Island Getaways of the Mexican Caribbean

Firstly I just have to say that I love Mexico. When I was a backpacking newbie the thought of taking a tour through Mexico sounded dangerous and overwhelming. However as a veteran at the end of 15 months on the road and 9 months in South America, Mexico wasn’t a problem at all.

Having said this there are definitely areas of the country that are safer and easier to navigate with the most popular area being the Yucatan Peninsula. No matter what you are into; food, beaches, history, nature and partying there will be something awe-inspiring for everyone. This well earned reputation amongst travellers plus its 2 hour flight time to America mean that it’s also pretty crowded year-round.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about busloads of package tourists that makes me rage inside. So soon after arriving I began talking to other backpackers about where I could go to escape the mayhem around Cancun. There were 2 islands that kept being mentioned and both of them could be used to see the whale sharks that were in a breeding area of the coast.

The closest island to reach is called Isla Mujeres and is only a half hour fast boat from Cancun. It’s definitely not a quiet island but is a lot less crowded than the mainland and doesn’t have mega resorts ruining the view.

Stepping off the boat and walking down the road to the beach the first thing that we did after checking in was grab a beer to take the edge off the heat. The main hostel of the island back onto a small beach so it’s really easy to just find a patch of sand under a palm tree and just chill out watching the azure water. If this isn’t enough of a beach for you the main public beach is only 5 minutes walk away and is an incredible place to watch sunset.

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Chilling on the beach at Isla Mujeres

This pretty much sums up life on Isla Mujeres. Chilling and reading books is the main activity but in more energetic times it’s possible to reach a couple of offshore reefs with some simple snorkelling gear. The water quality is fairly good and there are a lot of different coral species along with dolphins, turtles, rays and a few reef sharks.

By far the best thing you can do on the island during June-September is see the whale sharks that feed off the northern tip of the Yucatan. Every morning boats leave the island and make the 60-90 minute trip out to the feeding grounds where the sharks congregate with manta rays. We had a few chances to jump in the water and swim along beside them and get a closer look. It was a humbling experience to be so close to an animal that can swallow you whole and it was a lot harder to keep up than you’d think. A 12 meter shark swimming at a casual pace means one of us unfit backpackers swimming at full speed.

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Swimming with the whale sharks off northern Mexico

After a couple of days relaxing on Isla Mujeres it was time to check out the second island that seemed to have a cult following, Isla Holbox. It’s reached by traveling back to Cancun and then taking a 4 hour bus followed by another water taxi. Arriving on the island is like taking a step back in time to what the coast must have been like before the insane tourism development. The roads are all sand, there are only a few cars, everyone walks or bikes around and the atmosphere is so relaxed it could make you fall asleep.

Over the next few days it would become my favourite place in Mexico. Judging by how many people have gotten ‘stuck’ there for a month or more I could tell that it wasn’t just me either. I can only imagine that Holbox is like the Gili Islands in Indonesia 20 years ago.

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Sunset on Isla Holbox, Mexico

With a bike or walking the island can be easily explored. There are so many tracks running in every direction that after 4 days I still hadn’t been to every corner. The main beach can get pretty busy so going either east or west away from the hotel zone will put you on a deserted patch of beach in no time. Go far enough east and you will find the islands most famous attraction, flocks of flamingos! They aren’t too scared of humans and an easy swim out to the sand bars will put you close enough to almost touch them. There are dedicated tours that will take you further along the island to see bigger flocks of flamingoes and turtles if you feel like seeing more.

At night is when the other amazing part of Holbox is revealed. When the night is completely dark before the moon rises; get into your swimmers (or don’t) and jump into the ocean. What you will see is some of the strongest bioluminescence in the Caribbean. It’s definitely the brightest I’ve ever seen. With a couple of people swimming around in the water it looks what I imagine it’s like being inside a glow stick. Making it even cooler is the glowing larvae and plankton working together. Plankton make the water glow and the larvae twinkle like stars. 

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Flamingos at Isla Holbox, Mexico

Everything great about Mexico is packaged up in one place at Holbox. The People, both locals and tourists alike, recognise that there’s nowhere else like it and are stubbornly trying to keep the island from changing for the worse. The yoga, craft workshops and eco accomodation all provide some alternative activities to stay busy during the hottest part of the day. At night there are a truckload of beach bars and clubs to keep things going into the morning hours. As long as you aren’t affecting anyone else you can party or chill as hard as you want.

Holbox has a reputation for being the island of love and after a few minutes on the beach at sunset you will see why. Even if you arrive by yourself you might not leave that way so be on the lookout for the island sending you some good karma. 

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Sunset on Isla Holbox, Northern Mexico
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