A Tale of Two Islands: Holbox and Cozumel
Sandy feet? Check. Ocean vistas? Check. Sun-kissed skin? Check. The islands of Holbox and Cozumel have plenty of delights to offer travelers.
The vibes couldn't be more on opposite sides of the spectrum. Holbox is laidback, bohemian, and tailored to backpackers looking to watch the sunset with a cold beer in hand. Cozumel is a popular spot for cruise ships to dock and known for its bountiful coral reefs ideal for scuba diving.
Brad and I spent several days soaking up the sun on Holbox and Cozumel. Check out our whirlwind jaunt on the islands below to help you decide which is right for you; perhaps both!
Grabbing our backpacks with eager hands, Brad and I stepped off the ferry and headed quickly towards our hostel. The ominous dark clouds overhead were about to spill at any moment. Hello rainy season!
Luckily we made it in the knick of time, checked-in, and ventured into town with our rain jackets. Golf carts whizzed past us on the sandy streets while our flip flops desperately clung to our feet as we traversed puddles of creamy mud. Were we on an island or in the middle of a swamp?!
Gift stores, restaurants, and tattoo parlors beckon visitors inside with colorful advertising. Handmade signs offer tours to various nature areas including Cabo Catoche point. Be on the lookout for stunning murals and happy hour specials!
The main beach is the place to enjoy tranquil light blue waters and powdered sugar sand. Grab a lounge chair at one of the many beach clubs or set up your own towel nearby the surf. Take a dip in the warm water and melt any worries away.
Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the beach to discover wooden piers, pelicans, and vendors. Fresh fruit, especially mango on a stick, is always a great choice for a snack. Rent kayaks, paddle boards, and snorkeling gear. Join a volleyball game, listen to music, learn how to kitesurf, or witness a magical sunset.
Feeling adventurous? Walk on the sandbar towards Punta Mosquito, a protected wildlife reserve. The tide was high when we made the three-hour roundtrip trek in waist-deep water. We didn't see any flamingos, but enjoyed the exercise. Bring a waterproof bag for your belongings and plenty of sunscreen. A tiny beach awaits you at the reserve perimeter.
Not often do Brad and I want to party like we used to in our twenties. Craving social interaction, games, and cocktails called for a night at Che Hostel. Before we knew it, crew member Angie was asking us to play a round of spoons with several guests to break the ice.
Flip cup, free shots, and pong kept us busy and quenched all night long. Thumping bass, with hits from the 2000s, rivaled our laughter as we exchanged stories. Meeting people from Romania, England, and Germany was definitely a Holbox highlight. If you are looking for an AMAZING time, or guaranteed hangover, visit Che Hostel!
If hostels aren't your cup of tea, Holbox also has a wide range of accommodation options. We saw a variety of boutique hotels and upscale resorts perfect for a splurge right on the beach.
Holbox has a little bit of everything in terms of flavorful food. Here are my top recommendations for a mouthwatering meal sure to make your belly happy.
• Breakfast - Painapol is a MUST. Hands down one of the best meals of my life. This vegan-friendly bohemian spot not only has a beautiful setting, but a menu which honors the essence of fresh ingredients. My Detox juice (carrot, ginger, honey, and lemon) and Grin smoothie bowl (pineapple, spinach, chia, spirulina, and watermelon) were works of art. The avocado salmon toast was equally scrumptious.
• Lunch - Nothing helps after a rough night of partying like a pizza with hand-tossed dough. Roots offers a variety of pies perfect for two to share. We opted to build our own creation with pepperoni, onion, mushrooms, and basil. The bruschetta appetizer was a garlic lovers delight. Come for lunch to avoid the mosquitos!
• Dinner - Seafood is pretty much a requirement on an island and El Cocal de Holbox offers affordable options. Go bold and try the complex aguachile (poached shrimp in a chili citrus sauce) served with tortilla chips. The creamy avocado is the perfect complement to the spicy heat.
Waiting to board the ferry to Cozumel in Playa del Carmen was like being dropped inside a crazy carnival with clowns. Loads of tourists, harassing vendors, and obnoxious stimuli bombarded us from all directions. Secretly I wondered if Cozumel was a good idea as I finished my overpriced cheeseburger at Señor Frogs.
Cozumel isn't necessarily a place to have an authentic Mexican experience. Most visitors enjoy a day or two with scuba diving, jeep tours, and sunset catamaran cruises. So shift gears and leave the traveler mindset at the terminal; you're a tourist now!
Rent a Scooter
First things first. I highly recommend renting a scooter if you want to explore the island at your own pace. Our Airbnb, located about 15 minutes outside of San Miguel de Cozumel, included one. The host gave Brad a quick tutorial before we were on our way!
There are plenty of rental companies nearby the ferry dock. Check Google Maps for up-to-date businesses and hours. You should be able to rent one for about $400-810 pesos ($20-40 USD) per day depending on your bargaining skills.
Gas is very cheap and a full tank will take you all the way around the island. Helmets are required by law. The roads are in good condition outside of the city. Watch out for speed bumps, potholes, and iguanas. Keep to the right side of the road and be courteous to other drivers looking to pass. Beep beep!
Punta Sur Eco Beach Park
If you have limited time and want a well-rounded Cozumel experience head to the southern point. Beach clubs, brackish (a mix of salt and fresh water) lagoons, wildlife, and stellar vistas are at Punta Sur Eco Beach Park. Tickets cost $288 pesos ($14 USD) per person.
Cruise on a boat to see crocodiles resting on banks and birds waiting for prey within the mangroves. Soak up the sun at the beach, climb up the Celarain lighthouse, learn about artifacts at the navigation museum, and see the small Maya ruins of El Caracol. The possibilities seem endless!
Catamaran and Snorkeling Tour
Cozumel has some of the clearest and bluest water I've ever seen! Different hues of turquoise, cerulean, and sapphire passed us by on our blissful catamaran cruise. Brad and I booked a half-day excursion with Tortugas Cozumel for $1,010 pesos ($50 USD) per person.
We sailed to two snorkeling areas including El Cielo, a popular spot to see starfish and stingrays. Afterward we dropped anchor to enjoy fresh fruit and ceviche in waist-deep water. The tropical rum punch and classic margaritas went down a little too easy. Hang out at the beach club once you return if you want to continue the buzz. The expensive prices may sting worse than a jellyfish!
Cruise towards the east side of the island to see El Mirador. Picturesque waves crash against natural stone arches. Sip on a coco frio (cold coconut) as you take in the mesmerizing coastline. The beach is covered in beautiful white coral rocks and seashells. Try to avoid stepping on the tiny hermit crabs scurrying across the sand.
Playa Chen Rio
Looking for a free beach that only the locals seem to know about? Chen Rio is the place. There is a section of rocks which acts as a barrier to break the incoming surf resulting in a pool-like environment. We munched on homemade sandwiches in between dips to cool down. The overflow of sargassum seaweed didn't prevent us from having a good time even though it was a bit smelly.
San Miguel de Cozumel (the main city on the island) is lined with bars, tour operators, and souvenir shops. Grab an ice cream cone and wander around until hunger strikes. These affordable and authentic restaurants will deliver a punch of flavor.
• Brunch - Take a seat outside and decide whether you want breakfast or lunch. Rice, beans, pico de gallo (tomato, onion, and cilantro), avocado, and cheese fill the steaming pockets of glory at Burritos Gorditos. The salsa on the side has the right amount of heat and will satisfy any Mexican cravings.
• Dinner - Al pastor (marinated pork) is a national treasure and tacos are the perfect vessel. Some of the best I had in Mexico were at Taqueria Hernandez. The outside trompo (vertical spit) acts as a beacon to lure a steady stream of locals. A few bucks is all you need for a casual meal.
Something about an island transports your spirit. Time becomes irrelevant, sunshine becomes vital, and the importance of aquatic life radiates your core.
Holbox is a charming place to break away and recharge. The unique and eclectic vibe is a backpacker haven. Brad and I really enjoyed connecting, aka partying, with other travelers. Plus, the mud helps to slow down not only your pace, but mind.
Cozumel will always bring back fond memories of our first scooter adventure. Cruising around the southern half of the lush island with views of teal water in the distance was spectacular.
Ultimately, either island can be tailored to your preferences for a wonderful getaway!