Colour. That’s what hits you. Platinum sand beaches, turquoise waters, rainbow-washed houses, emerald jungle, red mangrove trees. Welcome to Isla Holbox – the ‘new Tulum’, and quite possibly the chicest spot in Mexico.
Lying at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, this minnow of an island is 26 miles long and only a mile wide, with just 2,000 islanders. Electricity arrived only recently. Separated from the mainland coast by a shallow lagoon, a paradisiacal haven for exotic wildlife, Holbox (pronounced “hol-bosh”) is fast becoming the name on everyone’s lips.
However, despite the buzz, the pace of life remains refreshingly in the slow lane. Almost untouched. Hammocks swing lazily in the doorways of brightly painted palapas (buildings with palm-leaf roofs), often splashed with vibrant murals of fantastical sea creatures (the island holds an annual art festival that literally paints the town). Small courtyards reveal candlelit altars to Our Lady of Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary). Fishermen drift past, swinging their catch through the network of unpaved sugary sand streets, the peace only sometimes punctured by calls from sea eagles. No cars are allowed – only golf carts and bicycles. There’s a small airport for private flight charters from Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Cozumel but the best way to arrive is by a short spray-in-your-face ferry ride from the port of Chiquila (less than three hours’ drive from Cancún).
It is the siren call of the beach that matters here. Unsurprisingly so, with its empty stretches of coral sand, only occasionally interrupted by coconut husks and knots of kelp, which lend a certain wilderness. Peer into the transparent shallow waters to spot spiny sea urchins and rust-coloured starfish shimmying along the seabed. When people do rise from their sun-induced slumber, it’s for the wildlife. Part of the vast Yum Balam Biosphere ‘Lord Jaguar’ Reserve – Mexico’s largest ecological reserve – Holbox is home to bottled-nosed dolphins, horseshoe crabs, white pelicans and other tropical species.
Whale shark diving is big here, from mid-May through to mid-September. The intrepid can get up close, holding their nerve as the massive fish looms out like Jonah’s proverbial whale, huge mouth agape. Its grey flanks peppered with white polka dots, gliding by within hand’s reach, correcting course just enough to avoid collision. These mammoth creatures, 40 feet long and weighing a staggering 30,000 pounds, are the biggest fish in the world. There’s a flamboyance of wild flamingos, best spotted by kayak, along with crocodiles, turtles and – legend has it – a lone leopard in the swampy mangroves. One of the nearby islands, Isla Pajaros, is a bird sanctuary filled with sprightly sandpipers, the fork-tailed frigatebird and snowy white egrets, along with over 150 other species, many near extinction.
Back on dry land, with tummies rumbling, Carioca’s is a good bet for the island’s signature dish, lobster pizza, and there’s life-changing ceviche at La Chingada. The young and bronzed sit at fun-loving tiki bars, the most stylish of which is Le Bazaar, worthy of Paris or New York, doubling as an alfresco boutique filled with Mexico’s hottest new designers, and clearly a nod to the urbanites and fashion crowd gradually discovering the island.
Many restaurants are still run by fishermen, including El Changarrito, where guests choose from a battered cooler box full of fish before the catch is fried in olive oil and garlic, served whole, accompanied by lemonade sweetened with local honey. The island cooks still employ Mayan flavours and ingredients. No meal is complete without sampling chaya – a local green with a mild, spinach-like taste. Further delicacies can be found at El Chapulim, a tiny restaurant with no menu, run by much-hyped chef Erik Winckelmann, from Mexico City (try the seafood stew). Raices, a rustic and relaxed beach hideout, also has fabulous views and live reggae music. Newcomer Milpa ticks the fine dining box, where the order of the day is Drunken Octopus Roaming Valladolid, octopus soaked in beer sauce under a dome of swirling fumes, with bits of bacon and chorizo, corn and bell peppers.
The island has stood firm against many developers, batting away the big hotel chains. In its place is a charming array of boutique beachfront hotels. The boho-chic Casa Sandra is all barefoot luxury, with thatched palapas, earth tones and billowing white curtains, hand-painted bowl sinks and natural stonewall showers. Palapas del Sol is another island favourite, with seven impeccably kept tropical bungalows constructed from handmade stucco walls, native wooden structures and traditional palm-weaved roofs. Then there’s the 24-room Hotel Casa Las Tortugas, where Mexican beach aesthetics blend with modern design. Run by Italian Francesca Golinelli, a former high-flier designer at website Yoox (now Yoox Net-a-Porter), it’s glamour at its relaxed best. This is partly thanks to its eco spa, fusing Mayan traditions with western therapies, and the restaurant, Mandarina, deemed one of the best on the island, particularly for its duck in orange sauce and brioche of huitlacoche (Mexican truffle).
As evening beckons, men drag small plastic tables to the street to play dice, children run around on a floodlit basketball court and resident dogs snooze in the fading heat before their evening frolics. Holbox is one of those places where, as the sherbet-hued sunset ripens, the sky and sea seem to merge, becoming almost indistinguishable. At the dock, the water turns the colour of mercury and milk, the idle fishing boats bobbing in the distance. There is no limit at night to the magic of bumping through the dark with streetlights made from conch shells. When the moon is dim, luminous phytoplankton glow blue and green in the shallows. The island may be sleeping but the jamboree of colour remains.