LIVING > TRAVEL
Flamingos, Whale Sharks, and the Magic of Mexico’s Isla Holbox
JULY 17, 2017 10:51 PM
by KATHRYN ROMEYN
Photo: Courtesy of Kathryn Romeyn
If you’re running in the right circles, you may have already heard of Isla Holbox, pronounced ole-bosh. If not, make a mental note now. In the grand scheme of Mexico, the island is but a little blip—a blip 26 miles long and less than one mile wide, to be exact. Six miles of shallow lagoon and flamboyances (aka flocks) of shrimp-hued flamingos separate it from the mainland of the Yucatán Peninsula, two hours’ drive from Cancún.
The hidden treasure in Quintana Roo (the same state Tulum is part of), has long been a well-kept secret of off-the-beaten-path travelers, especially those for whom Gypset Living is something of a life manual. But it’s quickly gaining notoriety because of its absurdly beautiful natural surroundings and authentically bohemian-yet-glamorous vibe—also the fact tourism efforts are ramping up.
Still, you’re more likely to meet someone from Mexico City, Canada, or Europe than the United States. But just wait. There are virtually no cars on Holbox. Instead, “taxis” are golf carts outfitted with ATV-style tires, to more easily roll through the milky eggshell-hued lakes that occur when the sandy streets are flooded after a strong rain. Pastel beach cruisers—often rusty from said rain—are another option. Even if it’s coming down, however, you’re partially protected by bougainvillea that rains down the sides of buildings, and palm trees that create a canopy above. The rains (which come between June and October) also tend to bring magnificent rainbows, doubles even.
The artistic leanings of Holbox are evident from the moment visitors step off the ferry. There’s a massive whale shark sculpture—in homage to the giant polka-dot sea creatures many come to swim with—at the harbor, and murals coat the sides of shops and eateries leading into and out of the main square. It’s devoid of anything close to a chain—businesses are independently owned and charmingly decorated. There are massive shell- and feather-accented dream catchers (atrapasueños) hanging in doorways (particularly at Negromaco), embroidered blouses and huarache sandals in shop windows, and perfectly bronzed hippie chicks walking barefoot down the beach, selling crocheted bikinis.
Kaftans—either guests’ own or the provided white options in each of the one-of-a-kind, hammock-enhanced rooms and suites—are the preferred wardrobe at CasaSandra Art Hotel, the boutiquey brainchild of fabulous Cuban artist Sandra Pérez, who transformed her own private escape into the chicest accommodation on the island. Art-filled and easygoing, it’s evident she painstakingly curated every detail. Think conch shell shower heads, Cuban antiques and regional organic bathroom amenities. The location is perfect, with a flawless powdered-sugar beach dotted with palapas just steps from the warm aquamarine water, which leads to a sandbar beloved for lazing and staying cool while still baking in the sun. Wander around the occupied part of the island’s uninterrupted beaches and you’ll find hammocks hanging over the Caribbean Sea. In a word, it’s idyllic. One minor annoyance to prepare for ahead of time: mosquitos.
But the pesky things are worth it for the wildlife and incandescent landscapes. The mozzies (which apparently do not carry Zika) are more prolific at Punta Coco—the preferred spot to admire the sunsets that seem threaded with spun gold and occasionally turn the water to a sea of rosé-colored glitter—than at Punta Mosquito, where the dreamily pink flamingos tend to hang out, unless they’ve been scared off by tourists entranced by their rare beauty. Boat tours give travelers entree to a slew of other impressive birds (blue herons, cranes), like at Isla Pajaros or Isla Pasión, where the spindly pink-feathered friends also hang out. Snorkeling is encouraged, especially if it’s whale shark season—mid-June to mid-September. And by night the place to be—wearing plenty of mosquito repellent—is wading into the calf-deep water full of bioluminescent phytoplankton (it’s what whale sharks feed on) under a blanket of stars. When you wave your hand or swirl your foot in the water, it’s as if Tinkerbell swam by, trailing sparkling magic fairy dust in her wake.
As a fishing village first, there’s plenty of great food to be had in Holbox. The whole roasted seabass, stuffed with lime, garlic, and rosemary, at Luuma should be a nonnegotiable part of any trip to the island. It’s served along with Spanish-inflected tapas and creative cocktails at one of the best restaurants around—think Gitano in Tulum. Dinner isn’t complete without a little browsing at the Le Bazaar boutique next door, which is filled with goods handmade and designed in that very beach town. Lobster pizza is something of a thing here, and the best is at Edelyn. Mezcal-laced mixed drinks and small bites are served up alongside primo views of the sorbet-splashed sunset sky, framed by palms, on the roof of Casa Las Tortugas. CasaSandra’s Esencia also cannot be missed. The romantic candlelit eatery consistently serves some of the best fish in the country, alongside Mexican wines (from Valle de Guadalupe), and the Saturday Cuban nights are the place to be for music from the neighboring island and a prix fixe menu that features melt-in-your-mouth roast pork you’ll be longing for way after leaving Holbox. In fact, pretty much the entire island experience is destined to be the stuff of daydreams long after departure. Best take home atrapasueños for good measure.
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