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By the time we approached Casa Las Tortugas, we had been travelling almost 20 hours. There had been an 11-hour flight from London to Cancún; two hours in a bumpy taxi to the scruffy port of Chiquila on the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula; then an hour’s wait on the quay for the ferry that would take us 13km across the water to Isla Holbox (pronounced “oll-bosh”).
Safely on the other side, a taxi driver with a golf cart was there to meet us for the final five-minute ride. There are no roads on Holbox, only sandy lanes, so there are almost no cars; just buggies and dune bikes.
By now I was beginning to wonder why I had longed for years to come here. A remote island in the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protection Area, with a white coral-sand beach stretching 40km along its northern perimeter, it certainly sounded alluring. But the downside of notionally “undiscovered” places tends to be a shortage of promising hotels. Tour operators and guidebooks have mostly yet to discover Holbox, so I trusted TripAdvisor, paying upfront for five nights at the island’s top-rated hotel, then fretting during the intervening weeks that I’d made a terrible mistake.
As we climbed out of the buggy and passed through a portal illuminated by Moroccan lanterns, however, my anxious frown turned into a grin. Casa Las Tortugas bore scant resemblance to its nice-enough website. What stood before us was a flame-lit garden, a free-form swimming pool, a palm-fringed beach and a little huddle of curvaceous, brightly painted palapa-roofed houses, all 10 times lovelier than I had dared imagine.
The hotel is owned by an Italian mother and daughter, Greta and Francesca Golinelli, whom we never saw but who clearly understand what makes a great hotel. Our room, right on the beach, was one of the four most expensive of the 21 on offer and consisted of not only a bedroom, but a separate sitting area and a deck with chairs and a hammock. The bed, with its Egyptian percale linen, was peerlessly comfortable. In the bathroom there was an efficient, pebble-floored shower, while the toiletries were honey-scented, local and lovely. I wouldn’t choose for my house the shade of yellow on the walls, nor the painting hung on one side, but the decor suited the place and I liked the rustic wooden furniture and the floor of slightly iridescent polished limestone concrete. Although the room had superfast WiFi, there wasn’t a television, telephone or minibar but, even so, something about it put me in mind of a Six Senses resort. The difference was that we were paying just $200 a night, including taxes and a substantial breakfast.
The beach was handsomely furnished too, with cushion-strewn suspended double daybeds, shaded by curtains, giant beanbags, comfortable loungers and more hammocks slung between the palms. Indeed, everything was immaculate, from the service to the ceviche we lunched on in the beachfront restaurant each day.
It tends to be the wildlife that draws visitors to Holbox. The main attraction is whale sharks, the colossal white-spotted but benign behemoths that migrate here in summer to feed in the island’s plankton-rich waters. (Compared with the nearby Caribbean, the Gulf is not as clear or as vibrantly turquoise, though it is still blissful to bathe in.) There are dolphins, too, as well as five species of wildcat, including pumas and jaguars (not that you are likely to see them), and rare giant otters the size of Labradors, which we did spot ambling down to the water on one remote beach. And birds: sea hawks, pelicans, frigate birds, ibises and flamingos, a great flock of which we spied feeding amid the shallow sandbars off the deserted stretch of beach just a 20-minute walk from the hotel.
Guests can hire a golf cart and there are stables with horses available to ride, but we preferred to explore the area on foot or in kayaks. The island is never more than 2km wide and is about 40km long: no one seems certain of the exact dimensions, which in any case were redrawn by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. But more than three-quarters of it remains virgin beach, jungle and mangroves, separated by a narrow river from the inhabited part of the island.
Here, there are five other hotels strung out along the shore, together with a small town and a couple of dozen restaurants. The finest is Rosa Mexicana (nothing to do with the US chain of that name), an ambitious place specialising in nueva cocina Mexicana, a refined take on traditional ingredients such as jicama (a subtly sweet root vegetable), chaya (tree spinach), moles (aromatic savoury sauces flavoured with chocolate and chilli), and locally caught lobster and octopus (fishing still underpins the island’s economy).
Holbox, it is said, was inhabited by eight Maya families until the late 19th century, when it began to be settled by pirates who would come to replenish their water supplies from the spring-fed freshwater lagoon on the neighbouring islet of Yalahau. The town has a permanent population of about 1,600 “and just three policemen”, people would tell us, proof of how unusually safe it is for a Mexican beach town.
The main topic of conversation among locals on Holbox is La Ensenada, a major development at the pristine eastern end of the island. It is the putative creation of Fernando Ponce García, head of Bepensa, the company that bottles and distributes Coca-Cola in the Yucatán, and whose vision it is to build more than 800 villas and condominiums, as well as three hotels. In 2008, to make his dream reality, he began buying up land on the island.
Under a system introduced after the revolution of 1910-1920, land in much of Mexico belongs to those who work on it: the ejidatarios, who retain “inalienable” rights to parcels known as ejidos. This means that, on Holbox, the beach is owned by the fishermen who keep their boats on it. The developers, Peninsula Maya Developments, made them offers, which were accepted, but then nine of the ejidatarios began to complain they had been paid far less than what their land might be worth. A lawsuit was launched to try to nullify the sales and the legal dispute continues.
The unexpected upshot of this has been a resurgence of support on the island for the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, whose rallying cry “Tierra y libertad” enshrined the notion that the land belongs to the people. Zapata’s image – that magnificent moustache, those piercing eyes – is everywhere: on T-shirts, in shops, on the fascia of a beauty salon and as the central figure in a terrific mural of revolting peasants at the Viva Zapata restaurant, where a woman can often be found sitting on a three-legged stool in the corner of the dirt-floor room, grilling grouper over a rudimentary barbecue.
It is easy to be sentimental about this – the fishermen deserve a fair price, of course – but the real reason I hope the development stalls for good is because, for all its promises of “sustainable, nature-based tourism”, a project on such a scale will compromise all that is wonderful about this fragile place.
With an island as enchanting as this, some form of development is inevitable, and there could be some positives. The islanders need employment, and the all-too palpable downside of virgin beaches is that no one maintains or cleans them, so that after a storm they can be strewn with rotting seaweed, washed-up fish and horseshoe crabs, all of which can combine to produce a sulphurous stink. I just hope that when the island is developed, the project is a sensitive one that acknowledges the whale sharks, the flamingos and the Zapatistas in the town; that manages to coexist with, say, the hokey old Bar Carioca by the main jetty on the north coast, where you can sit on swings suspended from the palapa canopy, listening to a music playlist lodged in the 1980s, a time that the tariff also seems to hark back to: a margarita here costs 30 pesos (less than £1.50).
With change a near certainty, let’s hope Holbox becomes something closer in spirit to Tulum, the boho beach resort at the southern end of the peninsula’s Caribbean coast, which has grown apace over the past decade but hasn’t lost its charm. And not just another Cancún or Playa del Carmen, which has held the dubious honour of being the fastest-growing city in Latin America for the best part of a decade.
Doubles at Casa Las Tortugas (casalastortugas.com) cost from $110. Cancún airport, 66km to the south, has direct flights to more than 50 cities, including New York, LA and Brussels