Cost: FREE
KAYAK TO THE MANGROVES: We rented a double kayak with high hopes that we would make it all the way to the mangroves and see some flamingos without paying for a guided tour. In the end, we went absolutely nowhere after battling the high winds and ending up right back where we had started. Kayak fail. At least we got some exercise? Cost: Rentals start at 150 pesos per hour for a double kayak
TAKE A TRIP TO THE LAGOON: When our kayak mission failed, we walked along the beach all the way to the where the lagoon meets the ocean hoping we would get to see these elusive flamingos but no such luck! We did enjoy the sandbanks here though. FREE (with guided tours to Yalahau available)
LOUNGE IN THE WATER HAMMOCKS: For that perfect Instagram, seek out one of the many water hammocks on the island. They’re usually in front of the fancier resorts (there is a pair between Villas Flamingos and Palapas del Sol) but no one seemed to mind when we went to snap a few pics! Cost: FREE
RENT A BIKE: Some days the heat was unbearable and riding around on bikes definitely helps
subtly air out your armpits get a nice breeze. The roads on the island are pretty flat and you can easily ride to a beach that you’ll probably end up having all to yourself. We rented ours for cheap from Bucaneros Hostel but they definitely could have used some maintenance! Cost: Rates start at 20 pesos per hour
RENT A GOLF CART: One of our favourite ways to explore the island was by golf cart. Several shops in town rent them by the hour, for half a day or a full 24 hours. Cost: Rates start at 150 pesos per hour
TRY A MARQUESITA: Unique to the Yucatan region, marquesitas are delicious crepes that you can find at night from the food carts near the main square. Cost: A yummy 15 pesos
ADMIRE THE ART MURALS: It won’t be long before you start to notice the beautiful murals all over town. The street art on Holbox is truly stunning and is a result of an initiative led by the IPAF (International Public Art Festival). Each mural has a plaque listing the artist and name of the painting. Cost: FREE
SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS: Despite hearing that whale shark season was May to September, we didn’t get to swim with them due to the high winds throughout our stay. It’s definitely a splurge but it looks like an experience to remember. Cost: Day tours start at $100 CAD
ISLA HOLBOX CHEAP EATS
I was surprised to see so many options for dining out considering the town is so small. When it comes to food, you can tell Isla Holbox is slowly being introduced to the trendy/hipster restaurants you can find all over Tulum these days (think smoothies, vegan, raw food, etc). You’ll find so much seafood and lobster pizza is actually an island specialty if you’re willing to splurge a bit. There are Italian restaurants, a gelato shop, cocktail bars, fancy beach clubs and even sushi restaurants. But you wouldn’t find Wes and I at any of those in Mexico!
The island has a small local market near the main square with fruits, veggies and seafood. It’s a good spot for lunch during the day and you can get fresh ceviche for a great price. There are a couple of small groceries stores on the island and also a tortilleria where you can get a bunch of fresh tortillas for $1!!! Local bakeries are great for budget breakfasts and drinks are cheaper when you get them at a store.
When we weren’t cooking at our hostel, we would eat at El Patio de Clementito. They serve traditional salbutes, sopes and panuchos for really cheap. Other budget options include La Chilanguita and La Sirenita where you can find good local food and get full for a few dollars.
My absolute favourite budget food on Isla Holbox is called marquesitas. They’re delicious crepes filled with Nutella and cheese which I found surprising at first but the combination is SO good. Food carts are usually lined up around the main square at night and are a great way to save money on the island.
MONEY ON ISLA HOLBOX
This is an island where cash is king and there’s no bank or currency exchange in site. Most places (including lodgings) don’t accept credit cards so you’re better off bringing pesos with you to last your entire stay. There are a few ATM’s on the island (one by Hotel La Palapa, one by the liquor store near the main square) but I wouldn’t rely on them simply because it’s quite common for ATM’s in remote locations to be either out of service or out of money. For days. Local restaurants, corner shops and markets only accept pesos but you’ll find the odd shop or tour operator that will take US dollars.
DOWNSIDES OF ISLA HOLBOX, MEXICO
As great as life is on an island, it does present some difficulties. And lots of mosquitoes. Not long ago, Holbox was nothing but a fishing village so the list of amenities you won’t find is still longer than what you will find. For one, good wifi will be hard to come by so it’s something to keep in mind for any other digital nomads out there. Certain items that you’ll need like sunscreen and mosquito repellent are a LOT more expensive on the island than on the mainland. The frequent power outages aren’t ideal either but, for all I know, it could be that we were just lucky enough to experience more than one during our stay! I feel as if the inconveniences that come with being in such a remote place somehow add to the magic of Isla Holbox. So go with an open mind and embrace the beauty of Holbox because I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before this paradise starts to see some major changes.
ISLA HOLBOX, MEXICO VLOGS
For an in-depth look at our adventures on the island, you can check out these videos we made about our Holbox adventures.
We hope this guide to Isla Holbox, Mexico either inspires you to add it to your bucket list or helps you have fun on a budget while you’re there!