Monday, May 20, 2024

10 Great Reasons To Explore 3 Fab Islands Near Cancun, Mexico: Holbox, Isla Mujeres & Cozumel

By Jacquelin Carnegie
Isla Mujeres (photo: Quintana Roo Tourism)

Cancun is a fantastic destination that’s easy to get to from almost anywhere. It’s on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo which also includes the magnificent islands of Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel—all worth exploring as part of your vacation experience. 

On Holbox, there is something magical in the air. Once you arrive, you will absolutely not want to leave. Situated at the northeast corner of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Holbox is a 26-mile-long island separated from the mainland by the Yalahau lagoon. Holbox (pronounded Hol-bosh) is a Maya word meaning “black hole,” referring to the lagoon’s dark water, which you cross in a 30-minute ferry ride to the island from the tiny town of Chiquilá, 2-hours north of Cancun.
Holbox (photo: JCarnegie)
 Holbox is located in a unique oceanic spot: where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea converge. So, the surrounding waters are teeming with marine life—turtles, dolphins, whale sharks--in addition to some 500 bird species that nest in the area. Hence, the Island is part of the protected Yum Balam Nature Reserve. Originally a fishing village, the picturesque town on Holbox has colorful, wooden houses, a smattering of little shops, bars, restaurants, a pizza & ice-cream parlor—plus, lots of street art. Isla Holbox is a laid-back place with only sandy, dirt roads and no cars; just golf carts and 4x4 taxis to get around. With friendly locals and magnificent beaches, you’ll soon discover that Holbox is a true paradise on earth.
Unique To Dos
Blue Waves Holbox
Tours offers several cool ways to experience the island:
Bioluminescence Tour – This is done at night to see the phytoplankton’s luminescent effect in the ocean around Holbox that looks like fireflies underwater. Wade in the water, swim in it or kayak around to experience this beautiful, natural phenomenon.
Three Islands Tour - Isla Pájaros: See bird species such as white ibis, egrets, pelicans, spoonbills, herons & flamingos. Isla Pasión: Climb up the observation tower on this little, deserted island with a beach awash in seashells. Yalahau parque ecoturistico: Swim in a crystal-clear “cenote.”

Where To Stay: From basic to luxurious, there’s lots of accommodation choices from rustic bungalows to hostels to lovely boutique hotels such as Hotel Villas Caracol - Great beach location, super-friendly staff, nice rooms & pretty pool, plus delicious meals in their Las Hamacas restaurant & beach club.
Getting Around on Holbox: No cars, just golf carts to rent and 4x4 taxis—yellow ones waiting at the ferry.
Holbox town (photo: Quintana Roo Tourism)
Getting There: Holbox is a 2-hour drive north of Cancun, plus a ½ hour ferry ride from Chiquilá to Isla Holbox—worth every minute. From Cancun Airport or downtown Cancun to Chiquilá (87 miles/140 km) there are several options (but I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as none are allowed on Isla Holbox); prices in Mexican $: Shared or Private Shuttle

Cancun Airport–Chiquila Port (Holbox ferry); ADO bus: Cancun airport/downtown-Chiquilá, Quintana Roo, Mexico (the cheapest option); Ferry: Holbox Express

Just a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is only 5-miles-long and half-a-mile wide, but it’s a vacation wonderland known for beautiful, white-sand beaches and aquamarine water. You can be as active or relaxed as you’d like.
Go snorkeling, scuba-diving, kayaking, or biking around the island. Or, just chill-out at a lovely beach club. Playa Norte is the most famous beach, also known for great sunsets. In ancient times, Isla Mujeres was a sanctuary for the Maya goddess Ixchel. At Punta Sur, you can explore this history and see splendid sunrises. Other activities include: exploring the island by golf-cart, swimming with whale sharks, or boating to the nearby Isla Contoy National Park. For shopping, entertainment, bars and restaurants, stroll along Isla Mujeres’ main drag, Avenida Hidalgo. In the evenings, there’s live music and dancing in the street.
One thing to keep in mind: Isla Mujeres is an extremely popular destination. If possible, consider a visit during off-season, May-October. Otherwise, there are an enormous number of tourists, not only those staying on the island, but also many day-trippers as it’s so close to Cancun.
Punta Sur (photo: JCarnegie)

Unique To Dos
Beach Clubs - Hanging out at a Beach Club is a very popular way to spend the day on Isla Mujeres. Most offer food & drinks, the use of sunbeds, loungers, palapas, hammocks, toilets & showers. Some even have sports activities & swimming pools. Depending on the club, there’s either an all-inclusive entrance fee or free entrance with a food/drink purchase. (Some popular ones: Guru, Zama, Amazona)
Amazing Seafood - Mar-Bella Fish Market Raw Bar & Grill restaurant - From the ocean to your plate. An incredible seafood selection served in a lovely, beachfront location. (The Amazona Beach Club in right next door.)
Punta Sur & Sculpture Park (entrance fee) - Punta Sur is a stunning, cliffside location with incredible views. It’s also the site of Templo Ixchel ruins, thought to have also been a Mayan lighthouse. And, the Punta Sur Sculpture Garden. Mexican and international artists have created sculptures that represent the spirit of Maya civilization. Take a stroll around this beautiful site, also renowned for sunrise-watching.
Swim with Whale Sharks - Whale Sharks congregate near Isla Mujeres (June-Sept), go for a memorable dip with them.
Baby Turtle Release - During the Sea Turtle nesting season in the Mexican Caribbean (May-Nov), there’s a release program (ask where at your hotel as the Tortugranja Turtle Farm is currently closed for renovation).

Where To Stay: North end of the island - to be in the middle of the action or South end - a quieter location. There are options for every budget from hostels and Bed & Breakfasts, to boutique hotels, private villas, and deluxe, all-inclusive resorts. For day-trippers, Hotel Riu Caribe in Cancun is a really nice, all-inclusive, near all the ferry ports.
Getting Around on Isla Mujeres: 
Ferry Cancun to Isla Mujeres (photo: JCarnegie)
Rent a golf cart (carrito de golf) bike or motorcycle on Rueda Medina right across the street from the ferry. Taxis at the ferry.
Getting There: From Cancun, it’s a 30-minute ferry trip. There are several ferry ports, easily-reachable by local taxi: Puerto Juárez, El Embarcadero, Playa Tortugas or Playa Caracol. Ferry: Ultramar

Cozumel is a terrific vacation destination about a 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, an hour south of Cancun. Cozumel is a bit larger than the other islands, some 30-miles-long and 10-miles-wide, with spectacular coral reefs perfect for scuba diving or snorkeling, amazing beaches, water sports, and a history of Maya culture.
On Cozumel, 75% of the land is a federally-protected, natural reserve as are its’ famous arrecifes (reefs), Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, which are part of the Mesoamerican system, the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere. In fact, the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau declared Cozumel one of the most beautiful scuba-diving areas in the world.
Cozumel Punta Sur (photo: JCarnegie)
 While Cozumel may be a diver’s paradise, there are many other things to do on this beautiful island. It’s a very popular stop on Caribbean cruises. The town of San Miguel has great shopping and dining, and the not-to-be-missed Cozumel Museum has incredible exhibits on the fascinating history, culture, geography, and ecosystems of the island.
Unique To Dos
Pueblo del Maiz (entrance fee) - Experience the ancestral heritage of the Maya culture in this recreated, ancient Mayan village. Learn about the goddess Ixchel, the importance of corn, and the origin of chewing gum. Make authentic tamales and chocolate from cocoa beans. Find out how the Maya respected the natural world, made thread for textiles from plants, and let nothing go to waste.
Punta Sur – Eco Beach Park (entrance fee) - Punta Sur is an ecological park at the southern end of the island; a nature preserve with beautiful beaches. Experience Cozumel’s incredible natural habitat as well as go for a swim & soak up some rays. Take a boat ride on the lagoons through the mangrove marshlands to see crocodiles and birds, then hang out at one of Punta Sur’s snack bar/beach clubs. Before leaving, climb to the top of the lighthouse for great views.
Chankanaab Park (entrance fee) - Located inside Cozumel’s National Reef Marine Park, this adventure park has something for everyone: picturesque grounds with gardens and nature trails; diving and snorkeling tours on the Chankanaab Reef; a sea lion show for the kids and tequila tastings for the adults. There’s a lovely beach area, spa, and restaurants.

Where To Stay: Lots of options from budget to boutique hotels and all-inclusive resorts. Try some place unique such as Ventanas al Mar an eco-friendly, oceanfront hotel on Cozumel’s unspoiled East Coast.
Getting Around on Cozumel: Car Rental – It’s a big island with lots to see. 
Other options: Rent a jeep or bikes, take taxis or just go on a selection of island tours.
Yucatan, Quintana Roo map

Getting There: The 45-minute ferry ride to Cozumel leaves from Playa del Carmen, about an hour south of Cancun. Getting from Cancun to Playa del Carmen: ADO bus: Cancun Airport–Playa del Carmen (Once in Playa, the ferry terminal is just a short walk from the bus station.) Shared or 
Private Shuttle: Cancun Airport–Playa del Carmen; Ferry from Playa del Carmen: Ultramar (Blue/Yellow) or Winjet (Orange). Onboard the ferries, there’s great live-music that makes the trip fun. Fly: Cozumel has an airport (CZM) with direct flights from many destinations.

KEEP IN MIND: All major airlines fly into Cancun. Quintana Roo is taking steps to protect its cultural and natural heritage. Please use biodegradable sunscreen & bug spray; while swimming in a cenote or diving on the reefs, no sunscreen is allowed at all. Please help keep this natural wonderland as pristine as possible & have a terrific time on the Mexican Caribbean!

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