Holbox: island of whale sharks and bioluminescence

I’m a big fan of islands, and Holbox is no exception. Fortunately, it is still relatively under the radar. That may be because it is relatively hard to reach (a flight to Cancun, followed by a 2-hour shuttle ride to Chiquilá, followed by a 30 min ferry ride to the island). A few hours away from Cancun, it is a different world. With few cars on the island (mostly used by locals/for construction), most people use golf carts (unfortunately there are many of these), bike or walk to get around.

But the real draw here is a few dozen miles offshore. Every summer, from May through September, there is an abundance of plankton in the waters northeast of Holbox, which in turns draws hundreds of whale sharks. Whale sharks, for those who have not yet been inundated with photos of the spotted, majestic beasts on social media, are the largest fish and are filter feeders, their favourite food consisting of plankton and small fish. Along with them arrive boat trips from both Holbox and Isla Mujeres with tourists ready to jump in and snorkel with the sharks. Most of these tours follow the same script: two tourists in at any given time with a guide, pairs swapping out every few minutes. You’ll get 2-3 chances to swim with the sharks, which feels like not enough when you’ve spent a couple of hours on a boat getting there. I’d recommend getting together a group and chartering your own boat so that you can spend your time as you wish.

On the return, most boats will stop at Bahia Ceviche, a fantastically beautiful patchwork of long colours blending into each other—beige into blue into green into rose. It’s a beautiful spot from which to watch the resident flamingoes bend and straighten their thin legs in a gracious dance as they feed in the surrounded waters.

Our hotel was the stunningly designed and intimate Punta Caliza, and it was surprisingly easy to settle into a calmer rhythm where our only concern became when to order our next round of margaritas. The other guests at the hotel included a family of four from New York, with an incredibly funny Mom who would include us in her jokes, a gay couple with an architectural wonder on Fire Island, and a mother and daughter, who happened to share a birthday with my friend while we were on the island. The staff graciously created a drink special in honour of their birthdays and offered 2 for 1 on it all afternoon. Breakfast was included and was always a creative affair, ranging from the sweet to the savoury, and the staff were happy to make adjustments as needed.

We also enjoyed the cocktails and small bites at nearby Luuma, and Milpa (reservations required) for fun, inventive, more upscale food and cocktails. But by far the best meal on the island was had at El Chapulim, where we wished we had had more time to return. Skippable is Barba Negra, where the tacos sounded good, but missed the mark and took a very long time to arrive, despite us being some of the only customers, as well as Casa las Tortugas—a beautiful hotel with nice views from the rooftop, but the cocktails were too sweet and the service lacking.

Unfortunately, Holbox is also one of the buggiest places I’ve been—any spot I missed with the mosquito repellent was promptly found by mosquitos. If I didn’t reapply repellent frequently, I was also tracked down and tormented by the mosquitos.

One evening after it was completely dark, we decided to brave the mosquitos and walked east along the shore until we had passed all the hotels and restaurants, and around us was only the sea and the jungle. Wading into the water, we were surrounded by flashes of bright blue bioluminescence from the plankton, which releases light when disturbed. We went for a quick dip, amazed at the sky full of stars blinking overhead and the lights surrounding us in the water. For just a few days, we escaped the hustle of New York and discovered the small paradise of Holbox. Go before it’s too late.

Packing list

  • Copious amounts of mosquito repellent
  • Bathing suit
  • Mask & snorkel

Where to stay

Hotel Punta Caliza

Where to eat & drink

Ceviches la Chingada


Milpa (reservations required)

El Chapulim


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Happy #wildbumming!

Vanessa Janowski

Vanessa Janowski