Spoiler Alert: The best things to do in Holbox are sitting in the sand and sipping margaritas! Even if you never get around to any of the other activities below, I promise you’ll enjoy an unforgettable vacation.
Isla Holbox—pronounced “Ole-BOSH”— is a singular experience. Its name means “black hole” in Mayan…which comes from the freshwater lagoon—a deep rocky hole surrounding the island that can be seen from space!
And that hole can make the water appear black. At least in theory. I found it to have a unique turquoise or emerald cast depending on the day.
Holbox and its waters are part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve. The currents of the Gulf, Caribbean, and Atlantic Ocean mix here to create nutrient-rich waters… making it one of the most important ecosystems in the world.
Locals feel they’ve been spared from mass tourism up until now because the island doesn’t have much of a coral reef. Snorkelers head to Akumal Bay, Puerto Morelos, or Tulum Reef instead.
But with the uptick in cartel violence near Cancun and Tulum in recent years, tourists are increasingly heading to Holbox instead.
For the moment, the island still attracts travelers looking to experience authentic, undiscovered Mexico, pristine nature, and quiet rather than a party scene.
“Downtown” was blissfully quiet when we walked through it late one evening on our way back through the jungle to our hotel. But the sounds of construction say that’s about to change.
Just a two hour drive and then a 30 minute ferry ride from Cancun, this long skinny island in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t be more different from Cancun’s over developed Hotel Zone or other popular areas in Quintana Roo.
Things to Do in Holbox
At least for now, here’s what you can expect…
Twenty-six miles of sugary, white sand beach stretching along a shallow lagoon. Flamingos, pelicans and dozens of other sea birds frolic here.
Hotels are eco-chic with palapa roofs, driftwood entrances, and a spa esthetic. Sleek swimming pools and plush loungers await beachside. Colorful murals are everywhere.
Rooftop bars come with swimming pools, panoramic sunset views, and inventive cocktails.
Choose from cheap tacos on the street or upscale eateries with feasts prepared by top chefs. Either way, the vibe is mellow.
There are no cars on Holbox. Instead, picture yourself bouncing along in a golf cart taxi down a dirt road through the jungle, splashing through rain-soaked potholes after a squall blows through to Mariachi music on the radio. It’s incredible!
Here are my best suggestions on how to fill your time in this magical destination:
1. Explore remote islands.
Our favorite day trip during our week on Holbox was a private Three Island tour.
We particularly loved that our guide was eco-friendly; he was focused on the well-being of the environment and the wildlife that we saw that day in addition to his guests.
The half-day tour started with a visit to Yalahau Spring, a freshwater spring in the mangroves where we swam, relaxed in some hammocks, and climbed a lookout with panoramic island views.
Just as we were leaving, the crowds started to arrive so we felt really fortunate to get here early and have it all to ourselves.
Dolphins frolicked in our wake as we boated over to Isla Pajaros (“Bird Island”) next.
There are more than 40 species of birds that call this tiny island home …including flamingos, pelicans, egrets, osprey, cormorants, and seagulls.
Our guide handed us each sets of top tier binoculars to enjoy the full experience!
Our final tour stop was Isla Pajaros or “Passion Island.” This dreamy place is everybody’s deserted tropical island fantasy come to life.
It’s hard to describe as it’s just so pure and untouched. We walked along the sand bar, took a dip in the ocean and just breathed in gratitude for the opportunity to experience this magical place.
You can check price and availability on the private Three Island Tour here.
2. Soak up sunset at a rooftop bar.
The rooftop bars on Holbox are the place to be at sunset.
Truth be told, we spent a lot of time at the one at our hotel since it came with panoramic views, but there are plenty of great bars in town too.
Alma Bar is everybody’s favorite Insta-worthy spot.
You’ll have to pay to sit in this palapa perch pictured below but the hammocks in the swimming pool are free and the whole place comes with views and incredible cocktails.
Be sure to climb the stairs to the lookout on the roof before you leave. You’ll see the whole gorgeous coast from here. It’s a great spot to watch the kite surfers.
But honestly, rooftop bars abound here so try them all…
3. Swim with whale sharks.
Swimming with whale sharks is one of the main draws for travelers on Isla Holbox. These are the world’s largest fish.
In fact, they reach up to 40 feet in length and can weigh up to 50,000 lbs…about the size of a school bus!
Can you imagine being in the water with one of these?
One thing to know is that you’ll only find the whale sharks here June to September so plan accordingly if this experience is high on your wish list.
Summer is when they head to the warm plankton-rich waters for breeding here.
Our Holbox visit was off-season so I can’t point you to an eco-friendly tour.
Unfortunately, tours are lucrative which can lead to many guides putting guests above the well-being of these magnificent creatures.
And when I read the reviews of tours online, that seemed to mostly be the case…with reports of boats and crowds vying for whale sharks, whale sharks being kicked and other unsavory types of behavior.
Do your own research once you’re on island. Ask around: Who’s a guide who puts the whale sharks first? Remember, you’re always voting with your tourism dollars.
It’s up to you to choose widely…to contribute to solutions for over tourism instead of being part of the problem.
Where to stay on Isla Holbox
Option 1 for big value : Casa HX Hotel. We loved our stay at this incredible boutique hotel. Just a 10 minute walk from Playa Punta Coco, this hotel includes breakfast, friendly hosts, a lovely pool, and panoramic jungle sunrises from rooms on the top floor.
Inventive cocktails at the rooftop bar make sunsets a delight here. Plus, the on-site restaurant is incredible and inexpensive.
Be aware though that it’s a 25 minute walk or golf cart ride into town. The peace and quiet are worth it!
Check price and availability at Casa HX here.
Option 2 for location, location, location: Ser Cassandra Hotel. This beautiful upscale hotel is on the beach. It offers ocean views and a private beach with cabanas and an on-site restaurant.
It’s in the best part of Holbox…away from the bigger resorts but just a 5 minute walk to restaurants, boutiques and coffee shops.
Check price and availability at Ser Cassandra here.
Option 3: Your own private cabana: Los Cocos. This romantic one bedroom private home with a palapa roof is nestled in a coconut grove on the beach! It’s central to town and includes a kitchen and outdoor shower.
Check price and availability at Los Cocos here.
4. See the bioluminescence. Safely.
Have you heard about the bioluminescence phenomenon on Holbox?
Basically, the ocean water is illuminated—it looks like sparkly fairy dust—in the dark of night. It’s best seen in summer.
The bioluminescence is caused by nutrient-rich plankton that are lighting up, drifting micro-organisms that form an important part of the diet of most marine life here, from crustaceans and small fish to whales.
You’re going to read about kayaking and swimming tours to experience this on Holbox but here’s my advice: Give them a pass.
We signed up for a popular two hour guided tour with great reviews but when our guide arrived to pick us up, he announced that because of the moon, he’d decided to have two groups together instead of two time slots as he usually did.
No problem right? You definitely will see more bioluminescence when it’s darker. In fact, a new moon is ideal.
So we got into the wetsuits he provided and headed into the water. And it was very cool. You won’t see much from the shore unfortunately. To see the sparkle, you need to be moving the water with your hands.
But it was also cold and windy and 20 minutes would’ve been plenty of time. He handed out snorkeling equipment but honestly, there was nothing to see under water.
Then he announced that we should stay put while he drove one of the groups back to town!
There we were getting colder and colder in the absolute dark of night—he’d been gone 30 minutes now—when some people on shore start yelling at us to get out of the water as a crocodile was coming.
Bad joke right? But then they shined a flashlight on the water and there he was…headed our way.
We were just about to walk home when our guide reappeared and told us the croc was all in our imagination…that crocs had never been seen here.
Except here is the sign we saw the next day two minutes from our snorkel spot.
Quick aside: Locals say they have never had an incident with a crocodile on the island…that they shy away from people.
However, there was an incident in Cancun in October 2021. So it’s up to you to decide for yourself but I do think tour guides should disclose crocs as a possibility on your tour.
Here’s what I recommend to get 85 percent of the tour experience (at least our experience off-season in winter) safely and for free:
Once you’re on Holbox, head over to Google Maps and type in “bioluminescence.” It will take you right to the spot at Playa Punta Coco where you need to be.
Bring a headlamp or flashlight and go as close to the new moon as you can during your stay. Also, bring a white t-shirt with you!
Go down to the water’s edge and wave the t-shirt in the water.
It picks up all the sparkly plankton! Then ooh and ahh over the Milk Way in the sky above you. The lack of light pollution is magical here.
5. Check out the restaurant scene.
For a remote little island, the foodie scene is on point here.
Again, we had trouble tearing ourselves away from the on-site restaurant at Casa HX where we were staying.
The ceviche, tacos, omelettes with refried black beans, and everything else was incredible there.
But save some time to explore in town. Luuma, for example, has a tapas restaurant and a sushi bar.
It’s upscale, trendy, and just a beautiful place. Plenty of visitors return several nights in a row here.
There’s no reservations, however, and some of the seating is outside so choose your table carefully if it looks like the sky is about to drench you.
(Sidenote: You should expect major rain storms that blow through quickly many days on Holbox.)
There’s plenty of excellent food right on the beach from restaurants and resorts, too…but expect tourist prices.
6. Bask on Playa Punta Cocos.
As you might imagine, the choices for beaches abound along the northern shore of the island here.
This is not the clear turquoise Caribbean water of Riviera Maya. Rain in the shallow lagoon on Holbox can make the water a bit more opaque at times, but it’s still absolutely lovely.
Other times, it’s crystal clear with a blue-green hue. Temps are perfect for swimming.
One of of our favorite beaches was the remote beach Playa Punta Cocos, near where we stayed at the far west end of the island. It’s where you can see the bioluminscence.
During the day, it’s far emptier than the beaches near town. You’re likely to have it mostly to yourself. It’s perhaps not the best swimming beach but sunsets are magnificent here!
7.Take a rescue dog for a walk on the beach.
Right in town, is Refugio Holbox, a wonderful animal shelter run by volunteers with full hearts.
They rescue and rehabilitate all kinds of animals from around the Yucátan Pensinsula…from cats and dogs to raccoons and pelicans.
You can visit to meet the animals, donate and/or take a canine friend for a walk on the beach to help socialize them.
Go early in the day if you want to walk a dog though as they prefer you don’t take them out in the heat of the day.
You can follow them on Instagram @refugioanimalholbox and you’ll also find their Paypal info there if you’d like to donate. They also welcome the donation of medical supplies.
Reach out on Insta to ask exactly what they need. Some dogs are so sick when they arrive they are on restricted diets so your help really matters!
8. Rent a golf cart.
If you’re staying in or near town, you probably don’t need a golf cart. But aside from renting bikes, walking is your only way to get around.
Otherwise, you’ll need to call a golf cart taxi…we did this often since we were staying near Casa Coco and with 5 people, it does add up! Golf carts will only take 3 people max.
Bikes are a great way to get around. Just be aware that there’s no drainage in the dirt roads on Holbox.
When it rains—which it does all the time—potholes fill up with water which can take many days to evaporate.
That means you’ll be splashing through major puddles on your bike! We didn’t rent a golf cart but in retrospect, I wish we had.
You could also rent for just a single day to do some serious exploring.
There’s several places in town to rent them and prices vary. Expect to spend around $50 for a half day rental and up to $100 for 24 hours.
9. Go fishing at Cabo Catoche.
Cabo Catoche, at the far east end of Isla Holbox, is where the Carribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico meet. A boat tour makes a great day trip for people who love to fish.
You’ll cruise past pristine beaches as you head 43 kilometers out towards Cuevones…a shallow area where you can see fish, soft corals, and even nurse sharks.
Hawkshark, octopus and lobsters are here sometimes too.
The best part: After fishing, your guide will whip up some ceviche from your catch. Then enjoy it on the beach!
You can do this as a private fishing tour or a shared tour, depending on your budget.
Check price and availability on the Cabo Catoche fishing tour here.
10. Nab a luxe lounge chair on the beach.
One of my favorite experiences on Holbox was wandering the long sugary beach with my book and a towel and stopping wherever the spirit moved me for an hour or two.
Nowhere in my travels have I seen so many clean, inviting, upscale loungers free for the taking!
If you start walking in the center of town near Playa Holbox and continue north, it seems like these beachy palapa loungers become increasingly swank with fewer tourists. It’s where many of the upscale resorts are located.
Some of them reserve their lounge chairs for guests or charge a day use fee (that includes a shower) but many are absolutely no charge or available for the price of a drink.
You were going to have a beer or margarita anyway, right?
11. Take a kitesurfing lesson.
I didn’t end up taking a kitesurfing lesson on Holbox, but if kitesurfing is something you’ve always wanted to try, this is the place to do it!
According to the pros, kitesurfing doesn’t require much physical strength. Rather, it’s a bit like riding a bicycle.
It takes a little practice, but once you’ve got it, you’ll be sliding and flying in the best possible way.
This kitesurfing lesson from Kukulkite offers a three hour class geared to any level…from beginner to advanced.
Beginners will love Las Nubes on the northeastern end of the island, with a big beautiful sandbar while advanced kitesurfers will head to Punta Mosquito, a real adventure.
Kukulkite gets top reviews from travelers for being laidback, friendly, and accommodating.
Guest review: “Learning to kitesurf with KukulKite was absolutely the highlight of my trip to Holbox! Isnel provided excellent tips and instruction with patience and humour.” —Guest Nov, 2021, TripAdvisor
Check price and availability on the three hour kitesurfing lesson here.
12. Kayak the mangroves.
Kayaking is one of my favorite things to do!
On Isla Holbox, you can see wildlife and scenery up close when you paddle through shallow clam waters in the mangroves on a three hour guided kayak tour.
Your guide will help you learn about the flora and fauna here as you listen to the birdsong.
You might even see some sunbathing crocodiles here. Or flamingos, if the season is right.
Check price and availability on a guided kayaking tour in the mangroves here.
13. See the flamingos.
Have you ever seen a flamboyance of pale pink flamingos in the wild? (And yes, that is what a group of flamingos is called. Isn’t it perfect?)
You’re likely to find them hanging out at Punta Mosquito between April and October…or so I hear. Again, we were here in December so we missed them mostly.
You’ll park your bike or golf cart at Las Nubes—the farthest you can go— and then walk one hour further following the sand bar to find them.
We did see one or two (which were more white than pink, interestingly) on our Three Island Tour at Isla Pajaro (Bird Island) which was amazing!
14. Admire the murals.
One of the things that makes Isla Holbox so special are the beautiful colorful murals that seem to adorn buildings everywhere you look.
You’ll see themes that honor Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, and the spirit, energy, and history of the island.
For example, Holbox is an island of fishermen ever since pirates lived here during the Spanish Conquest.
You’ll find hummingbirds, flamingos, sunsets, and lots of strong beautiful women featured in these murals.
Wander and take in the beauty. It’s a paradise for artists and photographers.
15. Take a Mexican cooking class.
I read several wonderful reviews in a traveler’s group about a Mexican cooking class on Holbox. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so next time!
In the meantime, I’m passing it along to you. Every day, the class focuses on the cuisine of a different state of Mexico, from Guadalajara and Jalisco to Oaxaca and Yucatan.
You can check out the Mexican cooking class here.
Isla Holbox, Mexico is a delight.
Hopefully, you’re inspired by this lengthy list of things to do! And hopefully, what you will mostly do is…relax.
Let the warm sea breeze wash over you as you slow down on Mexico time. It’s the very best way to experience the best of Isla Holbox.
1. What’s the best way to get to Holbox?
From Cancun, it’s a two hour drive to the port town of Chiquilá where you catch a ferry.
You can do this drive via an ADO bus, rent a car or hire a transport service as we did. You can also fly by private plane.
USA Transfers was top notch and highly recommended. They picked us up at the airport, delivered us to our hotel in Cancun, out to Holbox and back again.
They were unfazed when we changed our plans multiple times, were always on time, and it was just a seamless experience.
Once you’re in Chiquilá, you can catch the Holbox Ferry which runs every 30 minutes and takes about 30 minutes. Or, you catch a ride on a fishing boat.
There’s a system where they trade off days ferrying tourists. The ferry costs 220 pesos in 2022 (about $10.75) per person.
The fishing boats charge by the boat for 1000 pesos ($49, which works out slightly cheaper for 5 people). This is what we did.
You’ll see them waiting for fares on the dock so if you’re just a couple and you want to reduce your price, go in with a few other travelers. Don’t over pay!
You’ll skip the ferry line, leave immediately, and get there in half the time. Life vests are included.
Plus, your money goes directly to helping the local economy versus the ferry company…which is supposed to donate a portion of its ferry fee to helping the residents but doesn’t!
You’ll arrive at the pier on Holbox where a line of golf cart taxis are waiting to take you wherever you want to go.
2. What’s the best way to exchange currency on Holbox?
Most of Holbox is cash only. My first thought was to bring Mexican pesos with me by exchanging at my bank. Unfortunately, my bank doesn’t offer that service.
And many U.S. banks will not trade your USD currency for pesos unless you bank there and they can debit your account directly.
And even then, they mail the currency to you a few days later so plan ahead if you’re counting on your bank for currency.
On Holbox, there’s just one or two ATMs and—just as I’d heard—the one we tried was broken. They seem to be typically broken or out of money.
Here’s what to do: Head directly to CI Banco in town and change your money there.
It’s the best exchange rate in town. (But bring your passport or they won’t do it!) Otherwise, there are currency exchange places on the island. The rate just won’t be as good.
2. What should you pack for Holbox?
Sunscreen and bug spray!
I swear by Sun Bum SPF50 sunscreen. It’s reef safe (important to protect fragile ocean ecosystems), oxybenzone free and it works!
Not one of us got a sunburn during our week playing in the ocean here despite warm temps and a searing sun. You can get a travel size Sun Bum sunscreen on Amazon here.
Unfortunately, clouds of mosquitos frequently come out at sunset on Holbox so be ready! If you don’t want to be scratching all week, you’ll need bug spray.
Confession: I hate bug spray with DEET. So I tried the natural bug spray that worked so well in French Polynesia and Hawaii for me. Nope. Holbox mosquitos mean serious business.
You can get some Repel on Amazon here. (And still no guarantees about bites.)
You can grab my new favorite sun hat on Amazon here. Bring a couple of bathing suits.
This shirred one-piece monokini looks great on every body type, is inexpensive, and comes in a gazillion colors. I love mine. You can grab one on Amazon here.
Head over to my ultimate Hawaii packing list for other great items my readers love. Most of these items are super useful in Mexico too!
3. When is the best time to visit Isla Holbox?
It depends! People visit all year, of course, but November to February is dry season for the best weather. Expect lots of rain in October.
If you’re hoping to swim with whale sharks or see flamingos, then summer is going to be a better bet.