Gabriel: ‘If you really want to swim with whale sharks, you should go to Mexico.’
Me: ‘What? Where’
Gabriel: ‘Holbox. It’s an island with no cars, just a few streets with golf carts. There are flamingos, cenotes, and beautiful sunsets with no resorts or brand name anything.’
He went on to explain that it’s more ethical to swim with the sharks in the Yucatán. In the Philippines the whale sharks are fed, therefore they stay in one place longer than they should and the young die trying to migrate out of season.
This exchange happened on a sailboat off of El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines. Turns out our skipper on the Airbnb sailboat we stayed on for a couple of nights had actually lived on Holbox with his German girlfriend and worked for one of the whale shark companies. He came to the Philippines to get his sailing license, or whatever it is you get.
I thought how funny it was to be hearing about a place in Mexico, basically my backyard, to do something that I traveled to the Philippines for. I’ve been to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum plenty of times… but never heard of Isla Holbox.
Months later when I decided I wanted to go somewhere for my birthday I looked into this seemingly island paradise. I was immediately sold. The pictures were even more blissful than I had imagined from Gabriel’s description. It also happened to be in the migration season for the sharks (June-Sept).
Next came an Airbnb search to just see what kind of places were available, and I came across a gorgeous house that was on the beach and slept 24 people that was a winner. I just had to fill it up. I feel truly blessed to have enough travel loving friends to even consider renting a house that big. Especially given that it was on a random island that not 1 person had heard of, but we hit the target # of people that I wanted to comfortably stay in the house and all flew down.
To get to the island you need to either rent a car, take the Ado buses (go from CUN to town then a bus to Chiquila, but the last one leaves early evening!), or do private shuttles. We opted for a shuttle since we had enough people to knock the costs down. If you’re group isn’t that big, you can find a shared shuttle for around $40 one way from CUN airport. There are 2 ferry companies that operate to Holbox from Chiquila. If you rented a car you can leave it behind for $8/day. The ferry ticket is $8 and takes around 30 minutes, and between the 2 companies they leave every 30 minutes.
6 of us went a day early and crashed in the only place we could find that slept 5 that had AC (plus a hammock/lawn chair cushion for the last-minute 6th). The little hostel was right off of the square so we were able to wander past all of the food stands that smelled amazing and had dinner consisting of ceviche appetizer and lobster pizza (there were lots of pizza options) and an early night to sleep.
Holbox doesn’t take long to navigate I discovered on my morning run the next day. It was a mile to our Airbnb from town, and when I say town I mean a square and maybe 3 streets running parallel to the ocean. The square is full of cool restaurants, lots of fantastic graffiti and murals, all the dive or tour companies, and a cool little live music joint we visited a couple of times.
We also discovered our favorite beach bar that first night. We visited a couple of times and got to know the owners over the trip. Heyyy Rodolfo!
Once everyone else arrived, it easily turned into a house party. We discovered the bioluminescent water that night after enough drinks to go swim in the ocean in the dark. Sooo 5 errr intoxicated girls realize the ocean in front of our beach house lights up neon green when we run through it. We looked like little kids who were in the ocean for the first time running and kicking the shin deep water. I don’t care, I felt like a little kid. I guess I haven’t mention this trip was for my 32nd birthday yet have I?
The main attraction was obviously the whale sharks, and personally it totally lived up to my hopes. There was an interesting beginning though.
A few people got hit with montezumas revenge while on the trip, and unfortunately I was one of them. The morning of our 730am departure for a day on the ocean I found out we were in a little 10 passenger boat (with no bathroom). So I started this expedition with an upset tummy and popping as many Imodiums as I thought I could without dying before boarding the boat, because I came to this island for this day. I was going. The 3 hour ride out to the sharks was against the wind, so lots of waves and rough water. Shane correctly termed the ride the elbow buster. I would also add, just look at the horizon and don’t get sick. (Happy ending, I didn’t.). Sorry for TMI but if you’ve been to Mexico and/or Central America, it’s just part of it sometimes.
Sooooo, long miserable boat ride with lots of nauseous passengers. Was it worth it?! Hell yes. When we finally arrived to the migrating sharks you see the shadows under the water and the fins cutting through the surface and realize it’s much bigger than the boat. Some of them perhaps twice as long as those damn boats. At that point I glanced around at my friends to see some timid and nervous faces at the thought of jumping in the water with these beasts. I was jumping up and down putting my gear on. The boat was just rocking away in the waves and 2 people at a time hopped in with the guide. The driver cruises to place you in a good spot close to a shark and then they yell GO GO GO, and you jump off the side of a moving boat to go swim with a shark the size of a school bus. Really, it’s the largest fish in the world and can grow up to 40 feet and 20 tons!
My first jump I was caught off guard by the go go go part and didn’t have my goggles on. So I jumped in and saw the tail of the shark first thing. First thought was WOW this animal is beautiful. Second thought was, oh shit his tail swings back and forth at like a 10 ft span, annnnd it’s going to hit me. It was a little too close for comfort but I found myself kickin my little heart out to try and catch back up to it. (I didn’t make much progress).
Chad had a much closer encounter. He go go go’ed straight into the water in front of one. Like face to face, giant whale shark mouth open in front and slightly below you. He said he realized it was going straight at him and didn’t want to touch it so he ended up above it and tried to roll to the side over the body of it. The massive tail I just discussed wacked him in the thigh. A couple of people got to see a giant manta ray as well.
Next on the itinerary for the day tour was snorkeling. I mean, it’s snorkeling in Mexico. We saw fish and coral. Snorkeling is much better in Cozumel, but whatever… I was still happy to be visiting with the underwater world.
Back on the boat we headed to an island for lunch. The island turned out to be lengthy sandbars and water 1 feet deep you could walk through and watch the fish swim. And flamingos! We couldn’t get close to them, but you could see pink flamingos chilling in the shallow water. I could have spent hours in that spot, but we ate our ceviche prepared on the back of the boat and headed out.
Other than a really cool rooftop bar up the ‘street’ and a birthday fiesta we threw ourselves the rest of the trip is a beautiful blur of Dos Equis, trips from the pool to the ocean, hammocks, and margaritas. That’s pretty much what you expect when you put 17 people in a Mexican beach house though right?!
Holbox was everything I wanted. It wasn’t crowded, fantastic beaches, my whale sharks, hammocks everywhere, gorgeous sunset views, and a group of good friends. It is obviously gaining attention on the tourist radar, that was the only disappointment. I expected a little bit more of a we just discovered this place and it’s beach shacks vibe. Don’t get me wrong, It’s still a long way from adding a Starbucks. WiFi and electricity go in and out and the ATMs didn’t have Pesos the entire time we were there. But if you’re considering going, I highly recommend it and I’d say go ASAP before it gains more attention. Because it’s definitely worth the attention…