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I started hearing about a little island near Cancun called Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-BOSH) a few years ago. People raved about the island and its sandy streets with no cars and laid back vibe as being one of Mexico’s last unspoiled beach towns. It sounded like the perfect spot for us to start out 3-month adventure, but I was hesitant to get my expectations up.
Bloggers reluctantly wrote about it, not wanting to spread the word too far about this gem of an island. After spending 5 days on the island, I completely get it. I have had people see my photos on social media, with questions like “I was there two years ago, is it still as quiet and special?” Every one is worried that as the word spreads about Holbox, development will remove the charm of the island.
From what we saw, tourism has certainly become the main industry on the island, but it has been done in a sustainable way while maintaining a strong sense of community. The island hasn’t sold out for tourism. It kind of reminded us of the Gili Islands in Indonesia, but with better organized infrastructure and more community coordination. The island has a lovely central square area with playgrounds, information boards about the wildlife on the island, organized recycling and even nightly Zumba classes.
- 1 Why Isla Holbox?
- 2 When to Go
- 3 Things to Do on Holbox
- 4 Money on Holbox
- 5 Where to Stay on Holbox
- 6 Where to Eat on Holbox
- 7 Budget Tips for Holbox
- 8 Getting to Isla Holbox
- 9 Our Verdict
Why Isla Holbox?
Holbox is a narrow island on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, with only a small area of it developed. Most of the island is protected as the Yum Balum Biosphere Reserve and is renowned for its underwater life and bird life. Depending on when you visit, you can swim with whale sharks, see flocks of flamingos or see turtles and dolphins.
It is the perfect place for families looking to get away from the built up Mayan Riviera coast. The shallow and calm waters make it perfect for children. There is some sea grass washed up on the beaches, but it doesn’t take away from the beautiful beach.
Don’t expect 5-star resorts; Holbox is more about small eco-hotels. It attracts a wide mix of visitors: backpackers, Mexican tourists, families and couples. But, I think everyone who visits agrees that it is a special place.
I get asked all the time, is it safe to travel to Mexico? The media in North America loves to report every crime that occurs south of the border, instilling fear in travellers. We never felt unsafe on Holbox and throughout our month long trip to Mexico. We took no more precautions than we would take while traveling in other destinations we have visited. Our opinion is that it is perfectly safe to travel in Mexico independently and encourage families to explore this incredible country.
When to Go
As Holbox becomes more and more popular, the community is trying to keep up with the increased demand. During peak season occupancy rates are high and it is recommended that you book in advance.
Peak season is the summer months when visitors converge on Holbox to get up close with whale sharks. The tradeoff is that this also happens to be the wet season where you can expect a daily afternoon shower. The best time to see the flamingos is between April and October, but you can occasionally see them at other times of the year.
We visited in February and although we didn’t get to see the whale sharks or flamingos, it was a beautiful time of year to visit. Hotels were still quite full, as they are during the peak winter months.
Hurricane season is September to November and the island often gets evacuated due to hurricane winds, so this may be a time to avoid or take advantage of lower prices.
Things to Do on Holbox
The biggest appeal of Holbox is not having to do anything. You can soak up the sun on the beach and soak up the culture of the town in the evenings. If you are looking for some direction, here is what we recommend.
Walk the Sand Bars to Punta Mosquito
Isla Holbox’s shallow waters are perfect for lounging in a hammock or laying in the lapping waves. At low tide, you can walk the sand bars that extend along the playa. Walk/bicycle/golf cart down to Las Nubes, the last hotel (if you want to cut down the distance) or you can walk from town, for at least an hour along the sandbars. This is where you can view flamingos in season and where you will see lots of kiteboarders.
This is a great Holbox free activity to do with kids. Our kids enjoyed lounging on the calm shallow sand bars. There are numerous beach club restaurants that you can stop for lunch or a drink. We loved the seafood, drinks and live music at Raices. They even have a trampoline and play structure for kids.
If you are visiting the Mayan Riviera in Cancun seaweed season, on Isla Holbox you will find seaweed-free beaches.
Paddleboarding or Kayaking
Our kids love paddleboarding and there are numerous places on the beach that will rent them out. While the water off the beach is very calm, it was really windy while we were there and the kids did have trouble making much progress. They had fun just playing on the boards. We rented from some nice guys past Raices for 250 pesos/hour. You can also rent kayaks from the beach clubs.
Cycle Around the Island
The sandy streets of Holbox are just made for cruising around by bicycle. You can explore the colourful streets of Holbox town or head for the beach. If you turn left from town, you can make the trip to Punto Cocos or if you turn right, you can head to the sandbars at Las Nubes. Bicycles can be rented for 50 MXN/hour or 150 MXN/day.
Children’s bikes or bikes with baby seats are more difficult to come by, but can be found at two shops on Calle Canane.
Explore by Golf Cart
Golf carts are the main way to get around the island and are a great way of touring around. As with cycling, you can explore Holbox town, Punto Cocos or head out to Las Nubes. You do need to be careful as the sandy streets often flood (even in dry season) creating huge puddles that can be difficult to get through.
Our kids loved cruising around in a golf cart and enjoyed the adventure of getting stuck in a massive puddle. Golf carts can be rented by the hour or day. We paid 500/3 hours. There are lots of places around town that rent golf carts. You will need to leave ID with them.
3 Islands Tour
These tours are being sold throughout Holbox and is a great way to see and appreciate the wildlife of the area. The highlight for most visitors is Isla Pajaros, the nesting site of more than 140 species of birds. You will also visit Yalahau, a freshwater pool and Passion Island, known for its pink shells. The tours are 2-3 hours and it is best to do the morning tour before it gets too hot. The cost is 450-500 pesos/person, including children.
Visit the Plaza in the Evening
This was my favourite thing to do in the evenings as there was always something going on. Kids playing on the playground, taco and marquesitas vendors lining the streets, basketball and Crossfit, village ceremonies and bands playing in the bandstand and nightly Zumba classes. It is here that locals and visitors congeregate. Our kids looked forward to an hour spent in the square each evening after dinner. They got so familiar with the small and compact town that they could even walk by themselves between restaurants, our hotel and the square.
Hit up the Instagram Spots
Holbox understands Instagram and there are loads of places to get that perfect Instagram shot. You have your first Holbox sign when you arrive at the ferry dock and another one on the playa by town. There are unlimited amount of hammocks hanging over the water that just beckon for a photo as well.
Find Hidden Street Art
There must be some very talented artists in Holbox as almost every building is adorned with gorgeous street art. Even the barber shot has a great mural and you can easily spend a few hours wandering around town spotting the gorgeous art work.
Watch the Sunset
Holbox has gorgeous sunsets and we found the best place to watch it was from the pier on the north side of the island. Bring a cerveza, buy a torta sandwich from the roaming vendors and settle in to enjoy the sight.
See the Bio Luminescence
Bio luminescence can be seen on Isla Holbox, making the sea look like a starry night. It is created by the phytoplankton coming to the surface emitting a bright light agitated by the waves.
Our hotel recommended we see them ourselves, instead of going on a tour. Most tours will take you to Punta Cocos, but she recommended walking to a dark stretch of the beach near Raices. We tried this and walked into the dark waters and tried to stir things up, but didn’t see anything. It was a fun night time adventure anyway.
Your best chances of seeing this phenomenon is July to January and only at the darkest nights of the month. A one hour tour costs 300-350 pesos and starts at 8pm.
Money on Holbox
You definitely want to bring lots of pesos to Holbox as most places are cash only. They do have some ATMs on the island, but they often run out of money. Other than your accommodation, expect to pay cash for everything on the island.
Where to Stay on Holbox
Holbox started as a backpacker destination, but there are now many small-scale beach hotels offering mid-range and luxury stays. The vibe though is still very much barefoot and casual.
Holbox is home to under 2,000 residents who mostly live in the small town located on the west side of the island. Your main choice in where to stay is on the beach or in town. Holbox tends to be a more expensive island to visit and beach front hotels will be more expensive. We stayed in town and loved being able to walk around town and experience the action there.
Hotel Casa Palapas del Sol (Luxury) – gorgeous eco-hotel on the beach with a lovely pool and first class service. Two queen beds are great for families and the decor is spot on. Click here to check prices.
Villas HM Paraiso del Mar (Luxury) – quiet luxury hotel on the beach with in room Jacuzzi and hammock. Click here to check prices.
Hotel Casa Takyawara (Mid-range) – this small eco-hotel is right on the beach and is a favourite with families. The rooms are large with lovely outdoor spaces and a good breakfast is included. Click here to check prices.
Beach Inn (Budget) – we had a family room with 2 doubles and paid $70 USD/night. It was cute and clean and we loved the friendly staff who had great recommendations. We also appreciated the filtered drinking water, use of a kitchen, screens on the window and great location right near the main square. Click here to check prices.
Tribu Hostel (Budget) – funky hostel with private family rooms available. They have live music, yoga sessions and plenty of atmosphere. Click here to check prices.
Where to Eat on Holbox
Holbox has a good range of restaurants, from hole in the wall taco joints to smoothie bars and upscale dining. Fishing is a big industry in Holbox and you can expect some of the best seafood you have ever had. There are a few small grocery stores on the island where you can buy snacks or food to cook your own meal. We bought fruit from the fruiteria to help compensate for all the cervezas and heavy foods we were eating. Since we were staying in town and eating on a budget, our recommendations reflect this. There are lots of great restaurants in the hotels that line the beach that you can also explore.
We did find service slow, so embrace island time and enjoy the wait. Sometimes service was added to our bills, but if is wasn’t 10-15% is customary for tipping in Mexico. While we found the Yucatan not very vegetarian-friendly, there were lots of vegetarian options available on Holbox.
Painapol – amazing spot in town for smoothie bowls, fruit salad and good sandwiches and egg dishes. Mains 100+ pesos.
Naranja – new restaurant in a lovely courtyard. The kids loved the eggs and fresh orange juice and we loved the Mexican bagels. Mains 70-90.
Beach Club Lunch
Riaces – super popular spot for a good reason. Amazing live music with brass instruments. The fish platter is so fresh and good (480 for 3 people) and the kids loved the guac. The beach location, trampoline and play structure make it an instant hit with kids.
Pescaditos – small, casual place that does great tacos, including fish and shrimp. We also had a delicious ceviche here and the guac is spot on. Tacos 30/each, ceviche 220 (we shared).
Roots – when you need a break from Mexican, this pizza place is awesome. Great atmosphere with outdoor seating. The lobster pizza is their specialty, but at 400p, it was out of our price range. We loved the pizzas we ordered, priced 125-200p. There is a trampoline and play structure, which the kids will love.
Por Que – home made and incorporating local flavours, the kids will love the gelato here. 30 p/1 scoop
Marquesitas – Mexico’s version of the crepe traditionally comes with Nutella and queso which surprisingly tastes quite good. 35 pesos/Nutella y queso.
There are roaming vendors along the beach. Our kids loved the fresh coconuts and the mango cut like a flower.
Budget Tips for Holbox
Holbox is more expensive than other places on the Mayan Riviera due to the cost of transporting things to the island and its popularity. Be prepared to spend more than other areas of Mexico, but you can still visit Holbox on a budget.
- Stay in town – cheaper and more opportunity to experience local life
- Eat two meals/day – we could get by with a large breakfast and dinner
- Avoid Pricey Cocktails – Mexican beer is cheap (30 MXN/restaurant, 20 MXN/shop)
- Don’t buy bottled water – filtered water is widely available
- Stick to FREE activities – the beach, sunset, sandbars, the square
- Buy fruit and snacks in the shop
- If you want to exercise, join the nightly 7 pm Zumba class along the square. Visitors are welcome to attend and the cost is only $2 USD. I wish I had brought my runners. Much cheaper than the 250 MXN yoga classes.
Getting to Isla Holbox
Depending on your budget, there are a number of different ways to get to Holbox. From Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you will need to travel by road to the small town of Chiquila and take a ferry from there to Holbox.
Most visitors organize a transfer from Cancun to Holbox, via the port of Chiquila. The cost is about $40 USD/person, making it quite expensive for a family.
You can take the ADO bus from Cancun, Tulum, or Merida. The cost is about 330 pesos/person and kids pay half price. It will take about 3.5 hours to reach Chiquila, the gateway to Holbox.
If you have a rental car, it is an easy drive from Cancun to Chiquila, the gateway for Holbox. There is a 166 MXN toll. There are a number of secure parking lots in Chiquila. Expect to pay about 100 MXN/day. We parked at 5 Hermanos, located right near the ferry terminal and were able to negotiate a rate of 60 MXN/day.
There are ferries that depart almost every hour between 6 am and 9 pm and take under 30 minutes. The ferry costs 150 pesos/person each way, with children under 120 cm, paying 100 pesos. The ferry is a very modern fast ferry that is fully equipped with lifejackets and lifeboats. You can buy tickets at the dock or counters in Chiquila or Holbox dock.
There is a tiny airport on Holbox that you can fly into from Cancun if you have $700 USD to spare.
Getting Around Holbox
Our hotel was only 800 m from the ferry dock, so we walked. You can take a golf cart taxi into town. Short rides around town cost 20-30 pesos.
The island is very compact so it is easy to walk around; renting a golf cart or bikes are another great way to get around.
Isla Holbox is a wonderful island for families looking to get away from everything, while still experiencing Mexican culture. We really hope the island doesn’t change too much as more and more people hear what a special place it is. You do have to work a bit harder to get there, but for those families prepared to make that extra effort, they will be hugely rewarded.
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