Isla Holbox LG road trip to Isla Holbox. Tour to see whale sharks & manta rays. Mexico
Off the beaten track
Foot loose and fancy free has always been the adventure travelers' credo. Travel light and softly so when you find your special place in the sun you don't trample it. Isla Hoxbox is one of those fragile, precious places, and little gems like this are getting fewer and farther between every day.
And so it was for us on our first trip to Isla Holbox. This smallish out-of-the-way Mexican island is just west of Cancun in the northeast corner of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and it is one of Nature's little treasure islands. It's hard to believe that a place like this could be so close to the megalithic tourist destination of Cancun, and yet be a million miles away in every other respect.
Laid back style
Isla Holbox is a natural beauty with a wide beach that has plenty of room for sunbathers and those who want to zip around on a golf cart. The packed sand makes a convenient road for the gas powered carts that can be rented in town or brought to the doorstep of your hotel. Golf carts are the prefered mode of transportation, however all key areas in town and on the beach are within easy walking distance for the reasonably fit. The main beach is roughly 2 kilometers (-1¼ miles) long and exceptionally wide so there is no problem with the carts disrupting the tranquility.
The good life
Laid back simple pleasures like swinging in a hammock, walking the town, beach combing, kayaking, paddle boats, and seeking out a wind surfing or kite boarding lesson are daily activities. This is a place to unwind and hide from the resort hustle, and re-discover or sprout your tropical roots. Fishing enthusiasts come here because it's less known, but Holbox's real claim to fame is its seasonal snorkeling tours to see whale sharks and manta rays (farther down the page).
Not just for tourists, the beach is just as popular with the local kids and families who come here to swim and play. And it's perfect for a little game of one-on-one soccer (futbol) in the afternoon, when the heat of the sun dissipates a bit. There is usually a breeze coming off the water.
In town all the roads are sand as you would expect in a slightly developed tropical seaside town. Most of the buildings are the quint essential Caribbean colors with photogenic renderings of life in the tropics. Golf carts zip around stopping anywhere they wish. Third world dogs lounge here and there looking on with little interest, and the occasional boat is parked on a side street.
Beach front accommodations
The best accommodations are on the beach and range from rustic to more refined. We only visited a couple but it's safe to assume that most do not have air conditioning. We stayed at Xaloc Resort and found it very comfortable. It is on the beach with a restaurant and two swimming pools. June-August you can sign up for the whale shark snorkel trip that departs directly in front of the hotel and they also offer numerous other tours. The above left photo is of the beach side pool and cabanas at Xaloc Resort. The above right photo is of Paraiso del Mar, a new beach hotel with air conditioned rooms, pool and restaurant.
Xaloc Resort and Paraiso del Mar
The old town pier (now gone)
Watching for the green flash
Getting comfortable for sunset is a daily ritual, and the perfect opportunity to let the tranquility of Isla Holbox sink into your bones. Watching the sun dip into the Gulf is something you can't do on the nearby Riviera Maya which faces east. Whether you're gazing out over the sand, or in this case, from the main pier (photo above), the beauty of the silhouetted boats against the painted sky is not to be missed.
The Whale Shark Tour
The Great Gulp of Mexico
Whale sharks and Manta rays have something in common. They are both filter feeders and they love to gulp down massive quantities of water to collect their food. During the months of June thru August a fantastic event takes place in an area east of Isla Holbox. Groups of whales sharks and manta rays congregate to feast on their favorite foods of plankton, krill, small fish and squid. Isla Holbox is famous as the starting point for boat tours that take groups of snorkelers offshore to witness this spectacular event. While there is no guarantee that the sharks and rays will be there, the likelyhood is very good, especially during late July and early August.
This is the reason we came to Isla Holbox in mid August, 2005. After years of hearing glowing reports from friends about the trip we finally made our reservations and drove the 2½-3 hours to the town of Chiquila where the Chiquila-Holbox ferry shuttles people to and from the island.
Our boat had a group from Playa del Carmen led by Heidi from Pro Dive and they had started their "day trip" in the wee hours of the morning in order to get back to Playa the same day. While this is certainly doable for those staying on the Riviera Maya, we were glad to have stayed on the island the night before, and be well rested. We rolled out of bed around 7am, ate breakfast and then climbed aboard for the 1½-2 hour boat ride out to the sharks.
Rules?... Yes, we need rules!
The briefing included all the do's and don'ts while aboard the boat, and the NO TOUCH policy while swimming with the whale sharks and mantas. I'll admit, the temptation to forget the rules is great when you are swimming beside these majestic creatures, but it is important to remember that the whale sharks and mantas are challenged enough by predators and the environmental changes in the planet's oceans. They certainly don't need their feeding behaviour interrupted by thrill-seeking snorkelers. Respect is the key word here, and observe, but please do not touch.
Whale shark facts
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are not whales, they are the largest fish in the world. They have up to 3000 small teeth that are fairly useless to them. They sieve their food from the water through five large gills on each side of their head. Their huge mouth is on the front edge of their heads, not underneath like most sharks. Their skin is up to 4 inches thick. They can get 12+ meters (40+ feet) long and weigh over 15 tons. They are still harpooned in some parts of the world.
(Below) The manta ray we saw was an unexpected surprise since the tour is actually marketed as a trip to see whale sharks. A chance encounter like this is a rare opportunity to see one of the most graceful creatures in the ocean. Luckily our manta looped around which gave me the chance to swim like crazy and get a close up look, though I was not luck enough to get an underwater picture. The moment the manta realized I was near it at the surface, it quickly flourished its fins launching a spray into the air, then vanished into the depths. At one point the manta actually sounded in the distance, that is, jumped out of the water, and Kay happened to be looking in its direction. The rest of us only saw the splash but it was quite a thrill nonetheless. The whale sharks and mantas seemed to be perfectly comfortable in each others presence and had no problem sharing mother ocean's bounty of food.
Manta ray facts
Manta rays (Manta birostris) are the largest rays in the world and are related to sharks. They have no teeth and no stinging spines like many other rays. They usher plankton, small fish, and tiny crustaceans into their gaping mouths with cephalic lobes that protrude from the front of their heads like fleshy horns. They have the nickname devilray because of their horn-like head silhouette when viewed from below. They are acrobatic swimmers that move by flapping their pectoral fins like huge wings. Mantas are solitary creatures and are harmless to swimmers and divers. Mantas can get up to 9 meters (29+ feet) wide and weigh up to 1.5 tons (1350 kilograms). Mantas can actually be scarred by the human touch and this is most likely the case in the manta ray seen below. They are still harpooned in some parts of the world.
We came away from the experience totally in awe of these creatures, and with a renewed respect for the mysteries of the depths and the amazing animals that come from below. We hope if you go to Isla Holbox you will feel the same way upon your return.
Footnote - Isla Holbox is not a place for the masses and it's not that easy to get to. In the know locals here are concerned about the expanding tourist trade and its affect on the island's ecology. Many of the community services required for year round inhabitants are absent here as the expansion of tourism out paces the needs of the locals in the effort to accommodate an ever increasing flow of visitors.
There are tours to Holbox from Cancun and a few from Playa del Carmen (mostly to see the whale sharks) but most who come here for more than one night will need to hire a transfer or jump on a bus, available from Cancun. Then it's necessary to travel some rather obscure back roads to the town of Chiquila, followed by 25 bumpy minutes on the Chiquila-Holbox ferry. On your first night you will notice the island mosquitos and/or no-see-ums. A little repellent will take care of those. There are only a few hotels that offer air conditioned rooms and at least one is quite posh. We had no problem staying cool under fan. Swimming pools are in several of the better establishments but the beach is the main focal point here, and the seasonal tours to see the whale sharks.