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