A swathe of dazzling white sand lined with palm trees and thatched casitas before you, you might think that you are on the Caribbean coast in the Riviera Maya, yet Holbox, Quintana Roo’s fourth island is actually located off the north coast of the Yucatán in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a magical spot, a haven for nature lovers, fishermen and visitors who simply want to discover a different side of Mexico. Thomas More Travel has a day trip that will enable you to do just that.
The adventure starts in the Gulf coast port of Chiquila where you board the ferry or a water taxi to cross Yalahau Lagoon separating Holbox from the mainland. Keep a look out for dolphins swimming alongside the boat, cormorants and osprey diving for fish.
Holbox (which means “black hole” in Maya) is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, an area of mangroves, marshes and tropical forest rich in wildlife. Flamingos, herons and egrets feed in the lagoon, crocodiles and manatees are sometimes sighted and jaguars, pumas and ocelots, peccary and deer still roam the jungle further inland.
Cenotes and Bird Island
First stop on the Thomas More Travel Holbox day trip is Cenote Yalahau or Ojo de Agua, an open cenote or pool in the mangroves that is also a natural spring with fresh water bubbling up from an underground river. There’s a wooden observation tower next to the cenote with spectacular views of Holbox, Yalahau Lagoon and the Yum Balam wetlands.
Once you have had your fill of swimming in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the cenote it’s on to Isla de los Pajaros or Bird Island. This sand bar is a feeding ground for flamingos, different species of herons, reddish egrets, white and brown pelicans and cormorants.
The boats tie up on the Holbox waterfront where lunch is served at a restaurant overlooking the beach. With its sandy streets, wooden houses, colorful street art and hand-painted signs depicting whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and flamingos, the rustic fishing village on Holbox has its own brand of Caribbean charm. Life has a slower pace and a stroll along the shell-strewn white beach to watch the fishermen unloading their catch, with pelicans and gulls waiting expectantly for scraps is not to be missed.
After lunch it’s time to board a golf cart to explore the 25-mile-long island. The first 30 minutes are guided and then you have 90 minutes to yourself. Start in the picturesque fishing village itself then drive along the island for breathtaking views of white-sand beaches, the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands in the distance. When you have returned the golf cart, walk along the beach where boats rock gently at their moorings to enjoy a drink at one of the thatched bars. This is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico in a glorious blaze of pink, gold, orange and red.
A Holbox Getaway
It’s easy for visitors staying longer just to soak up the beauty of Holbox and do nothing but sunbathe and swim. A morning stroll along the beach, escaping to a hammock in the shade of a palm tree for an afternoon siesta and enjoying island hospitality and fresh seafood, including lobster pizza, tikinxic and grilled octopus for dinner are the order of the day. Yet, for those who want to explore further there are plenty of options.
Hand-painted wooden signs and murals celebrate Holbox’s most famous summer visitor, the whale shark, tiburón ballena or pez domino, the ocean’s largest fish. From mid-May to mid-September, these gentle giants gather in large numbers to feed on plankton in the waters off Holbox and Cabo Catoche, the headland where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico meet those of the Caribbean. Local fishermen from Holbox and Chiquila offer eco trips out to the whale shark feeding grounds where visitors will see these huge ocean travelers skimming the water surface for plankton. Graceful manta rays, dolphins and sea turtles can also be spotted.
Sea turtles nest on the beaches of Holbox during the summer and on moonless nights the breaking waves sometimes glow with bioluminescence emitted by microscopic plankton.
Fishermen from Holbox and Chiquila also offer bird watching trips in the area, crocodile spotting and fishing. Some arrange trips to Cenote Yalahau, the Isla de los Pajaros and Isla de la Pasion where birds also feed and nest and then around the tip of Holbox and along the north coast. They will anchor offshore and you can literally sit in the clear, calm shallows and bask in the sun.
Longer excursions are available to Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in the neighboring state of Yucatan, home to thousands of flamingos and east along the coast to Cabo Catoche. From Cabo Catoche it is possible to navigate the lagoons and mangrove forests to reach Boca Iglesia. In this remote spot are the ruins of the first chapel built by Spanish conquistadores in Quintana Roo, one of the earliest churches in the Americas.
If you decide to rent a car and explore at your own pace or arrange a private trip with Thomas More Travel in order to spend longer on the island, Holbox is a two-hour drive from Cancún (via the toll highway at El Tintal and Kantunilkin) and a 30-minute ferry ride from Chiquila. There are parking lots in Chiquila where you can leave your car, they are not permitted on the island.
En route to Chiquila and Holbox, take time to call in at the villages en route: San Angel and Solferino, both members of a regional community ecotourism network.
In San Angel you can visit traditional medicine and embroidery workshops, go mountain biking in the jungle, kayaking and bird watching in a nearby lagoon. Solferino has an orchid nursery in the shade of a towering ceiba tree that is reputed to be over 700 years old. The owner raises fragrant orchids native to the Yucatan Peninsula and tells visitors the local legend about the ceiba. It is said to be the home of the dreaded Xtabay, the serpent woman that appears to men in the jungle and seduces them with her beauty so that they lose their way and their minds. A group of Solferino villagers also offer eco tours to a jungle camp with a rustic zip line circuit and an observation tower for panoramic views of the jungle. Guides take visitors on a kayak trip to El Corchal, a strange flooded forest in the middle of a lagoon in the savanna.