Part 5 of the Mexican stories.
It was with reluctance that we left Valladolid. But we had other things on our agenda that needed to be looked into. So we packed our bags and walked the pastel coloured lanes of the town we had so fallen in love with. We went to our faithful ADO bus station and booked a ticket to Isla Holbox.
Holbox is an island at the north eastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo. The ADO bus took us through villages and small towns and finally dropped us at Chiquila, the port town on mainland that connects to Isla Holbox. We bought ourselves tickets for the ferry to the island. Two services operate out of the port and there is a boat every 30 minutes. The fares are reasonable enough to not stick in my memory.
It was quite apparent that we were now off the backpacking grid and entering into the more mainstream tourist destinations. As we walked the distance to our AirBnB on the island, we noticed a lot of golf carts plying as taxis. Isla Holbox is home to the Yum Balam Reserve. There are no vehicles allowed on the island that use oil to work. But since people always need luxury, there were the golf carts; even if the entire island can be easily navigated by a bicycle 😑 I find the concept rather ridiculous but then I am a broke backpacker, ain’t I?
The AirBnB was another simple one with a kitchenette and a attached bathroom. There was an air conditioner as well and we absolutely needed it out here. The days were sultry and the heat was quite oppressive. The WiFi connectivity in the room was quite limited. WiFi availability was one thing about Mexico that was erratic at best. I guess people don’t come to such beautiful beaches for the internet connectivity but for longer-term traveller, it is somewhat irksome.
We went to a famous seafood pizzeria near the centro and ordered a margherita pizza 😛 Pizzas were quite famous here. As were the golf carts (did I tell you about those?). As were whale-sharks (more about them later). After a nice meal, the heat pushed us back to our room where we stayed till late afternoon.
Once the sun mellowed down a bit, we went to the beach and spread our towel on the sand. Then we got into the water and enjoyed the calm waters that seemed perfect for a swim.
The evening brought on another surprise. Mosquitoes! There was a plethora of tiny mosquitoes that took over the island once the sun set. They had painful bites and were so ruthless that walking or shaking yourself did not deter them as they stuck onto your limbs and sucked your blood 😱 The only way out seemed to be the mosquito repellent sprays that repel me as well. So I tried coating my body with some oil (as much as my sensitive skin allowed) and braved the mosquitoes with my hairy limbs (it really helps 😂). Parul was coating herself with some natural bug repellent that we had bought back in Cambodia.
We walked around the centro a bit and grabbed some cheap roadside dinner. Holbox, much like the rest of Quintana Roo we had seen so far, was much more expensive than the rest of Mexico we had seen.
When the online research did not yield much to go by, we walked to the hostel next door to book a whale-shark snorkelling tour. They gave us a ticket and asked us to be at the vendor’s (Gama Adventures) by 6:50 AM the next morning. So we were at the beach at 6:45 AM the next morning and once the boats started loading, we saw one group after another leave. When I went to enquire as to why we were left out, I learnt that they had received the request late and our names had not been put up on their list. So we could go today only if a slot opened up, else we would have to come back tomorrow. Bummer! We talked amongst ourselves and decided to come back the next day. The whale-shark tours are recommended to start as early as possible. We went back to the BnB to catch up on the unnecessarily lost sleep. The rest of the day was spent bumming around in the town.
We went back to the beach in the evening, a little earlier this time. The water was inviting and both of us swam a lot. We managed to make most of the day despite the early offset.
We swam a lot and ended up spending a good couple of hours at the beach before the mosquitoes urged us to head back.
The next morning we were back on the beach and Gama Adventures honoured the arrangement by putting us on the first boat out. Six clients, a guide and a captain. We glided over the mirror-like water with a rising sun ahead of us. It was a calm experience despite the whirring motor’s sound.
About half an hour later, we spotted our first big fish - a manta ray! These creatures were giants!
We looked at it from the boat as it glided on the surface. Then the boat went further to find the whale-shark that it had promised it’s customers. Shortly, we found one. Another giant creature!
The whale-shark migration season sees a lot of these magnificent creatures. In order to regulate the tourism and it’s impact on the environment, there are a few rules and regulations in place. One is that you can only snorkel with these gentle giants. Diving is prohibited which was why we were doing this rather than the other in the first place. Further, you get limited time in the water with the whale-sharks (around 5 minutes per person). You also need to maintain at least a meter’s distance from the whale-shark. So imagine the ruckus - you need to be ready with your gear (fins, mask and life jacket), jump in the water when the guide gives a go, thrash towards the whale-shark which was going too fast to catch up with. The moment I got into the water, I understood the futility of it. The water was dark. There was absolutely no visibility (perhaps a meter or so), which meant that you needed to be right next to the whale-shark to catch any glimpse of it. I am not a strong swimmer and despite the guide’s encouragement, could not figure out how to get close enough to get a glimpse. In my second turn though, the whale-shark graciously bumped me with it’s tail 😛 We looked into it later and asked a few people we thought would know. The water is dark because of planktons, the same reason why this was the whale-shark “season” in the Yucatan. So the opacity of water was rather unavoidable. But we had seen pictures of people snorkelling in much clearer waters. Turned out that the trips that start from Isla Holbox and Isla de Mujeres, both converge to the same point, the north eastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. The photo evidence I found seems to suggest that Isla de Mujeres side has clearer water, though I could definitely be wrong. We had avoided Isla de Mujeres because we thought that it’s proximity to Cancun would make it more touristy and since both the locations were converging to the same point, we thought that we might take the less popular option. We had not factored in the difference of visibility.
Between Isla Holbox and Isla de Mujeres, I think the latter has better visibility when it comes to snorkelling with whale-sharks.
The whale shark activity went on for some time but I had lost my enthusiasm for the jumps the moment I realised how bad the visibility was. However, these were still magnificent to look at from the boat.
Once everyone had their fill of the whale-sharks, a few of the more entusiastic people on board tried snorkelling with the mantas. It was funny to see how the mantas would vanish as soon as it felt someone approach and then resurface far away (almost teasing the offendors 😛).
We eventually turned back and I thought we were headed back to the town but no, there was more snorkelling activity in store.
The boats converged at a point and then let us have around half an hour to ourselves in the water. The guide cut up some bait that the expectant fishes were quick to jump on. But once that was done with, the calmness and beauty of marine life was all ours to explore.
We boarded the boats again and then it took us to a small beach - Cabo Catoche, where we were to have our lunch. This was a small and beautiful beach, more so because of the lack of anyone else for as far as the eye could see.
The lunch had included some ceviche and nachos. Since we had informed beforehand that Parul is a vegetarian, she got some guacamole which became the envy of the table 😛 The fisherman at the beach offered fresh lobsters. If there was any place to have lobsters, it was out here. I picked out one and was soon served the grilled lobster as a compliment to my lunch. This lobster was a first for me. Not bad at all!
The final leg of the boat ride brought us back to Holbox town. On the way we passed some pretty flamingos in the bioreserve. A boat with tourists had illegally stopped to get a closer look. Tells you about the arrogance, stupidity and impunity that spending power brings to a person.
Back at the jetty we thanked the captain and out guide. It had been a good day despite the whale-shark visibility disappointment. However, I now had an idea of what things to look out for when making these decisions. Lesson learnt for future. I picture myself seeing whale sharks from afar while on a dive (accidentally) or snorkelling in clear waters. How and when I know not, but definitely sometime, somewhere. Till then, I was content marvelling at how many such new experiences awaited 😄
We sat in a cafe where we talked about the day. Internet was abuzz with the Amazon fires as well so it made for a rich discussion. We pondered on the ethical aspect of snorkelling with whale sharks. There is an online debate on this, much similar to the ethical correctness of the Sen Monorom elephant tourism. But here are my two cents.
< rant >
I think that calling this snorkelling a harassment of the whale-shark is extremely self centered. If I had the ability to run like Flash Gordon, and someone “harassed” me, would I not simply run away? Of course these whale-sharks heard us coming in our loud motor boats, heard us jump into the water and splash our way close to them. Had they been harassed, they would have simply turned around and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. We had chased two whale sharks today. The first had simply turned around and people were left thrashing in the water trying to find the fish. The second one was much more humouring. It let us swim while it fed on nonchalantly. It had no obligation to, but it did. The manta rays were the other extreme. They would have none of it and there was no way we could keep up with them. Despite Copernicus’s discovery, we humans still believe that we are the center of the universe. We need to save the Amazon which is the “Earth’s lungs”. The Earth is the third rock from the sun and it’s existence surpasses ours. Let us first understand that what we are trying to do is simply preserve our existence, trying to halt the evolutionary trend that gave us birth in the first place. It’s out lungs that we want to preserve, not the Earth’s. You are no altruist to donate to such causes. You are just a human being fighting for survival.
< / end rant>
We returned to the AirBnB to rest a bit and let the day die in peace.
That evening, after dinner, we decided to go to the farther end of the island for the second most exciting thing that Holbox offered - planktons. It was a long walk and we alternated between the beach and the path parallel to it. Eventually we reached the end of the road and a narrow path led on into the dark mangroves. We continued and managed to find the beach somehow. At a distance we could hear some kayakers talking and laughing. It was dark enough but since the water was so calm, we needed to wade the water for the planktons to glimmer. I took off my clothes and got into the water but to my surprise, Parul stayed behind. She was getting spooked by the darkness and the water was not really inviting her. I waded a little ahead and saw a most unexpected magical thing. A streak of light zig-zagged it’s way across in the water. I soon realised that it was a flying fish darting in the water that left these glowing streaks in it’s wake 😮 I was back out soon though since the mosquitoes were wrecking havoc on Parul in the mangroves. It would have been fun to kayak out here. Maybe next time 😄
We walked back to the BnB, expecting the party that the hostel next door had invited us to. It was cancelled by the time we reached the place and thus ended our last night in Holbox, quite uneventfully.
The next morning we checked out and took a ferry back to Chiquila. While waiting for our bus to show up, we had some breakfast and then chilled at a cafe which offered some bleak internet.
At Playa del Cermen, where the bus dropped us, we walked around the port-side mall and found the Indian restaurant that I had located a while back. The decor was very Indian and the food was unexpectedly good. We had fortunately caught them on the last day before they shut shop for an unknown number of days. Their main chef, an Indian guy, had gone home and not returned 😬
Once our tummies were full, we took a ferry to Cozumel - an island in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Playa del Carmen. These were luxurious ferries with all modern ameneties.
In twenty odd minutes we were on the other side. Cozumel was much different from Holbox. This island was much more developed and the town was much more widespread.
We found our guesthouse and stowed our luggage. Then we left to find the dive shop that Jorge from Mahahual had recommended. The dive shop turned out to be just that - a shop. The prices for me were ridiculously cheap now that I was an advanced diver. Parul booked a dive and an instructor to accompany her. Once we signed all the relevant documents and chose the gear that fitted us, we were done for the day.
The next morning we returned to the shop early. The gear was already packed and ready to go. We met Luis, who was to be Parul’s instructor. Confusion started when the taxi took off without Luis. It was just us, the gear and the taxi driver. At the marina, the driver was as much at a loss as to what was next as us 😂
Eventually a man came to greet us and take the equipment. This was Issac and I later found out that he was going to lead the group that I was to be a part of. There were two more couples in the group - a young German couple and the other was Spanish. The Spanish female applied so much sunscreen before getting into the water! 😑 Stupid tourists.
The first dive were quite nice. The reef system is the same one that we had first experienced in Mahahual. The water seemed as blue, if not more, than Mahahual. The visibility was perfect. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful dive sites I have been to. I was the more experienced one in the group so I took a little lead after Issac. It was consoling to see the others make the same mistakes that I had been making till recently. Turned out that I was not as bad as I had imagined myself to be! 😛 There were no special sightings but the reef system was beautiful. We went till 20.3 meters in depth and my air consumption held good. I also fell in love with parrot-fishes in this one ❤️ However, I also realised that it is little fun to dive in big groups.
For the second dive, I joined Parul and Luis. Parul has better luck with wildlife but she had already seen her quota for the day on her first dive - a turtle, sting rays, barracudas, a shark’s egg 😑 The reef structure was interesting once agan with multiple caves and gates. We found a giant lobster hiding in the rocks and towards the end a sting ray graced us with a prolonged sighting. They are such calm beauties!
We came back happy as we could be. The dives had been extremely beautiful.
After thanking Luis and Issac we were dropped back to the dive shop. For lunch we tried out the Chinese place across the street 😆
That night we checked out a local restaurant recommended by our hosts. This one deserves a special mention. Taqueria El Pique was one of those no nonsense amazing food places that I totally love! Their gringa pique is a speciality worth trying. It’s kind of a Mexican thin crust pizza 😄
The next day we decided to rest in Cozumel. The island has beautiful beaches to offer but it would have required renting a vehicle and (I know I am repeating myself) this part of Mexico was heavy on the budget. So we took it easy during the day and loafed around till the mercado during the afternoon.
We had deliberated a lot about what we wanted to do. There was the obvious choice of staying here and seeing the beaches of Cozumel. Perhaps doing some more dives. But these were really not clicking with us. The high expenses at the end of the trip was making us overthink. Plus our hearts were elsewhere. So we thought that rather than do checklist stuff, we should spend the remaining few days of our time in Mexico in the way that we had liked best 😄
Onwards to the last part of the Mexican saga.