Isla Holbox: Discovering Mexico's Best Kept Secret
June 14, 2018
If you're looking for paradise, we'll point you in the right direction. About two and a half hours north of the high rises of Cancun, is a little island off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula called Isla Holbox (eye-la Ol-bosh). Isla Holbox is what Tulum once was before all of your favorite celebs and Instagram stars started taking over. Holbox is authentic, lively, totally safe, half the price of Cancun and Tulum, and for those exclusively in the know. Hayes and I were introduced to the beauty of this island a year ago when one of his lifelong friends planned a destination wedding on the island's white sand beaches. After one visit, we were hooked. There is something so special about Holbox; it's white beaches, sandbars that stretch so far out into the water that you can walk 100 yards out to sea and only be knee deep, the wild flamingos, whale sharks, and toucans that inhabit the island, and the vibrant town square that comes alive at night with food vendors on every corner and people dancing in the street to salsa music.
We just recently went back for our one year wedding anniversary (as Jonathan from Queer Eye would say: "Can you believe?") and really took the time to explore the town and learn about all of the amazing food and drink options as well as luxurious accommodations that the island has to offer. Hayes and I like to say that we love luxury adventure travel (LOL is that even a thing? If not, can we make it one?) meaning we really enjoy travel that is off the beaten path but still provides a level of comfort and frill to make the trip just that much more special. Luckily, so much of Holbox is exactly that- from the gorgeous al fresco restaurants to private pools and rooftop sushi bars at the beach front hotels to the midnight bioluminescence tours and diving with whale sharks.
One of the reasons this island hasn't totally blown up with tourists is getting there is a bit of a haul. We did a direct flight from LAX to Cancun, hired a private car from Transfer Holbox (ignore the bad Google reviews, we have never had a problem with them) to pick us up from the airport and take us two hours through, quite literally, the Mexican jungle to the little port town of Chiquila where you then take a ferry for about a half hour until you reach the island where you flag a taxi. All in all, the whole of our travel day takes about 14+ hours. But man, is it worth it!
EAT + DRINK:
Let's get down to the good stuff that everybody wants to know about: food. I will admit, the first time Hayes and I came to the island we weren't all that impressed with the food options. Everything was "meh" and as much as we felt like entitled, dumb Americans, we didn't find food that could beat out the authentic stuff in California. But wow, did we discover some gems this time around.
Luuma: Luuma, which means mother earth in Mayan, is an absolutely gorgeous al fresco restaurant and bar associated with Casa Las Tortugas (a hotel on the island). They serve the most insane cocktails such as the Magdalena (my personal favorite) which is a cucumber fizzy tequila concoction and the Dracarys (where my GOT fans at?!) which is a blue passion fruit and papaya drink that has a shot that is LITERALLY on fire IN the drink! It's insanely cool. They also serve the most delightful tapas like crab spring rolls, shrimp empanadas, crispy pancetta, and 24 hour slow cooked lamb and cous cous. We loved this place so much, we made friends with a British couple while on the island and took them to this gorgeous place where we shared two massive platters of food; one seafood and one meat that we nibbled on for an hour or two and ended up shutting the place down as the last people there. Too much love for Luuma!
Bar Arena: Located on the roof of one of the smaller hotels in town, Bar Arena is a gorgeous rooftop bar to watch the sunset and get beautiful craft cocktails. Hayes and I had the intention of making a quick stop for one drink while we watched the sunset before moving on to explore other watering holes in town and we ended up staying until closing! They serve gorgeous and refreshing cocktails like a margarita with muddled grapefruit, and spicy margarita with jalapeños and cilantro, and they have a great list of craft beers as well. We ended up making friends with one of the bartenders Alejandra and went back again to hang with her!
Viva Zapata Holbox: Ask a local where to eat in Holbox, and they'll tell you Viva Zapata. Hayes and I tried to make it to this place but we never found the time to go but all the locals rave about this island eatery. But we've heard their fajitas are absolutely legendary.
Skybar Sushi at Villas Palapas del Mar: Hayes and I found this rooftop sushi bar as one of the most attractive reasons to stay at Palapas. That being said, we were a little hesitant; how good and authentic could the sushi be on a remote island off of Mexico? We were so surprised and satisfied with the craftsmanship and quality of the sushi we got. We ordered traditional maguro and uni, and also indulged in spicy tuna rolls, shrimp tempura rolls, and a California roll. Located on the top pool deck of the hotel, you will have the perfect sunset view.
Villas Palapas del Mar, sushi bar and sky deck
Hayes and I have now stayed at two stunning resorts on this island. But we feel really strongly about making the best of wherever you are and then when we return for another trip, we try somewhere new! This time around, we scoped out the best of the best and discovered some really unique and exciting places that won't break the bank.
Casa Las Tortugas: Hayes and I agreed that next time we come to Holbox, we want to stay at Casa Las Tortugas. This boutique luxury hotel has the best beach, the closest proximity to town, a rooftop sushi bar (this seems to be a theme on the island, not sure why), Luuma, and a swanky lunch and dinner eatery on the sand called Mandarino. They also have gorgeous bohemian rooms that are so perfectly designed, major publications such as Vogue have written about them! They also are known for their spa and yoga wellness programs. Rooms run about $200 a night.
Villas Palapas del Mar: Overall, Hayes and I were super stoked on this hotel and really enjoyed staying here. The staff was friendly (and by friendly, I mean they were constantly offering us tequila shots if we were in so much as a ten foot radius of one of the two bars), the rooms were gorgeous and came with private plunge pools and hammocks, and we were close enough to town to walk there and back every night and feel totally safe. The down side? The food was meh. We were hoping for some really awesome tacos and fajitas at lunch but it fell a little short. Especially when one night they served Chinese food for dinner. If you love to explore the food and drinks in town and don't mind not eating at the hotel, this place is perfection. I will say, the guacamole and ceviche here is awesome. A room here will run you around $150-$250 a night.
Villas Flamingos: This is where we stayed the first time in Holbox and we totally loved it. It is definitely a very authentic Mexico experience with a really rad beach bar with swings, hammocks in the water, and iguanas that roam around the pool area. They serve the best guacamole I've ever had and the bar staff is incredibly fun and friendly. The rooms are pretty nice and the hotel is one of the farthest from town but you have those hammocks in the water and I swear, I could stay there all day! A room here will run you about $130 to $200 a night.
Villas Flamingos, Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox has so much to offer in the fun arena. This small island is famous in its own right for the massive whale sharks that swim around the island, the wild flamingos that dot the beaches pink during certain times of the year, and the bioluminescent plankton that wash the shores aglow a night. Not into wild life? There are endless stretches of beaches to explore, bikes to ride, and much much more.
Bioluminescent tours: There are two ways to see this gorgeous glowing sight: a free way and an informative way. The free way requires you to rent a bike or walk to Punta Coco at night, and take a peek at the glow in the dark waves that are crashing up on shore. Take the time to walk out into the water (don't forget to shuffle your feet to let stingrays know you're there) and splash around! You'll be fascinated by the light that these little phytoplankton produce. The second way is to go through a tour company such as HolboXtreme, where you can hire a private guide who will take you night kayaking out to sandbars far off shore where you can get out and see untouched phytoplankton and even snorkle with them!
Bioluminescent tours of the phytoplankton on the island. (image source)
Flamingo Tours: One of the main attractions on the island are the flocks of flamingos that inhabit the island from April to October. Similar to the bioluminescent tours, you can see them yourself or get up close and personal with a private guide. Once again, I am going to say hire a guide because they'll take you out by boat to deserted beaches and sandbars where the wildlife flourishes. I would also recommend HolboXtreme for these tours.
Cenote Tours: One of my favorite parts of our first trip was the cenote we visited! The particular one we visited was Hoyo Negro Yalahau and it was absolutely stunning. The water is this insane shade of deep crystal clear blue and was icy cold but, man did it feel so good in that heat! You can easily tack on a cenote tour with your flamingo sightings as well.
Whale Shark Tours: These gorgeous creatures are known to migrate near the island and feed on the phytoplankton (yep- those beauties that cause the glowing bioluminescence). Like the other tours on the island, there are two ways to go about this; a major company or a private guide. My money is always on the private guide. We've heard from fellow Holbox travelers that the major tourism companies that provides these tours do so in a not so humane way. A whale shark will be spotted and ten of these big boats will circle the animal which can cause major stress. Opt for the animal friendly way and higher a guide to take you off the beaten path to watch these beauties in their natural habitat at a safe proximity. Another perk of the private guide? If you make a good impression, they may let you get out and swim with them! Ask your hotel where to hire a private guide.
I've gotten so many emails, DMs, comments and more asking about planning trips to this beautiful destination! As always, I hope this helped with any planning questions you may have, but if there is anything I didn't cover, don't hesitate to reach out to me and I'll be happy to answer any more questions you may have.