Travel Special: The pleasure of doing nothing
Sun, sand and stars: rebooting on Mexico's Isla Holbox
“It’s pronounced Hole-bosh," Colin, my fiancé, corrects me as we pick the destination for our long-overdue vacation. “In Mayan orthography, the x is the sh."
Just north of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Isla Holbox or Holbox Island sits like the perfectly arched eyebrow of a celebrity. Holbox certainly has an air of unapproachability but this is more a matter of geography than temperament. Arriving in Holbox feels therapeutic, if only because that means the end of the spine-rattling buses and choppy boats we had to take to get there. I step off the ferry a little worn out from my day-long tryst with Mexican public transportation. Too exhausted to walk, I scan the ferry terminal for cabs. There are none. Annoyed, I snap, “What kind of a place doesn’t have cabs?"
Just then some of my fellow passengers get into a golf cart and drive away. I start to realize the obvious: There are no cars on Holbox. Suddenly, my focus shifts from myself to what is around me. A gorgeous sky, an unpolluted ocean breeze, warm white sand, and a man painting an entire wall blue.
Colin and I end up walking to Hostel Tribu, which fits all our requirements: clean, budget accommodation with an excess of hammocks just 5 minutes away from the beach. I sink into a colourful hammock and look up at the coconut palm treetops swaying to the soft drum of the ocean waves.
“Dinner?" Colin taps my shoulder to wake me up. I hadn’t even realized I had dozed off in the hammock. I had been having trouble falling asleep so Holbox rocking me to sleep was a welcome break for my email-choked brain.
I am too tired to wander around in search of a restaurant so we decide to eat at the Tribu bar and head to the rooftop with a couple of Coronas.
“Wow!" Everything in my mind and body stops, in awe of the star-dusted sky. “It looks like the dome of the planetarium," I say. My reference point is so sad that it makes me painfully aware of being a workaholic city girl who has neither the time nor the opportunity to escape to a quiet location to experience something as simple as a night sky. Within moments, I spot my first shooting star and it makes me jump like a five-year-old child on her first adventure. But every joy brings with it another bitter realization. Nighttime light, a measure of economic progress, causes so much light pollution that it is almost impossible to catch a shooting star in cities. The meteors come and go but we stay in our little offices, glued to our devices, working late and missing special moments.
It’s morning and Colin invites me to join the rooftop yoga session at the hostel.
“No, thanks. I think I will stay in my hammock asana." This is very unlike me. I’m usually the person who wants to do everything a destination offers. In fact, Colin has to ask me to slow down and take it easy. But this time my body is in desperate need of doing nothing. I go from hammock to beach and beach to hammock, with food breaks in between at the nearby taco stands. And I see how the bearded man with the paint brush is adding things to the blue wall. Bits of pink and white have appeared.
A few days into my new routine of beach-hammock-stargazing nothingness, I start to feel more alive. I am in love with Holbox’s laid-back vibe and its street art. It turns out that the man I had spotted on the first day is an artist in the midst of creating a gorgeous mural: a woman with a pink flamingo nesting in her long hair. This image, which I have seen develop over the past few days, speaks to me in a way I did not expect. It seems the artist has inadvertently painted the state of my mind. I am the woman who carries the weight of her work and her thoughts, the metaphorical pink flamingo, on her head.
Few places in this world inspire me to do nothing. I realize how easy it is to run after one more goal, one more achievement. Even on vacation, there is always one more kayaking tour, one more snorkelling trip, and one more party to check off. But what if we stopped and surrendered to nothingness? Holbox turns out to be the reboot my soul was craving. And the mural with the pink flamingo is a powerful reminder of the need to let go.
Plan your trip
Isla Holbox is relatively unspoilt, partly because it is a bit difficult to access. It’s a 15-minute ferry ride from Chiquila, which is a few hours by bus from several cities, including Cancún and Merida. Most of the routes are not direct. If you have the cash, you can ask your hotel to organize a private shuttle or hop on a Cessna aircraft from Cancún, Cozumel or Playa del Carmen.
There is plenty to do on Holbox, including kayaking, spearfishing, birdwatching and snorkelling. The best time to visit is from late May to early August, when you can swim alongside whale sharks, the largest fish in the world who, thankfully, are not aggressive towards humans. Be sure to avoid hurricane season, which can start in August and peak mid-September.