Our time in Mexico is starting to wind down and we are setting our sights on what comes next. But first we have a few more things we want to do so we are busy fitting them all in. Isla Holbox is raved about by many, primarily for the possibility of swimming with the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark. So when our friends, Sherry and Mark, asked about a joint trip to the island with their kids (the same ones who went to jungle camp with Zoe), we were all in.
There are a lot of places to stay on the island but we know a bit about tropical islands from our 3 trips to Bocas del Toro in Panama. We knew not to be fooled by the “we don’t have air conditioning but the fresh tropical breeze will keep you nice and cool” that some hotels like to wax poetic about on their websites. That’s
a bald faced lie not our experience. So we found a hotel that had both A/C and a pool. Each family reserved a little bungalow and off we went last Tuesday.
To get to Holbox you have to drive about 2 hours northeast of Cancun to get to a tiny town of Chiquila. Panama peeps, it’s pretty much like Almirante, the jumping-off town to Bocas del Toro. We knew what to expect and we were not disappointed. I’m sure there are very nice people living there but other than a place to park your car there’s not a lot to see or do.
We didn’t take our car over to Holbox because there are no cars allowed on the island. The island is 45 km long and 2 km wide. People get around using golf carts, motorcycles and bikes. There are no paved roads, they are all compacted dirt covered with powdered sand. Sherry and Mark and family arrived via bus from Playa del Carmen and we met up in Chiquila and hopped on the ferry, which was thankfully a nice big ferry with guys who stowed your luggage for you. It takes about 20 minutes to get to Holbox and it was a smooth, air conditioned ride. You may be thinking “We are only 4 paragraphs into this blog and two of them mention air conditioning?” and you would be right. It’s summer here and it’s HOT. And humid. So air conditioning is a big deal and plays prominently into our visit on Holbox. And life in general in Mexico right now. So we land on Holbox, get a taxi in the form of a golf cart and off we go to our hotel, named Xaloc Resort. It exceeded expectations in terms of it’s cuteness and had a very nice pool for the kids about 3 steps from our cabin. Getting a hotel with a pool was one of those decisions that we look back on and go “What would we have done without it?”. It was MVP for the trip.
Activity #1 was, you guessed it, the pool. Really? Sherry and Mark have a pool at their condo in Playa del Carmen and we have a pool in our backyard. But have our kids used them anytime recently? Noooo. But what do our kids want to do the minute we drop off our luggage? The pool. Well, it was hot so we could hardly say no, so off we go to the pool. A few minutes later when the sweet pool boy showed up and asked if we wanted any drinks we knew we had made the right decision.
The main draw to the island for us was the opportunity to swim with whale sharks, so after the pool time we started working on our plans to get a tour for the next day. We had been told to be sure and get a boat with two motors. What?! I was shocked that the two-motor worry had never come up in all my time
worrying exploring islands. I was so disappointed in myself. How had I missed a first-class worry??? We went to the tour company recommended by a friend (Moguel Tours) and learned that for only $16 more (total, not per person) we could get a private boat – with two motors – for just our two families. Sold, to the sweaty gringos! We arranged to start the next day at 8:30am and be picked up at the beach across from our hotel. Es bueno. The tour was $72 per person (wayyy too expensive according to Dan) and we are not talking pesos. Yeah, it’s not cheap but sometimes you just gotta go all-in. #doitforthewhalesharks
We went to dinner at Restaurante Viva Zapata, which was recommended by our tour organizer. We think it might be owned by his family member because based on 7 out of 8 meals, it was not anything worth recommending and in fact should be avoided. But we loved the ambiance and the free bug spray that they gave us. Then we noticed it was starting to rain. Hard. Of course this is happening right as we were leaving. We tried to stay dry for a bit but soon gave up and walked out in it, finally succumbing to walking directly through puddles instead of trying to dodge them. The puddles are huge, they take up the entire street, which I will remind you is 1) dirt and 2) not very wide. With no pavement comes no potholes but there are still enough dips in the dirt to make it a very rough ride or at the very least a walk that you need to do with some light. And you just never know what is at the bottom of the puddles. I could swear some of those puddles were the size of cenotes.
After the bland dinner and confirming all our tour info, we walked back to our hotel while the rain slacked off. We weren’t sure if we were wet from sweat or rain or bug spray but that didn’t really matter. Nothing else mattered when Dan and I realized our Colossal Mistake: we had turned off the A/C in our room. We thought it cooled down our room fairly quickly that afternoon but turns out it only FEELS cool when you are just coming in from the pool. When you are coming in from World’s Hottest Rainstorm, it’s not so cool. We were all sooo hot. Even Haley walked around the room saying “Lawdy lawdy lawdy!”.
We learned that if you stood right in front of the A/C, naked, didn’t move nor have any part of your body touching anyone else or any other part of your own body, you might feel mildly comfortable. There will be no pictures to illustrate that point. But that activity was kind of hard for 4 of us to do in front of a mini split of an A/C about 1 meter wide. So finally we had to give up and just get ourselves to bed to rest up for our big day on the ocean. At breakfast we learned that Sherry’s A/C works better than ours, and in fact she was freezing the whole night. We told her that if ours continued to suck, we would be sleeping with her that night. No lie. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
We were thankful for clear skies, tried to eat a big breakfast to ward off any seasickness and off we went. The boat ride out to where the whale sharks usually hang out was about 2 hours, and the tour guides told us very clearly that we may see 1 whale shark, we may see 30 or we may see none. These are a protected species, we don’t interfere with them in any way, and we just go where they hang out and swim around them. Depending on the year sometimes the ride to see the whale sharks is less. It just depends on where they are hanging out and finding their food. We were ready and we preempted any sickness with Dramamine. It made my kids sleepy, which was fine because it helped pass the time. It also helped that the ocean was incredibly calm the day we went out. Sherry was ready to teach me all kinds of ways of managing my anxiety but turns out it was not necessary at all. Es bueno. Some special friends in Panama will remember that Allison’s Biggest Meltdown came on a small boat in some
gigantic medium sized waves in Bocas del Toro. So this is not my first rodeo. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself.
I was impressed with our tour guides. There was one guy who was the captain and one guy who was the guide. The guide spent a lot of time up on top of the captain’s area, looking for whale sharks maybe? The captain had a CB radio and after about an hour and a half of boating there was all kinds of squawking going on with the radio. The tour guides from all the different companies communicate with each other on where the whale sharks are so they can take their fellow tourists there. I appreciated the cooperation for the greater good of the tourists who paid a big chunk o’ change to do this tour and by gosh we wanted to see some of those whale sharks!
So we see a whole buncha boats gathered in one area, we are told to get our snorkel stuff ready and we pull up and see SO. MANY. FINS. There were TONS of whale sharks! Probably 30-40 of them in this small area. There are just as many boats, but it’s a big area so there is plenty of room for everyone. Evidently these animals tend to hang out where the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico meet, where the plankton is plentiful. The sharks swim just below the surface with their huge mouths open, just sweeping up plankton. And us, well we just swim around them. We are not allowed to feed them or touch them or get too close, but they didn’t seem to care that we were there. We jumped in a few people at a time and the guide held my hand, and I held Haley’s, and he swam us around the animals. Some were small and others were longer than our boat. They were amazingly graceful and so beautiful.
We all took turns swimming with them a few times. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. I love them! When we were back on the boat and it was Zoe’s turn we kept seeing her swimming directly above the fins! It was truly a fantastic experience. She had absolutely no fear around these HUGE animals. The guide was there to help you get close but you didn’t need him if you didn’t want him. This experience was nothing like the swimming with dolphins that Haley and I did once in Hawaii. For one, this is totally out in the ocean, where the whale sharks happen to be naturally. When you get in the water you just swim around and all of a sudden you might see one swim under you, or pass you, or next to you. The guide was helpful in spotting them and taking us over for a closer look with more confidence than I had. He was also a better spotter than we were. But the whale sharks just swim around and sometimes you cross paths and other times you are frantically looking for your reverse gear on your fins because you are directly in the line of a large whale shark mouth!!! We were all amazed with the entire experience. You can check out Dan’s video at the bottom of this blog but it still doesn’t do it justice, it was just so amazing. I could probably stop this blog post right here because that was the high point of the island trip. But loyal readers might like to know about the rest of our little journey. Love you loyal readers!!
During our time getting from one place to the next we saw a lot of dolphins and for the first time ever I saw flying fish! I didn’t even know they existed now I do and they really do fly! They were so cool. They were too quick to get a picture of but here’s one from the internet that I’m sure I’m not supposed to use but whatevs. #riskybusiness
The next part of the tour was fishing so we left for parts unknown to fish. We weren’t all that interested in this part, but Tali and Zoe were pretty curious so we went along with the plan. In short order the tour guide caught a red snapper although he tried to pretend that Tali caught it. Tali did hold the pole for a few minutes while the tour guide reeled it in. We tried for
way too long awhile to catch another fish but it wasn’t happening so we gave up. One fairly good sized red snapper was good enough for the two people who ate fish on that boat. No need to be excessive, ya’ll.
Then the guides drove us to a place that’s common for snorkeling. We all got out and snorkeled around for awhile. While we did that the guides made us ceviche with our newly-caught red snapper! Then they discarded the parts of the snapper that we weren’t going to eat into the ocean. This was not only a good way to get rid of it, but it attracted all kinds of animals! Lots of fish came to eat it, then two turtles were fighting over the fish carcass (big turtles!) and then a very large manta ray showed up and decided he needed a piece! It was so cool!!! We also saw all kinds of starfish and other sea plants. I am a huge fan of snorkeling now. It’s like a never-ending treasure hunt. I loved it. I could snorkel for hours.
So after snorkeling we reluctantly got back on the boat and went to a sand dune to park and eat our ceviche. That was fine, but there were
a thousand about 10 other boats there too, all doing exactly the same thing. So at this point it’s feeling very touristy. But we obliged. We are, after all, tourists. We ate ceviche (well, a few of us did, the others ate the leftover pizza that we got the night before) and walked on the sand dune for awhile. The sand was slimy with algae and the catfish were very aggressive off the side of the boat, eating discarded ceviche (and potato chips). That wasn’t the highlight of the tour for us but we were all still so enthusiastic about our whale shark swimming and turtle and manta ray spotting that we didn’t care too much. #whalesharkhigh
Seven hours of sun and wind and boating were plenty so we returned to the hotel for a nice long swim. Somehow the kids still had plenty of energy to make up all kinds of pool games that they played for hours. The adults spent a lot of time in the pool to cool off, took advantage of the pool boy again and finally had a little inside time before dinner. #nap
This time, before dinner, we did some research on a better restaurant and, most importantly, Dan and I left our A/C going full blast. We had a great dinner at a hotel down the street while we watched the sun set over the water, we explored town a bit and got some ice cream and the kids played in the town square. Do they ever stop playing??? Who knows. But the kids hanging out together was one of the major benefits of doing this trip with another family. Our four kids are different ages (Finn and Tali are both 12), but all 4 of them got along so well. They would all play together, or sometimes mix and match, not always pairing up with the same counterpart from the other family. It really was an excellent match of a family to travel with. Sherry and Mark are leaving in 4 days and will be moving to Kiev, Ukraine so we’re definitely going to miss them. But we’ll be seeing them when we get to Europe. So it’s not a final goodbye.
After returning from our lovely night out we were off to bed with plans to meet up the next morning and rent golf carts and do a little more exploring. The guys went off at 9am to get the carts for the day. We all knew better than to put on real clothes so we threw on our still-wet swimsuits with some clothes over them and off we went to explore. It was so hot. Oh, and have I mentioned the mosquitoes? They were everywhere. From the moment we sat down to lunch after getting off the ferry until the moment we returned to the ferry, we had to be either doused in DEET or be completely covered in mosquitoes. Thankfully this is not Zika territory, and they are still better than the no-see-ems that bit us in Panama, but they were VERY annoying nonetheless. Zoe counted over 50 bites when we got back to Cancun. Interestingly enough, Dan didn’t get bit. He never does. I wish we could bottle whatever he’s got that prevents mosquito bites.
We explored the island by golf cart, which turned out to be a rather short trip. We were told to park our carts at the river and not take them further, but we could walk further. So we tried that for awhile, trying to get to where we hear the flamingos hang out. But it didn’t take long before we were all toast. Active days, combined with getting up early, combined with heat, humidity and bugs. Yeah, we were done. Mark said it felt like he was in the army again, and he didn’t want to be in the army again. We found a nice area to stop for a drink and we all waded into the ocean, which is really not all that cold but it’s colder than the air so we’ll take what we can get. Too bad the ocean washed off all the DEET.
We found a place for lunch called Ukulele Grill and Zoe begged us to eat there in honor of her upcoming ukulele recital. We oblige but after finding out that the extensive menu we see on the walls is only for dinner, and the waiter spent 5 minutes trying desperately to get us to order hotcakes for lunch, we decided it was not a good fit. But Zoe gave an impromptu concert of her Somewhere Over The Rainbow song with her ukulele and the waiter and the hotcake-making cook were quite impressed.
We found a place for a tasty lunch, followed by a mad dash back to the hotel for the pool. We could not get in that pool fast enough. It was just so hot, we were all barely hanging on. But alas, the pool saves the day and we enjoyed our dip until it was time to catch the ferry back and head home.
Someone told me that people either love Holbox or they hate Holbox. It’s hard to put ourselves in just one of those categories. We loved the experiences we had: a lot of great times in the pool, hanging out with a great family, the whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, beautiful sunset and gorgeous ocean, and so much more. And they were really memorable days. But as for the actual island, well, we aren’t necessarily fans. It was a bit tough to enjoy, with the heat, the dirt/mud, the bumpy torn-up roads and those darn mosquitoes. But Holbox would be a great place for people who need to decompress from a busy work-life and just lie by the pool, take a whale shark tour, lie on the beach and stroll into town, not caring about the heat. We are not those people. So while we recommend the experience for the hearty souls out there, we don’t need to go back.
In just a few hours, we found ourselves back in our comfortable house in Cancun and got our A/C going the minute we walked in the door. We cleaned up, went to our favorite (air conditioned) steak place for dinner and returned home to a cool, quiet house. Home sweet home…for 6 more weeks. We’ll enjoy it while we’ve got it. Especially that A/C. #priorities
P.S. Here’s a video we’ve put together of our encounter with the whale sharks.