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Beach bar at Isla Holbox, just the opposite of Cancun. John Henderson photos.Beach bar at Isla Holbox, just the opposite of Cancun. John Henderson photos.


Isla Holbox, the Anti-Cancun of Mexico

The natural spring pool felt like a cool velvety towel as I jumped in off a crude wooden walkway on one winter Mexican day. The water bubbled from the natural springs 20 feet below the surface as I saw a school of terrified tadpoles scurry in my wake. As I peered through the dense brush of the mangroves surrounding the spring, I could see a crocodile, too comfy, peaceful and blissed out to become a threat.

More than 2,000 years ago, Mayans came to this same spring to drink and buy into their myth that it would keep them forever young. Jaguars roamed the surrounding jungle. Today, the spring is part of an ecosystem of a remarkable, sparsely traveled island off the coast of Yucatan called Isla Holbox.

Just 50 miles away as the pelican flies, the pulsating beat of Cancun’s all-night, open-air clubs can almost be heard. Yet the debauchery of Mexico’s year-round frat party seems like an ocean away from Holbox, where bamboo-thatched bungalows line a long strip of golden sand, islanders travel by golf cart and snorkelers swim with whale sharks.

Yum Balam Reserve

Bird watching towerBird watching towerJuan Ricosantana, the young, caramel-colored guide on my tour of this Yum Balam reserve, crossed his arms on the walkway and smiled as he looked at the Europeans playing in the cool pool.“Americans don’t come here,” he said. “They go to Cancun and the clubs. Holbox is too boring.”
Boring? The German philosopher Walter Benjamin said, “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” In Isla Holbox, the experience begins by getting outta Cancun as fast as possible.

You can do that by plane, taxi or bus. I eschewed the airport transfer service for the cheaper route. Besides what’s a Mexican holiday without a trip to the Cancun bus station?

A few miles from the chaos of Cancun beaches, the bus station in Cancun’s old town has an air-conditioned bus that cost $3.50 but takes 3 1/2 hours. The station is also lined with hustling cab drivers who drive reasonable bargains. One female cabbie in a faded ballcap offered to drive the two hours to the port town of Chiquila for $40 total for two people. It’s a fine drive through rural Yucatan where flashy resorts give way to adobe houses and ethnic Mayans sell goods along the roadside.

In the sleepy port of Chiquila, I hopped a tugboat that looked first commissioned during the Spanish-American war. However, what it lacked in amenities it made up for in convenience. Merely 20 minutes after taking a seat on a hard bench, the boat pulled into Isla Holbox, a narrow, 18-mile-long isle shaped like an opened Swiss Army knife.

Holbox transportationHolbox transportation, golf carts only.A string of golf cart taxis, like at the first tee of a municipal golf course, awaited my arrival. The sun beamed on a long, sandy beach less than a half mile away. The only sounds I heard were from multiple flocks of birds, species of which I’ve never seen.
Welcome to Isla Holbox, the anti-Cancun.

Treasure Chest of Powdery Sand

The golf cart maneuvered down a dirt road past the town plaza, a neat, clean square dominated by a small pink and white stage that looks very much like a giant conch shell. Past the quaint outdoor cafes and jewelry stands the golf cart hit the sand. It’s only part of Holbox’s treasure chest: a beach of powdery sand stretching nearly the entire 18 miles. Just enough stray seaweed sprinkles the shore to remind you that you’re not in Cancun any longer.

My Villas Delfines, barely a half mile down the beach, strikes me as what Robinson Crusoe would live in if he went corporate. It is a large octagonal yellow hut, built on stilts and topped with a thick, bamboo-thatched roof. Two hammocks hang temptingly on the deck.
Inside, two big beds are covered in mosquito netting to stop the lone “tiny” hassles I found during a five-night stay. Lanais chairs are strewn haphazardly in the sand under a canopy of palm trees in front of the entrance.

Like the rest of Holbox, Villas Delfines (Dolphins Villas) is as much about ecology as comfort. It Delphina roomDelphina roomuses solar power, catches rainwater and its toilets use wood chippings, an ecological discovery that reduces water usage by 90 percent. Yes, nature is the star on Holbox, not nightclubs. Making my initial cruise down the beach I could tell the island vibe is as laid back as any I’ve seen.

Walking to the far end where some higher-end villas sit, I saw travelers lying on thick blue mattresses next to ocean-side pools. You know, just in case the lanais chairs aren’t comfy enough.

At sunset, when the sun falls behind the Yucatan mainland behind me and the cobalt blue Caribbean begins to darken, I took a seat at arguably the smallest bar in Mexico. Bar Tuch means “belly button” in Maya and isn’t much bigger than one. It’s a wooden rectangular stand no more than 20 feet by 10 feet. I precariously took a seat in one of the dozen swings that line the bar.

The bartender, in his early 20s and already a veteran of Mexican beach towns, plied me with Don Julio tequila too smooth to spoil with salt and a lime. Holbox sandy sidewalkHolbox sandy sidewalkI swung rhythmically in my seat and watched the sun set on local youths playing soccer on the beach, using six-foot wooden posts as goalposts. Fishermen pulled in their nets. Dozens of birds perched on the bow of their boats. Kamikaze pelicans dove for fish.

If a more peaceful, more authentic corner of the Caribbean exists, please don’t tell Marriott.

“When I came here, right away I knew I had to get away from urban life,” Don Victor said. “I rehabbed myself. I learned a different life.”
That was 30 years ago, and Holbox’s resident musical instrument repairman is still here today. I found Victor at La Isla del Colibri, a small, brightly painted restaurant serving massive plates of fresh fruit and arguably the best coconut shrimp in the Caribbean.

Still handsome in his 60s, Victor has a full mane and beard of thick silver hair. He looks like a fit Ernest Hemingway. Over some chips and salsa, Victor told me that in 1982 in Mexico City he got robbed of his car and a 500-year-old violin he was restoring.
Police recovered the instrument, but Victor couldn’t recover.

“I lived in many big places: Tokyo, London, Taiwan,” Victor said. “They’re crowded places. I came here. I decided I wanted a big change.”
He’ll never forget his arrival. It was at 6 a.m. and he met some locals in a park. They gave him the nickel tour.
“I see the water, it’s so clean and nice,” he said. “I took off my clothes, I eat a coconut and there were thousands and thousands of big, palm trees.”

No Restaurants

sidestreetsidestreetBack then, Holbox had no restaurants. Only 800 people live here. Today the population has grown to 2,300, but the population swells during “whale shark season” in summer. That’s when 50-foot, 15-ton whale sharks hang out off shore and feed off the tons of plankton in the reserve.

The World Wildlife Fund worked with the locals to handle the gentle, yet endangered, giants with more care than koala bears. Only three snorkelers, including a guide, are allowed in with the sharks at once. 

Yum Balam ReserveYum Balam Reserve

The best time to visit is July but the reserve serves as an ecological smorgasbord the rest of the year. The 

jaguars are gone but dolphins play in the waters as much as the tourists. One day I joined 13 passengers in a small boat which took us no more than 15 minutes out to sea.

In this area the water isn’t the turquoise you often see in the Caribbean. Off the northeast corner of Yucatan, it’s where the Caribbean mixes with the more dusky Gulf of Mexico. The water is dark, almost brackish, confirming the Mayans’ name of Holbox, meaning “black hole.”

Yum Balam ReserveAfter our pilot cut the engine, however, the murky ocean came to life. A school of at least a dozen dolphins began cutting through the surface around us. My temptation was to throw off my tank top and jump in.

But 13 years ago the Mexican government began protecting them, and the only thing I took off was my lens cap.

The protection extends to the birds, who must view Holbox the same way we do. The Yum Balam reserve features 150 varieties of birds which nest in the high trees and feed in the waters. On the tiny isle of Isla Morena, neighboring Holbox, I walked up a wooden gangway, built 20 years ago, to a large observation perch about 50 feet in the air.

No more than 100 feet away I saw brown pelicans and blue egrets resting in the trees. On another stop we saw a flock of pink flamingoes, herons, cormorants and terns. I saw more birds than people.

“People have been coming here for more than 20 years,” said Ricosantana, our guide. “But Holbox is controlled. We don’t want big hotels. We don’t want to become Cancun. Cancun is like Miami.”

As the boat returned to my beach, the sun began to set. Cancun was just waking up. A world away, a swinging hammock awaited my sleep.

John Henderson

John Henderson is a writer in Denver

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Location: Mexico
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