Mexico for Food Lovers: Isla Holbox

Restaurateur/chef Kelly Liken reveals her top-secret spot for blissfully quiet shores and out-of-this-world cuisine. Stingray empanadas, anyone?
By Kelly Liken; Photographs by Thayer Allyson Gowdy

At Raices in Isla Holbox, Mexico, a whole-fish platter of red snapper needs only a squeeze of fresh lime.The name Isla Holbox means "black hole" in Mayan. This always makes my husband, Rick, and me laugh, as our little island paradise—just 1¼ miles wide with striking pink flamingos, vibrant clapboard communities, and amazing food at every turn—is quite the opposite. Rick and I first came to the island of Isla Holbox six years ago during a record-breaking snowy winter in Vail, Colorado, where we both run my eponymous restaurant. After a challenging business season as executive chef—and Rick handling the front of the house—we just wanted to escape. And be warm. And eat great food. So we took a chance and booked a trip to this relatively unknown island on the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula (pictured left: Raices restaurant).

Two weeks later, we arrived to find a truly untouched oasis: brightly colored seafood shacks in tiny communities with white-sand streets buzzing with golf carts—no vehicles allowed on the island. The beach met tropical mangroves perfect for lazy kayaking and spotting sea turtles, and miles of coast curved around brilliant lagoon waves with virtually no one else in sight. We were hooked.

Now, on our sixth annual trip here, we feel more like islanders returning home, especially when we check in at the oceanfront Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas (pictured below). Greeted by a chorus of holas, we catch up with the familiar hotel staff while checking in. They tell us that, once again, we've picked a perfect week to visit: 80 degrees and not a single cloud in the sky.

The rooftop bar of Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas overlooks the island's serene waterfront.

As we make our way to our oceanview suite, I see treasures everywhere: a baby blue distressed wooden table that would fit perfectly in my dining room, a funky twisted cocktail glass at the bar. Little surprises and eclectic moments are hidden in every nook; the 21-room hotelito is adorned with antique tiled mirrors and bright canvas paintings on the walls. The thatched-roof suites are painted orange, yellow, and blue and have high ceilings and exposed wooden beams, with wispy canopies draped above the plush white bedding. Our favorite part is the private terrace overlooking the sea: Rick and I race to the balcony and jump into the hammock. The sound of the waves trumps our giggles.

With a list of things we want to do—swimming, kayaking, drinking margaritas—we know we have to start with empanadas from Las Panchas, a tiny café in the heart of the village square, a short walk from the hotel. Here, with only a slight breeze from the lagoon to cool the air, we find the two owners—sisters—in the kitchen forming fresh masa (a four-and-corn dough mixture) into piping hot, crispy pockets filled with pork, stingray, and shark. Rick and I grab all three. They're served with an almost unbearably red-hot salsa and complemented by green pickles. Each bite is the perfect study in contrasts: shocking and delicious.

Breaking our silence as we devour the meal we've been dreaming of for months, I say out loud that I love the way Isla Holbox tastes. It's a perfect fusion of traditional Yucatecan flavors and Caribbean fair. The bounty of fish, lobster, and octopus that's pulled out of the water daily is prepared over open fires—the traditional way of cooking among the locals.

Color defines every moment in Isla Holbox, including a cerulean setting for fresh-caught cod at Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas.Although we're obsessed with the island cuisine, most visitors come here to experience nature. The surrounding ocean is a haven for migrating whale sharks—and if you're more daring than we are, you can snorkel alongside them. The waters are a fisherman's dream for catching snook and tarpon, as well as fly-fishing for silver kings. The tiny isle is also a diver's paradise: Local lore says Spanish pirates traveled here in the 1800s in search of freshwater, and they left behind gold and buried treasure in the sea. Unfortunately, Rick and I have yet to find any booty, but we're hoping to see some of nature's treasures on a kayak trip through the Yum Balam Conservation district, where our only company is the wildlife (pictured left: fresh-caught cod at Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas).

We hop on red beach cruisers and ride to the large protected lagoon, with its mangrove-shaded canals. Settling into our tandem kayak rhythm, we glide through the clear water, the tall branches splintering the rays of sunshine overhead. It's silent beyond the water droplets from our paddles, and we scan the glassy surface for green turtle heads and sleek dolphin fins. To our left, a rustling starts: We spy two flamingos, pink as bubble gum, cackling and chasing each other along the shore. They disappear into the brush, and we resume our quiet, lulling strokes.

As relaxing as kayaking is for us, Rick and I can hardly contain our excitement for lunch at Raices, inside a tiny, thatched-roof hut right on Main Beach just a few minutes' ride from the lagoon. We are about to indulge in what locals call "the slow-food palapa." This means the menu is based on whatever the fishermen bring in, whenever they decide to come in. Today we feel especially lucky—we're looking at whole grilled fish with tangy mojo de ajo, octopus ceviche, and coctel de pescado, a dish of marinated fish, similar to ceviche but with a bloody Mary–esque tomato marinade. When our feast arrives, it takes up most of the white plastic table in front of us. The beer is ice cold, and the hops help quiet some of the spice. We spend the rest of the afternoon here, savoring the fresh fish and chatting up the locals.

Il Chiringuito is a truly swinging beach bar on Isla Holbox.

We ride through the village square, past children kicking a soccer ball while their parents and grandparents catch up over large cups of coffee. Here, we spot Isla Holbox's latest restaurant—Rosa Mexicano—and even though we're still full, it's hard not to be drawn into its open-air layout. The sand-colored walls are sketched with bright art and patrons' names. What the hell: We go for the octopus appetizer. It arrives in a large white bowl—piping hot, tender, kissed with just a hint of smoky char, and married perfectly with the sharp and tangy black bean relish. It's one of our best bites yet.

As the sun begins to set, I remember that it was during an early evening walk that we got our first taste (literally) of how unique this island really is. Not far from the hotel and right in the middle of the beach stood a tiny palapa bar with eight swings in place of barstools and an unobstructed view of the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen (pictured above). With the sky blazing orange, pink, and gold, the bartenders painstakingly handcrafted mojitos with fresh sugarcane, along with tart, lime-heavy margaritas. I soon found myself talking to Noa, the bar owner's wife. She offered me some battered white fish with a smoky, creamy dipping sauce. This was her ritual: Make the fish just in time for sundown, kick back, and enjoy. It was my first taste of the fertile waters of the Yucatan.

Noa and her husband, Chendo, have graduated from that tiny beach bar and now run Viva Zapata, a bar and grill in the town square. Rick and I stop in for dinner and find Chendo manning the wood-burning grill right in the middle of the dining room. He greets us with big hugs, and immediately gets to work on a mean seafood platter: a heaping tray of snapper, mackerel, stone crab, and octopus, caught fresh from the sea that morning.

While we sip those ever-potent margaritas and dive into the insane platter of goodness, we note that the hospitality here isn't for the tourists' benefit—it's a way of life. This is why we come back, and what we look forward to all year: great food, great friends, great atmosphere. We feel lucky. Turns out the treasures of Isla Holbox are not buried so deep after all.

Get There
From Cancún (where major airlines fly daily), drive three hours to Chiquilá and take the ferry to Isla Holbox. The artfully luxe rooms and beachfront bungalows at Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas start at $140; 52-984-875-2129 or holboxcasalastortugas.com.

Kelly Liken is the award-winning chef/owner of her eponymous restaurant in Vail. This is her first piece for Coastal Living.