A Holbox Adventure, Swimming with the Whale Sharks

This is a dream trip which you are tempted to repeat more than once, even if you are living in the area as a local. You simply can’t get enough of it.  Along the way, you can get a real feel for the unaltered ancient life style of the people, the traditions, hospitality and happiness they are proud of. After travelling through the Mexican Caribbean jungle, surrounded by a myriad of trees, flowers, plants, colours, scents and sights you probably haven’t experienced before, you finally arrive to the enchanted, small old-fashioned fishing village of Holbox, where you can live the unique experience of swimming with the whale sharks. 

We started our trip by road from Playa del Carmen, driving through the lush Maya tropical jungle where everything is green year round.  When we passed through one of the tiny towns, tropical fresh fruit, traditional ice creams and regional snacks were being offered.  It is now when that warm breeze is the perfect excuse (a real one) for a stop to cool off and get something fresh.  You are on holiday, no worries, no stress, no schedule to follow, so we decided to take a break and have an ice cream made by the locals.  There are also plenty of little shops and very typical convenience stores where you can stop for a cool drink.  But that nice and warm atmosphere soon becomes hot and humid despite the refreshing guanábana sorbet and the nanceice cream, it won’t let you forget you are in the Maya woods; so it’s time to go on and continue the journey.

It has been 2 hours so far of road odyssey, sometimes so narrow, other times so busy with animals crossing, it’s all part of the adventure. It is not easy, because you must keep your eyes peeled, but also not rare for you to see boas, giant anteaters, agutis, motmot clock birds, parrots, iguanas and many more. Another thing that will strike you as different is how light the soil is; stones and even the tarmac on the way range from white to beige in colour. You will definitely need sunglasses all the way!

Depending on how many stops you’ve enjoyed along the ride, you will be arriving to Chiquilá town now.  It is time to say, “see you” to your hired car and leave it in a car park for however long you will be staying in Holbox.  Not to worry, there are plenty of options and it is quite cheap.  Here we took a very cosy and small ferry to Holbox Island. While still on board, you feel an exciting sensation of travelling to a village lost in time.  Mangrove areas, pelicans, seabirds, vast patches of seaside vegetation are coming closer and surrounding you. After 25 minutes approximately, you arrive to Holbox harbour where you can hire a “taxi”, which is a golf cart that will take you thru the sand streets to your hotel. Bumping here, shaking there, marine wind on your face, Yucatan fried food smells, children waving their hands at you (a few of them make some unfamiliar gestures, others rudely familiar, but it’s all part of the folklore and you will get a chance to learn non-verbal Mexican signs!), watch out, a deep puddle is coming up, lift your legs! Again!  This is an opportunity to have fun, enjoying a different adventure, laughing and sharing with family or friends or whoever you are travelling with.  This is the experience you’ve been waiting for, and it is just commencing!

Relaxed, installed and ready for more exploring, we set out to find out how things worked at our hotel and what was where. The long beach with a surf-free shoreline, almost like a swimming pool, with that white sand, so soft it is a pleasure to walk barefoot on it, and the amazing way in which greens, turquoises, blues and whites combine in the water add to the magic of this paradisiac destination.  Insect repellent and sunscreen lotions will be your constant companions from now on, so that multi-purpose huge bag we'd been lugging around certainly paid off! Sunglasses are not to be left behind, everywhere you look is extremely white and it all reflects the sun very well, so you must keep in mind you can get sunburned even in the shade!

We then headed for the main plaza in the centre of town and we were ready to try out all those delicacies that greeted our noses when we first arrived; just follow the heavenly smells!  Pizza, Yucatan seafood, Mexican specialties, Steak houses, Italian, Fusion, French, American, Asian, New concept, Spanish and more are available in a less than half a mile radius.  You wouldn’t believe you’d have so much offer in such a remote area, but yes, you do have it! It is time to repeat the insect repellent doses before dinner, so we ensure it’s just ourdinner!  The majority of the restaurants are al fresco.

We opted for the pizza place, it is hard to go wrong with pizza, after all.  The specialty of the house was lobster pizza, made with the fresh catch of the day.  There is just something about the sand and sea that makes you so hungry, we were soon all digging with gusto into our pizzas, sharing them all around.  After a very satisfying meal, we decided to cap off a perfect day with a drink at one of the many bars, before calling it an early night, since we were heading out early the next morning on our whale sharks tour.

A small torch is mandatory on your way back to the hotel if you decide to walk.  And what a lovely walk it was!  Imagine a clear night sky filled with brilliant stars you can see because there are no city lights to dim them, the fresh ocean breeze, the soft sand under your bare feet and the warm water lapping gently over them, the ocean is so calm you can only hear a whisper of it.  Can it get any better than this?  Just before you go to bed, ouch, you need the insect repellent again!!!

Next day in the morning we woke up to a fresh and nice breeze.  We had bought some snacks, bread and drinks at one of the local shops the day before, anticipating an early start, so we could have a quick breakfast in the hotel.  If you prefer, you can head out to town and have a lovely breakfast at any of the many restaurants there; or maybe your hotel includes it.   In any case, it is time for that sunscreen, more insect repellent and anti-seasickness pills!  By this point, we were bubbling with excitement and anticipation, wondering and trying to imagine what our encounter with the whale sharks would be like.  We got on a fast boat to start our 2-hour voyage, which was filled with all sorts of unimaginable, new and unique experiences.  You may see huge mantas, turtles, flamingos, shoals of flying fish and much more.  We were lucky to run across a pod of dolphins, and two huge turtles!

By this point, you are getting so very close to swimming in the wildness and real habitat of the whale shark, untamed and never touched by human beings, the anticipation keeps building up.  The feelings in the group may be varied, some get nervous, others anxious, some may be even apathetic or unwilling to go, most of us couldn’t wait to jump into the water!  But when that particular moment arrives, when the captain says, “We have one, and it’s a top”, everybody can’t help but get caught up in the excitement of it all.  A “top”, by the way, (the toy) is what they call a whale shark that swims in circles while it feeds, so it keeps coming back to your boat (not for you, but for the plankton!) and it is much easier to follow.

Your captain or guide will already have explained the rules to you, and they are very strict in following them!  Only two people plus the guide can swim at a time with the whale shark, it is all very well organised.  So then it is time for the first couple to take the plunge, your heart is beating faster, you feel the adrenalin, you may be thinking… “Not me, someone else go first, I would like to see if they come back in one piece, because even though the whale sharks are plankton eaters they have huge mouths, what if it is in a bad mood?”  Once in the water, you must swim very fast to get closer, because you have something between 20 to 50 seconds to be shoulder to shoulder with that fish, even though the captain will drop you well ahead of it so you have time to position yourself when it catches up to you. 

Whatever you may have imagined, whatever your feelings about the whole experience may have been before, nothing will have prepared you for that first underwater glimpse you get of this gentle giant, the sheer size of it is awe-inspiring and breath-taking.  Remember you’re underwater, so try and remind yourself not to gasp! Even when it may seem the whale shark is swimming in slow motion, and you can see the relaxed, majestic way in which its caudal fin (sometimes as big as an adult) glides through the water, not even your Olympic swimming skills, if you possess any, are enough to keep up with this impressive animal as it moves on (it might be a good idea to try and get fit a couple of months before the trip to make the most of it; and you may want to give snorkelling a previous try as well, so you are more familiar with it).  But for those mere seconds that you get to swim along side such a magnificent creature, you feel so many emotions course through you; you feel connected, if even for just a second, to this peaceful behemoth as it slides gracefully through the water, a feeling of peace invades you as you get a sense of the enormity of the word out there, and you such a tiny, small part of it, but still a part of it...

Is that it? Of course not, the boat is then picking you up, and while you were being blown away by your close encounter, another couple has been getting ready for the next ride; you come back up on board feeling exhilarated and bursting with excitement, and then the next couple splashes into the water and again, and again… everybody has 2 or 3 opportunities or even more if weather, your stamina, your children (or someone else’s), the captain, the current legislations or the whale shark allows you to do so. Whale sharks normally swim one or two meters deep; basic flippers, mask, snorkel and your camera (optional) will be your only equipment, because even though you might rather be chasing after the whale shark with a marine scooter, these amazing animals are well protected and motorized devices or physical contact with sharks is not allowed.

Fear is history, even the originally indifferent ones are very excited, everybody wants to have more fun, everybody wants to share their experience.  “I saw the whale shark’s eye”, shouts someone, “and it saw me back!” It is an emotional and fantastic moment.  Someone else is bragging about swimming the longest time beside the mouth and gills, one of the braver children who dared jump into the water curled like an octopus around his mother's neck when he saw the size of the whale shark, but later he is bragging about how he was so courageous and so close to it, somebody is describing how the shark turned left just a second before hitting him, you cannot believe how conscious whale sharks are of your presence among them, it is amazing!  There is laughter and a feeling of enjoyment all around, of camaraderie at sharing such an incredible and thrilling experience.

Time to go back, although it is probably not by any means the end of it yet.  Sometimes and depending of some factors previously described, such as weather, captain, regulations, and the tour you paid for, among others, you may visit a second place for snorkelling or take a short trip close to the shoreline where it is possible to see spectacular flamingo flocks and paradise-like beaches. Maybe you are already thinking of those spicy tacos, the lobster pizza, the local whole deep-fried fish or that succulent steak you have seen in Holbox… you will be there soon and you’ll be really very hungry.  Sunscreen on the way back and be prepared with that insect repellent! Different sensations and good feelings fill you, body and mind; reflection, satisfaction and fulfillment are blending together, coupled with the sound of the boat hitting the waves, the sea spray in your face, the sun warming your back, the fresh, clean smell of the ocean, an endless horizon of turquoise blue. What an experience!!

As we moor at the dock, the main square is coming alive, the heat is being reduced by the afternoon shade and the breeze. You can see the different shops and restaurants are getting busier. The handcraft souvenir store here and the café restaurant over there, while a tricycle carrying a whole family is warning you to move out of the way with a funny horn (careful not all of them are noticeable!)  It is your opportunity to try something different for dinner like Yucatan food, Fusion or perhaps a more conservative option. But even in the last case, and it should be considered part of the pleasures of travelling to exotic places, the ingredients you think you know taste different.  You will find some are awesome and fuller in taste, while others may feel strange, some may be bitter, juicier, tastier, crispier or sweeter, because they are grown in a completely different part of the world and they are most likely cooked and prepared with a different process. It is a kind of culinary adventure and a cultural holiday. Part of this adventure is finding the small supermarkets and convenience stores where groceries and goodies are available, most of them incredibly cheap (fruits, vegetables, fizzy drinks, seafood, beer, wine, tobacco, and many more).  Ask about the opening times because these vary depending on the region or place.  On our second night we opt for the tacos and eat our fill, all that swimming and excitement has made us all ravenous!   Since it's our last night, we decide to experience a bit more of the nightlife at the local bars, but we are so satisfyingly tired, filled with that sort of rewarding and pleasurable exhaustion, that we head back to our room after a couple of drinks and a bit of dancing to the lively music.

You may have ticked the main activity in Holbox, swimming with the whale shark, but there are still plenty of things to do on your last day.  Depending on your preferences and your days remaining, you could have a second whale shark trip, a snorkelling trip to a local reef, kayak rental for visiting the mangroves and bays, a cenote visit, a fishing trip in a unique environment with lots of fish, uninhabitated islands with a huge population of birds and many more or simply lying on the beach taking in some sun and enjoying a dip in the warm waters.  
Maybe you want to spend an extra day in the island just for relaxing and resting, with its laid back and quiet atmosphere, there is no better place to do so.  For ourselves, we chose a bit of fishing and were rewarded with a couple of good-sized ones!

Sadly, all things come to an end, so it was time to take the ferry back to Chiquiláand recover our car to drive back to Playa.  If you are on holiday, it is then time to continue your adventure, explorations or relaxation elsewhere, and you may have arrived by transfer, so they will probably be waiting for you by the dock. But for now, you take back these amazing memories with you, all the enjoyed moments, the thrill, the excitement, the laughs, that satisfying tiredness only a fulfilling event leaves you with, you keep in your heart everything you have experienced in this small piece of paradise, and quite possibly you declare internally… “Next year I will try the fishing trip or an extra whale shark ride.  We’ll see…”