This Car-free Island in Mexico Has Beautiful Beaches, Turquoise Cenotes, and One of the Largest Animals on the Planet

How to plan the perfect trip to Isla Holbox, Mexico.

Beach Chairs and Umbrella on Isla Holbox, Mexico
Photo:

Julie Bendlin/Getty Images

Stepping onto the sun-bleached shores of Isla Holbox is like entering a secret club you wish you'd heard about years ago. At 26 miles long and only one mile wide, this skinny fingernail of an island is flecked off the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, right where the turquoise of the Caribbean Sea swirls into the green of the Gulf of Mexico. Sandy streets, buildings bathed in Caribbean colors, and the sputter of golf carts — the only mode of transportation on the island — set the tone for a place unlike many others in Mexico

Truth be told, Isla Holbox is less of the rustic island escape it used to be. The allure of its Instagrammable hammock groves, yoga pavilions, and palapa-thatched bungalows worked well, and today, there are considerably more tourists and mainstream hotels than years past. Still, this sun-soaked sandbar, where cars are unwelcome and bare feet are preferred, is a worthy getaway from the mainland crowds of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. 

Aerial view of Isla Holbox, Mexico

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How to Get to Isla Holbox

Part of the charm of Isla Holbox is the legwork required to get there. The distance from Cancun helps to weed out the volume, keeping an air of idyllic on the island. 

If you’re really dialing up the exclusivity factor, Isla Holbox does have a tiny airport for private planes, but the majority of travelers will first land in Cancun. From Cancun, you can rent a car or hop on the ADO bus to the tiny port town of Chiquila, the last mainland stop before Isla Holbox.

ADO is the largest bus company in southern Mexico. Their buses — which leave for Chiquila from around the Cancun region, including the downtown terminal, airport, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum — are safe and comfortable with wide, reclining seats and air conditioning. You can book tickets online, via the ADO app, or at the ticket counter at various bus stations. For reference, one-way tickets from Cancun to Chiquila cost roughly MXN $225 (or $12 USD), and the ride is about two hours.

The next step is to hop aboard the ferry that leaves every hour from Chiquila and shuttles passengers to Isla Holbox. The ride is just a 15-minute skip across the calm channel on a comfortable (and air-conditioned) catamaran. Tickets are also roughly $12 USD.

If you rent your own vehicle, you will have to leave it at the tiny port town overnight, as Isla Holbox is car-free. The car will be safe, but overnight parking is not exactly an official process. There are small lots where parking fees are negotiable. That said, since you won’t need a car on Isla Holbox, you’ll essentially be paying for the vehicle to leave it in a lot. You may also take a taxi to Chiquila, but be prepared to spend quite a bit to do so. Arranging a taxi to take you back from Chiquila can be unreliable as well. ADO is the most convenient and cost-effective option. 

Best Things to Do on Isla Holbox

It's easy to see why Isla Holbox was a backpacker's paradise for so long. Sandy streets are flanked with thatched-roof buildings splashed in electric colors (think neon green, pink, turquoise, and canary yellow). Golf carts or beach cruisers are the primary modes of transportation, while rhythmic island music spills out of open-air cantinas. 

The island’s buzzy Centro can feel a bit overwhelming for travelers looking to slip off the grid. This is not the secret escape that it once was. But Isla Holbox has a natural beauty and spirit unlike other places you've seen along Mexico's coastline. And, if you venture to the furthest beaches from downtown, you'll still be able to find a slice of solitude.

Heron on beach on Isla Holbox, Mexico

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One thing cannot be denied about Isla Holbox, though — its beaches are spectacular. In fact, your first stop should be Punta Mosquito, which sits at the tip of the elbow-like bend on the northernmost point of the island. Silky white sand and endless gradients of crystal-to-turquoise water extend as far as the eye can see. It's a good spot to pause for a moment and get yourself centered and acclimated to "island time," which is very much a thing here.

But really, no matter where you stay on the island, you will be blown away by the powdery beaches and calm, shallow, impossibly clear water. Most of the water around Isla Holbox is only about waist-deep, and you'll find colorful groves of sea hammocks to wade out to.  

Hammocks on beach on Isla Holbox, Mexico

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While the energy on the island is relaxed, those who want a bit of activity will find plenty to do. Perhaps one of the top reasons people visit Isla Holbox is to experience the magnificent whale sharks. These gentle giants feast only on plankton and can grow up to 40 feet long. Eco-friendly tours take curious adventurers out to swim alongside these beautiful creatures for a humbling encounter with one of the largest animals on the planet. Keep your eyes peeled for other gorgeous marine life, like sea turtles and manta rays.

Like its mainland neighbor, Isla Holbox has its own share of cenotes, like Hoyo Negro Yalahau, which provides a refreshing freshwater dip in a shallow lagoon. Of course, you'll find the coastline peppered with kayakers, kiteboarders, and stand-up paddleboarders, too. And when the sun goes down, the waters around the island's southern shores light up like the night sky, thanks to the ethereal glow of bioluminescent plankton. Tip: The best time to see this phenomenon is between July and January. 

No matter the time of year you visit, though, pack mosquito repellent. The island is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve and its natural beauty is one of the top draws. However, plainly speaking, the mosquitos on Isla Holbox are brazen, and you will be doing yourself a disservice if you are not prepared.

Where to Eat on Isla Holbox

The majority of Isla Holbox's restaurants and bars are located in its Centro, where the ferry drops off passengers. This is the most congested part of the island, but it's also the most densely concentrated in terms of variety. The further out you go along the island, the more sparse things become as you venture deeper into the Yum Balam Nature Reserve.

As to be expected, the best things you'll eat on Isla Holbox come right from the sea. Whether you're dining on sea bass sashimi at Ser Esencia or folding up slices of wood-fired lobster pizza at rustic-bohemian Roots, the seafood on Isla Holbox is delicious.

Dinner at Milpa, Isla Holbox, Mexico

Courtesy of Milpa

The flavors continue as you tuck into tasty, plump, and succulent meat-and-veggie tacos at Barba Negra, or dig your toes into the sand while snacking on ceviche in a swing seat at the beachfront bar and restaurant Raices. Las Panchas is an island favorite, particularly for the fresh fish and shrimp tacos, and prices here are shockingly cheap for the prime real estate. Regulars also love Milpa, a family-run restaurant known for its top-tier tasting menus, fit for a Michelin-starred dining room, but in a decidedly laid-back island-style setting.

Best Places to Stay on Isla Holbox

Ser Casasandra on Isla Holbox, Mexico

Courtesy of Ser Casasandra

The days of backpacker hotels on Isla Holbox are gone, as mainstream brands are putting the name "Holbox" into the mouths of more mass-market travelers. Still, a boho vibe permeates. Chic and boutique rule the roost here.

Luxury travel company Journey Mexico sends its clients to Ser Casasandra for the best overall experience, dining, and service. The focus on art at this boutique hotel is meant to make guests feel like they're staying in a beachfront gallery with supreme ocean views. Rooms are rustic-chic, with tile floors, crisp, white linens, and exposed beams on the ceiling. The newest room here is the Master Luxury Beachfront suite, which has oceanfront views and a private balcony.

Speaking of new, the latest boutique resort to open on Isla Holbox is Nomade Holbox, which started welcoming guests in August 2022. For those who remember the "before" days of Tulum, Nomade Holbox will feel familiar — jungle tree houses, oceanfront suites, and luxury glamping tents shrouded in greenery and spilling out to sea. Every angle of the hotel is like a picture-perfect shot on a highly curated Instagram feed.

"Even if you're not staying there, it's worth stopping by for a day pass or lunch or dinner," said Zach Rabinor, CEO and founder of Journey Mexico. "It's a privileged location, the architecture is truly admirable, and their wellness program is very special."

Rabinor credits Nomade Holbox with having some of the best dining on the island. Tip: Signature cocktail #3 is a must (Ojo de Tigre mezcal, Ancho Reyes liqueur, strawberry, basil, cranberry juice, and sour orange).

Head away from downtown to discover Punta Caliza. Suites topped with A-frame palapa roofs sit clustered around a shallow turquoise pool, built like a secret aquatic village. Inside, suites are evocative of cozy bungalows, with tile floors, wooden accents, and crisp, white linens.

Perhaps the furthest you can get from town is the Robinson Crusoe-style Las Nubes. Perched right on the water, this hotel provides that "edge-of-the-earth" feeling, as it really is the last stop on the island before the beach is swallowed up by mangrove jungle. The collection of thatched-roof bungalows are clustered around a small, turquoise-colored pool. The Master Suites are the accommodations to book here, thanks to their bright, airy spaces and terraces with ocean views. But it bears repeating: Mosquito repellent is a must.

Mexico’s Last Stop

Isla Holbox is the last sliver of land that separates the Yucatan Peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the last drink, the last dance, the last look at land before you disappear out into the gorgeous swirl of turquoise. And while the vibe has changed since its early days, Isla Holbox is a place that everyone needs to experience at least once on their journey.

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