In Mexico's remote Isla Holbox, hours are measured by shadows shifting across agave leaves. Minutes have no meaning. "You don't know what time it is, what day it is," says vacationer Joseph Arreola. "This place is a psychiatrist. It takes away worry or stress."
For centuries, the island off the tip of the Yucatan peninsula has soothed souls. Ancient Mayans deemed one sheltered lagoon here a fountain of youth. Isla Holbox (EYE-la HOLE-bosh) means "black hole" in their language, perhaps referring to the area's subterranean springs. European buccaneers also settled here, enamored of the isle's beauty.
Residents, many descendants of the island's original families, still fish for their livelihood. Every day, men laden with nets carry their catch down sandy roads. Only recently, and slowly, has the community begun opening up to tourism. Now it serves as a secluded hideout for savvy Europeans and Americans.
One of the biggest draws: whale sharks. The Mexican government designated Isla Holbox as the sole port to offer guided swims with these otherworldly mammoths. May through mid-September, whale sharks (harmless to humans despite the name) feed and mate along the tip of the Yucatan. Boats take adventurers out on the open ocean to look for "dominoes," a local nickname for the freckled fish. It doesn't take long for skiffs to run parallel with a shark.
" Ahora!" shouts a guide, and two snorkelers slip in the water. Nothing prepares divers for a close encounter of the underwater kind. Man and beast swim in sync, with silvery schools of fish darting around them. Once back on board, the ecstatic couple take off their gear, their faces imprinted with mask rings and grins.
Travelers also find much to smile about back on dry land. Golf carts serve as the primary transport on the island, but tourists shouldn't race through town. They might miss the scent of flour wafting through the window of a tortillería. Or the sight of elderly women playing bingo with shells as markers. Or the sound of a church bell tolling at dusk.
Taste is another sense that should be indulged on Isla Holbox. Shrewd diners stick to seafood, likely just pulled from the water. You can start the day with a shrimp omelet at the brightly painted La Isla del Colibrí. For lunch, locals recommend the lime-kissed seviche at Buena Vista. And at night, you can join expats at La Cueva del Pirata for sumptuous North Italian pasta.
Waitresses encourage big appetites. Leave a single bite and you'll see the look of concern: "Was everything OK?" Locals seem proud to share their home's bounty. At Helados Maresa, an ice cream parlor, customers walk right into the owner's living room to select a scoop. This warm invitation, felt everywhere, carries a responsibility to leave the island as it's found.
"Holbox has a special energy," says resident Juan Carlos Orduña Rovirosa, who works with environmental agencies to help preserve the area. "Fifteen years ago this island had no lights," he says. "We have to make sure things don't change too fast."
Many newcomers, drawn by the area's unaffected charms, hope to start hotels or catamaran services. And locals welcome them with open arms―as long as they keep the isle pristine, and leave their watches at home.
For more information on Isla Holbox, visit holboxisland.com.
Lodging: Villas Paraíso del Mar; 011/52/984/875-2062 or hmhotels.net. Casa Sandra Hotel; 011/52/984/875-2171.
There are no ATMs on the island, so bring plenty of Mexican pesos. Many businesses (Villas Paraíso del Mar is an exception) do not accept credit cards.