Jul 8, 2008
Last week we took a couple days off to head up to Holbox (pronounced "Hole-Bosh"), an island off the northern tip of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It's about a 4 hour drive from Playa del Carmen to Chiquilá where you can take a ferry across to Holbox.
There are many things to do and see in Holbox, but our reason for going was to snorkel with the Whale Sharks. They are the largest living species of fish (since whales are mammals, not fish). Whale Sharks are actually sharks, they have cartilage instead of bone and their tail is oriented up-and-down rather than side-to-side, but they are filter feeders, which makes them similar to whales. The locals used to call them Dominoes because of the patterns on their skin.
The Whale Sharks come to Holbox every summer (July and August being the best months, though the season runs May 5 - Sept 15). The currents from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico collide just off the coast, bringing plenty of yummy plankton to the surface. They can also be seen in Honduras at different times of the year. They have been spotted all over the planet, but since they can dive extremely deep, they're still being studied to determine their migratory patterns.
Holbox island is a retreat in itself. There are plenty of quiet hotels and gorgeous beaches. Because it is located on the Gulf of Mexico, there are no waves and the color of the water is milky and different from the waters of the Caribbean Sea.
We stayed in Hotelito Casa las Tortugas and highly recommend it for anyone looking for some serious downtime or a romantic getaway. The hotel is composed of several beautifully constructed and artfully arranged cabañas. We stayed in a simple room that had a queen sized bed and an extra single bed for $85 US a night. Our room had a bathroom and a balcony with hammock. My in-laws stayed in a two story efficiency with a little kitchenette for $140 a night. They also had a deck with hammock and ocean views. The hotel offers Whale Shark tours for $90 US per person.
The ride out to the where the Whale Sharks eat takes about an hour and a half. Along the way our snorkel guide pointed out the various lighthouses and fishing camps and showed us several sets of sea turtle tracks. Summer is also the time when sea turtles lay their eggs. Holbox is very active with sea turtle conservation, so there is undoubtedly lots to do for sea turtle aficionados.
Once we found some Whale Sharks (we probably found about 7 or 8 different ones) we would pull the boat near them and two people would jump out to snorkel, accompanied by the guide. It's quite a bit of work to keep up with them. They're just cruising along scooping plankton off the surface of the water, but to us they're moving at a decent clip.
The Whale Sharks we saw were about the same size as the boat we were on, so I would say they were probably about 30 feet, maybe larger. The captain and guide let us get in as many times as we could take. By about 11:30 we were pretty pooped. By noon we decided we should head back to the island.
I have swum with the Whale Sharks twice now and both times we have made the same mistake: deciding to leave the island on the same day as the swimming. Once we got back to the hotel we were pooped and all enjoyed some fruity cocktails and a snack at the hotel bar. The next time I go I will stay at least two nights. We didn't want to spend the money and wanted to get on to Valladolid to see a colonial town. It was very hard to say goodbye to the beach.
If you go to Holbox, I highly recommend you also take a tour of some of the surrounding islands. We took a 3 hour tour the afternoon we arrived which took us to Isla Passión (which is very small), Aguas Dulces (an awesome spring-fed cenote on a nearby island), and Isla Pájaros (for bird watching). In another week or so the pink flamingos will be in town, so it's a bird watchers fantasy.
Plan to bring bug repellent, as the mosquitos are very hungry. We also learned a trick for the sand fleas. Apparently, if you rub a little baby oil on your skin the sand fleas suffocate on contact and can't bite you.
We will definitely be going back, possibly this summer. Hans and I would like to go for three days to really relax and get some better photos of the Whale Sharks (I mentioned that hubby was photo-obsessed, didn't I)?