Tiny crescent moon bays undulate down the shoreline, like scalloped lace. The sand is fine and white, rivalling the feel of powdered sugar between my toes. It’s too shallow to dive in, so I wade into the aqua green water until it comes just above my knees, 100 feet off shore. The only sound is a lone pelican diving for small translucent fish that swim just beyond my fingertips. I tilt my head back, let the salty water wash over my skin, and say to the bird circling overhead, “I think I’ve died and gone to Holbox.”
Isla Holbox is a small island off the northeast tip of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula. Holbox is the Mayan word for ‘black hole’, in reference to the plentiful fish, including whale sharks, still found in the waters offshore. It stretches 26 miles and is only one mile at its widest point. In order to preserve the streets paved with sand and sea shells, no cars are allowed, but you will see plenty of bicycles. There are also no big resorts, no hawkers along the beach, no air of aggressive tourism. Holbox is, I imagine, what Isla Mujeres and Cozumel were, once upon a time. But where the relentless onslaught of large scale tourism has rendered those islands unrecognizable from their quaint origins, the residents and devotees of Holbox seem intent on preserving the magic here, at least for now.
Niccolo, a transplanted Italian from Florence, greets us as we pull up in our ‘taxi’, a golf cart retrofit for hauling luggage and people but not, apparently, large dogs. Iggy bounced out after a particularly impressive pothole caught the front right tire, landing him indelicately on the sandy road, thankfully wounding only his pride. Needless to say, he was happy when our cart reached its destination. Our home away from home for the next two days is a two room Airbnb, run by Niccolo and his girlfriend. The large wood beam and palapa architecture of Casa Francesca was instantly inviting, as were the adirondack chairs and two hammocks swinging gently under the covered veranda. We had the place to ourselves which is a relief given we never know how vocal Iggy will be in a new environment, especially one that is ensconced in a tropical forest.
Holbox is a unique story. Electricity only came to the island 10 years ago, and at our end of the beach, we walked home by the light of the stars, and my iphone. Humble eco friendly establishments live respectfully with their more upscale counterparts. But the most fascinating stories to me were the art and the animals. I’ll start with the art. Since 2012, the International Public Arts Festival has partnered with artist collectives from around the world to transform the public spaces on Holbox. Throughout Mexico, murals have long been a vehicle for community and political engagement, and these are no different. With developers hovering over this idyllic island like vultures, the murals attempt to capture the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the residents of Holbox, and create an awareness in the broader community of what is at stake here.
And now the animals.
Holbox has a dog population to rival a Disney movie. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Danes to Daschunds, and they wander the streets and beaches in remarkably good health and demeanor. Luca, another Italian we met on our many long walks along the beach said, “Holbox is a dogs dream”. He was preparing the rigging for his daughters sailing lesson, his three happy mutts nearby. “All the dogs here are cut”, he said, using his fingers to emphasize the point. “They do not have to worry about life.” As if on cue, the dogs jumped into the readied vessel, manning their stations at the front of the boat. This collective philosophy of caring and compassion spoke more to me about the island and its inhabitants than anything else I encountered. As we left Holbox on the ferry the next day, a massive Great Dane appeared out of nowhere on the dock, howling as if to say, “Don’t leave, but if you must, then don’t let it be forever.” Iggy barked in return, and we knew we’d be back.