Wednesday, 4 January 2017

10 things to eat, see and do in Holbox, Mexico

The jetty holbox, Mexico

Holbox is a small, tick-shaped island off the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. It is still fairly unspoilt: no cars, no skyscrapers, no chain hotels. The accommodation available suits all budgets from high-end (Las Nubes) to mid-range (Casa Maya) to hostels. The place is so small, you can cover it in a day, then explore in detail at your own speed. If, like me, you come from a busy city, it'll take a few days to slow down to local pace. Wi-fi is patchy - the wind changes and it's gone - so take books or a Kindle. Sip margaritas while swinging in the breeze on a hammock or a bar swing. 

When it comes to the food, you can also go high or go low. From posh cheffy restaurants and fine dining to humble eating houses and street stalls, the cooks use local ingredients and Mayan Indian culinary know-how. The Mayan Indians are my kind of people: small, round, and with a large appetite for food.

I spent eight days there; the last four were cooler and more windy, which I enjoyed. (Menopausal.) This is the ultimate place to zone out and properly relax. I just hope that big business plans to develop Holbox don't happen. It mustn't change.

colourful restaurants, holbox,yucatan, mexico

1. Eat.

Restaurants and street stalls

Las Panchas is not only cheap, but also the best authentically local restaurant on Holbox. No fusion to be found here.
las pachas restaurant  holbox,yucatan, mexico
las panchas,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
las pachas restaurant,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
Las Panchas,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
El Sabor de las Nubes (below) at Hotel Las Nubes at the far end of the beach is a little more expensive but has high-end Mexican and European cooking and excellent cocktails. You can also feed the raccoons, which is fun and slightly scary.
vegetarian option at Las Nubes,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
raccoons,  las nubes, holbox,yucatan, mexico
tamarind margarita, las nubes hotel,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
Casa Maya hotel bar (below), open only during the day when I was there, served fantastic fare. Chilaquiles verde, aka nachos for breakfast, became the new normal. (Make them at home with my chilaquiles recipe.)
casa maya restaurant  holbox,yucatan, mexico
salsa verde cooking, tomatillos, casa maya,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
Viva Zapata is a cool place for a beer and something to eat. The bar has swings. But the margaritas can be overly sweet, apparently due to tourists' tastes. I like 'em sour.
viva zapata food,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
Market and food shops. There is a small fresh market every morning, a tortilleria and other food shops. Fishermen will happily sell their catch to you.
chicken shop,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
santa teresa tortilleria,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
fisherman,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
On Sundays, it is traditional to eat cochinita pibilwhich is pig marinated in achiote and sour orange and cooked Mayan-style slowly over a wood fire, or traditionally in a fire pit covered with banana leaves. It takes a long time to cook so it's a once-a-week treat, accompanied by red pickled onions and yellow habanero sauce. 

There are two main stalls to buy it in Holbox. Local residents Juan and Alexandra spend all Saturday night making it in their back yard (below).  Cooks from Cancún travel to Holbox on Sundays, setting up a stall in a side alley in a street near the market (further below).

cochinita prices,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
jose and alexandra make cochinita pibil,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
cochinita pibil,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
Sunday morning cochonita pibil,  holbox,yucatan, mexico

Street food

El Changarrito Street Stall, just back from the beach. Incredibly fresh fish.
El Changarrito Street Stall, Holbox beach, Mexico
You will also see wandering carts or school kids selling a plastic bowl of food their mum has made. Do try it: the cooking is excellent and it costs pennies. Tamales, below, tend to be made in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
tamales done in banana leaves,holbox, mexico
School girl selling street food, holbox mexico
At night, street stalls are set up in the main square, where you can get a drink and a snack.
Holbox , Mexico


Holbox beach, Mexico
I liked a bar on the beach, just before Hotel Las Nubes, part of the hotel Villas Flamingas. The hammocks were actually in the water. 
The Hot Corner bar in Holbox.

The Hot Corner is a nightspot for drinks, where dancing can spill over into the street. Rumour has it you can buy some weed nearby if you ask around.

2. Eat the freshest, bestest ceviche in the world.

I highly recommend a fishing boat trip with these super cool, tanned wiry guys in their 60s, who help you land a fish and make it into ceviche. I caught a small one and carefully undid the hook from its cheek, throwing it back. We made it on the boat with lime, red onion, fresh coriander, a little habanero and salt. I stood beside the boat in cataract blue water, my legs being nibbled by gaping catfish, while I gobble two consecutive bowls. This is the best ceviche I've had in my life. I'm dismayed when they pour the tiger milk into the water, yelping:
I wanted to drink that!
But the catfish go crazy for it, leaping out of the water, their flat wide mouths gaping, whiskers quivering. They obviously don't mind a bit of habanero chilli.
fishing trip,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
fishing trip,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
fishing trip,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
ceviche on a boat,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
ceviche  holbox,yucatan, mexico

3. Go on boat trips.

You can visit adjacent islands on boat trips; thrillingly, along the way, dolphins black backs arching, followed us. Go to the Isla de Pajaros (Island of the Birds) to see the pink flamingos and pelicans. On Isla Passion, there is a good fish barbecue, where you can eat lunch after taking a dip in the cenote, a fresh water pool. You will also see mangroves, amphibian trees with roots that grow above still water, and small crocodiles. 
isla de pájaros,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
 holbox,yucatan, mexico
mangroves, holbox, mexico

4. See the wildlife.

Holbox has seasons for wildlife, but the birds and fish are always there to see. Part of the island is a protected wildlife area, Yum Balam. 

  • Flamingos: Although I'd just missed the big season, which must be a spectacular blur of fluo pink, I still got to see a few. April - October.
  • Whale sharks: I didn't see this, but Holbox has one of the largest populations of whale sharks, which feed on plankton and are therefore harmless. Go early in the morning before they disappear into deeper waters in the afternoon. June - mid-September.
  • Catfish: They can be seen and felt (nibbling at your legs) in the shallows.
  • Snorkelling: Not the best, being in the gulf of Mexico rather than the Caribbean. The water is iridescent green and slightly cloudy rather than clear and turquoise. But it's possible to take a boat out to some areas for a nice snorkel.
  • Phytoplankton: This is a rare effect that can be seen in Holbox. Go to the northern tip of the island, where a boat takes you out to snorkel at night. The effect of bioluminescence is sparkling starry water with glowing plankton. Sadly I only found out about this on the last day. Next time.
dolphin,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
pelican,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
isla de pájaros,  holbox,yucatan, mexico

5. Walk around town.

Virtually every property has a hand-painted colourful mural; the town is a street-level art gallery with works the size of buildings. Decorative and often political, murals have a long history in Mexico. You could say the popularity of today's street art stems from the Mexican 'muralism' art movement of the 1920s - see the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo's husband.
frida kahlo mural, holbox mexico
murals, holbox,yucatan, mexico
murals, holbox,yucatan, mexico
 murals, holbox,yucatan, mexico
murals,  holbox,yucatan, mexico

6. Go to the beach.

Learn to kite surf on windy days. Read a trashy novel. Drink cocktails. Walk along the shore at sunset or sun rise. The beach and the sea are a constantly evolving production - you won't get bored.
kite surfing,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
 holbox,yucatan, mexico
There are hammocks everywhere, little beach bars, and sun beds the size of four-posters. The water, being shallow for quite a distance, is suitable for young children. Some sections of the beach have seaweed; they used to clear it but realised this affected the ecology of the island. Before and after storms, the seaweed may be worse.
 holbox,yucatan, mexico
 holbox,yucatan, mexico
sunset,  holbox,yucatan, mexico

8. Ride a bike.

You can either hire a bike or borrow one from your hotel. The entire length of the island can be covered in a day, culminating in watching the sunset from the northern end. Cycle along the road adjacent to the beach, where the sand is compacted, rather than the interior road, which can be flooded.
selfies on holiday, mexicans in holbox, mexico

9. Get a massage.

Most of the hotels have masseuses. Book one for the day you arrive to help ease the jet lag. 

10. Sleep.

hotel las nubes,  holbox,yucatan, mexico
I was lucky enough to stay at the Hotel Las Nubes (around £250 a night but negotiable in low-season or for longer stays) in a room with a balcony overlooking the sea. I love to sleep to the sound of waves, the only cure for my menopausal insomnia. The hotel has a spa and several pools, plus charming touches, such as being sent a little dessert every night; their patisseries and breads are a particular speciality.

Casa Maya, where I also stayed, has a few rooms on the beach side. These are around £90 a night, but again you can negotiate in the off-seasons (January-April; October-November).

Other options are cheaper hotels off the beach in town (it's noisier though), hostels, campsites (watch out for sandflies) and Airbnb. I booked an Airbnb location, which wasn't really as advertised and became flooded when it rained. I cancelled after seeing it and had no problem getting my money back.

raccoon, hotel las nubes,  holbox,yucatan, mexicopink pickled onions,  holbox,yucatan, mexico


  1. It looks perfect. Did you make it part of a longer trip?

    1. Yes and I'm going to be writing about it over the next few weeks: Tulum, Coba and Valladolid.

  2. What company did you use to book your fishing/ceviche trip with? I'd like to book with them! :)

  3. I think it was these guys:;geo=616319&detail=12711514&aggregationId=101 OR Holbox Whale Shark tours. It was really good.


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