Awaking early, I tiptoed out to catch a glimpse of the sun, rising in all its pink and orange grandeur, over the Caribbean Sea. Sighing deeply, I felt grateful to have a front row seat to the spectacular event. I thought to myself why, living so near in Playa del Carmen, had I waited four years to visit this picturesque island. Although I had only been in Holbox for a few short hours, I was already completely captivated.
It was time for the highly anticipated moment, to board the boat that would take us to swim with the majestic whale sharks. We gathered the group together and walked to the nearby dock where we were greeted by a stalky, Mexican man with blue eyes and a gold tooth. Capitan Cholenco invited us onto his boat and introduced us to his assistant, Misael.
We settled in, strapped on our life jackets, as we listened to Misael run through the safety instructions and precautions regarding the whale sharks. Chole's helper gave no warnings of the dangers that might occur while in the water with these giants of the sea. Instead, he spoke of their gentleness despite their massive sizes which stretch six to seven meters on average. Misael also explained that in order to sustain their energy levels, they need to consume about thirty to forty pounds of plankton per day. Therefore, he advised us to refrain from using sunscreen, which contaminates the ocean waters and ultimately kills their food source. Along the hour and a half journey out towards the whale shark area, Captain Cholenco spotted a sea turtle. His ability to notice a change in the appearance on the water's surface a hundred yards out was nothing short of amazing. To my untrained eye, every dark, rolling wave seemed to look like a creature surfacing. As intently as the other passengers and I tried to spot a fin or a tail, I came to the conclusion that only few people have a sea sense as sharp as the Captain's. Slowing down, he circled back so that we could view the tranquil creature bob at the surface then vanish into the underwater abyss. This was the first opportunity of many, that we would encounter wild and free marine life in their natural habitat.
This bird caught a ride with us for the last 1/2 hour of our trip.
Soon after, we arrived in the feeding area of the world's largest fish. Within minutes we were geared with flippers, masks and snorkels, ready to join the spotted whale sharks. Two by two, we jumped nervously into the water, heads submerged, as we swam alongside these marvelous giants. Our crew was able to witness feeder fish hitching a ride on the beast's belly, eagerly waiting for any leftovers that might spill out the sides of its enormous, open mouth. After having each shared a few rounds of priceless encounters in the sea with the whale sharks, we were called back to the boat. Partly relieved to be heading to shore to regain my land legs, I was also reluctant to climb aboard, not wanting the magic of the breathtaking moment to end.
The mighty whale shark. Photo courtesy of Daria Mexmix
The ocean swim and attempts to keep up to the whale sharks had made us ravenous. The Captain had a surprise up his sleeve that would satisfy our hunger. Pulling up to a small fishing boat containing three good-natured fishermen, Cholenco purchased a few red snapper for a couple hundred pesos and we continued on. The fish-market in the middle of the ocean was a very surreal experience in itself. However, there was much more in the way of enchanting scenarios in store. Fifteen minutes later, we came upon a private beach area. Floating towards the white sand, the vast views of transparent, aqua-blue water rendered us speechless.
Buying fish from the fishermen in the middle of the sea.
A secret paradise near Holbox
Across the crystal clear water, various bird species were perched on a sandbar. Catfish darted up to the boat to great us as we leapt into the refreshing, shallow water. The world seemed to stop for those three hours of bliss at this awe-inspiring inlet. The kids snorkeled and tried to catch fish with their bare hands. We sat in the glistening water, enjoying an ice-cold beverage while Misael and the captain prepared for us some fresh ceviche, served with Cholenco's secret, patented sauce.
Misael prepping the ceviche.
The sun was heading west, about to begin its decent, a sign that our adventure would soon come to an end. Just when we thought the day could not possibly get any better, we came upon a pod of five dolphins who performed a splendid, ten minute show for us. Giddy and wide-eyed, we observed the graceful creatures explode through the surface in perfect synchronization. They seemed to be just as curious about us because they circled the boat twice before swimming off in a haste.
It had been a scorching, hot day. Cholenco patiently obliged our periodic requests for pit stops and a chance to cool off in the turquoise waters. At the final leg of our journey, we were able to view hundreds of poised pink flamingos in the mangroves a few minutes from the marina in Holbox. The tour operators explained that the rosy-colored birds obtain their bright pigment from eating mainly shrimp. The captain had ceased the engine so as not to startle the flamingos. He fascinated us with more facts such as, due to the fragility of their long, thin legs, the birds need to have a proper take off as they begin to fly. If they are scared and attempt to fly off without ascending gradually, they can break their legs and often end up dying.
Sailing lazily back to the dock, we thanked Misael and the captain for a thrilling day at sea. Settling into our hammocks on the beach at our hotel, we recalled the many highlights of our memorable trip. Later, after cleaning ourselves up, we ventured on to the main street of the small town. Vibrant murals covered entire buildings, golf carts motored across the gravel roads and seafood aromas filled the air.
El Chapulim enticed us with its mysterious promise of fresh catch of the day offerings. There was no menu, however the chef came out to recite the four choices of main entree, two of which included a filet of succulent white fish with a poblano sauce, as well as prawns sautéed with zucchini, mushrooms and mild chiles in a garlic butter sauce. To drink, we enjoyed the house mango and rum cocktails. The savory meal was an ideal end to our final evening on the heavenly island of Holbox.
IMPORTANT TIPS FOR YOUR HOLBOX TRIP:
- The whale shark season typically runs from June 1 to September 15 each year. When spending time in Holbox during the off season, there are also year round fishing, diving, snorkeling and sunset cruise tours offered for fun and adventure.
- On the dock, you will be asked to pay a $30 Mxn Peso entrance fee per person into the Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve, a separate cost not included in the whale shark tour.
- There is a toll highway from Playa del Carmen (cost $80-$92 Mxn Pesos depending on size of vehicle). The travel time to Chiquila Port is approximately 1.5 hours.
- In Chiquila, there is an abundance of overnight parking options. 2 ferry companies, 9 Hermanos and Holbox Express can take you on the 25 minute ride to Holbox Island. Prices are $100 Mxn Pesos/adult and $70 Mxn Pesos/Child. The first crossing to Holbox Island is at 6:00a.m. and the final is at 9:30p.m.
- We stayed at the Amaite Hotel and Spa which was approximately a 20 minute walk from the ferry dock down the main street towards the beach. Travel Yucatan is the best website to book Holbox hotels. For your convenience, there are taxi golf carts that will take you to your destination for $30 Mxn Pesos. The Amaite Hotel and Spa is ideally situated in the town center, offering sea views and spacious family rooms which accommodate up to 6 people. A continental breakfast was included with our stay, but a restaurant and bar provides a full dining menu and beverage service. On-site massages can be booked with advanced notice and yoga classes are given twice weekly. An additional plus to staying at this ocean-front hotel is its close proximity to the tour boat dock, less than a hundred meters away.
- A friend, who had used various whale shark tour companies in Holbox over the years, recommended Cholenco Tours. After spending a day at sea with the Captain, I would concur that the quality of tour he offers is top-notch. However, there are several qualified tour operators who are licensed on the island that you can review online.
- On board with Cholenco Tours, you can expect a selection of non-alcoholic beverages, basic sandwiches, a piece of fruit and the freshly prepared ceviche for lunch. Snorkel equipment and life jackets are also provided. It is recommended that you bring towels and something to counter nausea such as Gravol or Dramamine, non-drowsy.
- Leave the sunscreen at home. Pack hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved swim shirts for the children.
- Do pack baby oil with you to lather on at dusk, which is the best recommended protection against the mosquitos.
- For excellent fish tacos, a reasonably priced cocktail menu and exceptional live music, we suggest Viva Zapata.
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.