Exploring Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula: Escaping tired Tulum for the unbridled heat of Holbox

I’m running around the port town of Chiquila in Mexico, hoping to board a ferry that’s about to disembark in approximately 8 minutes. And I’m desperate to find an ATM to pay the 200 pesos ticket price. “The nearest one is 15 miles away,” the lady behind the ticket stall in a cobalt-blue uniform informs me. “You can take a tuk-tuk?”

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Holbox | Photo: Virginie Fialon

I could think of nothing worse than trekking along potholed roads for an hour, under the beating heat of the midday Mexican sun. Luckily, I remember I have 500 pesos stuffed in some socks at the bottom of my day-bag, put aside especially for this type of travel emergency, and I pay the woman her fare with relief. I wipe the beads of sweat off my face and climb aboard the boat – and within minutes I have left behind the turbulence of Tulum for the adventures that await on the secluded Caribbean island of Holbox.

It’s not that Tulum itself is turbulent – more so the ethos of the patrons (and the resort owners) that make it feel so. Visiting in 2021 is like chasing after some transcendental experience that has long gone. In its wake is a Disneyland for the Instagram generation: a weary and heavily curated tourist ride through all the same, tired spots.

I had arrived in Tulum as most people do when leaving London: in search of escape and rejuvenation. During my previous visit in 2014, where I stayed on a much less packed beach road, I did manage to find some rare and beautiful spots. However, more recently, the strip with its luxe range rovers honking up and down the main pass, $30 cover charge to enter bars and v.i.p guest-lists for the clubs feels like it belongs to Vegas over Mexico. I clamber onto the back of a friend’s motorbike, riding half an hour South of the city to find a gorgeous, quiet, and little-known cenote called Corazon del Paraiso. Here, I find a taste of what I’m searching for. I float atop clean, clear water set in a heart-shaped clearing amongst verdant jungle, leaving the traffic and noise of Tulum, and London, behind. I close my eyes and hear birdsong, as well as my own heartbeat.

Tulum | Photo: Anna Sullivan

Tulum | Photo: Helen Ngoc N

On my way back to my hotel, in Tulum’s radically expanding ‘new town’, I find more jaded Londoners and Americans in search of the same instagram pictures, as well as invites to the same overpriced and overcrowded raves and beach parties featuring London-priced drinks and thumping EDM DJs. I had to get out of here! I pause in Tulum long enough to try some of the excellent hole-in-the-wall spots that can be found a few streets off the strip, serving spicy octopus tacos, fresh lime and strawberry Micheladas and beef-cheek quesadillas, and skip any experiences involving a ‘shaman’ (most likely fake) or a traditional Mayan spa (not so traditional) for a half packed early morning ADO bus to the port town of Chiquila, where we set our scene.

Holbox. Even the name and pronunciation was exotic to my British tongue. Holbox was talked about by a few well-travelled wanderers that I had crossed paths with on my last trip to Central America, but I previously made the mistake of overlooking it for Tulum. Some quick googling said that the trip would only take 2.5 hrs, but knowing Mexican timing (and traffic) I planned for at least double that, and thank the Mexican Gods that I did. Within half a day of land travel, I finally found myself in terra incognita: a completely different kind of country than Tulum.

Photo: Pritham Bhatia

Holbox is intriguing and mysterious. When you think you have her figured out, she’ll surprise you with either a flash flood, or a flash of flamingos. I was surprised to arrive at an island of not only no roads – but no cars. In their place, roughly carved out clay causeways became the main arteries of the island, populated by potholes and plump, nonplussed locals driving old golf carts as makeshift taxis. I attempted to skip the transport and walk the half-mile to my guesthouse, but ten places in and I almost lose my flip flops twice in the wet clay: small rivers of warm rainy runoff trickling down towards the island’s basin. Yes, the island regularly floods. I hailed down a golf cart and took a fun, rickety ride over to the beach. This was going to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated.

Over the next five nights, I explore this small and relatively undeveloped island, finding that no two days here are the same. I found myself arriving, as per usual, in April during the ‘rainy’ season. Although it splatters down in a petulant manner at noon, it clears by 1, and then the rest of the day is spent in the Hawaiian-esque weather perfection expected of the tropics. The breeze carries the smell of piña coladas and sea salt. There is ease and rest hanging in the air.

Photo: Pritham Bhatia

Photo: Pritham Bhatia

After a deep sleep, and a hearty breakfast of fresh green chilaquiles, I dodge the midday sun slumped under a beachfront canopy, then prepare myself for an afternoon ramble around the island. My hopes of diving to see the rare Whale Sharks here are dashed when I’m too early for the spotting season which is June – September, but the island houses many more natural attractions, including frequent sightings of pink flamingos to the North, and ideal conditions to both learn and practise kitesurfing. During a lazy, barefoot hike, I discover that Holbox is more witchy than piratey: empty bays appear out of nowhere, hammocks swing by themselves between barren tree trunks, and mile-long, pristine sandbanks magically appear with the tide, halfway out in the ocean. Nowhere else that I have travelled to can you walk out nearly a mile into the bathwater warm ocean, and still get no more than thigh deep. It’s spellbinding. At night, boats are waded out in search of bioluminescent plankton – just one more magic trick that Holbox has up her sleeve.

On a couple of dusky nights, I found myself in good company with a merry (and very thirsty) group of Brits that I recognised from a popular reality TV show. We quickly fell into a languorous routine of starting the night by soaking up the soft and strikingly long sunsets, stretching out over the Gulf of Mexico, watching surfers drag their boards back along the beach while we quaffed mint julep cocktails from the excellently stocked bar at one of the Island’s most luxurious hotels: the Casa de las Tortugas. We’d talk about our activities: attempting kitesurfing, trekking to Mosquito bay, riding a golf buggy or simply dropping and flopping under a bamboo umbrella, perched on the cane-sugar sand. Prizing ourselves from the too-comfortable loungers, we would waltz to a restaurant, spiced margarita in hand, to soak up the booze in our bellies.

Holbox | Photo: The Free Birds

We were fortunate enough to try two of the highest rated restaurants on Holbox. At Luuma, platters filled with modern takes on classic Mexican flavours were punctuated with creative (and strong) cocktails. Buzzing, energetic and satisfying – the ambience matched the food, and gave us enough fuel to march down to beachfront hangout ‘Salma’ to dance off the calories under a yellow moon. The next night, we find ourselves at Piedrasanta, a stunning space annexed within its own secluded bay of the island. The cuisine is gourmet – as reflected by the price point, and as we connect and giggle over exquisite aguachile and delicate soft-shell crab, our swapping of stories of life back home makes me wish the night would never end. We end up at a street party spilling outside of local haunt ‘Hot Corner’, the DJ spinning a fusion of Latino Pop and Reggae beats, as we gawk at strangers bursting into breakdance on the clay streets. As always, I leave one eatery to be tried on my next visit: the famed El Chapulim, where the chef personally visits your table to tell you the menu that changes on a nightly basis, depending on available fresh produce. Oh well, you must leave something for a return.

Hungover mornings were a blur of swinging in hammocks, sipping on coconut water and finding relief in one of the restorative acai bowls, or over a plate of smashed avocado toast at the picture-worthy breakfast spot Painapel.

Photo: Pritham Bhatia

Photo: Pritham Bhatia

Before I make the long journey back to London via Mexico City, I ensure that I visit Nancy, the famed Reiki healer who has been based on the island for 15 years. Known as the ‘love doctor’, those in the know flock to her from all over the Globe, asking for her meditative hands to heal their hearts. The thousands of reviews for her on TripAdvisor make for an engrossing read: clients claim that she has patched up their souls after a breakup, helped them meet the love of their lives or rebuilt bridges in broken relationships. After my treatment, which involved placing crystals on different parts of my body, I wandered along the beach and found myself gazing at the fisherman tying the ropes of their fishing boats into knots, my back leaning against a swaying palm tree. Whether it’s Nancy’s hands, or the effects of this mysterious island, I feel something deep within my heart stir, and I’m ready to leave this romantic fantasy for reality back in London, refuelled and with a filled heart.

Nancy can currently be found through appointments only at the Casa Iguana.

Holbox | Photo: Michiel Ton

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