8 Aug 2019
A moonless night, a summer breeze, and a secluded Mexican beach… these conditions provide a heavenly setting where travelers can experience the natural phenomenon known as “bioluminescence”. On the island of Holbox, the calm waters come alive at the darkest hours of the night with millions of tiny glowing lights.
You arrive at a dark beach and wade into the ocean, where the water around your feet suddenly turns into a soft glow of pale blue or green. Hundreds of stars sparkle brightly in the black sky above you, no longer dimmed by the lights of town. As you wade out even further, the water reaches your knees. You splash your hands on the ocean surface and the water sparkles around your fingers.
This glittering phenomenon is caused by bioluminescent plankton in the water and sand surrounding Holbox, an island set just off the Yucatan coast only two hours from Cancun. Here, the slightest movement sets the waters aglow.
When and Where to Experience Bioluminescence in Holbox
Bioluminescence is best seen under dark night sky conditions with no moonlight. To get the very best bioluminescence experience and maximum visibility, plan your Holbox vacation in the days surrounding the new moon in the summer and fall seasons. The best time for bioluminescence varies from night to night, depending on the path of the moon, and booking a guided tour will help ensure that you get there at the right time. Keep in mind that bioluminescence tours are typically not available in the days close to a full moon because the conditions are too bright, and summertime is the best season for optimal visibility (although bioluminescence can sometimes be seen as early as March and as late as mid-December).
The top spot for swimming in bioluminescent waters on Holbox is at the southeastern tip of the island at a beach called Punta Cocos, conveniently located just a few minutes outside of the town. Most guided bioluminescence tours will take you to this spot, or you can also reach Punta Cocos by bike (keeping in mind that the roads can be dark at night) or pay for a golf cart taxi to take you, wait for you there, and bring you back.
Booking a Bioluminescence Tour
To book a bioluminescence tour during your vacation on Holbox, several of the larger local tour companies allow you to book online in advance, or you can easily spot tour kiosks advertising this service as you walk around town. Again, keep in mind that bioluminescence tours are seasonal and not usually offered in the days surrounding a full moon.
Bioluminescence tours typically last about one hour, perfect for a nighttime swim, and cost around $400 pesos per person (just over $20 US dollars). Make sure to ask about transportation; most tours should include golf cart transportation to and from the site (or possibly a group bike tour option), as well as a guide.
Holbox Bioluminescence Tips
To get the most out of your bioluminescence swim, here are a few quick recommendations:
- What to bring: The water in the Punta Cocos area is only knee-deep, so you can easily enjoy the tour with shorts and a t-shirt. Wear a swimsuit underneath if you’d like to immerse yourself in the water.
- What not to bring: The water is calm with few rocks, so water shoes aren’t necessary. Also, do not bring any valuables. We recommend you don’t bother bringing a camera; the very dark conditions make photography almost impossible unless you have a specialized camera or equipment, and you’ll be in the water most of the time, so having your hands free to splash around will make the experience more enjoyable.
- As mentioned above, try to plan your trip around the new moon dates in the summertime; this will help you get the darkest night sky and the best bioluminescence visibility.
- If you’re feeling adventurous, forego the organized tour and get to Punta Cocos by bike or by golf cart taxi. Just make sure to ask around about the best time to go on any given night, and keep in mind that the road to the beach could be dark when going by bike.
- Avoid using even the smallest light on the beach as it could hinder visibility for other people. This includes cell phone screens, bike lights, golf cart headlights, flashlights, and flash photography.
And of course, a bioluminescence tour isn’t the only attraction on the island of Holbox. You can also book a three-island tour, swim with whale sharks in the summer season, or just stroll through town to enjoy the local cuisine and beaches.