Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Isla Holbox, a Mexican paradise

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Intrepid travellers willing to venture four hours away from Cancun by bus, ferry and golf cart will be rewarded with a pristine sliver of paradise far from the madding crowds.

Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) is a fishing village on the Caribbean Sea with a few quality beachfront hotels and a handful of good restaurants. There are no resorts, no banks and no crowds. There is, however, one of the nicest beaches in Mexico's Yucatan, with powdery blond sand stretching farther than it's possible to walk. During the morning low tide, you can wade hip-deep in warm, turquoise water to a sand spit that emerges like a silk highway. Pelicans, terns and herons gather on the spit to fish. It takes some travelling skills to reach Holbox Island, and a grasp of rudimentary Spanish is recommended. From Cancun's main bus terminal, a second-class bus that meanders through villages takes 3.5 hours to bring you to the town of Chiquila ($7.50 one way.) Every half hour, a ferry then makes the 30-minute crossing from Chiquila to Holbox ($5 one way.) Four hours away from the main highway might feel remote, but it's interesting to note that the teenagers, and even the elderly women in traditional, embroidered Mayan dress riding the bus, now carry cellphones, Ipods and even BlackBerries. Mexicans are plugged in.

Holbox Island is 25 kilometres long and three kilometres wide, and most of it is part of the undeveloped, protected Yum Balam Reserve, with a river running through its middle that attracts thousands of migrating birds, most notably flamingoes (from April to October.) In the summer months, whale sharks gather, bringing day-trippers who arrive by float plane from Cancun. But in the winter months, the tiny airfield, marked by shells, is silent.

There are only sand roads and no vehicles on Holbox Island, except for golf carts which owners will cheerfully taxi you around in for $2. Several places rent bikes ($7.50 half day) and with no traffic to dodge, cycling is an ideal way to see the island.

Ten years ago, Italian residents Onny and Carmelo decided to stop travelling the world and sink roots in Holbox. They created Mawimbi, a small, beachfront posada that feels as though it grew organically from its surroundings. Carmelo tirelessly makes tables and chairs from fallen tree trunks, light fixtures from shells, and hanging planters from coconuts. The posada has several rooms with balconies and hammocks, two deluxe beachfront apartments with kitchens, several smaller garden rooms, and a charming snack bar nestled under palm trees overlooking the sea. Travellers arrive mainly from France, Italy and England.

The town of Holbox spreads out from the main square, with its white church and basketball court, both well used by locals. About 1,500 people live here, and it's a clean and friendly town. Around the square, there are several very good restaurants, most notably, La Cueva del Pirata, which offers Italian-Mexican fusion dishes like angel-hair pasta with asparagus and shrimp, and complimentary homemade onion bread with mushroom seafood dip. Edelyn is excellent value and always busy, serving Holbox's best margaritas, grilled lobster tails and pizzas. (English menus, helpfully translated, include such gems as spaghetti with clams, pizza with cheese and jam, and spaghetti in aluminum foil.) Nearby, a good rooftop Argentine restaurant, La Parrilla de Juan, opens for dinner and features dishes such as jumbo shrimp brochette with mango salsa. On the beach, the Fara Viejo does an amazing, full breakfast for just $4, and Villa del Mar offers delicious lunchtime soups, fresh guacamole or nachos.

Holbox Island, with its starry, starry nights and deep serenity, is one of those places that after just one week, you'll feel you've gotten away from it all for months.

-- Diane Poulin is a Winnipeg writer.

If you go

Getting there:

By bus: From Cancun's main bus terminal, second class buses run several times a day to Chiquila. Bring water as second class buses are not air-conditioned.

Ferry: Runs every hour until sundown from Chiquila to Holbox.

By car: The road to Chiquila is well paved. You'll have to leave your car in Chiquila to take the ferry ($3 per day.)

By taxi: From Cancun to Chiquila, expect to pay at least $50 one way. Negotiate a flat rate.

Sleeping:

Posada Mawimbi - Beachfront, moderately priced, recommended. www.mawimbi.net

Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas - Beachfront http://www.holboxcasalastortugas.com/

La Casa de Alberto - In town, clean albertoholbox@hotmail.com

Casa Maya - Budget, beachfront, includes camping.

What to bring:

Pesos and US dollars. There are no banks or ATM's on Holbox.

Bug spray. There can be mosquitoes for an hour at dusk.

Light jacket. There is a cool ocean breeze at night.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2009 E3

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