Anthony John Coletti

"The beauty of this island is the ocean, the peacefulness, the way you can be yourself without any doubts or regrets." -Joseph Arreola

By Sarah Brueggemann

In Mexico's remote Isla Holbox, hours are measured by shadowsshifting across agave leaves. Minutes have no meaning. "You don'tknow what time it is, what day it is," says vacationer JosephArreola. "This place is a psychiatrist. It takes away worry orstress."

For centuries, the island off the tip of the Yucatan peninsulahas soothed souls. Ancient Mayans deemed one sheltered lagoon herea fountain of youth. Isla Holbox (EYE-la HOLE-bosh) means "blackhole" in their language, perhaps referring to the area'ssubterranean 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 netscarry their catch down sandy roads. Only recently, and slowly, hasthe community begun opening up to tourism. Now it serves as asecluded hideout for savvy Europeans and Americans.

One of the biggest draws: whale sharks. The Mexican governmentdesignated Isla Holbox as the sole port to offer guided swims withthese otherworldly mammoths. May through mid-September, whalesharks (harmless to humans despite the name) feed and mate alongthe tip of the Yucatan. Boats take adventurers out on the openocean to look for "dominoes," a local nickname for the freckledfish. It doesn't take long for skiffs to run parallel with ashark.

"Ahora!" shouts a guide, and two snorkelers slip in thewater. Nothing prepares divers for a close encounter of theunderwater kind. Man and beast swim in sync, with silvery schoolsof fish darting around them. Once back on board, the ecstaticcouple take off their gear, their faces imprinted with mask ringsand grins.

Travelers also find much to smile about back on dry land. Golfcarts serve as the primary transport on the island, but touristsshouldn't race through town. They might miss the scent of flourwafting through the window of a tortillería. Or the sight of elderly women playingbingo with shells as markers. Or the sound of a church bell tollingat 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 paintedLa Isla del Colibrí. For lunch, locals recommend thelime-kissed seviche at Buena Vista. And at night, you can joinexpats at La Cueva del Pirata for sumptuous North Italianpasta.

Waitresses encourage big appetites. Leave a single bite andyou'll see the look of concern: "Was everything OK?" Locals seemproud to share their home's bounty. At Helados Maresa, an ice creamparlor, customers walk right into the owner's living room to selecta scoop. This warm invitation, felt everywhere, carries aresponsibility to leave the island as it's found.

"Holbox has a special energy," says resident Juan CarlosOrduña Rovirosa, who works with environmental agencies to helppreserve 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 tostart hotels or catamaran services. And locals welcome them withopen arms―as long as they keep the isle pristine, and leavetheir watches at home.

Island Essentials
For more information on Isla Holbox, visit holboxisland.com.

Lodging: Villas Paraíso del Mar; 011/52/984/875-2062 orhmhotels.net.Casa Sandra Hotel; 011/52/984/875-2171.

There are no ATMs on the island, so bring plenty of Mexicanpesos. Many businesses (Villas Paraíso del Mar is anexception) do not accept credit cards.

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