A Travellerspoint blog

April 2015

Whale Sharks and Isla Holbox, part 2: the very very big fish

swimming next to a fish with a mouth as big as a Buick. On purpose.

At last my day was here. I was going to get eaten by a giant shark, drown as I sank, screaming in fear swim peacefully along with the world's largest fish.

Well, OK!

We checked in with the local whale shark tour company, signed a form saying it wasn't their fault if we die, and off we went.

This is Gabi, also known as 'angel who makes you feel like you can swim with whale sharks without having a massive heart attack.' Our captain was Tinto, Gabi's husband. Their adorable 5 and 6 year old daughters also went to swim with whale sharks that day, ensuring that I had to either suck it up and jump in or be one-upped by a kindergartener.

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Apparently my name in Spanish is Treicie. I like it!

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Looking confident, right? Are you kidding, I am about to die a miserable death and be memorialized in a language I don't speak.

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After flying across impossibly blue waters on a picture perfect sunny day, we started to slow down and circle. Captain Tinto has been cruising for whale sharks for more than 20 years so I figured this guy must know what he is doing.

Suddenly, like magic, there they were. And by they I mean dozens of whale sharks!! I wasn't sure if I was going to explode with happiness or throw up.

Note the very tiny snorkelers and the very very very big fish. The two parts of the fish that you see sticking out of the water are the mouth and the middle dorsal fin. THIS IS HALF OF THE FISH. Whew.

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See that snorkeler? Note that she is halfway between the mouth and dorsal fin of the shark. These suckers were huge.

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I am a diver but I have a huge fear of 'the abyss', meaning I hate when I can't see the bottom. We were told that the water where the whale sharks feed is about a hundred feet deep. I figured I had two real tests. One, jumping in. Two, looking down and seeing...nothing.

Gabi and Tinto told us how we would cruise up next to the shark and then two of us at a time would take turns jumping in. We'd hang our legs off the side of the boat, and when it was time they'd tell us to jump. They let us know that no matter how fast we swam, the shark would beat us every time, even though it looked like it was just lazing along eating a zillion plankton.

Actually, when it was time to go it sounded more like this:

JUMP JUMP JUMP JUMP JUMP GO GO GO GO GO!!!!!

Scared me so badly I fell off the side of the boat.

When I recovered from the shock, my first sight was this:

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It still brings tears to my eyes every time I see it.

I started squealing like an elephant in heat and waving my arms, causing Gabi to jump in and try to rescue me. Turns out, I was not only OK but literally crying tears of joy at seeing these magnificent creatures. I had watched videos, I had studied the whale sharks online, and nothing, I mean nothing could have prepared me for the enormous size and grace of these amazing creatures. I felt like a kid at the best Christmas ever. And not once did I even worry about looking down. The whale sharks were addictive, and had all of us begging to keep jumping in again and again.

There is nothing like looking straight ahead and seeing a giant fish with a mouth that could swallow you whole coming straight at you. So. Freaking. Awesome.

I was so ridiculously excited I handed the camera over to PK so he could shoot video since my hands were shaking so badly. He got a nice look at his swimming companion. Here's 2 minutes of PK with his whale shark buddy

As you can guess, pictures don't begin to capture the beauty of these immense creatures. Averaging 27 feet in length, they swim peacefully in warm waters, eating hundreds of pounds of plankton every day as they migrate. No teeth, no biting, no problem.

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Amazingly, we were treated to three manta rays, who joined the whale sharks in their bountiful feast. I had no idea how big manta rays were, or how they literally flew through the water.

I also had no idea PK left the camera back on the boat.

Oops.

After they dragged us out of the water, we headed off in search of sustenance. Captain Tinto found a local fishing boat and snagged lobsters and snapper. He motored us into a calm, shallow flat and proceeded to work with Gabi to make the best damn ceviche I have ever had. Seriously, we were wet, hot and tired and no food has ever tasted so good. We used our fingers to eat, with lime juice running down our chins. Yeah, this was a good day.

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Bucket list checked.

Life is good. And middle age ain't so bad either.

Posted by traciekochanny 15:18 Comments (2)

Whale Sharks and Isla Holbox, part 1: lovely little Holbox

last of the authentic Mexican islands

sunny

Once I hit 50, my wanderlust bucket list kicked in big time. Item #597: swim with whale sharks. Last summer, I decided it was time. There are a few places where you can swim with whale sharks, but most of them were either highly touristy or just too far. I settled on the tiny little island of Isla Holbox, off of the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Holbox is unique because even though it's only a couple of hours from mega-tourist Cancun, it's a world away in terms of Mexican culture. The island consists of one tiny town, miles of pretty beaches and not much else. The streets are lined with sand, the people are relaxed and friendly, and the vibe is relahado...laid back, relaxed.

To get to Holbox, you fly into the aforementioned godforsaken Cancun airport, then arrange for a car or bus to take you to Chiquila, a tiny port about 50 miles northwest. A car will set you back about a hundred bucks while the bus is only 80 pesos, but the bus ride means 4 hours, dozens of stops, no bathroom and a couple of live chickens. We decided on the car.

A scenic drive it is not...just miles and miles of scrubby, dense dry Yucatan jungle. The August heat was oppressive, even with the air conditioner struggling along. Finally, we arrived in Chiquila and snagged a couple of ferry tickets to take us to Holbox. We boarded and got ready to begin our vacation. As we backed out of the tiny harbor, a little Mexican gentleman grabbed a microphone, turned on a ferry version of a karaoke machine, and started singing love songs in Espanol . Muy excellente!

(By the way since I am highly skilled and super slick blog writer now, I finally figured out that I can include video clips and links...that's what the underlined parts are. Click on them and you'll find cool stuff like a guy singing love songs in Spanish! I know, right?)

One of the beautiful things about Holbox is the lack of cars. Because the town is so tiny, and the streets are sand, most everyone gets around by golf cart. Since we weren't sure where our hotel was in relation to the ferry dock, we flagged down a golf cart taxi to take us to our home for the week, Casa Las Tortugas. We loaded up the luggage, and were off, crisscrossing sandy streets. A whopping 2 minutes later, our driver dropped us off. 50 pesos to go 6 blocks. I was in love..

You know how travel sites call places 'hidden gems'? Well Casa las Tortugas oh so surely was. Casa las Tortugas was quite possibly the most beautiful little hotel I have ever stayed in. This place oozes charm, style and design from every corner. From the rooms to the oceanfront restaurant to the immaculate beachfront, it was spectacular. I was going to be hap-hap-happy here.

They have beachfront beds. And tequila. Uh oh.

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They even had a friend for PK. Her name was Gabriella Esperanza.

Ha ha, expected a different picture, didn't you? :1)

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The beachfront restaurant and rooftop cocktail terrace were most excellent.

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The only thing the beach was missing was Johnny Depp.

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This is me trying out the new effects on my camera. Or tequila. Not sure. Oops.

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Breakfast was included and it was muy delicioso, especially when you consider the setting.

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Holbox in summer is quiet, dry and HOT. Did I mention it was HOT? As a result, we walked into town in the early mornings, to avoid the blazing sun. The town itself is postcard pretty, with tiny storefronts, restaurants and pensiones. There are no big hotels and no chain restaurants. Surprisingly, the largest community of expats is Italian, so there are a number of great Italian restaurants in this one horse town.

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Is that a rabbit in the road, or am I experiencing signs of heatstroke?

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Got eggs?

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Because it is actually located in the Gulf of Mexico and not the Caribbean, Isla Holbox has beautiful, blinding white beaches and milky green water. The lack of clarity of the water is one of the reasons the whale sharks love it, since it is filled with nutrient laden plankton. Hundreds of brightly colored flamingos also call Holbox home, due to the rich supply of food. There are miles of shallow sand flats filled with birds and bonefish just waiting for a fly line. When the tide is out, much of the shallow water disappears, leaving miles of white sand to walk on.

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Holbox, apparently, is also a haven for rich celebrity Yorkshire terriers who want to avoid the paparazzi...

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And me, channeling Darryl Hannah in my version of middle-age-Mermaid.

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At night, Holbox comes alive in its sleepy little way. Families gather at the zocalo, tiny food trucks cook up an array of tasty treats, and kids play futbol in the center of town. Musicians play on the sidewalks, people wander about and you can't help but think that this is the Mexico that most tourists are missing. No crime, no swim up pool bars, wrist bands, all night clubbing, giant tequila drinks and all-you-can-eat buffets. Just a simple little town with people who still make their living from the sea. A place where extended families live together and the community fights mega-development with everything they've got. Nine years ago the owners of Coca-Cola in Mexico bought up 800 acres of the island with ambitious plans for development. Condos, hotels, restaurants...and less than 1,000 people who live on Holbox have managed to keep it from happening. So far.

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One of the things I have also wanted to knock off my bucket list is stand up paddle boarding, apparently also known as 'SUP' to those hipsters who know that sort of thing. One morning on Holbox, PK and I decided to go for it, and rented ourselves a super cool, most excellent paddle board. "How hard can this be?" I thought to myself. "Looks like a lazy person sport to me. Just stand up and gently paddle around, right?" NO. Make no mistake, stand up paddle boarding was invented for tiny 20-something kids to show off their abs, not for 50-something Midwesterners who have no sense of balance. Take my word on this one. We have the bruised knees, sore wrists and one genuine broken finger to show for it.

OK so sometimes in my bucket listing frenzy I am misguided.

Warning: do not EVER stand up paddle board in 6 inches of water. The sand is a lot harder to land in when you fall. A dozen times. Idiots.

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This looks like me gazing into the sun. It's not. It's me saying "There is no f**king way I am standing up on this thing again!"

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Look at PK, all cool and Rico-Suave-like. Note that this was taken exactly one second before he ended up in the drink. Remember I mentioned the broken finger? Yeah.

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My sense of balance is right up there with uh, let's say, a drunken sailor. On a trampoline.

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"What do you mean, I have to turn it around?"

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Ah, Holbox. We needed a margarita after that adventure. Tomorrow, swimming with whale sharks...

Posted by traciekochanny 15:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches mexico flamingos yucatan whale_shark isla_holbox casa-las-tortugas Comments (2)

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