Imagine being in a small boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Out of nowhere emerges a massive shark the size of a school bus with 3,000 teeth.
- Wet your swim trunks,
- Jump in the water behind it so it won’t see you,
- Jump in the water right in front of it, or
- Remain on the boat.
According to our VIP Holbox guide, Willy, the correct answer is #3. So that is exactly what we do.
Growing up to 40’ long, whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Even though their mouths are as wide as a queen-sized bed, they don’t actually eat with them. They eat through their gills, also known as filter-feeding, which is good news for the adventure seekers who flock to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula each summer for the opportunity to swim with these gentle giants. However, most visitors do so from the over-developed, overly touristy areas of Cancún, Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, or Isla Mujeres. If those places aren’t your style (or the recent Mexico travel warnings have you worried), then you should check out:
The Yucatán’s best kept secret: Holbox Island
Following are five reasons why Holbox (pronounced “hole-bosh”) Island is our new favorite Mexican destination!
1. Beach Perfection!
Holbox boasts the winning trifecta of uncrowded beaches, flour soft sand and crystal clear warm water. An average height person can walk nearly the distance of a football field before the bathtub-warm water is shoulder high.
2. Chill Factor
This tiny island has no paved roads and very few cars. Golf carts function as taxis and family cars. You won’t find Carlos‘n Charlie’s, Señor Frog’s, theme parks, or high rises on Holbox. You won’t get hassled either. Visitors (mostly Mexicans, South Americans, and Europeans) come here to relax—not to party. And we like it that way.
3. Authentic Charm
Driving the stretch of highway from Cancún to Akumal recently, it felt more like a bizarre mash-up of Orlando, Epcot Center, and the Las Vegas strip than actual Mexico. Holbox Island is authentically charming without actually trying. Unlike most touristy areas of Mexico—that separate the pueblos from the tourist areas–locals AND visitors gather in the main square each evening for a game of pick up basketball, to play in the park, or just to hang out.
4. Dog Friendly
In all my travels, I’ve never seen a more dog-friendly place. There were dogs on golf carts, dogs on bikes, dogs in restaurants, dogs in stores, but all wore collars, were sweet, social and well cared for. I didn’t see a single stray. Two dogs stand guard at a corner market on the main square. Visitors stop by all day long trying to get the perfect pic of the unlikely duo. Many of the hotels are dog-friendly too, so you can take your best friend to Holbox with you.
5. Whale Sharks
Between May and September, swimming with whale sharks is THE main attraction of Holbox Island. We booked our excursion directly with VIP Holbox and were not disappointed. Willy (our guide) and Pablo (our captain) took great care to ensure that each guest had an unforgettable experience. They were professional, responsive, and prepared the best fresh ceviche ever!
Recent reports of tainted booze and drug violence have many families rethinking their travel plans to visit Mexico. If you’re looking for the perfect authentic beach destination, then consider a visit to the Yucatán’s best kept secret. But, shhhh, don’t tell.
Tips for visiting Isla Holbox
How to get to Holbox Island:
From the Cancún airport, rent a car, or take a taxi, shuttle or public bus to the town of Chiquilá on the northern tip of the Yucatán. The drive will take 2-2.5 hours. There is no need to rent a car unless you plan on visiting places other than Holbox Island. If you do rent a car, there are plenty of private car parks (many of them in local’s backyards). The rate is 50-100 pesos/day ($3-6 USD) to park your car. Once you park your car, walk over to the dock and purchase a ferry ticket (~$7.50/person) for the 20 minute ferry ride. You do not need to make reservations in advance. The ferries run every 30 minutes. Once you arrive on Isla Holbox, either walk or catch a golf cart taxi to your hotel. Most hotels will handle the details of your transfer from the Cancún airport if you don’t want to arrange it yourself.
Where to stay on Isla Holbox:
There are dozens of places to stay—ranging from inexpensive hostels to luxury boutique hotels. We stayed at the Holbox Dream Resort.* It is a 3 star hotel with a 5 star location and beach. It is also pet-friendly. The beaches to the west of the town square are the best because they offer the softest sand and palm tree coverage almost to the water’s edge. The beaches to the east have less palm coverage and the sand isn’t as soft.
If you are prone to sea-sickness, be sure to take medication! Only two people can swim with the whale sharks at a time, while the remaining snorkelers wait in the boat. The boats are small and in open water, which means there’s a lot of boat bobbing. If May-September doesn’t work for you, you can swim with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez between November and April.
More water adventures:
Wanna learn to surf? Check out Trash Surfing in Seminyak, Bali.
Wanna snorkel in paradise? Check out snorkeling in Thailand’s Similan Islands.
For the top shelf diving experience in the world, take the kids scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.