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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.