“Wherever you go, becomes a part of you somehow.” Anita Desai
I try not to visit the same place twice if I can avoid it, because there’s so much of the world to see and I intend to see as much of it as I can; however Holbox Island broke the rules and it’s easy to understand why Holbox Island is often described as one of Mexico’s best kept secrets. I was lucky enough to spend two days at CasaSandra in May and it captured my heart. The island is located about a two hour drive and thirty minute ferry from Cancun airport, although you can get to the resort by plane if you’re willing to part with a small fortune. It’s home to only 2000 people, whale sharks and over 150 different species of birds, including flamingos.
As I nervously walked into the hustle and bustle of the arrivals gate at Cancún airport, I was greeted by a man holding a white sign saying “Ashley Luis”. Once I had tripped-checked that I was definitely going to the right destination and wasn’t taking the ride of my Mexican namesake, I found myself on the drive to Chiquilà in a very swanky private minibus complete with free wifi, air-con and water. I sat on the top deck of the 9pm ferry, the second last one of the night, feeling the sea-air against my skin and watching the star-heavy night sky. I couldn’t help but scan my fellow passengers trying to gauge what type of people I might meet in paradise: I suppose part of me was dreaming of meeting my dream man or my best friends on day one, but sadly my fantasies weren’t met.
I stepped off the ferry and was greeted by another ‘Ashley Luis’ sign and quickly found myself in my taxi on the way to CasaSandra. There are no cars on Holbox Island, instead people get around in golf buggies, and so it was that I was driven along the rain-soaked, sandy “roads” of the island, through the lights and entertainment of the town square, my backpack jumping around in front of me.
CasaSandra was as beautiful as I remembered it, and I’m scared in giving it the praise it deserves my words will either not do it justice, or feel insincere. It’s a boutique hotel whose luxurious rooms and suites fit the rustic feel of the island defined by its handmade Mexican and Cuban interiors, along with the works of art of its Cuban artist creator Sandra Perez Lozano. My favourite thing about the hotel is not the thatched-roof huts (known in Mexico as palapas), its proximity to the most idyllic beachfront of soft white sand and turquoise blue water, nor the unparalleled kindness of the staff, but it is the attention to detail in order to ensure each person’s stay is a positive one. Each evening, I would arrive into my room to a different letter on my bed, inspiring me to have a good evening and informing me of activities for the following day. Perfection is in the small details, and I found myself looking forward to these little notes at night. It was home.
I arrived at CasaSandra on the 16th September, which turned out to be the day of Mexico’s Independence Day, and so I was treated to the most amazing welcome dinner outside at the hotel restaurant where I could hear the waves greeting the shore. Each course was a typical Mexican dish, and the chef came out every course to describe the food to me in great detail. He’d also picked a drink to perfectly match the flavours of each dish (there were about seven!), which might explain why I’ve forgotten nearly all of the dishes! I guess that’s expected after a shot of tequila, a spicy Margherita, a honey-infused mojito, to name but a few. Let’s just say I went to bed full, happy, and absolutely covered in mosquito bites. Why did I forget mosquito repellent?
Jet-lag awoke me early the next morning allowing me to watch sunrise as I ran along the beach, Plus, I was the first person to arrive at breakfast! I already know that food will be a big part of my Mexican journey because I love the flavours and variety of the dishes. I feasted on fresh papaya, melon, pineapple, and the most delicious lobster and cheese empanadas (called empanadas Holboxañas), before embarking on a private boat tour of the three uninhabited islands that surround Holbox. The trip was organised by CasaSandra and imagine my delight when I walked to the beach front to find a boat as turquoise as the sea awaiting me; turquoise has always been my favourite colour. We set off, my speakers playing John Mayer (I can’t get enough of him at the moment) as I took in my surroundings. We came across flamingos after only a few minutes and so we stopped the boat so I could watch them for a while. Rather frustratingly, I didn’t bring a wildlife lens with me so I failed to capture a photo although you can just about see them in the background of this photo.
I saw pelicans and iguanas on Bird and Passion Island (amongst many other species of birds I wouldn’t know), and swam in the beautiful natural spring water of the Yalahau lagoon before returning to Holbox. Oh, and did I mention I forgot mosquito repellent? I was really hoping to see and swim with a whale shark on the boat trip, as whale sharks come to the island between June and September every year (it’s one of the major tourist attractions of Holbox), but sadly I had missed the season by a couple of days. Next time.
Straight after, I took a golf buggy taxi to see a little more of Holbox Island and as we drove through the sandy streets we passed the many colourfully painted buildings that make up the town centre. It’s based around a small square with many authentic restaurants and bars located around or just off it, as well as cute shops selling everything from shells to hammocks. Next we headed along the beautiful coastline, both dodging mosquitos, and I saw people on kayaks, horses you can ride, and the infamous flamingos. My driver spoke passionately about the island and the nature it is home to, and stopped along the way picking up bottles of beer he told me were often left by tourists. As we watched the sky turn to the soft orange and pinks of sunset he told me that sometime at night the sea would glow in the dark with plankton, although you could only see it if there was no moon and clouds in the sky. He also told me of a local delicacy invented on the island: pizza de langosta. I knew where I was going for dinner.
And so it was on my second night I found myself on the main square at Pizzaria Edelyn, the self-proclaimed creators of the lobster pizza. The restaurant is in no way fancy, but it did have every single type of chilli imaginable on the table, which is always a great thing in my eyes given my addiction to spice. I found myself sat facing the main square, amongst couples on honeymoons and groups of locals, with a medium sized pizza and a bottle of Indio, which is a really light and delicious Mexican beer. I have to be honest, the pizza didn’t blow my mind, and I only managed half of it despite it being the smallest size on offer, but I’m happy I got to try a local delicacy.
The next day I made my way to CasaSandra’s tiny spa, located next to their very beautiful outdoor swimming pool, for a relaxing Mayan massage. The massage lasted for 50 blissful minutes and covered my whole body; I was slowly leaving behind the stresses of London life and the digital world.
This was immediately followed by a private ceviche making class by Alonso, one of the chefs at CasaSandra. I am the first to admit that I am an awful cook and take no pleasure in it. I often choose Deliveroo over even twenty minutes in the kitchen, but given my obsession with the Mexican dish, I decided it was a skill I wanted to take home to England. Call me wife material, I know. Alonso was brilliant at explaining each step and was very compelling as he demonstrated making sashimi and two different types of ceviche, and the food tasted even better having contributed to its creation.
I decided to spend my final day enjoying the idyllic beach setting, drinking mango daiquiris, and devouring my book: Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time (I definitely recommend reading it). It was at breakfast on my very last day that I met a group of girls that would change the course of my Mexican adventure, but I’ll tell you all about that soon. As I stepped onto the ferry I felt so sad to leave this beautiful island and its people once more. A place so peaceful and happy that even the many dogs seem content as they run around the beach playing with each other. That said, I was very excited to make my journey to Tulum, towards my new friends.