A few weeks ago, we celebrated my 35th birthday. For us adventurers, there is no better way to celebrate such an occasion than to load up our trusty Civic and go out exploring. It was time for a for a quick weekend road trip. We didn’t even let the fact that we hadn’t had an oil change in 7,500 miles get in our way! All this in the spirit of fun and adventure. Oh yeah… we also needed SOMETHING to write about on this “Adventure” blog which has been stagnant for so long.
About 3 hours north of Cancun, there is an island called Isla Holbox (IS-la HOL-bosh). This was to be our destination for the weekend. We headed out a little less prepared than usual for this trip – we’re a wee-bit out of practice! We got off to a late start, ended up taking a wrong turn that forced us to go 20 miles out of our way, and eventually had to drive in reverse on the highway shoulder for at least half a mile to reach a missed turn-off – which is not as unusual or unsafe as you might think, here in Mexico. Ha! What do I know? I’m practically Mexican when I drive these days!
Due to the late start, we had to spend our first night on the mainland in a town called Chiquila. We ate some awesome sopes de puerco (pork sopes – kind of like an open-faced taco) from a woman in little red Coca-Cola stand. 45 pesos ($4.25 US) for 4 sopes and 2 soft drinks. This turned out to be our only good dining experience of the weekend! We were dying for an ice cold cerveza , but finding a beer in this town on a Friday night was not gonna happen. There were no open bars and the only store in town did not sell beer.
Since we didn’t feel like crashing some sort of religious gathering, the only thing vaguely exciting in the town that Friday night, we headed back to our hotel. 200 pesos ($18) rented us a decent room with a ceiling fan. Unfortunately, even with the fan on high, we still could not get a comfortable night sleep, lying in our sweat-soaked sheets. The next morning, we had invigorating cold-water-only showers… in a shower with a fuse box and light switch! I may be wrong, but I think there was still room in the shower for a small TV, or possibly a toaster… maybe I should have filled out that comment card afterall.
Escaping the shower unscathed, we made our way over to Isla Holbox via the 9 Hermanos (9 brothers) ferry. The island is about 7 miles long and 1 mile wide, and has a population of about 1600. The streets are mostly sandy paths, and the main form of transportation is taxi golf carts. Here are some of the unique houses on island:
Isla Holbox is a small community, who’s main industry is fishing. During the past 5 years, tourist traffic has started to pick up as more and more people find out about the whale shark tours. The whale shark season typically runs from July-September, but we heard that people had already spotted some sharks. Being low season, we hoped to sneak onto Isla Holbox without reservations and find a decent hotel room for an affordable rate. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side, and we ended up finding that rooms were already running at high season prices around 700 pesos ($66) a night. To make matters worse, these were their mosquito-netting-over-the-beds rooms. Yikes! We eventually found a beautiful room at Casa Iguana overlooking the Gulf of Mexico for 800 pesos ($75) a night. A bit pricey — for us locals, anyway, but it was my birthday, so we splurged. At least we didn’t have to sleep under mosquito nets.
By the way, the mosquitos on Isla Holbox are rumored to be vicious. I was extremely worried because mosquitos appear to love me. It must be my sweet personality. Libby isn’t bothered for some reason. Hmmm…. Oddly enough, the mosquitos annoyed me less than some annoying critters called sand fleas. These little buggers hide in the sand, and attack you without mercy. The sunblock and bug spray combination left a nice sticky residue to collect bug samples all over my body. Yippee! Anyhow, because of those nasty creatures, our weekend beach time was limited to a grand total of 10 minutes. Thank goodness we have a nice beach (without fleas, thank you very much) only a few blocks away from home here in Playa del Carmen.
Back to the story… After we dropped off our luggage, we set out to book our tour. Our friend, Jason, from Fantasea Dive, had recommended a tour operator called Willy’s Whale Shark Tours. We heard Willy’s had some fun guides – some with mohawks and some with strange names like Elvis. Our guide, Juan, had neither. Nevertheless, he was a great guide, and he did his best to explain things in English for us gringos who still speak primarily English.
Our tour started bright and early the next morning. We headed Northeast for a little over an hour, to a point where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet. From what we gather, the whale sharks come back each year to feed on the abundant plankton in the area, a phenomenon likely caused by the mixing of the two bodies of water.
Just as I started to doze off, the boat filled with excitment as one of the other tourists located our first whale shark. Everyone became very active. A few people climbed on top of the boat to get a good angle for picture taking, while others started preparing their flippers and snorkeling masks. Game on!
The whale sharks in this area are protected, and only two people and their guide can enter the water at a time. Libby and I anxiously awaited our turn to jump in and snorkel with these big fish. Yet, even then, the concept seemed a bit odd — jumping in the water next to a 45 foot long fish, a fish with the word SHARK in its name, and snorkeling along side of it, but that’s why we were there. Besides, we had heard that whale sharks are docile, and only feed on plankton and small fish since they have no teeth. Wrong! We’ve since learned that they do have teeth… up to 300 rows of them. However, they don’t really use them. Well, at least not on people. We hoped. As far as them being docile, that remains true. The biggest danger is swimming too close and getting hit by their powerful tails.
We were ready to go. Our first attempt didn’t go very well, as the whale shark quickly swam away from us. The second was a little better for me, as I decided to kick a little harder to keep up with the shark, in an attempt to take a few underwater shots. And, although most people are only guaranteed 2 attempts, we were lucky enough to go a third time. It was amazing. The whale shark slowly and gracefully raised and lowered its body, instead of swimming quickly away. This allowed us to swim along side the whale shark for close to 10 minutes. It was an amazing experience to be so close to such a large animal in it’s natural environment. I wonder if the whale shark even knew we were there, or whether it had just eaten too much to really care.
Back on board, we said goodbye to our new friends and headed back to Isla Holbox. As an unexpected bonus, halfway back to shore, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of 10-15 playful dolphins. They seemed to be in a hurry… maybe they headed out for their turn to swim with the sharks.
As the day winded down, we bought some cold beers and sat on our terrace overlooking the beach and the water. The spectacle that we saw was kind of surreal. People were cruising the beach in their golf carts, ATVs and motorcycles. Upon closer inspection, we realized that many of the motorcycle riders were approximately 7 years old. We even saw a 4 or 5 year old racing around on a gas powered mini ATV. I joked with Libby that Isla Holbox must be the training ground for Mexican drivers. They give their kids some type of unsafe vehicle and unleash them on the beach… if they survive for a year, they get their license. Aha! One mystery solved.
All in all, it was a fun adventure and a great way to spend my birthday.
Photos from our trip
Wikipedia Page on Whale Sharks
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