A hidden treasure lies just off the north coast of the Yucatán in the Gulf of Mexico, the island of Holbox. This is a magical spot; a haven for whale shark watchers, birders, fishermen and visitors who simply want to discover a different side of Mexico.
The adventure starts in the Gulf coast port of Chiquila where you board a boat to cross the Yalahau Lagoon separating Holbox from the mainland. During the 30-minute ride, look out for the dolphins that sometimes swim alongside the boat, cormorants, pelicans and lone osprey diving for fish.
Fishing boats rocking gently at their moorings along the wooden dock, sandy streets, wooden houses, thatched beachfront cabañas and hand-painted whale shark signs wherever you look, the rustic fishing village on Holbox has its own brand of Caribbean charm. Life has a slower pace here and a stroll along the shell-strewn white beach to watch the fishermen unloading their catch, with a trail of pelicans and gulls in hot pursuit is not to be missed.
Holbox is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, an area of mangroves, marshes and tropical forest rich in wildlife. Flamingos, herons and egrets feed in the lagoon, manatees have been sighted and jaguars still roam the jungles further inland.
Fishermen from Holbox and Chiquila offer bird watching trips in the area, crocodile spotting, fishing, excursions to Boca Iglesia, the ruins of a Spanish settlement from the early days of the Conquest, and the highlight for summer visitors, whale shark watching.
First stop for many boat trips is the Yalahau Cenote, an open cenote or pool in the mangroves that has an ojo de agua, a natural spring with fresh water bubbling up from an underground river. Then it’s on to Isla Pasión, a feeding ground for flamingos, herons, white and brown pelicans and cormorants.
You can spend hours relaxing on the beach or walking along the shoreline or you may decide to board a golf cart to explore the island. Start in the fishing village itself then head east for breathtaking views of white-sand beaches, the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands in the distance.
In late afternoon, the mangroves come alive with the sound of birds gathering to roost – a raucous chorus of squawks, honks, grunts and hisses. You’ll spot a variety of species including reddish and white egrets, blue and green heron, roseate spoonbills, ibis and pelicans.
Make sure you are back in the village in time for sunset on the beach, cocktails or an ice-cold beer in one of the palapa bars and fresh seafood for dinner. Occupying pride of place on local menus, your seafood choices range from lobster pizza or octopus carpaccio to ceviche and a feast of grilled fish and shrimp.
If you decide to rent a car and explore at your own pace or arrange a private tour, Holbox is a three-hour drive from Cancún (via Kantunilkin) and a 30-minute ferry ride from Chiquila on the Gulf coast. You may want to take time to call in at the villages en route: San Angel and Solferino, both members of the Puerta Verde community ecotourism network.
In San Angel you can visit traditional medicine and embroidery workshops, go mountain biking in the jungle, kayaking and bird watching in a nearby lagoon.
Solferino has a butterfly pavilion run by a group of local women and an orchid nursery in the shade of a towering ceiba tree that is reputed to be over 700 years old. A local legend tells that the immense tree is the home of the feared Xtabay, the beautiful serpent woman that appears to men in the jungle and bewitches them so that they lose their way and their minds.
A group of villagers also offer eco tours to a jungle camp where you can go zip lining and enjoy the view of the forest from a watchtower and a kayaking trip to El Corchal, a mysterious flooded forest in the middle of a lagoon in the savanna.
For information about trips to Holbox ask your Concierge; Puerta Verde community tour operators must be contacted in advance to book tours.