Destinations Mexico North America

First impressions: Cancun and Isla Holbox

If you want to get a good first impression of Mexico, DO NOT GO TO CANCUN.


Because Cancun is essentially a small bit of the US of A implanted on Mexican tierra. I was made very much aware of this in my discussion with the immigration officer at Cancun airport.

Having spent half an hour in an immigration line full of rich American families, I forlornly asked the lady behind the counter whether all of Cancun was filled with gringos, to which she smiled and responded in the affirmative.

Despairingly, I asked if there were anywhere in Mexico I could go to avoid Americans and at that point, she actually laughed and replied: ‘no hay‘. Simply put, there’s nowhere (having since travelled further in Mexico, I discovered she lies).

Cancun was essentially built by Mexican planners who realised the potential of tourism on the Yucatan Peninsula with its white beaches and plethora of Mayan ruins and decided to erect Vegas-worthy resorts for the rich and privileged on the best of the land.

What this meant was that they succeeded in building a city with very little soul. These extravagant hotels spill out onto the supposedly public beaches, claiming the pure sands for their wealthy guests.

On the other hand, the city centre isn’t at all plush, touristy or well-developed and it makes one wonder where all the money from the Zona Hotelera – the hotel strip – goes.

In a conversation with locals one night, I found out. Most of the hotels, sadly and unsurprisingly, are owned by foreigners. And this essentially means that the money is passed from one foreign hand to another without the Mexicans catching much of a glimpse of the abundant plata.

Isla Holbox

In attempting to escape Cancun, I found myself on Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh), an island just north of Cancun but rarely visited.

Indeed, tourists were scarce, and the kind who stayed in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera were non-existent here. Although we weren’t in peak season, which is July, the lack of tourists did make me wonder how the islanders could possibly make a living.

isla holbox

Escape the gaudiness of Cancun with a trip to Isla Holbox

Holbox is a wondrously relaxed affair. The main mode of transport here is golf buggies, although one can easily walk from one end of town to the other in well under half an hour. And the pace of life is no faster than these lazy vehicles.

The beach is nothing special, the sand crunchy with shells and the air briny from mounds of seaweed washed ashore.

The water, on the other hand, is surprisingly pure, shell- and seaweed-free. It remains shallow for an exceptionally long distance, allowing one to wander away from society until it’s just you and the ocean and the pelicans who, lacking any grace, plunge into the water in uncoordinated dives, all flailing wings and head-first.

On my second evening, a cool wind swept in, the ocean became troppy, the palm trees began to dance and the restless pelicans flew in circles high in the sky.

Sure enough, the skies soon unleashed a storm, lightening bolts colouring the black sky orange, flashing so angrily that their accompanying thunder seemed to rip the very ground apart.

In the morning, the heavens were calm once more, but the results of their tantrum remained on earth; the streets were turned to rivers. Thus I had to wade, backpack-laden, through the sometimes knee-deep waters across town to the docks at a quarter to five in the a.m.

Regardless, having swum with the pelicans, had my hair re=styled by the wind, my eye-lid swollen by a mosquito bite, and my feet bathed in the grimy flood-waters, I felt reconnected with nature as I boarded the ferry. I was more than a little reluctant to leave the simplicity of the Holbox lifestyle.

Want more Mexican inspiration and adventures?

Mexico is a diverse country rich in landscapes, ruins, cultural experiences and more. Check out some of my other Mexican adventures here:

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