An Insiders’ Guide To Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox or ‘black hole’ in Yucatec Maya (Holbox’s local language) is the type of place you’ll find it difficult to come back from…
It’s a tiny island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (the bit that separates the Gulf Of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea) – a strip of mostly caster sugar sand, surrounded by azure blue water, where once upon a time pirates hid in search of supplies, and Creoles sought refuge from Mayan rebellions. Nowadays it’s mostly home to fishermen and their families, as well as an abundance of tropical wildlife: pelicans, flamingos, whale shakes, turtles, dolphins, and more. And yet, unlike nearby Cancun, or even Tulum, it still remains relatively unscathed by tourism. There are no cars on the island, instead people drive around the unpaved roads in golf buggies. There’s also still plenty of small, local-run taquerias, and the beaches are full of both Mexicans and foreigners in equal measure. However, that’s not to say there aren’t also a selection of really beautiful hotels, because there are, as well as some slightly higher end restaurants and bars, serving a range of cuisines. Holbox also offers up some pretty incredible things to do, including swimming with whale sharks – the largest fish in our oceans. We’ve listed all of the best stuff below…
…see what you think.
BEST PLACES TO STAY:
Image credit: Marco Badalian
Owned by husband and wife Colette and Pierre-Marrie, who, a couple of years ago, decided to turn their holiday into a life plan, Casa Cat Ba feels more like a home than a hotel. It’s as if they bought and designed their ideal beach-front home (Casa Cat Ba sits steps away from the ocean), and then generously opened it up to a share with a small number of others. There are five bedrooms in total, split over three floors. The whole house is impeccably designed in a Wabi-Sabi style (a Japanese philosophy based on authenticity and finding beauty in imperfection). The concrete floors and walls are painted a beachy cream, and wooden beams run the length of the ceilings. Each bedroom is also fitted out with huge tropical palm’s, vintage wooden furniture, and artwork from all over the world.
When you arrive you’re greeted with a cold face towel and fresh juice, a level of hospitality that continues to the complimentary beach towels, and edible-smelling body wash, shampoo, and conditioner in the en-suite bathrooms. The bed sheets are crisp, the pillows are plump, and there are bright white dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe.
Their penthouse Palapa Suite, which takes up the whole of the third floor, also offers an a huge balcony with its own private sun beds and an outdoor shower, not to mention the best ocean view from anywhere in the house.
Beyond the rooms they have a little ground-floor living room-cum-boutique, in case you find yourself missing a linen co-ord, flowing beach slip, or handmade toweling bag. They also have a laid-back beach-front bar where you can order yourself a Margarita or a Mojito and watch the sunset from their terrace, overlooking the ocean. Whilst there’s no in-house restaurant, they still offer breakfast every morning on the terrace – freshly made hot cakes with coffee and real fruit juice. Otherwise you’re within a two minute walking distance of plenty of small tacos spots, as well as a number of slightly higher end restaurants and bars.
Address: Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico | Doubles start from: 275 USD (£214.20) | Breakfast included? Yes | Air-conditioning? Yes | For more information, or to book, visit their website here.
CasaSandra also sits right on the beach front, although slightly further along from Casa Cat Ba. Whilst Cat Ba sits nearer to town, CasaSandra is along a wider stretch of beach where you’ll find a huge sand bar in the middle of the water, perfect for sunbathing, or beach walks, with your feet in the ocean. The hotel has 18 rooms in total, ranging from Superior Standards to Ocean-Front Suites. They also have a private 4-person villa with its own living room and kitchen-dining room. All rooms have a rustic, beach house feel to them. Think weaved rattan headboards, bright white linen mosquito nets, and distressed vintage furniture. They all also come filled with candles, incense, and a selection of organic bath products, as well as both kaftans and dressing gowns for the beach, or late afternoon lounging on your hammock-strung balcony. Talking of the beach, CasaSandra has its own private stretch, offering up a varying selection of sun loungers and sun beds (double beds scattered with pillows, underneath a roof of dried palms). Plus there’s a bar serving up both soft and stiff drinks. For a change of scenery there’s the hotel pool, a bright blue figure eight, surrounded by palms. Or their in-house restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner of mostly Mexican dishes, although with a few Cuban numbers thrown in (Sandra, the owner, is Cuban). You can either eat pool-side, inside the main house, or alfresco overlooking the ocean. If it’s lunchtime, you can also opt for your food to be brought over to you on the beach. Should you fancy a tour – everything from horse-riding to exploring the Mayan Jungle – the incredibly kind staff (keep an eye out for Fredericko or Homber) will help book you in. Or, for something a little more relaxing, try a deep tissue massage with their expert masseuse, followed perhaps by their Sunset Experience – a make shift lounge bed on Punta Coco beach (the best place on the island to watch the sunset) with fizzy wine, fresh fruit, and towels in case you fancy a half-light dip.
Address: Calle Igualdad, 77310 Holbox, Q.R., Mexico | Doubles start from: 200 USD (£155.80) | Breakfast included? Yes | Air-conditioning? Yes | For more information, or to book, visit their website here.
Casa Las Tortugas is a family-run boutique hotel, boasting four stars. It has 24 rooms in total, ranging from ‘Standard’ Doubles to the Mastersuite. Of course these also include a number of of beach-front options, overlooking the sea. Like many hotels on Holbox, all of the rooms have an outside-in feel to them – painted clay walls; drift-wood furniture; and huge conch shell-turned-lights. The queen or king-sized beds are also dressed with brightly-coloured, locally-made linens, all of which you’ll want to take home. They have a pool with a built-in hot tub, as well as their private beach. Here you’ll find one of two in-house restaurants, Mandarina Beach Club (well three actually, if you include the second Mandarina on the roof…) where they serve a mix of Mexican and international food, as well as cold, fresh-fruit smoothies. Their second restaurant is Luuma, a slick cocktail bar-cum-eatery serving small tapas-style plates (more on both below). Inside Luuma they have have a fancy boutique, La Bazzar, filled with a mix of vintage and handmade goods – dresses and jewellery, as well as scented candles and bath products. They also have a spa where you can treat yourself to a variety of treatments or ‘rituals’, many of which are water-focused (the spa’s called Agua Spa), said to be based on ancient local knowledge and practices. They offer massages; facials; full-body wraps; hot-stone therapy; hydrotherapy; and more. They also offer daily yoga and meditation classes for all abilities.
Address: Isla Holbox, Q.Roo, México | Doubles start from: 200 USA (£152.34) | Breakfast included? Yes | Air-conditioning? Yes | For more information, or to book, visit their website here.
Arguably the most striking hotel on the island is Punta Caliza – a 12-bedroom design hotel, with each of the bedrooms boasting back doors that open out onto a central pool. Design wise, it’s a seamless mix of traditional Mayan architecture (white stucco walls and low-hung thatched roofs), with more modern, angular shapes, and a rich dark red cedar wood. All of the rooms boast king-sized beds and en-suite bathrooms, as well as fluffy white dressing gowns and huge flat screen TVs for afternoon lounging. Of course you’ll want to get some tan time in first, which you can do from their private beach (beach loungers and towels provided). There’s also a bar, specialising in Margaritas but serving up a range of both boozy and not-so-boozy drinks. If you get hungry you can head to their in-house restaurant, where they serve breakfast through to dinner. Breakfast changes daily, offering one main Mexican dish, or you can opt for fresh fruit and yoghurt, or toast, as well as coffee and tea. Lunch and dinner are mostly seafood focused – catch of the day carpaccio, and rock shrimp with spicy homemade mayonnaise and massago – with a few alternatives thrown in. If you’re looking for an adventure beyond the hotel, and the beach, the staff will happily help you book in to various tours around the island including whale watching, kayaking, and more.
Address: Paseo Kuka, Por Robalo, Isla Holbox, 77310 Isla Holbox, Q.R., Mexico | Double rooms from: 240 USD (£186.90) | Breakfast included? Yes | Air Conditioning? Yes | For more information, or to book, visit their website here.
BEST PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK:
Located between the main square and the beach, it’s hands down one of the best (and cheapest) places to eat authentic Mexican food on the island: tacos, nachos, burros, quesadillas, and more. It’s also got some great vegetarian options. And they let you bring your own beer. Just be warned, it’s closed at lunchtimes, opening at 6pm.
If you’re looking for a break from Mexican Cuisine, have breakfast at Le Jardin, a French bakery and cafe serving freshly baked croissants, pastries, brioche, and baguettes. They also do lunch including paninis stuffed with cheese and salami, or cheese and tomato, all of which are reasonably priced. You’ll want to try and get there early, particularly in the morning, and particularly in high season, as they’ve been known to sell out.
It’s a bright, leafy all-day eatery serving breakfast, lunch and dinner – definitely one of the more put-together places on the island. Food wise it’s ‘contemporary’ Mexican, which means for breakfast there’s everything from Huevos Del Rancho (eggs with refried beans, cheese, and salsa) to stacks of syrupy hot cakes, whilst for dinner it’s lots of fresh fish and tacos, as well as homemade pasta.
Another muy mancha option is Luuma, one of two in-house restaurants at four-star boutique hotel Casa Las Tortugas (see above). Some might argue it’s verging on too cool, however if you can over-look the posse of short smiling staff, and the boutique (also part of the restaurant) selling kaftans for £200, it’s actually a pretty beautiful space serving up delicious cocktails and food. If you’re a non-drinker they have Horchata, the most delicious, sweet, rice-based drink that tastes like chilled Indian Chai. Food-wise it’s a mix of sharing boards, or smaller tapas-style plates, things like crab spring rolls, falafels, or lamb tagine. Annoyingly they don’t take bookings, however if you get there early it shouldn’t be a problem, otherwise you can put your name down, grab a glass of wine at nearby Mandarina Beach Club, and they’ll contact you when there’s a table.
It’s one of about five street-food stands in the Holbox Street Food Market, serving up mostly seafood tacos for about £1.50 a pop.
Mandarina Beach Club
As well as one of the best locations on the island – on the beach, under the shade of palm trees – Mandarina offers breakfasts, lunch, and dinner, all of which are worth visiting for. Hey, you could stay the day if you wanted to. Cuisine wise it’s a mix of Mexican and international dishes, meaning for breakfast you could bag yourself huevos rancheros, alongside French toast. They have sandwiches and salads at lunch, which you can wash down with a fresh fruit juice, smoothie, or ice cold glass of rose wine (red, white, and cocktails available too). Whilst, for dinner, there’s fresh fish, pasta, and a selection of difficult tor resit desserts.
BEST THINGS TO DO:
Swim with whale sharks
Every year from mid-May until mind-September, Whale Sharks migrate to the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to breed. Nowadays you can take a boat out in search of them, before getting the chance to actually get into the water to swim alongside them. In case of any confusion, Whale Sharks, are 100% shark, 0% whale, although they’re harmless, gentle creatures who pose no threat to humans. They’re filter feeding carnivores, meaning they mostly eat plankton, krill and fish eggs. And no, before you ask, you can’t get sucked into their gaping mouths. The Yucatan Peninsula isn’t the only place in the world you can see them, you can also see them in Australia, the Philippines, the Seychelles, the Maldives, Mozambique, Thailand, Belize and Honduras. However, the Isla Holbox is known for the largest collection of them, with over 800 species there to see. It should be said, with the increasing popularity of this part of the world, there are a few moral grey areas when it comes to swimming with these guys. Obviously they have no say, and they’re known to be relatively solitary creatures, so you want to find an eco-friendly tour company and most importantly follow all of the instructions: don’t get too close; don’t touch them; stay in small groups; and be as respectful as you can.
Take yourself on a tour of the street-art
Isla Holbox is covered head-to-toe in beautiful, brightly-coloured murals. In fact, it’s quite literally impossible to walk anywhere without seeing some. It started in 2014, when IPA – the International Public Art Festival – invited artists from around the world to take part in “Dreaming Of Holbox”, a project aimed at raising awareness of Holbox locals, and their hopes and dreams for the future of their island, threatened by increasing tourism. Although it’s kept going every year since then, with ever year seeing new works completed. Stop by one of the local cafes, and get a coffee or a smoothie, and take yourself on a walking-tour. If you’re keen for a starting point, try the brightly coloured, half-moon stage in the main square, then explore each of its connecting streets.
Visit Punta Mosquito
On the Eastern side of the island is Punta Mosquito. It’s a secluded beach, separated from the rest of Holbox by a massive sandbar. You can either walk there (it’s about 2.5K from Holbox centre), or rent bikes and ride, keeping an eye out for flamingos along the way. The best time to go is in the morning, especially if you’re biking, and/or fancy bringing your camera or phone, as the tide’s been known to rise come afternoon which could call for swimming back.
Three Island tour – Bird Island, Yalahau, Passion Island
Another great day trip is the Three Island Tour which, as the name suggests, take you around two islands… and the Yalahau Lagoon. The first island is Isla Pajaros or ‘Bird Island’, home to over 140 species of bird including brown pelicans, white pelicans, white edies, frigate birds, double crested cormorant, storks, and flamingos. Then there’s Passion Island which, again, true to it’s name, is a tiny little deserted beach covered in bright pink seashells. The Yalahau Lagoon is what separates Isla Holbox from the mainland, although more specifically you’ll be taken to visit Yalahao Spring- a big spring-fed freshwater pool on the edge of the lagoon considered magic in local folklore, making anyone who swims there feel ten years younger.
Kayak through the mangroves to see crocodiles
You can take a guided tour through the mangroves, in search of crocodiles. You’ll be taken there by boat, before getting into your kayak for a three hour round trip. As well as crocs, you’ll also see a number of birds, including flamingos; lizards; tiger rays; and some pretty spectacular scenery.
We’ve also written a guide to nearby Tulum, which you can find here.