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On Isla Holbox – a 40-kilometre stretch of underdeveloped paradise on the Yucatan Peninsula – finding things to 'do' is a lesson in serendipity

Isla Holbox is only 40 kilometres from toe to tip, tucked into the north edge of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Isla Holbox is only 40 kilometres from toe to tip, tucked into the north edge of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Upon exiting the airport in Cancun, Mexico, you're greeted by an aggressive chorus of "Taxi! Taxi!"; make your way two hours north, however, followed by a hop-skip ferry ride, and the drivers of the golf carts that comprise the only form of mass transport on Isla Holbox will shrug benignly at your request for a ride. Dark needles of frigate birds circle overhead. It's clear the concept of "spring break" hasn't quite made it to these shores.

Isla Holbox (pronounced "ole-bosh") is only 40 kilometres from toe to tip, tucked into the north edge of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. If you haven't heard of it, you're not alone. It was only after Holbox got electricity in the 1980s that tourists started to arrive; the lack of power meant many island locals didn't taste their first ice cream until well into old age. Holbox ("black hole" in Mayan, so named for the endless fish the surrounding ocean parries up) is now home to 1,500 residents and 3,000 "floaters." It's these floaters who are powering tourism, opening hotels along the as-yet underdeveloped beachfront, and their efforts are urging the island out from under the dense palms of the Yucatan.

We came upon Holbox by accident – as is true of most of the tourists we meet – and we're quickly clued in to the serendipity of our discovery. The island days are hot, but not too hot; the ocean is cool, but not too cool. There are enough foreigners to make you feel at home in your newness, but not so many that it obscures the local community. The beaches – which stretch the length of the north coast and, as with all beaches in Mexico, are public land – are all crushed coral and turquoise waters, broken by tangles of kelp and coconut husks that lend them a wildness unlike the manicured beaches of Cancun or Tulum. We try to move slowly, and then slower still. We get the feeling of having made land at the exact right moment in time.

Finding things to "do" in Holbox is an exercise in aimlessness. We've arrived outside the season for whale sharks, although their spotted husks are plentiful in souvenir shops. From May to September, the gentle giants congregate offshore and numerous tour companies allow you to swim alongside the world's largest fish.

The island of Holbox in Mexico is walkable, and the ocean is calm enough for children to swim safely.

The island of Holbox in Mexico is walkable, and the ocean is calm enough for children to swim safely.

Jason Rothe

For us, it's a boat tour of the smaller islands surrounding Holbox. Our captain, Carmelo, whose age we'd spitball somewhere between 40 and 70, ferries us to a bird sanctuary where we spot nimble sandpipers, clumsy furred pelicans and ghostly flashes of white egrets, followed by a quick, gasping splash in Yalahau lagoon, a freshwater spring where dart-like fish nibble our ears and raccoons laze by a nearby campsite. Lastly, we pull up to an empty stretch of almost painfully white sand, where Carmelo proceeds to catch a live fish in his bare hands. It happens so quickly that we're left ankle-deep in warm, placid waves the colour of a cold moon, gaping like the green and yellow fish he's holding out to us with a smile.

The island is easily walkable and the ocean calm enough for kids to play safely. Wander the beach to the less-trafficked western edge and you'll find empty stretches of sandbars with shallow waters clear enough to spot shadowy sea urchins and rust-coloured starfish. The closest thing to a "schedule" is melting our way down to the beach each evening, where locals and tourists alike gather on the breakwaters to watch the sun set over the ocean. As the sky goes sherbet-hued and the water turns the colour of milk and mercury, someone blows a conch shell, a low moan that carries across the island.

Eating is another main hobby: A good assortment of restaurants is clustered around the main square, many of which are still operated by fishermen. Hungry from all our relaxing, we find a few plastic tables under a palapa near the main pier. The owner of El Changarrito shows us a cooler of fish, which he then fries in olive oil and garlic and serves whole, accompanied by lemonade sweetened with local honey. The island cooks still employ Mayan flavours and ingredients, such as chaya – a local green with a mild, spinach-like taste – which we drink mixed with pineapple in an addictive juice. Local dogs sit politely at your feet while you eat.

It was only after Holbox got electricity in the 1980s that tourists started to arrive.

It was only after Holbox got electricity in the 1980s that tourists started to arrive.

Pablo Rodriguez Merkel

Exploring the town, you'll find hammocks swinging lazily in doorways and small courtyards that reveal candlelit altars to a benign Mary, red light against her downturned face. In the evenings, men drag small plastic tables to the street to play dice. Over at the Facebook group "Yo Amo Holbox," the biggest news is a key found on the beach: Does anyone know whose it might be? Someone else has lost his laptop charger, and offers "beer and love" for a power boost.

If it all sounds too good to be true, it's possible it soon will be. Developers are eyeing the island as one of the last untouched spots in the Yucatan. Every morning we wake to the soft but insistent sound of construction, and on our daily walks we pass grand, deserted houses that stretch over the sand in complex towers of glass and empty infinity pools. One night, we hear guitars and pan pipes near a campfire; a Mexican family, celebrating the recent purchase of a plot of development land, brought the musicians in from Playa del Carmen to commemorate their endeavour.

"You begin to wonder what could happen to Holbox," says Giovanna Navarro Pena, who moved to Holbox from Mexico City. She points to the recent devastation of 57 hectares of pristine mangrove forest in Cancun – destroyed overnight despite the efforts of activists – as an example of the fears of many residents. I ask if this destruction is common in the country.

Holbox is now home to 1,500 residents and 3,000 ‘floaters.’

Holbox is now home to 1,500 residents and 3,000 ‘floaters.’

She shrugs. "Everywhere. It's Mexico." She tells me how, during the recent Carneval, locals took to the street to sing songs against corruption.

The island's struggle plays out in the small shops that line the few commercial streets around the main square. The two-year-old boutique WeLove sells expensive dresses and caftans delicately embroidered by a women's collective in Chiapas. Around the corner, at Puesta del Sol – the first souvenir store on the island – prices are more reasonable.

"Everyone said I was crazy," the owner tells us, when we ask how long he's been around. A former fisherman, he opened his store 10 years ago, holding his hands a foot apart to indicate the size of the original footprint. It has grown to a small labyrinth of rooms filled with painted ceramic skulls that fit in your palm and T-shirts emblazoned with the famous domino-spotted whale sharks. The only fish he worries about now are the ones on his screensaver, which he points out with a wide grin.

The rains hit the island on our last day, driving away the two iguanas that spend their days lazing on the thatched roof of Casa Blat'ha, the eco-hotel where we've been bunking down. The Mayan-style hotel is simple but comfortable, each room equipped with a hammock and mosquito net. Owner Daniel Trigo is a former journalist who discovered Holbox after covering the oil boom in Saudi Arabia. He was looking to create a community-driven, sustainable hotel, and he has done that with Blat'ha, which serves hibiscus jam from its garden and hosts sunset yoga classes on the roof. Trigo was also instrumental in the "Dreaming of Holbox" project, which brought artists from around the world to interview Mayan elders and create street murals from their dreams.

"The seeds of greed have arrived on the island," he says, speaking of the debate between locals who wish to preserve the land and way of life, and those looking to take advantage of the influx of developer funds. He worries about the community staying unified. Still, he hopes that the relative size and remoteness of Holbox will protect what they've created; with any luck, he says, they can remain "in the shadow of Cancun."

One aimless afternoon near the end of our trip, we meet a couple by way of Germany and Iran who have come to see what they call "the real Mexico." Did we find it on Holbox? Amid stories of young Mexican children being recruited by cartels, overwhelming police corruption, and the threat of Zika, it feels both dangerous and arbitrary to give that title to this slice of paradise. But it is true that the longer we sit in our hammocks, the soft, dark smell of salt and jungle descending around us, this unreality begins to feel perfectly real.

From May to September, sharks congregate offshore and numerous tour companies allow you to swim alongside the world’s largest fish.

From May to September, sharks congregate offshore and numerous tour companies allow you to swim alongside the world’s largest fish.

Meghan Nesmith/Meghan Nesmith

If you go

Getting there

A comfortable public bus from Cancun to Chiquila will take around three hours; alternatively, hire a (more expensive) cab to make the drive in two. The 20-minute ferry from Chiquila to Holbox runs frequently and costs 120 pesos (about $9).

Where to stay

Casa Blat'ha: A quiet 15-minute walk from the centre of town, the hotel was built using the principles of permaculture to minimize its impact on natural resources. A simple breakfast of homemade jams and bread is included. Rooms from $70;

Casa Las Tortugas: Arguably the closest to luxury the island has to offer. Casa Las Tortugas is owned by an Italian couple who have filled their cluster of casitas with colourful ceramics and tapestries. Mandarina Beach Club serves dangerous mezcal sours and a brioche filled with traditional huitlacoche;

Where to eat

Raices Beach Club: It doesn't get more beachfront than Raices. Try the Mayan specialty fish, gutted and grilled with a sauce of tomatoes and garlic.

El Hornito Argento: This lively, centrally located eatery will let you decide for yourself how you feel about thin-crust pizza topped with local lobster, an island specialty.

Rosa Mexicano: A good example of the island's more modern offerings, this buzzing, rustic-chic Mexican spot offers arguably the best margarita in Holbox.

What to see

Whale sharks: Visit between May and September, and you might get lucky. The big fish aren't as common as they used to be, but you'll still have an excellent chance.

Cabo Catoche Tour: Holbox Adventures organizes this boat trip, where snorkelling ends with a meal of freshly caught ceviche. Dolphin sightings are also common.