For decades, people have been traveling to Isla Holbox, a wisp of an island eight miles off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, without expecting to do very much. They come to wade in milky, jade water and shuffle through fine coral sand, spend days on empty beaches accessible only by foot or bicycle, watch flamingos teeter in shallow lagoons, and, in the summertime, at least, snorkel with whale sharks—the largest fish in the world. The island is almost entirely nature preserve: just a handful of thatched-roof hotels dot a 11⁄2-mile stretch of coast on the edge of a hammock-laced town (population 2,000). Otherwise, the place is uninhabited. Golf carts take the place of cars, white sand the place of asphalt. Electric lights replaced candles less than 30 years ago. There’s only one ATM on the mostly cash-only island, and it’s often out of cash.
Though its relative remoteness is part of the reason Holbox has so far remained unspoiled, getting there isn’t that difficult. I flew to Cancún, drove north for two hours to the tiny, dinged-up village of Chiquila, then took a 20-minute ferry. It hardly felt like a hassle, but, historically, the journey has been just enough of an inconvenience to guarantee relative peace—a quality that is rapidly deserting Tulum, the resort town south of Cancún. In fact, many of the people visiting Isla Holbox are there expressly to get away from Tulum, which has, in the past decade, become something of an outpost for fashion types from New York City and Los Angeles. For now, at least, there is little chance of running into co-workers on Holbox (a liability in Tulum), and no chance of procuring a Starbucks Frappuccino. You don’t have to worry about your clothes, or even change them. Most people don’t wear shoes.
“People aren’t trying to impress each other here; you don’t have to worry about all that garbage,” Nathan Vernes, a California-based photojournalist, told me. Vernes grew up vacationing in Baja, has lived in Mexico City, and has traveled extensively throughout the country. Isla Holbox, he said, is his favorite place—not just in Mexico, but in the entire world. “There’s no stoplights, you’re in shorts, no shirt, flip-flops. You don’t know who is rich or who is poor.”
But, like the nearby beach towns it compares so favorably with, Holbox is slowly becoming a place where visitors want to do more than just commune with local fauna. Cynthia Russell, a Manhattan-based yoga instructor, is preparing to lead her second retreat there this coming spring. She told me about Holbox with the sort of reluctance one feels when forced to describe something that is uncomplicatedly loveable. “I’m almost hesitant to talk about it, since it’s such a hidden gem,” she said. Last year, Russell’s retreat took place at Casa Las Tortugas–Petit Beach Hotel & Spa, a 23-room, palapa-style hotel right on the beach. The property is in many ways at the forefront of change on Isla Holbox, its proprietors tasked with figuring out how to provide the amenities cosmopolitan guests want, without turning it into the sort of place they roll their eyes about.
Owner Francesca Golinelli moved to Holbox 14 years ago from Bologna, Italy, where she was enjoying both the rigor and the spoils of a fast-paced job at the fashion retail site Yoox. Within three months of visiting a beachfront property her father had purchased, on which he was slowly building what would become Casa Las Tortugas, Golinelli quit her job and moved halfway around the world to live on the island full-time. Two years later, she met her husband, the Dutch former pro kitesurfer Patrick Wiering. Together they run the hotel, its spa, and its restaurant, as well as a small farm (the source of much of the restaurant’s produce). They also have two young daughters, who chase around them in bare feet and are perpetually dusted with sand.
This tropical fairy tale is being rewritten all along the beach. Just next door is Casa Sandra, run by Sandra Pérez, a Cuban artist whose paintings adorn the hotel; down the beach is the family-run Las Nubes, where the New York–based interior designer and TV personality Nate Berkus has stayed twice in recent years. Berkus told me, “I love that there are no cars. I hope that never changes, but I can feel it moving in the other direction. I hear about more and more people going.”
After years of hearing people talk about Isla Holbox in hushed, conspiratorial tones, the Los Angeles jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth finally visited this past summer. She loved the murals in town, and the underwater sandbars that make waders look like they’re walking on the surface of the ocean. But mostly, she said, she “loved that it’s so untouched by that terrible fashion scene.”
Starting this month, the amenities favored by that terrible fashion scene will begin to appear. Casa Las Tortugas is launching a permanent yoga studio, a bakery, a boutique, and an artist-in-residence program. And though Golinelli, herself an islander at this point, said she wants to expand slowly, there’s no denying that this is how a place begins to change.
It already has, in some ways. I spent my third day on Isla Holbox offshore, on a whale-shark-spotting trip where the waters of the Caribbean meet the Gulf of Mexico. Within 30 minutes of leaving land, our boat was surrounded by sharks, their polka-dotted skin visible just under the surface. We jumped in, two by two. The sea that day was shadowy with plankton and it was impossible to see the sharks until they were inches away. Back on the boat, trilling with excitement, we set off in search of our lunch supplier: a teenage boy with a spear. He threw lobsters, conch, and grouper into our hull, then deftly filleted them and doused them with lime.
An hour later, we anchored in the oversaturated blue-green shallows of a remote island and ate the ceviche with our hands. Our captain talked about a protracted lawsuit between local fishermen and mainland developers about a project that threatened to mar the untouched parts of the island. He spoke with what sounded like sadness but was of course ambivalence: the captain knew that with development comes more business and more money. As much as he wanted his island to stay the way it was, it was clear he was not immune to the promise of prosperity. Handing me a plate of ceviche, carefully laid out on a hollowed-out lobster tail and garnished with citrus- peel rosettes, he asked me to take a picture so I could show it to the owner of our hotel.
Like an especially beautiful and charming person, an especially beautiful and charming place exists under the constant threat of being ruined by its own charisma. A visitor to a place like Isla Holbox can’t help but wonder, At what point does popularity become a corrupting force? But as I sat by the sea, feasting on its spoils, it struck me that worrying about the line between under- and overdeveloped, about where’s over and where isn’t, is a fool’s errand. Better to accept that the moment you visit a place is as much a part of the trip as the location itself. After all, Isla Holbox will offer a different experience to more or less everyone—even to that person who goes, falls in love, and returns again and again.
The Details: What to do in Isla Holbox
Casa Las Tortugas: The family-run boutique hotel is home to the Mandarina Beach Club, one of the island’s best restaurants. holboxcasalastortugas.com; Doubles from $140.
Casa Sandra: Each of the 18 rooms and common areas is decorated with original works of Cuban art. casasandra.com; Doubles from $307.
Las Nubes: The most remote of the island’s beachfront hotels offers exceptional seclusion—and proximity to flamingos. lasnubesdeholbox.com; Doubles from$250.
Los Peleones: The rare credit card-accepting establishment on the island. Seafood pastas and a rooftop terrace are additional draws. Calle Tiburón Ballena; 52-984-120-9685; Entrées $6–$24.
TacoQueto: Oddly enough, this permanently parked truck—and its adjacent tented patio—is one of the only places on the island to get traditional Mexican food. Order a taco al pastor and BYOB. Avda. Joaquín Coldwell.
Viva Zapata: Eat a grilled lobster while rocking on a bar-side swing. Calle Damero; 52-984-875-2362; Entrées $5–$20.
Whale-shark tour: Perhaps the only thing to “do” on the island, the experience of swimming with the largest fish in the world and eating ceviche made from fresh-caught grouper can’t be beat. holboxwhalesharktours.com.