Paradise Found: Holbox Island, Yucatan

Though it’s been hailed as the Yucatán’s next big thing, Holbox’s appeal is that it’s a sleepy small town. Can it survive its own charm?

WORDS Bill Kearney
February 2019
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Most people heading out of Cancún to tropical destinations on the Yucatán Peninsula turn south on the well-worn path to the all-inclusive resorts along the Mayan Riviera, or farther still, to the intensely hip Tulum. I’ve come here looking for something a little different, something less trodden, with more character and fewer social media influencers.

 So I head west into the jungle interior, a massive swath of forest and, on the northern coast of the peninsula, long stretches of wild, undeveloped beach. My final destination is a skinny, mangrove-rimmed island called Holbox (pronounced hol-BOSH), with a small town of the same name. After a two-hour drive I reach the dusty port town of Chiquilá, the upper tip of the Yucatán, and from there take a humid 20-minute ferry ride to the island.

Though not a million miles from the cacophony of Cancún and Tulum’s fashion-show-under-the-fronds, the town of Holbox feels like a different world.

It’s a scruffy, charming fishing village figuring out how to fit into the modern world. The streets are sand, and there are almost no cars. People get around via mountain bikes, golf carts and flip-flops. Fast-paced here means jogging. Until the mid-1980s, Holbox didn’t even have electricity, and locals still sometimes talk about how Francisco Gasca, a fisherman, brought the first generator, which ran for four hours at night. Now 79, his family has painted a mural of his face on a wall near his home—Holbox’s version of street art. 

Due to its relative remoteness, Holbox has remained largely under the radar with regards to international tourism. The town of 2,000 inhabitants is surrounded by the 594-square-mile Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, home to jaguars, tapirs and flamingos on land, dolphins, tarpon and whale sharks in the ocean, which is bordered by mile after mile of perfect sand. Such resources, in a time when ecotourism is booming and every traveler seems bent on achieving isolation, have made Holbox an extremely attractive proposition. This sort of reasoning has become something of a preoccupation among locals in recent years, who fear the arrival of mega-resorts and the hordes who will stay in them. 

This is not to say that Holbox is a stranger to visitors. As I trundle through the village on the back of a golf cart, I pass colorful storefronts hawking trinkets and eco tours before reaching Casa Las Tortugas, a thatched-roof inn on the beach with a rustic-chic ambiance—palms and bougainvillea surround a pool, whitewashed walls reveal exposed timber beams in my room. The property opens up to a beach with perfectly inviting hammocks and daybeds.  

Though it’s tempting to just lounge around the hotel’s beachfront, I stroll the streets of Holbox, scouting shops and bars I’d like to visit later. Dogs doze beside storefronts and the town moves in an unhurried way. You get the sense—one I’ve felt in other towns where the sun can be brutal and the sea provides a livelihood—that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The relaxed pace is contagious, which may be why visitors sing the town’s praises while not wanting it to skyrocket in popularity. 

At dusk, local kids gather at the town square for a pick-up soccer game and food carts set up shop for the night. It starts to feel like a party, but it’s clear this is not a scene-y place. I wander back for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Mandarina. Bats shoot over the darkening beach and chef Jorge Melul plates local snapper tiradito with passion fruit vinaigrette and mahi-mahi with pineapple and serrano pepper chimichurri. The bartender insists I try her favorite mezcal, made from cupreata, an unusual agave species that, in this iteration, imparts notes of smoke, caramelized banana and funky Brie rind. This is Holbox at its best: comfortable, quiet, a little quirky. You can see why people would like it to stay this way. 

Fishing guide Alejandro Vega (aka Sandflea) picks me up at dawn in his 22-foot Panga boat. If we’re lucky, we’ll find 150-pound silver-scaled tarpon cruising the area in search of prey. Sandflea, 48, tells me his father gave him his nickname because as a child he was always talking and moving—annoying like a sand flea. Sportfishing didn’t exist in Holbox then, but his uncle had a fly-fishing operation in Cancún, and helped teach him the trade. The teen put two and two together and realized Holbox, with its mangrove creeks and biodiverse backwater, was an untapped resource. “I saw schools of big tarpon arriving, lots of baby tarpon and snook, and I thought, This would be very good for fly-fishing.” 

He was right. With the help of a U.S. tackle store owner, he started to lure customers, becoming one of the first folks in town to shift from commercial fishing to tourism. Today he’s a bit of a celebrity in the global fly-fishing community, for not only the big tarpon he finds, but also his onboard comedy routines: “I’m the boss at my house … when my wife’s not around! Happy wife, happy life!” He’s been so successful that he now works with the Mexican government to teach commercial fishermen how to diversify their income with eco-friendly sportfishing.


An egret along Holbox's waterfront

We spot a few big tarpon rolling in the slick water a couple miles offshore, but none of them bite. After catching a grouper from a submerged rock pile, we head back to a primordial-looking mangrove shoreline and catch snook as they ambush bait at a creek’s mouth. After a quick lunch, our time is up, but Sandflea takes one more cast, twitching his bait by a sunken log. A snook darts out and grabs it. “This is the life, baby!”

Though Sandflea’s livelihood is based on tourism—indeed, he has been instrumental in promoting that industry on the island—he echoes the concerns that you’ll hear from lots of locals here. “People feel that we are changing Holbox into a concrete island,” he says, referring to a large hotel project that has recently been proposed (and challenged in court) in the midst of the nature reserve surrounding the town. “Forty-five years ago, Cancún was built in a mangrove zone. They destroyed it. We need to leave something for the future generations.” When I point out that more development would be good for business, Sandflea squints and says he’d rather manage three boats a day than 10. 

“I want happy people.”

The next morning, I go whale shark diving with 25-year-old Wilberth Rosado, a guide with VIP Holbox tours. We speed east, skirting the long beach for over an hour—the shoreline of the Yum Balam Reserve, a nesting area for four species of sea turtles. As we motor out, Rosado explains the natural forces behind the shark congregations: Ocean currents run up the world’s second-largest barrier reef along the east coast of the Yucatán. When reef fish spawn, that current carries their eggs north toward Holbox, where they swirl in eddies off the tip of the Yucatán, creating a caviar feast for the sharks. Some years, he tells us, the current veers west and tours only have to run half an hour from Holbox to find the sharks. Today it’s a two-hour run.

Rosado first encountered a whale shark when he was just seven years old—it was a memorable experience, he tells me with a smile. He and his father were offshore looking for cobia, a tasty fish that often trails whale sharks. When they came upon a group of sharks, his father, who knew they were harmless, ordered Rosado to jump in to find the cobia. “I was scared, but he grabbed me by my pants and shirt and threw me in." 

"When I put on the mask, I saw these incredible animals. It was love at first sight.” 

Once we head out past the lip of the peninsula, the sea turns indigo and rough. A lineup of boats has already gathered where the sharks feed—some running from Cancún. In its early days, the whale shark boom was disorganized, but it’s now rigorously regulated by the Mexican government. We spot our first shark, not huge, but a good 20 feet long, its dorsal fin just breaking the surface, its domino spots clear. Rosado jumps in with two snorkelers at a time. We each take turns. My first shark sways lazily through the haze of fish eggs—I have to swim hard to keep up. On my final session the shark I’m following crosses in front of another, and I’m suddenly in the path of a gaping maw. Does it see me? 


Whale shark off the coast of Holbox

I swim hard to the side and the shark politely changes angles and keeps feeding. Soon it’s over. The sharks have departed, and so have we. Before reaching Holbox, though, we stop to snorkel at a submerged knoll resplendent with coral heads and marine life. A four-foot-wide stingray glides above the seagrass, then another. Snappers loiter near a crack in the rocks. We stop again for lunch, this time heading up a creek to a small bay, where we beach the boat on a sandbar. Rosado breaks out a cutting board and some fresh barracuda, avocado, jalapeño and lime and whips up a perfect ceviche. We use tortillas as shovels. Flamingos pass overhead, then pelicans. In the distance, another guide leads kayakers over a flat, and a school of saltwater catfish congregate at the boat to snag our scraps. 

This, of course, is what people come here to do, and it seems inevitable that their numbers will grow. When VIP Holbox owner Willi Torfer first arrived 21 years ago, he opened a five-room hotel, the island’s first. Now there are 60 and counting, ranging from spartan youth hostels to bed-and-breakfasts to small luxe hotels. When I run into Francisco Gasca, the old fisherman who had the island’s first generator, he says of the new Holbox, “There are more jobs and it’s better for the economy, but I prefer before, the way we lived here. It was more simple. The fishing was better. The sand was softer. I miss it.”

A few months after my visit, I get news from Torfer. The government has finally settled on regulations for the land surrounding Holbox. “The investors who bought the land are not very happy about it, but the ecologists are,” he says. In short, the building density in that area will be so restricted that development would be “economically impossible,” he says. Torfer adds: “One of the problems in Mexico is we have a lot of rules but not everything is done by the rules. We have a new government now. I hope that they’ll make sure that people keep to the rules.”

Wilberth Rosado, my whale shark guide, had given his thoughts on the situation on the way back to shore. The responsibility to preserve Holbox and its way of life, he told me, lies also with the people who live on the island, who will have to keep their own enterprises in check and remain vigilant to the activities of outsiders. “A long time ago, the people did not appreciate the island,” he said. “We thought anybody could live in places like this. But now we know it’s a really good place. We appreciate where we live. We know what we have.”

Bill Kearney

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