A $2K Low-Key Beach Escape to Isla Holbox

Punta Caliza Hotel Isla Holbox Mexico

“Where should I go that’s like Tulum but isn’t Tulum?”

- Erin, 31, Toronto

So you just got back from Tulum, and you bumped into literally everyone you know. Which is cool, but what’s the point of getting away from it all if you’re surrounded by all the people you wanted to get away from in the first place? I get it! What if I told you there was a little pocket of paradise just north of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where you can sit on the beach with your feet in the sand and enjoy a plate full of freshly caught lobster (for under $20!) with a cocktail made of ancient Mayan ceremonial liquor (guys, keep reading, I’ll explain) while watching one of Mexico’s most spectacular sunsets? A place where at night you can see all of the most beautiful stars—and I’m not talking about celebrities tipsy off overpriced prickly pear margaritas. 

Good news! There is, and it’s called Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh). I was there this past January, so I can personally attest to its magic. This week, I’m so thrilled to be taking you along as I share the countless lessons learned from visiting Isla Holbox, including: 

  • A quick, easy overview of the itinerary I planned 

  • What I loved, learned, and would have changed about the trip  

  • An up-close-and-personal look at trip costs 

  • A roundup of the best articles to read before you go 

  • Why a visit to Raciles beach bar will change your life

Graceful traveling! And, as always, email me with whatever's on your mind: dylan@dylan-grace.com

You ready? OK, let’s get to it!

QUICK FACTS 
Destinations Visited: Playa del Carmen + Isla Holbox, Mexico
Length: 6 Days
Cost: $2k per person 
Date traveled: January 2019
Trip Type: Low-key couples escape
Vibe: Feet in the sand, spotty wifi, fresh fish tacos, and plunge pools 

THE BACKGROUND
My boyfriend and I like to take an annual January trip. We’re based in Brooklyn, so it’s freezing and I’m basically translucent at this point of the year and in desperate need of a beach. Plus, we’ve just survived the holiday season, so it’s fun to reward ourselves with something special after a month of eating, drinking, and being “merry” around family, which, as you know, can take its toll. Love you, Mom. 

THE INSPIRATION
Holbox originally caught my eye after seeing Punta Caliza hotel featured on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of “New Affordable Hotels Under $250.” I was drawn to the architecture (cough, endless Instagram potential, cough), the fact that it’s family-run, and that the location fit my boyfriend’s vacation criteria, which included sun, sand, and fish tacos. He’s a simple man.

THE PLANNING
When it comes to mapping out our itinerary, I’m a Google Docs girl. But talk to me—what do you use to plan and collaborate on your trips? We started by checking out Punta Caliza’s availability and worked backwards based on the three nights we were able to secure there. We decided to spend a few nights in Playa del Carmen before moving to Isla Holbox because we wanted to break up the travel time from the airport to Holbox. (I have a lot of thoughts on this decision, which you’ll find in the “deep dive” section below). Here’s what our day-by-day itinerary ended up looking like:


THE ITINERARY 

Day 1: Playa del Carmen
JFK - Cancun (Delta)
Flight Time: 4 hours 
Arrive to Hotel La Semilla in Playa Del Carmen
Dinner: $1 tacos at El Fogon 

Day 2: Day trip to Cozumel
Breakfast at Hotel La Semilla 
Ferry to Cozumel (40-minutes) 
Scuba diving excursion with Caribbean Divers 
Beach at Intercontinental Cozumel
Ferry back to Playa del Carmen
Dinner: Trujillos Cantina De Selva 

Day 3: Playa del Carmen
Breakfast at Hotel La Semilla
Visit to El Cenote Azule 
Shelter from rain: De Vino
Dinner: La Pechita
After-dinner drinks: La No. 20 

Day 4: Travel to Isla Holbox 
Breakfast at Hotel La Semilla 
Private transport from Hotel La Semilla to Puerto de Chiquilá 
Check in to Punta Caliza hotel by noon
Lay out at Punta Caliza “beach club”
Lunch at Raices 
Dinner at Viva Zapata

Day 5: Isla Holbox 
Bike Ride into town for coffee and fresh juice from Tierra Mia
Breakfast at Punta Caliza
Sunrise pictures on the beach
Massages on the beach
Lunch at Raices
Beach walk
Sunset drinks at Raices (Guys, can you tell we really loved it here?)
Lobster pizza at La Miranda de Rulo

Day 6: Isla Holbox 
Rinse & Repeat: Beach walks, fish tacos, margaritas, hanging in hammocks, etc. There isn’t much to do here other than relax and chill, which is exactly what we came for. 
Dinner at: Antojitos El Abuelo Tom 

Day 7: Depart Isla Holbox 
Cancun - JFK (Delta) 


THE QUICK & DIRTY

THE GREAT

Isla Holbox:
Think crystal-clear sea, big beaches of soft white sand, and charming small-town ambience. Isla Holbox totally delivered on its promise of rest, relaxation, sunshine, and serene island life vibes.

Raices:
I can safely say it was one of the top five best beach bars I’ve ever been to. Why was it so incredible? It’s just a few steps from the ocean, which means you can wear your swimsuit and no shoes as you choose from a menu packed with fresh lobster, shrimp, octopus, crab, and whatever the fresh catch of the day is. The guacamole is luscious. There’s live reggae music. There’s a small cocktail hut with swings for chairs where you can grab a pox-infused (the ancient ceremonial liquor I was telling you about) cocktail after your meal. It’s very Mexico meets the Caribbean in all the best ways possible. P.S. Speaking of incredible beach bars, would you guys read a feature on my favorites around the world? Y/N/M. Hit me up dylan@dylangracetravel.com and LMK. 


El Cenote Azul:
Cenotes are majestic limestone sinkholes found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. Swimming in one was a 10/10 experience and a complete highlight of our trip.  (P.S. You can read about Cenotes, including how they are formed and why the Mayans used to worship them, here.) 

THE NOT SO GREAT

Sargassum:
Not sure how more people aren’t talking about Mexico’s massive seaweed problem. You can read more about our experience with sargassum in the deep dive below, as well as learn more by visiting the SEAS (Sargassum Early Advisory System) website.

Playa del Carmen: 
If this town had a spirit animal it would be Señor Frog. I personally wouldn’t go back, but if you do find yourself here be sure to book a room at the charming Hotel La Semilla. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

If we were doing this trip again, I would have skipped Playa del Carmen and looked into spending a night in Cancun before heading to Isla Holbox for around five days. As mentioned, we planned this entire trip around Punta Caliza, which we enjoyed, but what really ended up charming us was Isla Holbox , which we can’t wait to return to. 


KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
There is one—I repeat one—ATM on Isla Holbox that due to the spotty WiFi is known to just stop working. Don’t make the mistake we did, and be sure to arrive to Holbox with plenty of cash money in hand. I recommend coming to Holbox with $100-150 US per day for two people. 


THE DEEP DIVE


DAY 1
We arranged our pick up from Cancun airport through La Semilla. The transportation cost $70 dollars for the hour-and-a-half drive, and we were able to pay when we arrived at the hotel. During check-in, we were greeted with Coronas and immediately enchanted by the rustic bed and breakfast vibe of the nine-room property, which feels like you’re staying at a super chic and peace-filled friend’s house in the middle of what I found to be the incredibly chaotic Playa del Carmen. There were many things I loved about La Semilla, but one of the most memorable touches was the little paper pamphlet we discovered on our bedside table, which was filled with the owners’ personalized recommendations on where to eat, shop, and visit while exploring Playa del Carmen. We ended up choosing one of their “street food” recs and happily strolled to a small, packed restaurant called El Fogon where we ordered some of the best al pastor tacos with thick chunks of grilled pineapple I’ve ever had. In fact, we loved these tacos so much that we went back to El Fogon a second time during our short time in Playa del Carmen. 

DAY 2
Unfortunately, we had already booked our trip when we heard about the serious and very smelly seaweed problem called Sargassum, which has been plaguing everywhere from the West Coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico and according to recent reports, appears to only be getting worse. I’m not an expert on this topic by any means, so I recommend you read more about Sargassum here. Sure enough, Playa del Carmen’s main beach was knee-deep in seaweed, which meant our dream of sprawling on the beach like two taco-stuffed seals was not happening. Always ready with a backup plan, we decided to hop on the ferry to Cozumel, a tiny island about 40 minutes from Playa. Ferry tickets were $10 per person, and the trip was not only super simple it was fun, with several live guitar performances throughout the ride. 

Once we arrived, my boyfriend headed off to go scuba diving for the day. He booked his experience through Caribbean Divers ($150 plus tip) and loved it. If you go, ask for Caesar. You can email him directly on ceasar@caribbeandivers.com and tell him Dylan sent you. (PSA: This post is not sponsored by Ceasar.)

Meanwhile, I headed out to find a beach. This proved harder than expected, considering I was told you need to buy a day pass at one of Cozumel’s hotels to enjoy the island’s more pristine beaches.  After reading several reviews online, my first stop was Cozumel Palace. I was very disappointed to discover that “the beach” was just a slice of rocky sand, which I could enjoy for a cool $100. My very kind taxi driver was the one who suggested I check out Intercontinental Cozumel, where I was delighted to find a beautiful beach and great seaside restaurant. Of course, there was a catch, and I ended up paying a crazy $250 for this day pass, which along with access to the beach included access to a hotel room for the day so I could shower and change. At this point I was so desperate not to drive around Cozumel anymore that I decided to suck it up and hand over my credit card. Fortunately, the setup turned out to be great, and I spent the day relaxing on the beach and eating chips and guac before meeting up with my boyfriend to take the ferry back together. Once back in Playa, we headed down the street from our hotel to Trujillos, an outdoor bar and restaurant with a cool vibe and very skippable food. If you go, I recommend a visit for cocktails instead of dinner. 

DAY 3
I had never heard of a cenote before this trip and as I mentioned earlier, learning about these majestic limestone sinkholes was really a highlight. After speaking to our concierge at La Semilla (who let us know there are thousands of cenotes available to visit) we decided we wanted a smaller, more relaxed experience so we opted for Cenote Azul. That afternoon it rained, so we bopped around Playa del Carmen before grabbing a casual dinner at La Pechita where the food was OK but nothing to write home about. 

Note: As you’ll notice, we didn’t really go out in Playa del Carmen because we’re old and these days are perfectly happy getting wine drunk in our hotel room and calling it a night. With that said, if you are looking for insight into the nightlife and clubs in Playa this is a helpful guide

DAY 4
This was our travel day from Playa del Carmen to Chiquila, the port where you can catch a ferry to Isla Holbox. It cost us $175 to get to Chiquila from Playa del Carmen, and we arranged our transportation through Punta Caliza. This drive itself was smooth and easy, and we cruised along a major highway for the majority of the trip. Note: Do be sure to use the bathroom before you go because it’s not easy to stop during this ride and will take a little under two hours door to door. The 30-minute ferry ($7 per person) ride over to Holbox was short and sweet and serene. Once we landed on the island, there was a golf cart waiting to whisk us off to Punta Caliza hotel. Our initial observations of Punta Caliza was that it was architecturally stunning with a very relaxed vibe.

DAY 5
During our first full day in Holbox, we went to Punta Caliza’s “beach club,” which is a roped-off section on the public beach. The deal is that you bring your own towels and they have lounge chairs and hammocks and a small bar where you can pay for (costly) drinks after 3:00 p.m. If you want to really relax, there’s a small stand just a few steps down the beach where you can score a massage for $20 for the hour. Heavenly, right? That evening we went back into town for dinner at La Miranda de Rulo, which had a memorable lobster pizza and outdoor seating that was ideal for people watching. 

Day 6 
As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t much to do on Holbox other than relax, which is exactly what we came for and one of the things we appreciated the most about being there. Our itinerary on day six was basically: beach walk, hammock, cocktail, tacos at Raices, nap, repeat. For dinner we went into town to Antojitos El Abuelo Tom, a small outdoor tacoria where everything on the menu is under USD $1.00. It was another delicious no-frills winner and the perfect way to wrap up our time in Holbox. 

DAY 7
We departed for Cancun airport early that morning via private transportation arranged by Punta Caliza ($157). 


Dylan Essertier