Out of Sight – Isla Holbox – Mexico

On Isla Holbox, there’s a beach so perfect it may not stay that way for long.

Before I get into what makes this sleepy, lost-in-time island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula so special, I should acknowledge what a certain set of Instagrammers, wannabe marketers, and editors on the hunt for a headline have been saying: Holbox is the Next Tulum.

There’s a seductive ease to the comparison, particularly for a travel writer like me looking to quickly telegraph the vibe of this place, where silver-gray pelicans sit on weathered wooden poles poking up from aqua-blue water, a faded-red fishing boat slowly hums through the gentle waves, and a Mexican yogi returns from her daily asana class with a bicycle basket full of tropical blooms.

But the parallels for Tulum pretty much end there: The island doesn’t have Mayan ruins a short drive away. It’s not overrun by boho-chic fashion types from New York and Los Angeles.

It hasn’t had a Noma pop-up, a hotel pop-up, a celebrity boot camp pop-up, or any land of pop-up, really. There’s basically nothing to do.

And that’s exactly what I like about it. Less than three hours from the insanity of Cancún—its all-inclusives, its two-for-one margs, its traffic, and its golf courses—Holbox is about as sleepy a spot as one can find nowadays, just a nature preserve, a stretch of beach, and a single small town, also called Holbox, that feels completely out of time.

Hammock in the water on Isla Holbox, Mexic

The question on everyone’s lips, though, is whether the island can hold on to what makes it unlike anything else.

Centuries ago, the area was a hideaway for pirates in search of fresh water. It later became an island of fishermen, whose multigenerational families put down deep roots.

More recently, Holbox became an idyll for people who wanted to disappear, where nothing much happened and expats and Mexicans alike would come to drop out and unplug.

Word of the place was quietly passed among friends and close-knit travel tribes, the way people used to talk about Comporta or Jose Ignacio or Los Roques.

Even the name itself, Mayan for “blackhole” and pronounced hol-BOSH, was (and remains) enchanting.

When the hotels arrived, they tended to look like Casa Sandra, a thoughtfully designed 18-room guesthouse opened in 2003 by Cuban artist Sandra Perez Lozano, who’s since become an unofficial spokeswoman for the island’s burgeoning focus on preservation.

“It will be a challenge to keep Holbox from becoming another Cancun or Riviera Maya,” she said. “But it’s definitely achievable. We all want this exceptional place to remain so.”

It is exceptional—and yet unassuming. Cheery shops like Hecho Con Amor selling homespun textiles alongside embroidered clothing and bags concentrate around the main plaza.

Open-air bars and restaurants like Basico Cocina de Playa and cafes like Tierra Mia serving fresh-pressed juice and coffee spill out onto sandy streets from behind pastel storefronts and hand-painted signs.

Guacamole dish on Isla Holbox restaurant

Locals do their daily shopping at the fruit-and-vegetable market and at the family-run tortilleria, where tasty corn masa is carefully pressed into perfect little disks.

There’s a whitewashed church that has Mass on Sundays and feast days, and little Virgin Mary shrines turn up along the beach.

But if you walk just 10 minutes away from town, you are remarkably alone, occasionally passing the fuchsia pink flamingos that live here or, like I did, a local teenage couple canoodling in quiet isolation.

Of course, developers are scheming to capitalize on this raw stretch of Mexican beach, despite its protected status as part of the Yum Balam Reserve, a federal designation that should keep it from being built up.

Ambitious plans for a new megaresort called La Ensenada—with as many as 900 villas, plus multiple hotels and restaurants—are seemingly on hold after the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources said they didn’t pass muster; other, smaller hotels have also had their proposals rejected by the agency.

Meanwhile, hoteliers like Perez Lozano and locals not directly involved in the tourism industry have organized a grassroots movement to preserve the island’s natural beauty.

Officially, buildings can’t be taller than 40 feet, gray water is treated for reuse, and recycling rules are strictly enforced.

“Business owners and townspeople can unite and create projects that consider both the aesthetics and the infrastructure,” says Perez Lozano, contrasting what’s happening here with the build-it-fast, come- what-may development seen elsewhere in the country.

At stake are both the future of the island’s fragile ecosystem and its slowly growing profile among travelers perpetually scouting for the next destination.

One night this past January, I stopped in at the Casa Las Tortugas, the attitude-free hotel that in many ways put Holbox on the map for intrepid travelers looking for the sweet spot between low-key and design conscious.

Beach view on Isla Holbox, Mexico

 

Opened by transplanted Italian Francesca Golinelli and her husband, Patrick Wiering, a former pro kite surfer, the property has a yoga studio behind a Buddha head statue, arrows printed on floorboards pointing the way to the bar, traditional Mexican tiles, and dining tables made from old doors. The hotel is, I have to admit, the sort of place you’d be thrilled to find in Tulum.

Out on the beach, simple palapa-like umbrellas provide shade from the blazing sun, fairy lights hang between palm trees, and double day beds swing between recycled wood poles. The rhythm is incredibly soporific.

Guests slowly make their way to the sea, long lunches turn into shaded siestas under slowly moving fans in whitewashed rooms, and watching the sunset with a margarita before dressing for dinner becomes the day’s main event.

The restaurant here is a destination in its own right, serving ceviche with perfectly tangy purple onions and rare mezcals from small producers.

With the sun already below the horizon, I’m thinking back to my conversation with Perez Lozano. “This is a place without the contaminations of city life,’’ she said, “where mass-market brands and fast food don’t exist, where children can run around town, just as children used to.

Everyone is really connected to nature. They go watch the sunset every night, like a ritual.’’ Whether it will endure is an open question—but I’m now one of the converts who pray it will.

Getting There

Drive two hours from Cancun to the port of Chiquila, park your car, then take the 15-minute ferry ride to the town of Holbox; boats go every half hour during the day.

Once on island, it’s easy to get around by golf cart taxi (fares are cheap) or bike (your hotel can set you up); nothing is farther than a few miles.

Stay

Casa Las Tortugas has 24 simple but well- done rooms, pi us a courtyard pool, yoga studio, restaurant, and bar, and its own stretch of beach. Its restaurant, Mandarina Beach Club, which serves chilaquiles verdes and enchiladas, is one of the best on the island. Beachfront Casa Sandra has spacious suites, many with stand-alone tubs.

Eat and Drink

Rosa Mexicano—no relation to the chain—is a rollicking restaurant that serves coconut shrimp and octopus with black- bean relish. Luuma, a hip but unstudied sandy- floor spot lit by tea candles, does blended tequila cocktails and fresh seafood tapas platters. Viva Zapata Grill is a must for mezcal cocktails and live music.


Mexico City – A Thriving Metropolis

Mexico City is known for its inclusive vibe, vibrant cultural offerings, varied architecture, and exploding culinary scene.

A hub for entertainment, Mexico City attracts only 8 the best of the best. Renowned musicians from around the world Global sporting events like Formula One.

Big businesses that come to town for meetings and conventions. There is so much to do and see. It is no wonder that Mexico City is a popular Latin American destination.

Between October 31 and November 2, The Day of the Dead holiday is celebrated -a tradition that dates back more than 3.000 years. The festivities begin with an enormous parade in which locals, adorned in different colorful native garb, march through the streets.

The Day of the Dead on the streets of Mexico City

The celebration continues with the exposition of hundreds of traditional alters that are made to honor deceased loved ones. This ritual is a highlight of the year.

The arts and culture scene of Mexico City is also a reason why it is one of the most important destinations in the country.

It’s home to a plethora of museums as well as classic and contemporary architecture—a mix of pre-hispanic and colonial, European and modern structures.

The culinary scene is sublime as well. The flavor profiles that come from the chefs of Mexico City merge traditional Mexican cuisine with other worldly dishes.

And as if all this weren’t enough. Mexico City is also filled with opportunities to experience thrilling adventure activities-from kayaking through the canals of Xochimilco to conquering the largest climbing wall in Latin America to cycling through the city.

There is really something for everyone.


merida mexico

Lovely Merida, Mexico

The Yucatán capital draws travelers looking beyond the beach.

On a Sunday Night in Mérida people gathered on Plaza Grande, the cultural center of the Yucatecan capital, strolling about or sitting in the “conversation chairs” that dot the plaza. I’d been told there would be dancing and arrived to find hundreds of older local couples already in full swing, filling the cobblestoned street in front of the town’s main municipal building. I was clearly the only nonlocal there, and couples smiled at me as I moved through the crowd with my camera.

Plaza Grande - Merida

Plaza Grande – Merida

I visited Mérida in late April, when the temperatures were quite hot. But I was happy to make the tradeoff, as I would see very few other travelers during my week there, and I welcomed settling into an appropriately slow pace. The city, noteworthy for its French and Spanish colonial architecture, offers a culturally rich – and increasingly popular – foil to the Yucatán’s traditional beach destinations. It has also earned the designation of Cultural Capital of the Americas for 2017. With these bona fides come great dining, diverting day trips, and beautiful hotels as well.

Forward-thinking diners need to find K’u’uk, a restaurant where old and new regional traditions collide. Housed in a nineteenth-century mansion with lovely architectural details, the restaurant employs molecular gastronomy methods (there’s even a high-tech lab) and provides a dramatic dining experience. By contrast, there’s no fancy plating at the Mercado Municipal Lucas de Gálvez, where locals gather at lunch, crowding around tiny interior tables. Vendors offer fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and stacks of warm tortillas.

There are attractions outside town too. About an hour east of Mérida, the small town of Izamal literally glows: The buildings in the older district are painted a deep yellow, with a historic convent rising up above all else. In Parque Zamna, traditional horse-drawn carriages sit idle, their drivers chatting among themselves in the cool of the shade.

Parque Zamna - Izamal

Parque Zamna – Izamal

Back in Mérida, I plotted a return with my partner. She’d love the cultural history of the town, and I hoped to eat my way through the menu I’d photographed at K’u’uk. I suppose I’d concede to coming a few weeks earlier in the season if it meant cooler weather. We’d just be prepared to dance with the locals on Sunday night and let the tourists photograph us.

Tip

“Try the boutique breakfast café Kii’wik, from the chef and owner of K’u’uk. Néctar, by renowned Mexican chef Roberto Solís, is another great contemporary restaurant, and his alfresco Almíbar is the nicest spot for drinks. At Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, don’t miss the tortas de cochinita (pork marinated in spicy achiote) and lechón (baby pork confit).”

Stay

Hacienda Xcanatún

Hacienda Xcanatún

Set on a former eighteenth century sisal estate eight miles north of Mérida’s historic center, Hacienda Xcanatún has 18 rooms and suites with marble floors and wood-beamed ceilings, and a spa with garden views. Doubles from $247, including breakfast daily and a 50-minute massage for two.

Located 45 minutes south of Mérida, Hacienda Temozon offers 28 guest rooms and suites (each outfitted with a sleeping hammock in addition to its bed) along with a formal garden. Perhaps the best pursuit of all here is swimming in the private cenote. Doubles from $166, including breakfast daily, a complimentary lunch or dinner for two, a signature drink at check-in, and a welcome amenity from the Haciendas Workshop.

Go

National Geographic Expeditions’ nine-day Mesoamerica tour takes adventurers through Mayan jungles that are home to pyramids, temples, and long hidden murals. Destinations range from colonial Mérida to ancient outposts such as Tikal, Palenque, and Chichén Itzá, ending in Guatemala City. Departures: February 23, November 9, and December 29; from $5,995.

An eight-day private tour of the Yucatán Peninsula from Artisans of Leisure highlights Mayan ruins, beaches, local cuisine or cooking lessons, a visit to a flamingo sanctuary, snorkeling, and market explorations, from inland Mérida to beachside Tulum. Accommodation options include Hacienda Xcanatún and Rosewood Mayakoba. Departures: Any day through 2017; from $10,500.