Located just off the Yucatan Peninsula’s northeastern tip, this sparsely populated island remains a rustic reminder of days gone by in this corner of paradise, thanks in part to its somewhat remote location. Isla Holbox is just far enough away from the crowds in Cancun to make it a bit awkward for a day trip, although it is quite possible, thanks to a new road that cuts travel times (which used to run more than three hours) in half. Still, a few hours is simply not enough time to explore all that Isla Holbox has to offer, so we always recommend staying overnight – or for a few days if you can!
“The streets are still packed with sand,with traffic limited to golf carts and motor scooters,” writes Christine Delsol, a longtime Holbox enthusiast and travel writer for the San Francisco Gate. “I easily found stretches of unspoiled beach within a short walk of my hotel in the center of town.”
There are basically two ways to get to Isla Holbox from Cancun nowadays,the first being the old route via the mainland ferry port in Chiquila, which was a three-hour drive from Cancun, followed by a 30-minute ferry crossing. Today, a brand new road runs off of Highway 180D (the toll road that connects Cancun with the popular colonial town of Merída),cutting travel times in half and sparing you the speed bumps, wandering dogs and livestock that pepper the journey along the old route.
Legend has it that pirates who intermarried with the area’s native Mayan people were the island’s original inhabitants, and it is still populated with many of the descendants of those settlers today. Most of the full-time residents of Isla Holbox are fishermen who make their living by bringing in a fresh supply of lobster, octopus, grouper, conch and a wide variety of other fish from the rich waters found just offshore where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. There is also a tight-knit contingent of expatriates living on the island, many of whom happen to be Italian and seem prone to the arts and philosophy, according to Delsol.
Despite its somewhat remote location and small size of just 7 miles long by one mile wide, Isla Holbox has gained a name among international tourists over the last decade or so for the easy access it provides to the whale sharks that swarm in the warm waters just offshore every summer. As the largest fish in the sea at up to 60 feet in length, these enormous creatures are actually quite gentle, making it popular for visitors and locals alike to swim alongside them as they feed in the shallows near the surface.
“Tour boats let two swimmers at a time slip into the water, accompanied by a guide,” writes Delsol. “The trip to or from the feeding grounds might also offer a glimpse of curious dolphins or giant manta rays.”
The water here is somewhat greener than the turquoise-blue Caribbean waves that are found nearby in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, but it is warm and quite calm, with plenty of places that are so shallow that you can wade out for hundreds of yards before having to swim and the broad, white sand beach is pristine and dotted with sparkling seashells.
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