The Independent | Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 12:28 am
HOLBOX ISLAND, Mexico — Hard to get places often hold the most rewards for travelers. My latest trek to Isla Holbox in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula proved, yet again, the extra effort to get there is more than worth it.
The big draw to Holbox and the reason it catapulted to the top of our “Must-See List,” is that Whale Sharks, one of the largest swimming creatures on the planet, visit the plankton rich waters around the island between May and September each year.
To get there, we traveled for 16 hours straight via two car drives — one in Mexico and one in the States — two plane rides, a train, a ferry and a golf cart. The long journey to Holbox (pronounced Hal-bosh), is almost immediately forgotten, however.
Its green turquoise waters and iridescent white sands, which are so fine its hard to spot a single grain, can invigorate even the weariest of travelers.
Then there is the wildlife. Dolphins play off shore and vividly pink American Flamingos fly by and wade in flocks in the lagoons that encircle the island.Pelicans and a variety of other large sea birds camp out on any post and boat they can find.
In Holbox, we found a tropical paradise by our standard of the phrase. We went there for whale sharks but found so many more surprises we will forever cherish.
Located inside the Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve, Isla Holbox is seven miles long and about 1,600 yards wide, separated from the mainland by a lagoon. Its major industry is fishing and its several hundred full-time residents have retained a traditional cultural lifestyle, including shuttering businesses during the afternoon siesta.
There are no paved roads and very few cars. Transportation is mainly by golf cart or moped. There are a handful of new hotels along the beach but virtually no one but their front desk staff speaks English. The vast majority of vacationers on Holbox are Mexicans, followed by Europeans and lastly Americans. We met only one during our week there.
There are no international chain stores and there has never been a violent crime on the island, according to locals. Children run and play in the street and on the beaches, day and night, while their parents work on fishing boats or in the restaurants and shops on the island or lounge nearby in the shade. Everyone was nice and helpful even when we couldn’t communicate through words.
Every restaurant serves up only the freshest local seafood fare. For the entire glorious week we stuffed ourselves with all the ceviche we could hold in a dozen different varieties.
But the whale sharks are truly the highlight of a trip to Holbox.
We booked a tour through a local company named Willy’s Whale Shark Tours, the only one on the island with an English-speaking guide, Abraham. A local, he educated us not only about the whale shark but about the culture and history of the region and how it’s handling its new tourism boom.
While searching for the whales, he pointed out dolphins, sea turtles, flamingos and giant manta rays in the waters around us. When a large gathering of manta rays appeared off our bow, he promptly urged us overboard to snorkel with the “Mantas.”
It was an extra thrill we hadn’t expected. These graceful animals were amazing to watch, as they glided so effortlessly through the waves. They looked as if they were flying, and each had a colony of fish and other marine life under them.
After several more hours of dedicated looking, another tour boat finally found a whale shark feeding near the surface and we motored toward them.
The seas had picked up, 6 to 8 foot swells rocked the boat, and visibility had diminished. When it was finally our turn to swim with the giant fish, I was nervous I’d be unable to keep up or wouldn’t see it.
At first in the water, I couldn’t see anything. But then a school of swimming sardines streaked past my mask and my snorkel filled with water from the crashing waves, leaving me choking and full of adrenaline.
I put my face back into the water, desperately searching and then, in an instant, the whale sharks hallmark white domino spots came into view below me. I was swimming less than two feet above a more than 21-foot long animal weighing thousands of pounds.
Yet it too moved so gracefully through the water, filtering plankton into its enormous mouth that was certainly almost as wide as the span of my arms, that I could have easily missed him. The whale paid no attention to me or my husband, who swam along on its opposite side for a handful of minutes.
We were just other, yet strange, fish in the sea. As we kicked along a calm washed over me despite the turbulent waves.