Considered Mexico’s “best kept secret” by many, Isla Holbox on the Yucatan Peninsula is starting to emerge as the hottest new tourism destination. At the moment, it’s still just out of the way enough that Holbox isn’t overrun, retaining instead the sleepy and untouched vibe which is the island’s real charm. Colourful buildings, heaps of street art, a chilled out atmosphere, and plenty of gorgeous beaches make Holbox a paradise for backpackers. But figuring out how to get there is still a little tricky, so I put together this handy guide after my own recent trip there. Enjoy…
Ferries to Holbox depart daily from Chiquila, which is easily and cheaply reached by bus. You can also hire a car or rent a private transfer, but if you’re backpacking Mexico you’re probably on a budget. So bus is cheapest! Most towns in the Yucatan area have an ADO or Noreste bus station where you can purchase a ticket to Chiquila. Busses stop right next to the ferry port, where there are two different ferry options (9 Hermanos or the Holbox Express), both costing the same. Boats depart every half hour or so until about 9:30pm. The ferry costs $140 MXN one way ($80 MXN for locals).
Bus from Cancun to Chiquila
The bus from Cancun to Chiquila starts from $125 MXN depending which service you take, and takes about 3-4 hours. There are several departures per day, starting at around 7am and with the last departure at about 1pm. Bus times change quite often, so my advice is to buy your ticket a day (or more) in advance so you know what time to leave. When I travelled to Holbox in February 2017 the first bus was at 7:30am and the last was at 12:50 pm.
Bus from Mérida to Chiquila
The Noreste bus from Mérida to Chiquila costs takes about 4-5 hours. When I asked at the station (Feb 2017), I was told there was only departure a day at 10:15am (from the Noreste bus station), but this is likely to change so try to book your ticket at least a day in advance. There is also an overnight Mayab bus leaving at 11:30pm daily from Mérida to Chiquila (leaving from the Terminal de Autobuses TAME).
Alternatively, you can hop on a bus to Cancun and get off at El Ideal, where there is an intersection with the road to Chiquila. Mérida to Ideal costs about $169 MXN for 2nd class. There are always many taxis waiting here who can take you to Chiquila for about $300 MXN*, or you can hop on a bus coming from Cancun if you time it right (check the ADO website for the timetable). The taxi from Ideal to Chiquila takes about one hour.
*My friend and I paid $450 for this journey in reverse, which was haggled down from an initial asking price of $600 MXN. Prices appear to depend on how many people are sharing the taxi and how desperate you look – so get ready to haggle.
Getting to Holbox by Private Transfer
If you’re travelling in a group, a private transfer might actually be fairly reasonable and can save you the headache of navigating busses. Grayline Mayaland offer a transfer by minivan from the Riviera Maya and Cancun to Holbox starting at £160. The vehicle seats seven passengers so that could work out at £22 each. Book through Expedia here.
Getting to Holbox by Plane
Those who are short on time, or fancy a different sort of experience, can charter a plane from Cancun airport. The journey takes twenty minutes and the plane can carry five passengers. When I enquired, I was told it costs $500 USD to hire the plane for a single journey to or from Cancun airport, or to simply charter it for a one hour flight around the island. A half hour flight costs $300 USD – not too bad if a few of you can split the cost! You can book it online through Expedia from £363 for a trip from Cancun to Isla Holbox.
If you’re lucky enough, you may be able to grab a discount. If the plane is heading to Cancun airport anyway to pick someone up, and has no passengers for the outward journey, they’ll sell you a spot for just $50 USD per person.
There are very few cars on Isla Holbox, and the taxis are all golf buggies. The town of Holbox is very small and perfectly walkable, plus it’s laid out in grid format so finding your way is easy. From the ferry port it takes only eight minutes to walk to the main square at the centre of town, and an extra two minutes to walk to the main hostels. Follow the road directly in front of the port in a straight line until you reach the square.
Taxi – Prices are fairly reasonable; it cost $30 MXN from the ferry port to the town on the other side of the island (about five minutes drive). However, it’s unlikely you’d ever really need to take a taxi since most things are within walking distance.
Bike – You can rent bikes on Holbox pretty easily from a few of the hotels and shops in town. Prices tend to start from $20 MXN per hour.
Golf Buggy – You can also rent a golf buggy if you fancy going further or just having some fun. The sandy roads are very quiet and pretty easy to navigate. We paid $150 MXN per hour for two hours (from Rentadora Monkey’s just off the main square) – which is more than enough time to explore the island. There aren’t roads all over the island, so you’d probably get further on a bike, but it’s great fun to bounce around the dirt roads for a while. Watch out for potholes!
This was one I struggled with as a backpacker, because not many of the hostels on Holbox are listed on Hostelworld.com. Normally, I like to book in advance, but many of the properties aren’t online yet. If you’re backpacking Isla Holbox, you might have to simply rock up and head to a few hostels in search of a bed. Here are a two of the best Isla Holbox hostels…
Bucaneros – This is where I stayed. They weren’t on Hostelworld yet as of Feb 2017, as it had only recently opened. Dorms start from $250 MXN per night. The vibe is really cool, there’s a small kitchen and a really fun bar, but unlike most party hostels it wasn’t too noisy at night. It’s more chilled out, with paintings and murals everywhere and colourful hammocks dotted around. I’d happily recommend it!
Tribu – Tribu Hostel is one of the most popular hostels on Holbox and has a great reputation. I didn’t stay here, but I did go in to the bar for a few drinks, and had a look around. It seemed a little more “put together” than the other options, pretty big and very modern. The bar is great and there’s a lot going on, like game nights and pub quizzes. Dorm beds start at $245 MXN a night. Again, a cool vibe, and plenty to recommend it.
You can walk to both hostels from the ferry port in about ten minutes. Walk off the ferry and head up the road in front of you in a straight line until you reach the road running parallel to the beach. Turn right and you’ll find both hostels a couple of blocks down.
Whale Shark Tour – Isla Holbox is considered one of the best places in Mexico to see whale sharks. June to mid September is whale shark season in Holbox, so this is the time to visit if you want the chance to swim with these fourteen metre long fish. Book a whale shark tour to snorkel with the gentle giants, which are completely harmless, or rent a kayak or SUP board and search for them. Tours cost around $125 USD / £100 per person.
Be careful to stick to the regulations set by CONAMP, which are there to help preserve the species and stop tourism from harming the whale shark populations.
Crocodile Boat Tour – Explore the lagoons and mangrove forests around Holbox in search of crocodiles. Prices from £49 per person when booked through Expedia.
Flamingo Spotting – Isla de Pasion, the small island close to Holbox, is the best place to see the area’s famous flamingos. You can book a boat tour to spot the birds to maximise your chances. But if you’re in Holbox on a backpacker budget, it’s also possible to walk to Isla de Pasion (you’ll have to wade/swim for a section too).
Free things to do in Holbox
Yum-Balam Nature Reserve – One of the Yucatan Peninsula’s best nature reserves, Yum Balam on the south side of the island is easy to reach by golf cart or bike – or it takes about forty minutes to walk there. Just keep following the main beach road past all the hotels and keep going until you reach the end of the road. Yum Balam is home to 420 bird species, crocodiles, jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, and hawksbill turtles, among others. It’s free to enter and offers wildlife spotting opportunities, a sense of adventure, and completely deserted beaches.
Relax – The main thing to do in Isla Holbox is chill out. Laze on the beach or in a hammock, read a book, watch the sunset, and relax. There’s not much going on, so this is the perfect place for some serious R&R.
Street Food – Just next to the main square in town, there’s a small market with a few stalls selling tacos, tortas (sandwiches), and empanadas. For traditional and cheap food on Holbox, this is the place to come. Tacos $15 MXN each.
Oliver’s – An adorably kitsch fifties style diner, with really good burgers, coke floats, and milkshakes. Very cute and really good fun! Burgers from $80 MXN (fries are extra). Find it on the main square.
Et Voila – Another cute cafe serving up BBQ meat, sandwiches, and smoothies from a bright green camper van. Tacos from $70 MXN for a set of three. Particularly proud of their French baguette sandwiches.
Heladeria “La Bicicleta” – This cute wooden cafe on the main square does amazing milkshakes (malteadas) for $75 MXN. Plus they have coffee, frappes, and ice cream.
A Mar Cafe – On the road between the main square and the beach, this small coffee shop has amazing brownies, and good coffee. Cappuccinos from $40 MXN.
Holbox Beach Bars and Alcohol Prices
There are plenty of beach bars to discover on Holbox, and prices are ranging, but on the whole you’ll find cocktails are usually around the $100 MXN mark and beers start at about $30 MXN. Much cheaper is to buy some beers at the local supermarket (usually around $12 MXN each) and take them to the beach with you – but remember to take all your rubbish home!
Raices Beach Bar – My favourite beach bar on Holbox was Raices, a super chilled out reggae bar with swing seats and live music. Cocktails start at $75 MXN, and if you make friends with the barmen you might just get one on the house – plus they’re all absolute legends!
Alma Bar – A trendy new rooftop lounge overlooking the beach, Alma Bar has a gorgeous little swimming pool, hammocks, and heaps of laid-back style. Cocktails from $90 – 150 MXN, beer from $40 MXN.
Beach Bar at Villa Flamingos – At the edge of the Yum-Balam Nature Reserve, Villa Flamingos is pretty quiet and feels cut off from the busy (by Holbox standards) beach strip. The beach bar is chilled, there’s a nice pool, and acapulco chairs on a deck overlooking the ocean. Great for chilled out vibes. Cocktails from $95 MXN.
Hostels – Cocktails at both Tribu Hostel and Bucaneros start from $50 MXN, so these are probably the cheapest places on Holbox for a mojito or two!
It was surprisingly hard to plan my return journey from Isla Holbox, because there’s no bus station at Chiquila and nowhere on the island to book in advance. The ferry back to Chiquila runs all day with really frequent departures, as on the way over. From there, busses depart infrequently from opposite the Chiquila ferry port.
How to Get From Holbox to Cancun
Again, there are several departures a day with various services. The ADO bus departs at 1:45pm every day, but there are a couple of other options. As there is no place on Holbox to book your bus ticket in advance, you can check the time on the ADO website (however you cannot purchase the ticket). You may even be able to book your return at the Cancun ADO station before your trip, although this of course means you can’t be flexible or decide to stay longer.
How to Get From Holbox to Mérida
The only bus from Chiquila to Mérida leaves at 5:30am and takes 5-6 hours. Alternatively, there is a 4:30pm bus to Tizimin*, which has a large bus station where you can transfer for a bus to Mérida (regular departures) or elsewhere. Or, you can take a taxi to El Ideal ($300 MXN or more, as mentioned earlier) and wait at the intersection there for a bus running from Cancun to Mérida. These come past every twenty minutes or so and the 2nd class busses cost $169 MXN.
*There may be other departures earlier in the day to Tizimin, but this is the only one I know for sure exists!
Word of warning: there seemed to be no ATM in Chiquila and no bus station where you can pay for your tickets on card, so be sure to have enough cash on you!
ATM’s and Paying for Stuff
There are only three ATM’s on Holbox that dispense pesos, and these seem to run out of cash or break down fairly often. On the Friday of my trip, all three machines were out of action – and based on the responses from locals this seems to happen a lot. They were still all down the next morning, when I left, and I’m guessing they weren’t refilled until Monday.
There are some other ATM’s that dispense US dollars – with a hefty $7 USD withdrawal fee – but not many places accept dollars. Of course, there are a couple of places that will exchange US dollars to pesos for you, but at a pretty poor rate.
So, take plenty of cash with you to the island just in case the ATM’s decide to pack up while you’re there. And if you start to run low, quite a few restaurants and hotels accept card.
Tap water isn’t safe to drink in Holbox, so buy bottled water. Or take a Water-to-Go bottle with you, as these can instantly filter water from any source. Readers of my blog can also bag a 15% discount using code ELUX15.
Have you been to Isla Holbox? Share your own tips in the comments!
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