Isla Holbox, Mexico: A laid-back sleepy little island with vibrant culture, beautiful beaches, and fresh, delicious seafood.
We traveled to Isla Holbox during a week long trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in March 2016. While it is a bit more of a trek from the Cancun Airport than Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, it is worth it. The island vibe is very low-key, not the place for rowdy spring breakers and raucous nightlife. If you want to relax, enjoy some amazing fresh seafood, and lay in a hammock by the sea for a few days, this is the place to do it.
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We stayed our first night in Mexico in downtown Cancun, as the ferry to Isla Holbox is a two and a half hour drive from the Cancun airport.
We had arranged a taxi pick up at 9:00 AM with our hotel at our next destination, Isla Holbox. We sat and waited until 9:30 with no driver, after which I was able to have the front desk lady call our Isla Holbox hotel to contact the driver for 20 pesos. After a few minutes, the front desk lady received a phone call back and we were told that the driver was stuck in rush hour traffic and expected to arrive at 10:00 AM. One thing to keep in mind in Mexico–you are often on Mexican time. Just relax.
I had done some extensive research on how to get from Cancun to the Chiquila ferry terminal with service to Isla Holbox, and the bus options were all at odd times and took a while to get there. Had we had a lot more time in Mexico, we may have figured out the bus, but since we only had a little over a week for our whole trip, we opted for a taxi. The taxi our hotel on Isla Holbox arranged for us was much cheaper than the shuttles that I quoted out. Total price was $110 USD, payable to the hotel in cash at check in.
At 10:00, our driver Pedro showed up, and we all crammed into his sedan. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to make small talk with our limited Spanish. He was very friendly.
**Note: It is very helpful to know some basic Spanish when taking taxis, most taxi drivers don’t speak a lot of English in our experience.
Two hours later, we arrived in Chiquila, right when the 12:00 ferry was departing, which we missed. We thanked Pedro and walked across the street from the ferry to find a little restaurant called La Sardina Enamorada (The sardine in love?).
Ferries depart once every hour, and often you can get a shuttle to the island from some independent boat drivers at the ferry dock. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and we were hungry. So we relaxed at La Sardina Enamorada and had some beers and delicious and very inexpensive food.
Ferry tickets are 120 pesos each way per person, which is about $7.00 USD. The ride was very smooth and only 30 minutes.
Upon arrival on Isla Holbox, the golf cart taxis line up at the dock to take you to your hotel. There is a large sign at the terminal near the taxi pick up that says what the price should be from the ferry to each hotel, which was helpful. The taxi was only 30 pesos (less than $2 USD) to take us the half mile to our Hotel La Palapa on the beach. It was totally walkable, but our bags were heavy so we opted to take the taxi.
**Note: Bring cash with you to Isla Holbox. There is an ATM in town, but I have read that it is sometimes out of cash. Very few restaurants take credit cards.
Hotel La Palapa is right in town, but also right on the beach. It was probably one of the most convenient locations of all the hotels that we saw. We paid cash at check in (as requested in our confirmation, I think they do take cards but said that sometimes their machine wifi isn’t working so well) and were shown around the hotel and to our room. We had booked a balcony room which was small but very clean, had a balcony on the second floor and air conditioning.
The hotel had a nice beach with a bar and restaurant, and a very nice roof top deck with hammocks, lounge chairs, and a great view. The bed in the room was comfortable, the only issue we had was with the toilet not flushing very well. They sent maintenance up to fix it when we talked to the front desk. Overall we would totally stay here again.
Heather and Stephen were staying down the road at Hotel Takywara, which they were very pleased with as well. Their hotel was slightly more expensive than ours, but included a mini fridge and kitchenette and a breakfast basket delivered with fresh baked bread daily. The beach on their end of the island is very quiet and the hotel had a very relaxing vibe, including nice beach loungers and a meditation area. It was not a far walk from town at all.
Once we settled in and rested for a bit, Paddy and I took a walk around town. We pretty much saw it all in an hour. There was a lot of really awesome graffiti art on the buildings, and the streets are not paved, only sand. There were lots of little shops and restaurants.
We met up with Heather and Stephen around 4:30 and ended up at Restaurante Bar Villa Mar for drinks. There was no one there but us, and the town was pretty quiet. I think 3-5 PM is siesta time. The bar had swings for seats and there were panties hung sporadically around the bar, alluding to a raucous late night party atomsphere.
We ordered a snack of guacamole, chips, and ceviche that the bartender said was small, but it was huge. It was fantastic mixed seafood ceviche, but pretty much ruined our appetite for dinner. If you come here, get the small ceviche. The large feeds a family of four.
I also tried the Rojo Ojo, which is a beer with clamato and spices. Kind of like a bloody beer with Caesar mix. It was pretty good.
The town was slowly waking up as the sun was setting, so after we finished as much ceviche as we could, we walked around a bit and poked around in the little shops on the sandy streets. In the center of town one block from the beach was the “Hot Corner” bar, which was advertising their “soft opening” that night at 8:00 PM with live music. Paddy wanted to check it out, but we had about two hours to kill. So we had a beer at another little bar and then picked up some tequila, beers, and a citronella candle at a convenience store and headed to our hotel rooftop. No one was up there, and it was nice with the light from the candle we bought.
Eventually we made it down to the Hot Corner, which had its soft opening now in full swing. There was a band and drinks were 50% off, and they were handing out free samples of some tuna tartare appetizers with chopsticks. I bought a round of four beers for 50 pesos, which is less than $3.00 USD.
Around 10:00 Stephen had hit the tequila a little hard, so Heather and I decided it was time for some tacos and tortas at Taco Queto kitty corner across the street. After that we found Paddy, who was nodding off at the Hot Corner, kept awake by a conscientious German woman. Perhaps we started drinking a bit too early.
In the morning we had a fantastic breakfast of empanadas at Las Planchas next door to our hotel, three for 30 pesos (just under $2 USD). We over-ordered a bit due to the low price, we thought the portions would be a bit smaller. They were delicious.
The weather was overcast, so we decided to rent a golf cart and tour the island. There are no cars on Isla Holbox, just golf cart vehicles. The island is actually quite large, but much of it is undeveloped. There is only so much you can see in a golf cart, but we thought we’d check it out.
We walked down the main street between the beach and ferry and walked into the first golf cart rental place we saw, which advertised a four hour rental for 500 pesos (about $30 USD). It was probably the easiest vehicle rental I’ve ever done–just pay cash up front, sign a piece of paper saying that you will bring it back in good condition by the four hour point, and that was it. No deposit, no ID, no hassle.
Four of us fit on one cart with two in front and two in the back. We first drove toward the east of the island, past many beach hotels. It seemed that the beach east of town was the most popular and had the most hotels, but all the beach loungers at those hotels were not actually on the beach–they were in front of the hotels behind the road the golf carts travel on, and you have to cross the road to get to the water. In addition, you have people driving by you on golf carts all day. I was glad we stayed at Hotel La Palapa and would recommend the west end of the beach from town for peace and quiet.
We finally reached the end of the road, where we saw a sign telling us not to drive on the beach and to respect the wildlife. We parked and walked down to the sandy beach. It was a shallow sand bar that went on for miles, up to Punta Mosquito on the eastern tip of the island. You could walk for a long ways in the water without going much above your knees.
The overcast sky made the shallow sea blend right in with the sky. I’m sure it looks beautiful when the sun is out and the clouds reflect on the water.
After our stroll on the beach, we headed west to see what was on the other end of the island. We drove inland a bit on the main road past the airport (a landing strip in a loosely fenced pasture) and ended up at a very pretty cemetery.
There wasn’t much past the cemetery besides what looked like a dump. Looking at the map again now it looks like if we back-tracked and took a left and then another left, we might have found the road leading out to the west tip of the island, looking out at Isla de la Passion. We’ll save that exploration for the next trip.
We did back track and turned north back onto the northern beach road. The west end of the norther beach is very quiet and peaceful, there was barely anyone around.
It wasn’t long before we were back in town, and only ended up using two of the four hours of time we booked. We considered driving around a bit more but Paddy and Heather were getting a little motion sick from sitting backwards on the back end of the cart. We dropped it back off and walked around town a bit more, then went back to our hotels to relax a bit.
Paddy and I went back to the beach at our hotel and ordered some very delicious blended margaritas from the bar. We also ordered lunch there, which ended up being the only bad meal of our trip. The restaurant is Italian, with some beach bar items like burgers, sandwiches, etc. He ordered a quesadilla which was very oily and had no cheese on it that he could see. My club sandwich with avocado came on wonder bread with no avocado. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t come as promised. If you want to eat lunch on the beach and are feeling lazy, I’d recommend seeing if you can get some food to go from Las Panchas next door and stick to just ordering drinks from the Hotel La Palapa bar.
We read books and relaxed until evening.
That night we went to Viva Zapata for dinner. A touristy, albeit fun restaurant themed around Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. It is a fun, ambient place with murals of scenes from the revolution on the walls, and swings as bar stools.
The Zapata margarita was outstanding, with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. For dinner we ordered the grilled seafood platter for two, and Heather and Stephen ordered the grilled seafood and meat mix platter for two. Paddy ordered an additional steak skewer which he thought was just a skewer, but came with rice and was actually quite large. It was a lot of food, but so delicious. If you come to Holbox, don’t miss this place.
After dinner Stephen was feeling a little tired and called it a night, and Paddy, Heather, and I decided to walk around and have a couple more drinks. We opted for the roof top bar at The Arena Lounge Bar in the center of town.
There was a great view of the town at the open air bar (it is also part of a hotel) and the drinks were very good.
After that we stopped for another drink at a little reggae bar down the street, but our night out ended when everything shut down at 11:00 PM. It was fine, we weren’t out for a crazy night. Isla Holbox isn’t a place for raucous nightlife, there are bars but everything is very laid back and quiet.
Paddy and I had breakfast at La Isla del Colibri, a Pepto-pink little restaurant in the center of town. It was a very cute little spot, with bright colors and art everywhere. Service was great and the food was good as well. I had the chilaquiles verde, and Paddy had Mexican style scrambled eggs with rice and beans. The orange juice was fresh squeezed.
It had been steadily overcast since we arrived, and we were hoping for sun breaks that afternoon so that we could enjoy time at the beach. We spent the warm, gray morning souvenir shopping and reading in the room and on the rooftop deck of the hotel.
We finally got some sun breaks and I took a walk down the beach before catching a little bit of sun in a beach lounger at the hotel. Heather and Stephen joined us for some margaritas on the beach for a bit. Next door to us on the beach was a little palapa where fishermen were bringing in their daily catch. There was a lot of conch and a small tiger shark hanging from the palapa roof.
The clouds finally began to disappear as the sun sank lower in the sky, and we decided to head further west down the beach to watch the sunset in front of Heather and Stephen’s hotel. There were only a couple other lone individuals on the beach, and the sunset was spectacular.
For dinner that night we went to Los Peleones, a Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) themed restaurant in the town. The food is Italian/Mediterranean/Mexican fusion, and it is a fun little spot.
The place mats included a little comic strip about Luchadores rescuing a sea turtle and the importance of caring for the environment.
The food was great. I had the lobster chalupitas, (which were outstanding) and house-made spaghetti with anchovy, chili flakes, and garlic. Paddy had a mole dish that was a bit sweet for my taste but he really enjoyed it.
After dinner I was feeling a bit under the weather and Heather and Stephen were tired so we called it a night. Paddy stayed out for another Zapata Margarita at Viva Zapata, he wasn’t quite ready for bed yet and the Zapata Margaritas are just so damn delicious.
Isla Holbox is an amazing gem of an island, and we hope it doesn’t get as over-run with tourism as Isla Mujeres. We did see a lot of construction going on, so there is expansion on the island, and it seems to be less and less of a “best kept secret” spot in Mexico. We would love to go back in the summer to snorkel the infamous whale sharks, and will most likely be staying on the beach on the west side of town again where it is quieter. No matter what, we will be back. Especially now that Alaska Air now offers direct flights from Seattle to Cancun.
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