Here's a little something I wrote about our visit to Hotel Palapas del Sol---
"We had been fighting the north wind for two days, coming around from Cancun, and finally pulled into shore. We were fast asleep, and at about two in the morning I heard a 'click', 'click' click' sound. So, I went above to see what it was. There, in the full moonlight, was a dolphin leaping. The sight cut right through me." Adriana Baltus, owner of the Hotel Palapas del Sol B & B on Isla Holbox, encouraged us to continue eating our "welcome" empanadas made by her small Mayan cook, Estella. "Our traditions are so wonderful here."
Empanadas are the ancestral welcome food offered on Isla Holbox to family visiting from the neighboring Yucatan peninsula. It was with Empanadas that Adriana was first welcomed to Isla Holbox when the north wind brought her fifteen years ago. The first day, she told us, it was Empanadas, then, lobster, then many other dishes until she had stayed for four days. Adriana knew, she told us, that she had to die on Isla Holbox. "Yes", Adriana continued, "seeing those dolphins changed my life."
It was a Sunday in early March on Isla Holbox (Ol-bosh in Spanish) a 26-mile sand island located at the northernmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Although March is Spring Break season in the Caribbean, there were no groups of teens roaming the streets. The island felt peaceful, laid-back, and remote. My daughter, Grace and I had heard this about Holbox. We enjoy wildlife, adventure and a bit of lying around so we decided to give Holbox a chance.
Part of the reason for the remote attitude on Holbox is the relaxed activities offered on the island. Visitors can rent bikes and safely ride the sandy streets, which have no cars, only golf carts. The lagoon that separates Holbox from the Peninsula is perfect for kayaking or watching flocks of flamingoes sifting through the briny water for food, pods of dolphins playfully leaping in and out of the water, and many endemic species of birds nesting in mangrove trees. From May through October, the largest known numbers of giant whale sharks--covered in their distinctive bright spots--gather to feed on plankton near the island. Many visitors snorkel with the gentle giant fish, the largest in the sea. Paddle boarding, kite surfing and scuba are offered for the most adventurous.
Evenings on Holbox wind down with Mexican and Italian restaurants offering delectable specialties from the sea: lobster pizza, lobster with pasta, beans of various types, shrimp dishes, Mayan tamales, fish cooked in Mayan traditional ways and more. The sunset is a main event throughout the island. Afterward, music begins from a couple of smallish bars on the Central Square for friendly conversation between visitors from around the world and some of the 2,000 or so locals. Locals are genuinely pleased to meet their guests, although English is quite limited. Under construction on the Central Square is a Cultural Center where English lessons are offered six evenings per week. Prizes are awarded to those who are doing best. The people of the island are passionate about their home, and visitors are included in their love of this island life.
This passion for Isla Holbox is one of the things Grace and I had come to witness. Fascinated by exploring natural places we also thrive on cultural exchange adventures. Grace is a sophomore in high school, and this is her Spring Break vacation. Everything Grace does with me is special these days because, at sixteen, I know she doesn't have to enjoy sharing adventures with her mom. But, she does. Naturally, I know that Grace's friends are an important part of her life, and very soon Spring Break will be shared with them. Therefore, I research and try to find something really unique, a life changing experience, for Grace and I to share when we travel. Travel can offer amusement parks or fascinating perspectives. We came to Holbox to find something new.
Getting to Isla Holbox is relatively simple, but not for the faint of heart. Located just 45 nautical miles northwest of Cancun, visitors take either a three-hour tour-bus ride, or a 90-minute taxi drive through the Yucatan Peninsula until they catch a 30-minute ferry to cross Yalahau Lagoon. Another option for crossing the Yucatan is a 25-minute, single engine plane ride from the Cancun airport to the sandy landing strip on Holbox Island. We opted for the four-seater.
As the pilot walked us out onto the tarmac, Grace and I were smiling and then grimacing as we passed various planes that reminded me of a broad range of automobiles. There were nice Rolls Royce Phantom quality jets and little grungy Ford Pinto quality double-seated planes. Eventually, we stopped at what looked like a well-used small Toyota Corolla style single engine that made me question if my backpack was too heavy. Grace, who has enjoyed small planes since we were in Tanzania, usually says they're fun like a roller coaster, but on this flight the north wind rocked us sideways so much that it just rocked her to sleep. I on the other hand kept repeating my mantra "A coward dies a thousand times a brave man dies but once" as white knuckles gave me away.
All fears left, however, as we approached the slender and curved island from the south. We had a crystal-clear view of the Gulf of Mexico and Yalahau Lagoon surrounding the long stretch of land that made me think of the land bridge human beings first crossed from Asia to North America during an ancient ice age. Here, as those earlier people did, I was looking at a thin body of land--it couldn't have been more than a football field wide in some areas--but very long. I pictured ancient people venturing out onto land like this with ocean waters lapping the shores so closely on both sides. In the case of Holbox, people have lived on this delicate piece of land since before the Spanish began recording it's history. When the first Spaniards landed here in 1513, they found Mayan Indians.
This land's strategic location caused it to have historical significance. Green Gulf of Mexico waters mix with turquoise Caribbean Sea waves off the shores of Isla Holbox, while the Yalahau Lagoon feeds the island fresh spring water. From the 1500's through the 1800's--from just before the time of William Shakespeare until well after the U.S. Civil War--pirates and buccaneers ravaged the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea using Isla Holbox as a base. Pirating drew to a close in the late 1800's and the Holbox pirates settled down to become fisherman. Some married Mayan women who lived on nearby Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). Of today's 2,000 or so Holbox locals (Holboxoneans), most are descendants of the six original pirate-Mayan families who built the town of Holbox in the late 1890's.
"Aaaah. We made it! I exclaimed giving the pilot a thumbs up as we unfolded ourselves from the rear of the plane. Isla Holbox (a Mayan name meaning "black hole") is said to be where all your cares disappear down a black hole while visiting. Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly the moment our sandaled toes touched the packed runway sand, we spied the only airport employee coming out of the small thatched building holding a clipboard. With no knowledge of English, she was asking if we needed a taxi. "Si, gracias." And, again with no English she said a few sentences explaining what we hoped meant that if we waited on this sandy road we would soon have one.
Next to the road were a couple of baseball teams on a field warming up for a game. Wind was blowing from the north (easy to discern on an island) and it was a bit chilly, but the sun was warm on our cheeks. Soon, a taxi-golf cart arrived, again, with no English. I had almost used up all my Spanish vocabulary, but was able to get out the name of our B & B. And, I was able to say, "It's cold." in Spanish. From that I got several sentences that said something about a great north wind that had been on the island for several days.
The taxi dropped us at the B & B where we first met Adriana. Because of the cold, we all huddled in the kitchen to get to know each other. It was here that she told us the story of the dolphins. We were sitting in the red painted, fifteen by fifteen foot kitchen with long dark wooden table laden with wooden bowls filled with exotic fruit. Adriana lounged on the bench across from us cutting up fruit for us to share. Grace and I listened to this beautiful woman, somewhere in her late forties, with naturally wavy blonde shoulder-length hair bleached by the sun, no make up and a soft tan. She spoke English with a northern European accent, and I wondered if the Spanish she spoke to her staff held that foreign accent as well. Mayan looking children played in and out the kitchen door. A few young looking workers came in for instructions.
In the room stood Estella working on steaming clay pots over six-burner gas stove. Whatever she was making smelled delicious. Estella was about four feet and ten inches tall, with a full figure and long hair braided down her back. Her round brown face smiled with pretty Mayan eyes as she worked. Recessed on Estella's left was a window, over an old Mexican pinky-orange colored sink, framing palm trees blowing in the wind and palapas-roofed bungalows. Behind us hummed a skinny, yet, tall refrigerator with a glass door housing Dos Equis and Sol Cervezas with a variety of sodas. On the wall to our right was a bulletin board with guest’s names on pieces of notebook paper. We were told to sign the paper when we ate fruit, or had a drink. Breakfasts would be on the house but lunches and dinners would be tallied here too. This was the extent of the B & B's accounting system.
Where are you from originally, I asked Adriana. "Originally", she repeated, as though that was an interesting question that required some thought. "Amsterdam." Yes, I could see Holland in those beautiful blue eyes that stared right into the listener's soul to be certain each person was on the same wavelength. But, that was all we were to hear about Amsterdam. Adriana's interest, indeed her life, is in Isla Holbox.
Adriana's assistant, Crystal, stopped in to tell us that her son and Estella's son would share a birthday party the following day. We were invited to a true Mexican birthday party if we would like to go. Absolutely, we would!
Our simple and lovely room had no television, a hammock inside the room, a hammock on the balcony, a small dresser, lamps made of conch shells, and a cathedral ceiling made of palapas branches and decorated with a billowing mosquito net. On the king-size bed, spelled out in thousands of flower petals was the word Bienvenido (welcome) with a heart of flowers and two towel swans beneath it. There are no room keys; no need to lock the room, there is no safe in the room.
The palapas roof lets sound in from the outside. There was a strong north wind blowing off the beach. We could hear the rustling of the palm trees planted throughout the four two-story bungalows of Hotel Casa de Palapas del Sol. We took the flower petals and layered them along the windowsills on the three window walls.
Outside the wind was picking up and the surf was quite rough. Estella made us a dinner of grilled lobster, black beans, rice and salad, which we ate on the veranda with other guests. All of us were wearing the jackets we had brought from home for our trips to the island, not actually for the island. Even the Canadians were cold. The dinner was wonderful and conversation lively. But, when we returned to our room with no heat, we noticed the mosquito netting placed near the ceiling was blowing from wind getting through the palapas roof.
We crawled into bed with an extra blanket and huddled against the cold listening to the north wind howling. Adriana told us it should let up Sunday or Monday, so we prayed for it to be Sunday. In the morning, the wind was still rattling the doors and windows. On the back roads to town, and in town, shrubs and buildings blocked the wind. So, we rented bikes and had a great day touring around. We made sure to get "home", because it already felt like home, in time for the birthday party.
Balloons were all over the veranda, which was enclosed for the party against the wind. Estella had spent the day making tamales, in her traditional Yucatan Mayan way for us to share after the Piñata. And, what a Piñata! The children took turns hitting it with a stick as it was raised and lowered while the rest of the children sang a song to let them know that their time was up. After each child had two turns, we visitors from around the world took turns as the children sang. Grace had a couple of great hits, but didn't break through. Finally, a strong Holboxonean, Martin, (pronounced Marteen) finished the job and the children scrambled for the candy.
Tamales were the real treat of the party, though. Guests were literally exclaiming with every bite how good they were. One person said it was the best thing he had ever tasted. Estella had worked all day in the kitchen. Each tamale, filled with sunflower seeds, pepito, chaya (a Mexican spinach) and egg was wrapped in a giant banana leaf and cooked for hours. The flavors changed as we ate from one end of the tamale to the other. Truly authentic Mayan cooking for visitors from France, Germany, Canada and the USA may not have been offered in any four star hotel that night. But, we were treated like royalty and our compliments to the chef could be heard above the sound of the crashing waves 25 yards away.
We stayed up talking with guests from Germany, France and Canada until 9:00 p.m. and headed to our bungalows to brave another night of cold. This time I slept in my clothes. Swishing our feet back and forth under the sheets to warm them, we said our prayers and asked for the special blessing of the wind's howling ceasing--and fell asleep.
At six in the morning, we woke to sunshine pouring through the windows and the sound of waves on the shore. No wind. No rustling palms. No cold. As we dressed, I thought about how, when the North wind had brought Adriana to Isla Holbox, she saw dolphins leaping in the sunlight and it changed her life. Grace and I came flying in to Holbox on the north wind.
We filled the remainder of our week with walking the beach, a wonderful day-long boat ride including fishing and swimming off the boat and more bike riding. The whale sharks don't come until later in the year, and we hope to come back to see them then.
Stella will make anything, absolutely anything you ask for to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A few times guests would eat a meal at another place, but they always reported that the best meals were from Estella. No one should miss Estella's crepes. The dining table seats 12, and we often ate with others from around the world. There were a few private tables away from the veranda that newlyweds sometimes used. Conversations were lively, interesting and often funny.
A favorite past time is lying on the beds under the palapas branches overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Holbox is very laid back.
We feel we've made a family connection here at the northernmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and look forward to seeing our friends there again.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Hotel Casa Palapas del Sol is an ocean front beach hotel intimate and quiet with 16 rooms. All rooms have air-conditioning, private entrances, bathrooms and balconies or terraces with hammocks and seating area. A relaxed beach retreat for barefoot island living. Authentic and genuine Mayan hosts with the intention to make you feel at home At Palapas del Sol and in the restaurant the freshest local ingredients available on the island are used to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. A beach front pool, beach palapas with hammocks and king size beach beds invite you to enjoy this so privileged spot. We happily assist our guests with transfers, tours, spa and beauty services, romantic dinners on the beach, honeymoon suite available. ... more less
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