The Ease of Isla

Swim with the sharks at this unspoiled gem

By: Maribeth Mellin

ISLA HOLBOX, Mexico Dinner began with a ripe tomato and mozzarella salad, then progressed to pasta with garlic, olive oil and tomatoes topped with a fresh lobster tail. With a couple glasses of wine, the bill came to less than $20. Sated, I picked up my sandals and bid goodnight to newfound friends sitting at the adjacent sidewalk tables.

Cafes all around the plaza were filled with families and couples. Kids played on porch swings, which were hung beneath palm-frond awnings. I walked barefoot along sandy paths to my hotel where Romeo greeted me by the deck. Together we swung in a hammock and purred as we watched stars glittering in a cloudless sky.

I hadn’t expected to fall for a black cat on Isla Holbox (pronounced HOLE-bosh), but Romeo was only a temporary distraction. I had my sights on far bigger creatures: white-spotted whale sharks the biggest fish in the sea had migrated close to the island, eight miles off the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico.

“They’re vegetarians,” I explained to friends who questioned my eagerness to swim with sharks. Fishermen have long known about the presence of these docile leviathans that linger off Holbox from April to September. Word has spread among divers and scientists over the past couple of years, and the 26-mile-long island now attracts adventurers from Great Britain, Holland and California.

Fish have their own agenda, however, and there is no guarantee they will show up. To be on the safe side and minimize the risk of disappointment, I booked three nights at Xaloc, an 18-bungalow boutique hotel on the beach.

On the first morning of my island idyll, I headed to sea with six other whale shark devotees and a biologist. Just after dawn, we raced through the glassy water for over an hour. Then Capitan Alfredo cut the throttle and we all rushed to the bow as the creatures nicknamed ballenas dominos (domino whales) showed their spots.

Quickly pulling on my fins and mask, I perched on the side of the boat. When Alfredo said, “Go!” I jumped into the water and paddled like crazy, then floated beside the shark’s gills as they gushed water filtering plankton for nutrients. A second later, I dodged a swaying tail, amazed at how fast a 60-foot-long fish can swim beneath a 62-inch-long human.

Alfredo repeatedly guided the boat through still water while I waited anxiously, then, once again, leaped into the water beside a shark. I swam like a madwoman toward its head, gliding underwater to gaze at eyes like black marbles.

Once over the head, I held my arms in the air to affirm I wasn’t touching the beast contact is taboo. The encounter was over in less than a minute; the dorsal fin seemed to encircle me as the shark moved on. When I looked up, another headed my way.

The expedition ended up exceeding all expectations; I swam with nearly a dozen sharks before collapsing into the boat.

After a long, much needed nap, I was ready to explore the island’s other natural attractions, knowing, of course, that nothing would match the adrenaline rush of swimming with giant sharks. Isla Holbox has long been a magnet for bird watchers and naturalists. The leeward side is lined with mangroves where white pelicans, pink flamingos and black cormorants nest. A white-sand beach popular with pregnant sea turtles fringes the windward shores.

Local fishermen offer tours to Isla Pasión (Passion Island), Isla Pajaros (Bird Island) and a cool fresh-water spring in the mangrove lagoon.

A good way to explore the 26-mile-long island is in a rented golf cart, and it’s easy to pass several days just walking along the beach looking for shells, lingering at cafes in town and hanging out in a hammock.

Isla Holbox isn’t for everyone. It’s one of the buggiest places I’ve ever been the mosquitoes and sand fleas are legendary. Showers must always be followed by a liberal dousing of bug spray. Just my luck, the bugs are at their worst during whale shark season when the air is sweltering. Locals far prefer the cooler breezes of spring.

But Holbox is also the Mexico I thought was lost forever. Cell phones don’t work here and cars are few and far between. Though TVs are virtually nonexistent, there’s plenty to watch, from fishermen repairing their nets in their front yards with treadle sewing machines to vibrant displays of produce in the markets.

Naturally, fish is the dietary staple here. I devoured conch and octopus ceviche, shrimp sauteed with garlic and butter and pizza topped with lobster chunks.

The morning after my great adventure, thunder rumbled and rain splashed in the swimming pool beside my front porch. Another shark encounter was out of the question. Truth be told, my aching body was quite content to walk barefoot into town for ceviche. Then it was back to the hammock where Romeo and I swayed until sunset turned the silver sky to gold.


Getting There: Cancun is the nearest airport. Public buses run frequently from Cancun to Chiquila, about three hours north, where travelers can take the ferry to Holbox. Most hotels arrange transfers from Cancun; cost ranges from $50 to $90 each way. Many of the travelers I encountered had arranged their entire trips through travel agents.

Xaloc: Mosquito nets cover king-size beds set in the middle of circular rooms in this cluster of 18 bungalows by the beach. Double-sink bathrooms have hot-water showers. The owners are considering replacing ceiling fans with air-conditioners in some rooms. Amenities include two pools, a restaurant and an airy second-story loft with hammocks. Transfers from Cancun can be arranged in advance. Xaloc is a member of the well-regarded Mexico Boutique Hotels group.


Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas: This area hotel is loaded with whimsical character. Bungalows painted green, pink and yellow surround gardens right by the beach hammocks hang everywhere. The restaurant serves superb espresso and breakfasts.

Tours: Well established as the area’s best eco-tourism company, EcoColors offers weekly trips to Holbox from Cancun. Trips include the whale sharks when they’re around, and concentrate on the aquatic birds the rest of the year.

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