Located at the top of the Yucatan peninsula, Isla Holbox, or Holbox Island (pronounced hole-bosh), is the best Mexican beach destination, hands-down! Think of a dreamy paradise without the crowds and chaos of Tulum or Playa del Carman, with sugar sand translucent turquoise beaches lined with swaying coconut palms. Add to that a colorful boho vibe, no paved roads, unique food choices, and the opportunity to swim with whale sharks, and you have the perfect tropical vacation spot. And the best part is it’s just 2.5 hours from Cancun to Holbox, and renting a car in Mexico isn’t difficult (but you need to be savvy).
Part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, you can swim with whale sharks, see bioluminescent plankton at night, kayak in the mangroves, snorkel, or just swing in a sea hammock while drinking a fresh coconut, the choice is yours.
Barely more than a decade ago, Holbox was just a tiny fishing village but is becoming more and more popular as the world is discovering its pristine beaches.
Note: wifi is an issue, but when you are surrounded by mesmerizing turquoise powdery sand beaches, you will forget all about social media.
Isla Holbox vs. Isla Mujeres?
Because both islands are close to Cancun, this is a question often debated. Having been to both, I think it’s an easy decision. Isla Mujeres, while beautiful, is much more crowded with tourists, and the beaches are not nearly as pretty. It also has a more commercial vibe compared to Isla Holbox’s bohemian vibe.
I believe the reason Isla Holbox isn’t as popular with visitors as Isla Mujeres is that it’s quite a bit more difficult to get from Cancun to Holbox. It’s definitely not a day trip like Isla Mujeres – two to three days are needed.
How to Get From Cancun to Holbox
Whether you are driving or traveling by bus, there is only one option to get to Holbox Island. First, you will need to travel to the tiny fishing village of Chiquila, about two hours from Cancun.
Once there, you’ll find two ferry companies (9 Hermanos and the Holbox Express). You don’t need to book it in advance because a boat departs every 30 minutes, but you should still book as soon as you get there to get on the next one. The ferry takes about 30 minutes to get to Holbox port.
How to Get Around Holbox Island
The best part about Isla Holbox is that there are no cars or paved roads. Transportation in Isla Holbox is limited to walking, golf carts, ATVs, or bicycles.
Upon our arrival at the port, we had a golf cart take us to our hotel, on the beach about 10 minutes away. If you’re staying in town, which is right at the port, you could walk as long as you are not encumbered by a lot of luggage.
We opted to use taxi golf carts. Our hotel booked them for us most of the time and they were pretty reliable.
Bring cash! If you need to convert dollars to pesos, do so on the mainland. There are only two ATMs on the island, and they don’t always work, tend to be out of cash quite often, and offer bad exchange rates. Most places on the island do not accept cards and/or charge an extra processing fee.
Here are my ten favorite things to do on Isla Holbox!
10 Beach Vendors
There aren’t many restaurants on the beaches (except for the beach in town), but if you get hungry you don’t need to worry.
Vendors walk up and down the beach selling items like empanadas, frozen fruit, and fresh coconuts to drink.
9 Village Pier
The pier is a really fun place to be, especially to watch an epic sunset! Small beach bar restaurants are located on and just off the beach and many have live music blaring, making it irresistible to join the festivities and start dancing on the beach.
8 Holbox Village
The center of Holbox is tiny encompassing just two blocks from the sea, so all the attractions are within walking distance and best explored on foot and can be done in a few hours. There are surprisingly a lot of really charming, tropical-looking restaurants, many with rooftop seating.
There are also numerous souvenir shops and a lovely central bandstand area. If you need to catch a golf cart taxi back to your hotel, you’ll find one near the bandstand.
It can get scorching hot in Holbox, so exploring in the late afternoon or at sunset is best.
7 Witness Bioluminescence
Punta Cocos on the southwestern tip of the island is the location for the natural nocturnal phenomenon known as bioluminescence. It’s off the beaten track and takes a bit of effort to get there. We took a golf cart taxi, as was our preferred method of transportation, and in this case, our driver knew the best spot. There are adventurous kayaking tours to take you on a night adventure to experience the bioluminescence plankton which glitters when the water moves.
Please note that you can only see the phenomenon from June through September We did not know this and tried to see it in April. There was nothing to see. However, we still enjoyed ourselves as we were treated to a beautiful sunset with ocean breezes.
6 Punta Mosquito Sand Bar
Punta Mosquito is a sandbank on the northern tip of Isla Holbox. At low tide, you can literally walk on the water as a stretch of sand eventually takes place under your feet. It’s an ethereal feeling as you stand on the sand with water as far as you can see on all sides. It’s also a well-known spot for birding.
To access the sandbar, set out in front of the iconic Holbox hotel Las Nubes. Be sure to check when the tide is due to come back in if you do not want to get wet or have to swim ashore.
5 Find the Murals
One of the elements that make the town center so beautiful and charming is the number of colorful murals adorning many of the buildings, many of which depict everyday life in Holbox. This street art is the result of an arts festival in 2014 that brought street artists from around the world to Holbox. With brightly colored homes and creative murals, Holbox is one of the most colorful places I’ve visited, almost like an open-air art gallery.
4 Eat Lobster Pizza
Holbox is famous for its lobster pizza, and you should definitely not miss an opportunity to try some. Several restaurants offer it, although they do sometimes take it off the menu so it’s best to ask ahead.
3 Relax in a Hammock
If there’s a more chill way to spend a few hours, I haven’t found it yet. There are lots of hammocks on Holbox and many of which are built in the shallow water right over the beach. They are free to use unless they are at a beach club, in which case you’ll have to buy a drink or pay an entrance fee.
If you’re looking for your Instagram moment, this is it.
2 Swim with Whale Sharks
If you’re in Holbox during the whale shark season, between June and mid-September, then swimming with these amazing sea creatures is a must-do! Isla Holbox is considered one of the best places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants in the open sea, and it’s a big draw to the island.
Swimming with whale sharks was a bucket list activity for me and it did not disappoint. It is not only one of the most amazing experiences in Mexico, but in all of the six continents, I’ve traveled. It is nothing short of magical.
The sea around Holbox is in the middle of their migration route. It is my understanding that the companies that provide whale shark tours do so in a way that would not alter their migratory patterns, i.e., they do not feed them. Furthermore, these are wild animals and there is no guarantee you will see any. It is important that you don’t swim in front of the whale sharks and that you don’t touch them because this damages the animals.
Whale sharks are protected animals and therefore there is a limited number of people that can go at a time.
1 Enjoy the Beach
The beaches on Holbox rival some of the best in the Caribbean or Maldives. They are truly world-class – without the crowds or high price tag.
The three main beaches are in the town center, Punta Cocos, and Punta Mosquito, but we preferred the shimmering aqua beach in front of our hotel, which was almost always empty.
Keep an eye out for the famous “Holbox” letters in various places along the beaches!
While we did not do it, also highly recommended is a full-day boat that goes to three offshore islands: Isla de Los Pajaros (home of more than 140 bird species), Isla de la Passion (pristine, deserted beach), and Yalahau cenote and mangroves. We are not bird-watchers, and we were already scheduled to visit four other cenotes in the Yucatan after leaving Holbox, so we chose to spend our time as outlined above.
As you can see, going from Cancun to Holbox Island is a must-do while in the Yucatan region!
All photos ©Kary Kern unless otherwise indicated.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.