Visit This Little Known Island In Mexico Before The Masses Descend

Taken with TULUM but won over completely by the tiny island of HOLBOX, TIM MAGEE is drifting in Mexico …

La Palapa Hotel in Holbox
La Palapa Hotel in Holbox

“Excuse me, sir, are those brownies gluten free?” asks the semi-toasted woman in La Eufemia beach bar. She is asking one of the two handsome guys who appear late afternoon at the bar armed with winning smiles and the Tupperware needed to seal their cookies from the 40 degree heat and 70 per cent humidity. And armed with more than that. The question is a reasonable one in this world of real and pretend gluten intolerance, but these lads are selling hash brownies and both parties know this. It’s an interaction that tells you everything you need to know about this strip of jungle-frilled beach in Southern Mexico.

The buns aren’t gluten free so the lady passes – also because she is travelling back home the following morning and probably only prefers to take one flight at a time. This really happy pair have more success with a cluster of guys who are already too sunburned to know their own names. I watched them go from delicately nibbling their brownies until by sundown, they were more ruined than any of the Mayan archeological sites that surrounded them.

La Eufemia and its tame hedonism is the exception and not the rule for Tulum’s beach, which is really a front garden for the most impressive boutique-ville I have seen. Tulum is Santa Monica on holidays. The hotel zone – which sounds overdeveloped, but it’s a three-storey strip of impossibly photogenic boutique hotels – is all health, sun, wellbeing and five-dollar margaritas. Every third one being an exception – a vegan or juice joint – and there’s yoga, yoga everywhere.

Arca restaurant
Arca restaurant

The long strip of road that stands between the Caribbean sea and dense jungle is flanked by restaurants (like the famous Hartwood or the lesser known but better Arca) and during the day that road is like a green tunnel, with trees bending from age and humidity, dappling your stroll up and down what is essentially the prettiest boutique shopping mall I have seen.

At night it’s as though an events company is paid to take over. Lighting designers, perfumeurs, chefs and gentle DJs turn that long shady canopy into one sexy, smoky vegan nightclub and catwalk. This isn’t a party zone like the ugly malls of Playa del Carmen and Cancun, two hours up the road. Everything is cooked on or in wood-fired grills and ovens, so you get to breathe it in, breathe it out and eat the forest around you. Mayan Tulum is one big wood-fired, eco-friendly yoga retreat – if you were to design a destination for health conscious female shoppers from 25 to 60 then this would top them all.

Then there are the miles of beach and the turquoise-coloured sea. The Mesoamerican barrier reef is just offshore, taking the sting out of the waves, leaving flaked-out surf with barely enough energy to make the finishing line. It’s just lovely.

For some, Tulum is already over-developed, too busy, too mad. Compared to before I’m sure it is – longtime visitors to this part of the world are now looking for the “new Tulum”. Before that it was the new Playa Del Carmen, and before that the new Cancun, but by new they mean old. The Tulum of 30 years ago.

I wasn’t looking for a new Tulum but I found it in a little island further along the coast – Holbox. After I found it I didn’t want to talk about it. I still don’t want to talk about it. I wanted to stretch this column out to keep selling you Tulum – no bad thing, a holiday of a lifetime to most. Beach, culture, shopping, adventures, some of the best food in the world: why bother going any further than Tulum?

A single day in Holbox is why. Holbox is the destroyer of all other holiday dreams. I arrived in the evening into my top floor room on the third storey in a little hotel called La Palapa, just in time to see the sun go down – my first sunset in Holbox – framed by the lanky palms outside my window and the best I have ever seen.

Next morning I walked over to the fishermen. That walk was a good 45 seconds from my hotel. At the armada of small day boats, I asked how the fishing was. “Good, it is always good, if the boats go out it is good,” said one fisherman. I sat and watched them bring in huge groupers and smaller fish I didn’t recognise. Everything bigger than a palm leaf would go on the makeshift grills that dotted the beach for miles. Everything smaller would be surgically prepared for ceviche that day, with limes fresh from the trees and other local plants for colour and flavour.

Flamingos on Holbox beach
Flamingos on Holbox beach

I went into town for a coffee. Town is at least double the walk of the beach – almost two full minutes. Magically I decided on the A Mar Café, which would pass muster with any master coffee wonk in Melbourne or Portland with its giant shiny new roaster and delicious organic Mexican beans.

After my perfect coffee and omelette made with fresh cheese, local greens and Hoja Santa pepper, I walked around barefoot, wishing I had the time to go swimming with manta rays off the lagoon on the other side of the island. A good ten-minute walk away. The call of the Gulf of Mexico was too much though, the most dramatic kaleidoscope of sea, coloured by semi-precious stones.

A four-dollar fresh banana daiquiri on a hammock yards from the sea had me wondering about my ties to Ireland, wife, family, friends, dog and work. Then it was back to town. To Hot Corner, a badly named but brilliant bar, with hippies serving fish tacos.

Back in La Palapa at night I slid back the wood-framed windows and dreamed of being at the bow of a 19th-century sailboat, crashing through the ocean. Go now, because this is a place on the cusp of change. Holbox belongs to the locals and to Mexico. I hope they cap the numbers and the development – I suspect they won’t, so I have to advise you to go, and go now while the party is still on, and still real. 


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