Holbox: Far from the Madding Crowd

By Patricia Alisau

A view of the island from the ferry. Photo credit: Patricia AlisauThe hook jiggled. “Fish,” I shouted, signaling the crew that I had a bite.

Too late, too slow, the hook was empty when I pulled it in, a sure sign that a fish smarter than me had snatched the bait and swum off. A few more tries and I caught one, which was headed to the pot for lunch. This was old school fishing in Holbox (pronounced Hole- Bosh in Mayan) using a fishing line wrapped around my fingers in place of a rod and reel, which made it simple and extremely low tech.

Primitive? Fun? “Yes,” to both.

All seven of us aboard the boat hooted and clapped each time someone snagged a fish , small that they were, but which made short work of the bait of sardines. Fresh cerviche was on the menu and our guide, Vicente, did the honors. A classical dish in Mexico, it was made from our catch of clownfish and jewfish marinated in lime juice, topped with diced onion plus that extra dash of something only native cooks know about. I sighed contentedly as I cradled my food bowl in my lap while the small craft bobbed lazily up and down in the sea. This was a much-needed break for me from the distractions of living in a big city.

Chefs at the food festival. Photo Credit: Patricia AlisauAfter lunch, the next stop was tiny Yum Balam (Lord Jaguar), where islanders were standing deep in the shallows netting blue-shelled crabs bound for local fish markets. An inviting cenote was awaiting us for a plunge into its cool natural pool of blue and jade-green waters. Later, we swung by a bird sanctuary, part of a protected Biosphere. Some of the pelicans, hawks, sea gulls and the occasional albatross followed the boat for a while as it headed back to the Holbox shore. Then it was time to explore on land.

This tiny island 16 miles long northwest of Cancun lies at the northern point of the Yucatan Peninsula between the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Not heavily touristed, it has one town, it’s rustic and off the beaten track as much as Cancun is the go-to resort in the Mexican Caribbean and the epitome of contemporary luxury.

For years, it’s been a haven for fishing and bird watching and lovers of tranquility. Flamingoes nest and fly free in the estuaries and whale sharks migrate to its waters May through September when visitors can sign up with local outfitters to swim with the docile mammals. Population numbers are low at around 2,600 inhabitants.

There are no paved roads, nor stoplights but plenty of golf carts, most of which have seen better days and which have a second life as taxis, just about the only motorized vehicles allowed. Once in a while one of them will succumb to a mud hole after a heavy rain, but the amiable drivers are accustomed to jumping out and wading through the soupy muck to push from behind while their passengers stay high and dry. They may even offer you a free ride for the delay. Service at its best, I thought.

Speaking of rain, when it gets wet there seems to be as many bugs as inhabitants because, after all, you’re surrounded by jungle and mangroves. Local shops sell plenty of bug spray if you run out but it’s wise to pack some before you arrive to ward off the dive-bombing creatures or chiquistes in the local parlance.

Vicente serves cerviche from our catch on board the boat. Photo credit: Patricia AlisauA history worthy of a romance novel, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Holbox became the lair of pirates, who found it convenient to hide in its coves to launch attacks on passing galleons sailing to and from Mexico. Its fate changed near the end of the 19th century when Mayans, fleeing the bloody War of Castes in other parts of the Yucatan, took over the island. Instead of plundering ships, they started to make a living at shark fishing.

Dining on shark may have been the only option back then, but, today, the island restaurants have a more diverse menu. In fact, this is put on display at the International Food Festival each year where restaurateurs from all over the country as well as the locals gather at open-air food booths to show off their best dishes. The most recent event, which I was privy to, featured seafood with an emphasis on Holbox octopus where chefs turned up 16 different recipes. And while people noshed on the food, the festival got underway with Mexican pop singers and rock bands with entertainment stretching way into the night. The whole affair, I noticed, was like a village fete where everybody knew each other and food and drink never seemed to run out.

After all was said and done, it wasn’t hard to see how the charm of the island worked its magic on visitors.

Rustic furnishings at Villas Flamingos. Photo Credit: Patricia AlisauA Bed for the Night

When a 20-something Alejandro Canedo became restless with urban life, he started searching for a more idyllic place to put down roots. The Mexico City native found it in Holbox. He built a modest hotel, which eventually blossomed into the Villas Flamingos. A far cry from the original that had no air–conditioning nor indoor plumbing, today’s 30-room beach hideaway not only has them, but also, a few luxury perks such as plunge pools, hot tubs, gracious rustic furnishings and outdoor showers. There are neither in-room TVs nor phones, which adds to the tranquility. Local outings for those who want to be more active can also be booked at the hotel. www.villasflamingos.com.

How to Get There

Holbox makes a nice side trip from Cancun. Otherwise, the nearest airport is Cancun, where travelers can board a 5-passenger plane for a 20-minute ride to the island. Otherwise, you can book a van for a 2 ½ hour drive from the airport to Chiquila where ferries cross to the island in about 20 minutes.

For information about the three-day food fair this year, go to www.holboxgastronomia.com.

For Holbox, www.cancun.travel.

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