Sand by me
Isla Holbox is the pick of Mexico chic
It is dawn and I’m on a speedboat with three Mexican couples. A surfer dude is at the helm. He is leading us to where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, where the whale sharks gather in summer, and where we will soon be stopping for a morning swim.
It would be a sexy way to start the day if it weren’t for a certain boyfriend being ill overboard. He must be regretting last night’s mezcals, I think, as I look back to see the lush Mexican island where we woke up dissolving to mist. It is lovely Isla Holbox and surely never has an island been so maligned by its name.
Meaning “black hole” in Mayan and pronounced “hol-bosh”, it is a jamboree of emerald jungle, golden sands and jade seas. Perhaps the name was prophetic, for it is remarkable that it is only now being picked up on the global tourism radar.
Holbox is a 30-minute boat ride off the northern coast of the touristy Yucatan Peninsula and yet, unlike the nearby hotspot of Cancun, visitors to the island are mostly Mexican. Young urbanites in search of summer exotica have been decamping here for years while the rest of us have been languishing on the mainland.
It has been dubbed “the new Tulum”, a reference to the popular town on the easternmost shore of Mexico that went from being a hippie paradise in the 70s to a tropical-chic hangout for the fashion crowd about 10 years ago. Today Tulum and its surrounds are a hotbed of super-luxe resorts. Take The Rosewood Mayakoba, where I stay before heading north to Holbox. It is like arriving in Utopia. As you are driven to the spa on a golf buggy, through the manicured grounds, staff smile, bow their heads and greet you by name. The rooms have butlers and private decks by private pools on private beaches. There is a first-class Japanese restaurant on a lagoon. At dinner a man sprays your ankles with mosquito repellent.
There is nothing like this on Isla Holbox and it’s the better for it. The only features Holbox have in common with Tulum are beautiful beaches and infrastructure so dated that you still can’t put loo roll down the loo. Golf buggies are big on the island, but it’s a rugged ride because there are no roads; rather, sandy, pot hole-ridden thoroughfares. At night there is no limit to the charm of bumping through the dark with streetlights made from conch shells.
The only way to get here is by car or bus to the mainland port of Chiquila (a three-hour drive from Cancun), followed by a ferry. Last year improvements were made to the road running to Chiquila, through the Yum Balam nature reserve, making the journey less hairy (and packed with jungle scenery). The boat takes you to the only “built-up” stretch of beach on Holbox, where 15 or so wooden, thatched-roof cabana-style hotels stand on the water’s edge. One of these is Hotel Mawimbi, where I am staying. It was the second hotel to appear on the island, built in the 1990s by the island’s self-styled queen, Ornella, and her husband, Carmelo, who chanced upon Holbox on a sailing trip. There is a central wooden structure with nine rooms, some with an ocean view, and a couple of stone bungalows. Fresh off the boat, I find Ornella on the hotel’s beach drinking with friends under the moonlight, thereby falling in love with her life at first sight.
All the rooms are decorated to island-chic perfection. Mine has a chunky wooden table sliced from a tree and handmade muslin curtains on bamboo rails. Most im- portantly, Mawimbi is extremely good value. My room, which is one of the best, is about $200 a night in high season. To me, that screams backpacker-luxe, but the service, the organic food and the deluxe sun-loungers suggest a higher class.
It’s a five-minute walk from the hotel to the main square which, for a small island, packs a lot of energy. At night taco stands flicker, holiday-makers share lobster pizzas and children play on a floodlit basketball court. In the arteries running from the square the young and flipflopped sit at candlelit tiki bars. The trendiest is Le Bazaar, a mezcal cocktail bar that doubles as an alfresco boutique stocked by Mexico’s hottest new designers.
Let us return to the boat trip, though, which has turned out to be arduous. After two hours of bumping hard against the waves, we have arrived for our swim. The sick man remains a shade of ochre. It is not for the faint-hearted, I’ll give him that. I’m nervous, too. But in I go, a metre from a whale shark’s fin, and that first precious glimpse is spellbinding. It is no wonder the locals have promoted these graceful giants to divinity.
There is, however, a drawback to whale shark season (June to September), in that it is also rainy season. You may prefer to skip the sharks and come instead for winter sun. In December the temperature floats around a glorious but manageable 28C and, most importantly, it’s dry.
By the second afternoon of my trip, the “roads” are knee-deep rivers. Apart from the delirious frogs and mosquitoes, though, it’s business as usual. An unperturbed receptionist at our hotel tells us the water on the road will last maybe three days. But I am moving hotels this afternoon and it looks as though I might have to swim. Eventually we persuade (with a dose of pesos) a plucky man to “sail” his golf buggy to Las Nubes, a hotel at the furthermost tip of the beach where I will spend my last two nights.
Las Nubes is a good 45-minute walk from the beating heart of the island, but what it lacks in proximity it makes
Pink flamingos on Holbox, top; beach at Hotel Mawimbi, above centre; relaxed island life, above left; bar and dining at scenic Las Nubes, above right