Isla Holbox, México

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Shortly after arriving in México, my friend Yves messaged me on facebook and told me I absolutely had to get to Holbox Island while in the country. I had never heard of this island before (and I admit to pronouncing it Hall-box, not Hall-bosh, as it is properly pronounced!) but I was now recalling posts of his from a couple of years ago from an idyllic looking beach in México. So we looked it up and said why not? After spending almost ten days in Mérida, we were excited to get back to a beach and to a place we’d never heard of! We found a perfect little apartment online at Casa Frida that was a bit expensive for us, but we agreed to eat as cheaply as possible and take full advantage of the kitchen instead of eating out. 

We hopped on the bus and said goodbye to Mérida.  I wasn’t feeling too great (this strange new motion sickness, undoubtedly) so I went to sleep and slept for a solid four hours making the ride seem quick at first, but the last two hours seemed to drag on for forever. But alas, we made it to Chiquila, the ferry town just across the water from our island and crossed over to the island just as the sun was going down. Just before we docked, I spotted a couple of flamingos in the mangroves and as the boat came to a halt we were swarmed by the infamous mosquitos we had heard so much about (luckily, I was prepared and had the mosquito spray handy).  We doused ourselves before even getting off the boat. So far, this island was living up to its reputation!

Our apartment was just a quick two block walk from the boat, and a welcome sign with our names was posted to the door, so we walked in and made ourselves at home. The apartment was perfect! A spacious bedroom with hammock and king size bed, a big bathroom with room to hang our beach clothes to dry, a nice little dining/seating area and a cute little kitchen with everything we needed, even a full size fridge. And best of all, a beautiful heart-flower, Frida Kahlo inspired mural covering an entire wall. The place was luxury! We loved it so much that we immediately went online and booked for another nine days or so. Which took quite some time because wifi is not something one comes by too easily on the island!

We went to the Dunosusa super market just a block away on the main street, grabbed some cup-a-soup’s and ate our meagre backpackers dinner and hid out from the mosquitos. Tomorrow we would begin the exploration of the island! We were so excited to get out into the streets and see what this little island town was like.

Holbox, true to island etiquette, has island vibes. The streets are white powder, often half washed out from tropical downpours. Street dogs are abundant, and to be honest, I think were mostly not in actuality ‘street’ dogs at all, but owned and well taken care of, and just given the freedom to roam the island as they please. It seemed like everyone here had at least one or two dogs in their tow. We got to know which dogs belonged to which shops along the main drag; the gigantic white and grey great dane on the corner of the tourist shop, the boxer who haunted Basico Cocina and of course the three pooches who lived in the apartment across from us. The main drag of the town was a constant buzz of activity. It was full of shops selling clothing and food and seashells. Cars were virtually non existent on this island; the modes of transport were scooters and souped-up golf carts. That main street was always an eclectic mix of dogs, golf carts, motorcycles, scooters, moto-food carts and bare-footed, sun-kissed people, walking about with blissful smiles on their faces.

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We took in all the sights and sounds and smells of the main drag and kept going until we inevitably came to the ocean. We were of course drawn to where the beaches would be. Which… we didn’t actually find at first. We turned left when we got to the water, and while there were lots of hotels set up, the beach area was a mess of old sludgy, stinky seaweed, and no more than a couple of feet of sand between the water and hotel grounds. We walked for miles, seeing much of the same, not really finding much for a sunbathing or swimming spot and I was a bit nervous. This looked nothing like my friends photos or the images I saw online – had we come to the wrong island?! But we eventually made our way back and began to walk to east and were rewarded with the better half of the islands beach area. While it’s not the idyllic white sand powder beaches people often dream of, this doesn’t matter, because the beauty of Holbox’s beach life lies not in this, but in her sandbars.

The beach area was hard, full of crushed seashells and often whiffs of the smelly seaweed that piled up. But the place to spend your time was a few feet into the water, where the sandbars rose out of the water. Depending on the time of day, the sandbar might be huge and exposed, or completely covered, it was all at the mercy of the tides. Here the sand was white, perfect, rippled and inviting. Hammocks were strung up in a foot of water so you could sway over the waves. The cocos frios man rode his modified motorbike up and down the beach calling out endlessly ‘cocos friossssss”. Pelicans flew upwards and then dove beak first into the ocean violently to catch their dinner every few minutes. Fishing boats lined the shore, all white and baby blue, with heaping piles of nets overflowing their bows, seagulls perches in perfect lines along their gunwales.

Ah, we found it, perfect little Holbox! We spent our first day at the beach scoping things out, finding the best place to lounge and swimming in the ocean. I think we did alright!

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Most of our glorious 16 days were spent relaxing on the beach, hitting the super market on the way home and picking up fresh tortillas at the tortilleria, and fresh produce at the market to make delicious meals. We came home each day hot, sun kissed, sun drunk, and full of sand, hungry for home cooked meals. However, aside from our usual beach routine, we did have a few exceptional days on the island when we went exploring.

If you could only do one thing in Holbox, this would be it. Walk the sandbars. The sand bars seem to go forever. One day as we walked along in the ankle deep water we decided to keep going. We saw kite surfers up ahead and people beyond them, still walking, who looked no bigger than a speck in the distance. It was strange and looked almost as if people were walking on water! We crossed the deadly kite surfer alley, where people of all levels were learning to surf the waves with their boards and kites. We safely made it past and were joined by a fleet of small manta rays swimming all around us! Onwards we pushed pointing out every ray we saw with excitement. Sometimes they would nearly be under our feet before we even noticed them there, in groups of three and fours, and then they would bank a hard, seemingly impossible 90 degree angle turn and evade our steps. I looked back and saw how far we had come, yet how far we still had to go. We were about knee deep in water, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes thigh deep, and sometimes the sandbar would come right up out of the water and give us dry land. We were over half way and there was no point turning back, but I was desperately rationing the little bit of water we had and wishing we had some snacks and more sunscreen! Eventually we came to a big sandbar that was full of thousands of seashells and all sorts of sea birds enjoying the peace of the sand here with far fewer humans. In fact, there were only two other people ahead of us and just a couple behind us.

We had left the people and chaos of the little town behind and found ourselves in a tranquil paradise. A group of flamingoes grazed the water to our left and we admired them from the sandbar. The turquoise waters lapped gently against the powder white sand and a perfect line of pelicans perched on the shoreline soaking up the sun. We picked up perfect seashells, then threw them down moments later when we found even better ones. We found a horseshoe crab, a living fossil, crawling along in the shallows, and urged him onwards and away, because we found several empty shells of his brethren on the sandbars. We found a huge blob of slime with two little eye antennas poking out, which we were sure was a poor snail who’d lost his conch shell. It was over five kilometres we trekked, nearly all the way to the point before the heat and diminishing drinking water turned us back. The tide had come in a bit more, so the water was a couple of inches deeper and we trudged through it feeling the incredible workout that water resistance can offer you when you walk 10 kilometres in knee deep water! We wanted to linger longer and explore more, but we weren’t prepared so we decided we would come back one day better equipped before we left the island. 

I had heard about spectacular sunsets from a place called Coco Beach, so we decided to make our way over there one day to find out where it was. We walked five or so kilometres (to the opposite end of the island from our earlier flamingo excursion) on a dirt road. We left all signs of the town behind, and saw large lots of land with huge houses (Mansions? Hotels? We couldn’t figure out what they were!) and nothing but jungle in between these sparse lots. Finally we came to the ocean – and what a different ocean it seemed! We were behind the shelter of the island and so the water was as calm as glass, and resembled more a lake than an ocean. There were very few people about and it felt like we had found some hidden gem. We walked along the narrow beach until it ended in a bay which carved in behind us. We walked out into the shallow calm waters, and sat down to cool off. Small spotted grouper fish swam all around us. I momentarily panicked when a much larger catfish swam straight for us and began circling us! Now, I say larger, meaning larger than the small groupers, it wasn’t exactly a large fish by any means, but the ocean tends to put me on edge when any fish goes swimming straight for you! We moved closer to shore and a black lab mix dog came trotting towards us in the water. She was such a friendly pup, and her tag read ‘Coco’ so I assumed she was the resident Coco Beach dog! The silly pup would stand over us as we lay propped up on our elbows in the shallow water. She constantly wanted to be touching you by standing over you. Her vision was fixated on the water, on every little movement of the sea life and the water itself. She endeared herself to us instantly and we spent an hour lounging with her in the water happily enjoying each others company.

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When it came time to head back to beat sunset (and thus the mosquitos!) she followed us back to the start of the beach, where she found another couple lounging in the water and attached herself to them by standing over them. We chuckled and said goodbye to our new friend and made our way back to our apartment. We decided we would head back to Coco Beach for sunset the next day, with mosquito repellent and cameras in hand. We made the trek in a race against the sun. Herds of other islanders ripped past us on their bicycles and golf carts, likely wondering at the crazies who would walk all this way. We made it just in time for sunset. It was beautiful, as it always is, to watch the sun melt into the sea. It just so happened to be our one month anniversary on the road, so it was rather fitting to sit arm in arm, watching the sunset on this special little island.

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We had one more adventure in store before we left and that was to do the trek once again all the way to the point, but this time to make the point and even venture passed it to see what was beyond the unseen! This time we were prepared and packed snacks, water, gatorade and sunscreen. We were ready for anything! The trek there was a bit easier this time, I think due to an earlier start, and lower water levels and knowing we were prepared. The trek was much the same – manta rays swimming along side our footsteps, flamingoes off close to shore feasting, seashell hunting on the far beach, and then at last we made it to the point! We left all other people behind us, and kept on exploring. We rounded a corner and felt like we were completely alone (which, we were), but almost as if we had left the familiarity of the island life and beach, and were now entirely in the wild. I spotted some flamingos hiding in a lagoon behind the ocean front and tried to sneak up on them, but of course they heard me and fluttered away. We kept going onward until there was a break where the water cut in towards the lagoon – we crossed over it to the land across the way and made for the shore. However the ground just before the shore was a deep muddy mess, and I have a deep fear of putting my feet on such ground. So much so that poor Travis had to perch me on his back and carry me across it… now that’s love!

We  sat down for a break to snack and hydrate. There was an awful stench wafting around us from an unknown source, but we soon found out what it was. We moved back to the shore and walked along it a while until I spotted a committee of vultures congregating ahead. I knew that meant they were feasting on something. They spooked and took off when we came near and we covered our noses to the unbearable stench that brought tears to our eyes. I looked in the grass where they were feeding and saw a horrific sight. 30 or so huge heads of Manta rays were scattered in a morbid graveyard. Their huge, beautiful, blue spotted heads were picked clean of any and all meat, leaving just taught skin and cartilage. We walked a few metres passed and encountered another of these macabre graveyards with even more heads. I felt sick to my stomach, not just from the smell and sight, but from the tragedy of it. The signs on the beach at Holbox dramatically display the information of how manta rays are on the vulnerable species list. And here was near a hundred of their heads tossed like garbage on the shore.  I didn’t understand this. People don’t eat manta ray… do they?! I researched it later and discovered that some people are beginning to eat manta ray as other fish supplies run short in the ocean, but the more likely reason is exportation to China. Turns out the feathery gill plates of the manta ray are in high demand for Chinese medicine. The even sadder part is that there is no sign of these gill plates being used in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s a new phenomenon. None of the medical claims are supported by science nor traditional knowledge, so people are buying into something that is a newly devised gimmick and is destroying an entire species.

This heart wrenching discovering we made, of some fisherman’s dumping grounds, was sobering. It always hurts a bit to see the dark side of a place you come to love. But every place has that dark side. Even my own home town has one. But we both learned something that day, and now we can tell people about it, to make them aware of this stupid gimmick and hopefully the more people who are aware, the more we can work towards banning the sale of the gills, which is already under way thanks to work by WildAid.

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A sad sight… one of many manta ray carcasses on the side of the island no one ventures to

We left our little private island adventure with heavy hearts, and walked back mostly in silence. The walk back was harder as again the tide had come in and the water levels were higher and we lost sight of the lay of the sand bar and kept ending up in thigh deep water. But the universe intervened to lift our spirits as a pair of flamingos flew over and plopped themselves down in front of us. We stopped and watched the pair in awe as they sauntered passed us. Such strange and magical creatures those pink birds are!

We made it back at long last, our legs aching from the resistance and the now 15km we trekked through water and sand in the scorching 30 degree heat, our hearts a mix of sorrow and delight from all we saw. It was a wonderful last day in Holbox and to celebrate we treated ourselves to eating out at last. We ordered the stuffed chicken in mole and the catch of the day tagliatelle at an Argentinean place called Los Peleones with a beautiful rooftop terrace. I was blown away by the quality of food to be honest, especially for the price. For the two meals it was under $30 CAD which you’d never be able to get even a single meal for that price of that quality back home. We walked the town one last time stopping into shops and walking off our meal. We had a 5am ferry to catch in the morning and then a six hour bus back to Merida so we tucked in for those few short hours before our travel day and bid a wistful goodbye to dear Holbox.

Our days on the island were what all days on an island should be: hot, relaxing and full of sun, sand and adventure.  It’s one of those special places that stay with you and you just know you’ll be back to one day.

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