Holbox Silence: The Perfect Blue Note
Holbox means black hole in the Maya language. But the island's ominous name is belied by the shimmering turquoise waters that lap its soft, sandy beaches, and the bold azure skies that look down on its almost perfect isolation.
Holbox Island's population is not Maya but mestizo, and a number of the inhabitants are the proud progeny of pirates who snuck around the Yucatan's shores in the 19th century.
For decades, islanders' main occupation was shark fishing and the plucky tradition still lives on. However, tourism has also reared its (in Holbox's rare case) fair head and inhabitants have swelled from around 3,000 three years ago, according to the guidebooks, to nearly 6,000, according to the fishermen.
It is the kind of place that gets a travel writer with environmental concerns tied up in torturous knots. My first urge is to shout about its silence. There is NO loud, or even soft, music of any kind on the beach, not a single truck or even car (the only engine purr you may hear is of a boat), but after my best beach vacation in close to four years, I am loathe to play my part in spoiling it.
It was simply an honor to be surrounded by so much wildlife. Elsewhere, you find plastic garbage; in Holbox you find birds, and that's before you put on your snorkel and mask.
Below us in the sea, nurse shark, whale shark, parrot-fish, manta ray, brain anemone and long white-tentacled octopi; at ankle level, tiny hopping frogs and, preening themselves in a distant peach blur, flocks of flamingos. Above us swooping pelicans and hundreds of other winged species (including mosquitoes, I'll admit). The only substances on the white beach apart from sand were shells and sea grass.
The lack of commercialism is a rare experience, adding to the natural wonders. The sea is so shallow on Playa Norte (the beach where the population and few hotels are) that you can wade for 100 meters or more, and the water level does not go above a tall adult's knees. Combined with the fact that there are no waves, this makes for a unique experience of safe sea for children to play in.
But in addition, there are no vendors on the beach, or doing the rounds. No one goes plodding by urging us to buy tacos, nieves, CocaCola or trinkets. Not a soul interrupted any of my meals to flog a hammock or a tour.
No one sized me up with cartoon dollar signs appearing behind their eyes. No one heckled us to stay in their hotel. And no one leered at me and called me "güera."
The above are common ingredients of the Mexican seaside experience and I hardly even notice them once I have my holidaymaking hat on. But their absence is a revelation that has lived on for many weeks in haunting, sunny, blue-skied dreams of tranquility. Like a once-lost internal melody, you can suddenly hear your thoughts again and are free to fish through your un-assailed mind for your memories. I would hazard that a week there can be guaranteed to conjure dramatic personal transformations.
Off the Beaten Path
Planet Holbox is about 3 1/2 hours, and quite as many light years, away from Cancun, to the north. The enviable colors of the sea and sand are similar, but that's where the comparison stops.
Firstly this island (on the map it looks like a spit, but it is divided from the mainland by rivers and is technically and emotionally an island) is not at all expensive.
Secondly it is not close to the famous Mesoamerican reef (as is Cozumel, for example), so attracts fewer underwater tourists. However, the 11-room Hotel Mawimbi includes a "Centro Buceo" (Dive Center) with whom the fearless can go far off shore to see big fish: coronado, sierra, tuna and bull shark. You can also water-ski and sea canoe with the Italian-owned outfit.
Thirdly, Holbox is impressively law-abiding, and full of hoteliers (many non-Mexican) who are ecology devotees, such as Goncha Juan of Hotel Xaloc, where we stayed. For example, in the pursuit of the non-aggressive whale shark, the island's great summer attraction, local authorities such as PROFEPA so far seem to be enforcing rather than skirting environmental laws - not an easy undertaking in Quintana Roo state.
Fourthly, Holbox's foreign tourism is not directed towards the United States and no one tries to provide junk food or fast transportation. Food comes from the sea and is cooked when someone decides to eat it. At Carioca restaurant on Playa Norte, I had to wait a while for my fish, but the portion was so generous it flopped over the edge of my large plate and cost only 45 pesos. Transportation is by bicycle or collective "taxi" (5 pesos within the center), which is really just a golf cart with an eight-seater open wagon attached behind it.
As German photographer Katja Bönninghoff (who recently married a Holbox islander) points out in her charming book Isla Holbox, on Holbox "there is no bank, ATM; no dentist; no car; no movie theater; no library; no mobile phone reception," but there are "nice people, parties, delicious food, beer, fishing, a doctor … and Internet."
Xaloc is probably the best hotel on the island a luxurious 18 thatch-cabin wonder that looks exactly like those honeymoon-type creations you drool over on the pages of Condé Nast Traveller except the cost was US70 per night for four of us. This includes two kingsize beds with mosquito pavilion, double sink bathrooms and a cool thatch roof as relief against the thumping heat.
There are two pools (one calmer area for adults and another where children can play about), flowers on beds, plenty of free bottled water, and a thoughtful array of insect repellents and fragrant accessories. The windows were so clean I mistakenly tried to close them twice, and the two hammocks drooping in the shade outside won us over.
There were simply not enough hours in the day for the children who did not ask once for a television set (there are none, but there is a reading room), nor even for a story as their sunny exertions knocked them out flat at sundown.
Meals anywhere on Holbox cost from 40 to 80 pesos, with popular joints being Viva Zapata, and La Cueva del Pirata on the large and cheerful zocalo, or main plaza, which also provides entertainment with a pool hall, playground, church and "downtown" accommodation in the Hotel Posada Los Arcos. At Xaloc's excellent Maja'che restaurant, which blends regional fare with Mediterranean options, you know all the water has been purified, and fruit and vegetables disinfected.
The Time is Ripe
There is no doubt Holbox's tourism is on the rise, with accommodation close to full occupancy in the summer months. By 2005, whale shark season (June - late Sept.) might well have reached the stage where you have to book a month or two in advance. If you have the inkling to go now, email Goncha (
) to see if the wonderful spotted creatures are still around. Xaloc's tours are the envy of all visitors, in which biologist Chela tells you all you need to know about these gentle giant fish, while fisherman/tourguide Alfredo Jiménez takes your hand as you go in to swim by their side.
But if you are looking for tranquility, it's worth noting that when the whale shark leaves, so do many of the tourists, meaning you can have Holbox and her islanders mostly to yourself.
By Barbara Kastelein - reporter for EL UNIVERSAL/The Herald english daily publication
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