Can You Keep a Secret?

Is Isla Holbox Mexico’s Last Great Beach Town?

I’m in a golf cart, facing backward. The sea, completely black in the darkness, crinkles out of focus.

It’s taken a small lifetime to get here, bouncing over surprisingly well-paved roads, driving on a large sweep of a path to the west then north through tiny towns selling Coke and tacos, working my way from Cancún to the port town of Chiquilá, then onwards to Isla Holbox.

By the time I’ve reached Chiquilá the bodegas are turning off their lights, the ferry ticket window about to close. I barely make it on to the last boat, boarding hurriedly with Mexican families going home and northern Europeans approaching the next leg of their vacations. Their sunburns make them glow green under the fluorescent lights.

All of this is just a memory when I’m perched on the back of one of the makeshift, large-tired taxis bumping over the sandy, potholed streets of Isla Holbox. I’ve made this journey through the northern Yucatán, across the Yalahau Lagoon, looking for a clue into Quintana Roo’s less-seen beauty. I’ve skipped the beaches and retreats, so enticingly close to the airport, in favor of this all-day journey. Holbox will soon be paved, people tell me, flooded with Tulum yogis and Mayan Riviera resorts. But I’ve come to see for myself, as if I can manifest that destiny away. I’ve come here, in a sense, to look for one of the last great beach towns of Mexico.

Holbox will soon be paved, people tell me, flooded with Tulum yogis and Mayan Riviera resorts.


Over the past decade Holbox has earned a reputation as a bohemian hideaway for those in the know. Despite, or perhaps because of its allure, the island has been able to fend off large-scale construction projects, maintaining an atmosphere of somewhere slightly lost, happy to float in its hard-to-reach stretch of the Mexican Caribbean. And lost I feel when I arrive, in the dark, trying to survey the little island before me. It’s hot and breezeless, quiet yet with an underlying pulse. Between the overflowing mango carts and the total darkness, I know I’m far away, that if I start swimming I’ll reach Havana before anywhere else.

Holbox is more Bali than Cancún, more Swedish than American. In the color-blocked cafes of Holbox town I drink coke at lunchtime, noticing how much sweeter it tastes when warmed by the sun. I switch to tequila and tart orange slices in the afternoons, mezcal cocktails in the evenings. I spend the dinner hours moving from lantern-lit, bohemian Luuma to the menu-less perfection of El Chapulim. I fend off a taste for lobster pizza, the island’s ubiquitous culinary offering. I walk through the town’s square, past a local basketball tournament and children playing under a muraled amphitheater. I end up at a food cart, full but unable to resist biting into the salty, sugary flavor of a marquesitas, as a pair of French children look on, wide-eyed, mouths gaping in a mix of horror and awe. Nutella et fromage?!

I switch to tequila and tart orange slices in the afternoons, mezcal cocktails in the evenings.

My skin isn’t used to this sudden summer. I’ve spent months running in the deep winter cold, acclimatizing by body to wind and the snow. (In an act of extreme naiveté I’ve taken up long distance running at home in the sub-zero months.) Holbox’s warmth disarms me. It is too lovely—so warm, the humidity curls my hair just enough. At night I lie dreamlessly awake as music from a quinceañera plays endlessly in a loop.

In the morning I cast off the sleepless night in search of the giant downy white pelicans that come in from Canada each winter. They huddle around the shores, staying together in packs as if aware how rare and beautiful they are. They choose beaches far from town, staying near Punta Mosquito, Holbox’s elbow, and nearby Isla Pajaros, Yalahau, and Passion Isle where fewer visitors go, while the others lie sedated on the shores closer to their hotels.

In a few months, when it’s fully spring, Holbox will be awash with shrimp-pink flamingos. They come every year, staying through the fall. They come back to this island, a little bit lost, a little bit found.

They too, may wonder how to keep it all a secret.