When, Where and Why
Over Christmas 2019 and New Years 2020, we ditched Virginia’s cold winter and swapped it for Mexico’s warm sunshine. We spent 2 weeks in Mexico visiting Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Chichén Itzá. We enjoyed beautiful beaches, some great excursions, and awesome scuba diving!
About the destinations
Yucatán Peninsula: Most of the Yucatán Peninsula’s tourism is condensed in the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The peninsula itself is made up of four different states: Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Tabasco. The northeast coast of Quintana Roo is Riviera Maya, one of the most popular areas for visitors and where towns like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are located. From November to April it’s dry season in Mexico which means lots of sunshine and lower humidity – you can view a live webcam of various places in Mexico.
Isla Holbox: Pronounced “hole-bosh”. Located north of the Yucatán Peninsula between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, Isla Holbox is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve. Locals are very friendly and flamingos can sometimes be found here. Far from the crowds of Cancún, the tiny island is dotted with dirt roads, laid-back beach bars, and incredible natural beauty. Holbox is situated at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. There is only 1 ATM on the island – plan accordingly! No chain restaurants or hotels! In October 2018, Holbox became the first island in a Protected Natural Region of Mexico to ban single-use plastics. We were really disappointed to see a TON of plastic on the island when we visited in 2019/2020 so hopefully they’re still working on this. Do note that the mosquitos here are fierce as soon as the sun begins to set. Bring a lot of bug repellent.
Isla Mujeres: This beautiful island is just across the Bahia de Mujeres (Bay of Women), about a 20 minute ferry from Cancun. This a laid-back, sleepy island for those looking to escape it all. It is very tourist-centered, and gets very crowded during the daytime when day-trippers stop by, but overall, the vibe was casual and we loved our time here. Lounge on the island’s beautiful white sand beaches, meander its many shops and stalls, enjoy water sports in the calm, crystal clear turquoise waters, and watch the sun slowly slip down over the ocean each night! Rent a golf cart to explore the island!
Chichén Itzá: An incredible city built by the Maya people in Yucatán famous for its large, pyramid temple called El Castillo. Its ruins are federal property and it’s one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Chichén Itzá means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. There are 4 cenotes – one of which is called the Cenote Sagrado. Other notable structures include the Ball court. It is INCREDIBLE and a must visit. We took a day trip (like the whole day, 13 hours) from Isla Mujeres on our last full day in Mexico, and we’re so glad we did. Chichén Itzá is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and it is truly a wonder to behold.
We bought our round trip tickets through Spirit Airlines for $576.22pp. We booked the tickets in late November, once we solidified time off from work over the holidays. Flights are always more expensive around the holidays, especially “last minute” flights like ours. The flight from BWI (Maryland, USA) to CAN (Cancun, MX) was just under 4 hours long!
To get to Holbox from the airport, we hired transportation from the airport to Chiquila port through Viator. Then we hopped on a ferry to Holbox and walked to our adorable AirBnB (use my link for $35 off your first AirBnB stay).
To get to Mujeres from Holbox, catch the ferry back to Chiquilá, take the Oriente bus on a 3 hour drive to Cancun bus terminal (or hire a car), take a taxi to the Puerto Juárez Ultramar Ferry terminal, and catch the 20 minute ferry to Isla Mujeres. Ferries depart every 30 minutes for 300 pesos RT (accurate in 2020). Check their website for updated fares and departure times.
To get to the Airport from Mujeres, catch the ferry back to Puerto Juárez and take a taxi to the airport for the fastest option. For a less expensive (and longer travel time) option, take the ferry, then grab a bus to Cancun Bus Station, and transfer to another bus to the airport. Check ADO for schedules.
Isla Holbox: We booked a 6 night stay at AirBnB Casa Sabina Apartment for a total cost of $586.64. The host was very communicative and the location was stellar. We walked absolutely everywhere and never found a need for bikes or golf carts. The AirBnB was tiny, but perfect for the two of us. It had working AC, a double bed, kitchen, one block from the park, three blocks from the beach, center of town.
Isla Mujeres: We booked a 7 night stay at Sol Caribe Suites for a total cost of $702.76. This was a cute hotel situated right in the middle of town and about a 5 minute walk from Playa Norte. You should plan to stay in this area for sure, unless you are going to rent a car during your stay. Our hotel room was cleaned daily and had a working AC, king sized bed, kitchen, and access to the hotel’s rooftop terrace, which was great for lounging and sunset!
Try This There – Isla Holbox
- There are very few cars on the island, which instead has a taxi-like system of golf carts. They line up when the ferries come in so you can get a ride to wherever you’re staying. Our AirBnB was a very short walk from the ferry and perfectly located to the downtown area!
- Since Isla Holbox is so small, walking or bikes are an ideal mode of transport. You can rent a bike for around twenty pesos an hour at one of the shops around town
- Bioluminescent beaches at nighttime – bioluminescence can sometimes be seen as early as March and as late as mid-December
- The top spot for swimming in bioluminescent waters on Holbox is at the southeastern tip of the island at a beach called Punta Cocos, conveniently located just a few minutes outside of the town. Most guided bioluminescence tours will take you to this spot, or you can also reach Punta Cocos by bike (keeping in mind that the roads can be dark at night) or pay for a golf cart taxi to take you, wait for you there, and bring you back.
- Walk along the beach towards Punto Mosquito (about 30mins from town/ or rent bikes) where there’s a sandbar that you can wade out to and after sunrise and before sunset so you can have a chance to see the beautiful flamingos – chances are high April – October, but locals say the birds are around year round.
- Getting to the flamingos in Holbox isn’t super easy, but the walk is beautiful. Park your bike or golf cart at Las Nubes de Holbox hotel (you can’t go any further) and get ready for a 1-hour walk. We didn’t see them here when we went in January, but we saw them other places! From the beach, walk towards the sandbank which is easily visible and just keep following the sandbank till you get to the tip. You will walk through water but it’s usually ankle- or knee-deep – it’s a good workout! Check the tides! We didn’t rent bikes and instead made a day trip out of walking there (and to Playa Cocos) from our AirBnB and walking back later that night!
- Head to Punta Cocos for the day and/or for sunset – bring drinks and a picnic! It’s a long walk, but it’s gorgeous. We went during the week and had the entire beach to ourselves.
- Kayak through the mangrove forest on the island
- Enjoy the water hammocks at Villas Flamingos Hotel, Villas Tiburon, or the water swings at Ensuenñoño Holbox.
- Go fishing
- Take a three island tour from Holbox . You get to see the bird island, swim in a cenote and see the pink flamingos if the season is right. MXN 450 per person and a great way to spend the morning.
- Most tours will let you swim in Yalahau Cenote, which is only accessible by boat (30 minute ride). Yalahau Cenote is a fresh-water cenote surrounded by a lagoon with the same name – but the island itself was full of trash and there were so many people in the cenote it wasn’t even clear. Super disappointing but luckily the only disappointing thing about this three-island tour. For many years, this Cenote was Holbox island’s largest source of fresh water and home to pirate, Francisco de Molas.
- Isla Pasion and Cabo Catoche are two other great stops on most tours. We saw so many flamingos!
- Volunteer at the animal hospital
- Nativapark.com for adventure sports
- El Sabor De Las Nubes – book a day pass through their website
- Restaurants: Luma for tapas, Iviva Zapata for ceviche, Taco Queto for authentic tacos, Manderina Restaurant and Beach Club for expensive gourmet dishes, La Panchas for tacos and the best guacamole, Casa Nostra for its incredible food and beautiful rooftop, Alma bar in Hotel Villas Tiburon for its pool with hammocks and great drinks, Hotel Arena Lounge on the 7th floor for the highest view of Holbox, Races Beach Club and Marina for fresh fish and live music, La Isla Del Colibri for its breakfast and fresh juices, ROOTS Pizza a Leña for pizza and the best lobster pizza on the island, Basico for expensive fish and gourmet food, Olivers for basic american fare and milkshakes, Cafe del Mar (a tiny bar right on the beach next to Fly Fishing Lodge for cocktails , Los Pelones for homemade pasta, Viva Zapata for fajitas. Tip: Eating is expensive in the main tourist area of town (relative to other parts of Mexico) but if you want local, cheap food (15pesos/taco) there is a row of food stands near the baseball diamond at Av Damero & Calle Tintorera.
- Bars: The Hot Corner for good cocktails and live music and free drinks for girls on Thursdays from 8 – 10 pm, Bar Tribu Hostel for cheap drinks and free shots for girls on Thursdays from 7 – 10 pm, Races Beach Club for a beach bar atmosphere, Coquitos Beach Club for drinks on the beach, Zomay’s Bar for sunset on the beachfront, Bar Arena
Try This There – Isla Mujeres
- Visit Playa Norte, considered one of the best beaches in all of Mexico. It’s one of the only places on Mexico’s eastern coast where you can watch the sunset over the ocean. Weekends are best for a livelier atmosphere at the beach clubs, while weekdays are ideal for avoiding the crowds.
- The diving around Isla Mujeres is unforgettable. The Manchones Reef begins just off of Isla’s shore and the Cuevones and Banderas Reefs are close by. The waters are calm and clear – perfect for the beginner as well as the advanced diver. The Cruz de la Bahia (Bay Cross) was planted into the Manchones Reef in 1994 to pay tribute to the men and women of the sea.
- Recommended Dive Shops: Mexico Divers (we went diving with them a few times and were happy with our choice!), Carey Dive Center, Cruise Divers, Aqua Adventures, Casa del Buceo, Delfin Diving, Enrique’s Unique Dives, Sea Hawk Divers, Mundaca Divers, Pocna Dive Center, Searious Diving, Squalo Adventures. The linked shops are shops we considered using, but Mexico Divers was closest to our hotel so we went with them for convenience.
- MUSA Underwater Sculpture Museum is the largest underwater museum on Earth – the sculptures change overtime as the coral grows. There are over 500 sculptures by the creator Jason deCaires Taylor. You can dive down to the sculptures (we did with Mexico Divers) or take a snorkel trip to view from above.
- TAKE A TOUR TO CHICHÉN ITZÁ. Everyone offers them so walk around, bargain for prices, compare tour companies and find something suitable for you. We took a tour on our very last full day in Mexico and we are so happy we did! Our tour including visiting Xcajum Cenote, which was beautiful, and stopping in the cute town of Valladolid.
- Rent a golf cart ($55 – $65 per day) to explore the island and visit Punta Sur. Visit the Pre-Colombian Mayan Ruins of Ixchel. Translated from Spanish, Isla Mujeres means the ‘Island of Women’ and it was named after the Mayan Goddess Ixchel, the Goddess of fertility and happiness. We had so much fun doing this!
- The Downtown area of Isla Mujeres provides plenty to explore. Shops, cafes, live music, bars and restaurants line the main roads and side streets. Down the center of town runs pedestrian street Avenida Hidalgo with its row of excellent restaurants and bars; here, you can find plenty for daytime eats, but the avenue comes alive at dusk when the entire island appears for an evening of dining and live music.
- Visit Garrafon Park at the southern tip of the island: natural reefs, breathtaking cliffs, and zip lines over the Caribbean Sea. However, I did read that they keep dolphins captive there and it feels unethical to contribute to this type of exploitative tourism. We didn’t go here, but I’ll mention it since it is heavily advertised.
- Mercado Municipal in Centro has a great local atmosphere, and authentic food that is cheap and very delicious. For as little as a few dollars, you can enjoy the best fish tacos and empanadas on the island. It closes in the early afternoon so go for lunch!
- Every Mexican town has a central square called a Zocalo. Visit Isla’s in the evening to find food vendors selling tasty local Mexican street food. There’s music, entertainment and dancing. We spent New Years Eve in the Zocalo and it was our favorite NYE ever.
- Isla Mujeres Artist Fair – On the first Thursday of every month between November and April the fair takes place in the Zocalo between 4 pm and 9 pm. There are works of art, jewelery, clothing and book stalls with a selection of local food vendors offering Mexican cuisine.
- Visit Hacienda Mundaca, built by pirate Fermin Mundaca – winding paths, solar clock garden, ruins
- Tortugranja is a government and privately funded sea turtle sanctuary on Sac Bajo. We honestly weren’t impressed when we visited, but if you love turtles and want to read about them, have at it. Go really early – like when they open – to have the place to yourself and to avoid the tour busses.
- Try a snorkeling tour to Cabo Catoche, which is where the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet
- During the Sailfish season (December to June) divers have the opportunity to witness twenty, forty or even more Atlantic Sailfish in an organized feeding frenzy of sardine “bait balls”. There are only a few companies that can safely offer this unique opportunity: Delfin Diving and Keen M International Blue Water Encounters.
- ‘Sea Wall Murals’ murals were created by various top street artists from around the world to raise awareness of marine species threatened by extinction in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
- Do an island/food tour with Cultura Cruisers
- Sunset Cruise on a Catamaran: A 3-hour boat tour includes beer, wine and snacks and starts from $85.00 per person. Ask around and compare prices! Everything is negotiable.
- Take a day trip to Isla Contoy. This natural wildlife reserve and bird sanctuary is 9 km long and 20 meters wide. It was declared a National Park in 1998. Isla Contoy is one of the most important protected areas in Mexico for nesting seabirds and sea turtles. There is a maximum of 200 tourists allowed to visit on a daily basis. A day tour starts from $75 per person.
- AirBnB experience: 4 Cenotes visit – you’d have to take the ferry to Cancun to join this tour. If you’re on Mujeres for a while, it would be a fun day trip.
- Practice yoga at beachfront studio Treehouse Yoga
- Restaurants: Taqueria La Cueva de la Cherna for tacos, Playa Lancheros to eat “tikin xic”, Poc-Chuc for great breakfast, Casa de Los Suenos for Happy Hour and a cool pool with a view, El Patio or the Joint for live music, Taquerilla Glenssy, Zanzibar, Cafe Mango at Playa Obispo for breakfast, Green Verde for breakfast, North Garden at Playa Norte for breakfast, Marbella for seafood, Cafe Mogagua at Av Juarez for breakfast and lunch, Ruben’s for mexican, Javi’s for seafood, Acantilado Restaurant for fine dining with a view
- Bars: 420 Bar for frozen mojitos, Soggy Peso, Isla Brewery, Poc Na, Ice Bar