Bus rides. They don’t project as romantically in stories as island hopping on a sailboat, and they’re certainly not as to-the-point as airplanes, but they get from A to B and dammit, I like them. I once opted for a fourteen hour bus ride through the mountains of Colombia over a quick flight. When in a foreign land it’s almost certainly in your best interest to avoid fast-forwarding overtop in comfort. Down below is where all the real adventure lies.
The bus swerved on dodgy mountain roads that seemed too narrow and too sharp for a vehicle like that. We were halted with front row seats to a landslide that smashed the road in front of us as the river to our right flooded over. I got out at the next town and watched the river flooding through living rooms in houses along the bank. People lined up with their lives strapped to their backs, ready to flee. I could have flown over all of this and been at the beach already.
That was a long time ago, and now I’m married and living somewhere else in the Caribbean. We take the bus.
Holbox (pronounced Ol-Bosh) is a tiny paradise at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It sits in the calmest coastal waters of the Gulf. The water is so calm around Holbox, it looks like it’s an island in a lake, but we’re not there yet. We’re on the bus, up since 4:30am.
We’ve got our seats, a window view and headphones. The bus rolls north on the 307 and the sun rises over the Caribbean Sea to our right. We’re not even close and I already love being on this bus. Sooner than you’d think and a transfer later, we’re out of modern civilization. We’ve passed Cancun and its godawful sky rises, Margaritavilles, Hooters and Spring Breakers sleeping off their hangovers.
There’s jungle everywhere except for where there’s a church, a roadside coconut stand or a makeshift police station. My cellphone has no service and it smells like banana bread on the bus. I was nodding off, but I think someone got on at the last stop with banana bread. I look around, sniffing to the air. I can’t tell where it’s coming from, but it’s fresh.
Time passes by, so does another church. More jungle. The bus is now so packed that the entire aisle is full. There are seniors standing and mothers with children. Should I give them my seat? I would, but I’ve been on this thing since sunrise and you just got here. You can stand, I decide. I’m nodding back off but I can still smell that damned banana bread, and as I take a large discovery whiff all I smell is shit. Someone’s farted, or worse. Big time. It could be anyone, the seniors, the mother, the children. It’s awful. Katy looks at me, “Was that you?”
“No. Heaven’s no. I don’t know what that is…”
It’s gone and I’m in and out of consciousness. I smell vodka. Not even the well stuff, but a strong scent of potato and rubbing alcohol. Homemade swill. It’s 9am. It’s hard to tell where it’s coming from. It could be anyone, the seniors, the mother… the children.
After hours of banana bread, shit and cheap vodka, we’re so close we’d smell it if we dared to breath in through our noses again.
The ferry is twenty minutes across the flattest sea you’ve ever seen, then you’re there. Paradise.
While swimming on a trip off the Caribbean coast, I asked myself, “Do I mention the two, large, shiny grey sharks directly below me in case chaos ensues… or don’t say a word, to not ruin the moment for the mothers and children swimming around us? Nah, don’t say anything. We’re fine.”
Holbox was taken from the natives by pirates in the late 1800s. The word is Mayan and translates to, “Black Hole.” The name comes from the lagoon you cross to get there. The water is darker than the surrounding Caribbean region, but barely dark enough to warrant a title like, Black Hole. The ferry ride across the calm lagoon is decorated with pelicans and flamingos while frigates hold in the wind above.
The island is barely 12 kilometres long and just over a kilometre from top to bottom. If it weren’t for the heat, covering the distance from the south coast to the north coast with heavy bags wouldn’t be so bad. Arriving at the port, we ignore the golf cart taxis and within moments along the packed sand road I’m sweating through my shirt and we can already see the northern shore. I need a beer.
Every road on Holbox is made of sand and three modes of transportation exist: golf carts, bicycles and bare feet. They refuse to pave the roads. They refuse to become a resort haven, although much of their income has shifted from the local fishing industry to whale shark tours. There isn’t a single chain store, restaurant or hotel anywhere on the island.
I take a shower with a cold beer and we get ready for the day.
There are fishing boats everywhere. When you see this many fishing boats, have ceviche for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ceviche here just may be the best we’ve ever had. This place is known for two industries, fishing and whale shark tours. We took down both. Always reluctant to jump in a moving sardine can with a bunch of other visitors, I wasn’t immediately sold on the whale shark trip.
We were locked in for a six hour tour. It’s usually not this long, but the whale sharks had begun migrating southeast. Great. First there’s the neon life jackets, then the awkward handshakes and small talk with strangers you’ll never see again. Get me off this boat. It’s all I could think of within the first twenty minutes. An unusual thought for me, since you can’t usually get me away from the ocean. Then the baby dolphins came. Little dolphins in the wild, off the coast of a semi-remote island in Mexico. Fine, we can stay on the boat.
A couple hours of hauling from the Gulf of Mexico back into the Caribbean Sea and there we were, idling next to a pod of what they said were about 100 whale sharks. 100 is a number that counts when it’s gigantic beasts and you’re staring out at them right in front of you. They’re everywhere you look. Suit me up.
You begin swimming alongside the first one you see, and it’s immediately a humbling experience to be among countless ten metre long fish. Something about their size and slow, rhythmic movement gives off a calmness. While swimming with them we saw giant manta rays, two to three metres from tip to tip. The others had gotten a bit away from me, swimming with one of the manta rays when a pair of caribbean reef sharks appeared directly below me. I’ve never swam above a shark before, but I was calmer than I would have guessed. I just stared at them and didn’t say a word to anyone else about it, then they were gone and after a little bit more time in the water, we headed back to the island.
Aside from diving within arms reach of giant beasts, Holbox has much more to offer. It has a disconnect from our world that you don’t realize you need until you’re there. The local resistance to swapping out sand for paved roads is simple one, but a symbol of their understanding that engineering progress isn’t always what a town needs. Bypassing the need to prove its worth through civil and resort development, the island has great restaurants, small bars and an evening fair where you can gamble your pesos away at loteria while drinking cold beer in the sandy streets.
Holbox has golf carts that can be rented on the cheap to take you along sand paths to the farthest points of sandbars where dozens of flamingos feed and relax nearby. It has both sunrises and sunsets. It has the convenience of WiFi wherever you go, but more importantly, it has every reason to stay away from it.