Exploring Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan (part 2): Cozumel and Holbox

This is the second part of our week-long trip around Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan about the islands in Quintana Roo state – Cozumel and Holbox. The first part is a summary blog-post that provides a complete overview (itinerary) of our trip and the archaeological sites in Eastern Yucatan, and the third one is about the towns and natural wonders of Riviera Maya.

Cozumel island

Cozumel is a large island off the coast of Quintana Roo, right in front of Playa del Carmen. To get to Cozumel we took the ferry from Playa (150 pesos, 45 minutes). The only town on the island is San Miguel de Cozumel on the eastern side of the island, where most of the cruise ships arrive and the airport is there as well. There’s nothing to see in the town and it doesn’t have any beaches either, so one needs to get out of town to enjoy the island. Taxis around town are 40 pesos and they are easy to get, apart at the ferry pier after the arrival of the ferry.

The nice beaches are on the other (eastern) side of the island, so we rented a car to explore the island and various bays along the way. We also wanted to visit the Punta Sur eco park, but it was raining most of the morning so we didn’t. This side of the island is really beautiful, but also very windy and there are strong currents which make it difficult (and dangerous!!!) to swim. I guess that’s why Cozumel is mostly known for is scuba-diving.

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Punta Morena beach club, Cozumel

After driving around the southern tip, we settled on the Punta Morena beach. The beach is beautiful and there is a little bay where it looked safe to swim. There is a nice restaurant / beach club and they have hammocks directly on the beach. We happily spent most of the day there ordering some drinks to the beach and in the afternoon we had lunch.

The menu is clearly very fish and seafood themed. We ordered some ceviches, aguachiles and tostadas. The food was excellent and (as expected) very fresh. However, we found the prices at the beach club slightly steep. There were very few people on the beach that day, not sure if that was because of the morning rain or because most tourists don’t make it to the other side of the island.

Jacinta, San Miguel de Cozumel

Based on a recommendation by locals, we had our Christmas eve dinner here. We liked that despite it being Christmas Eve they were serving their normal menu. The restaurant is very nicely decorated and has a pleasant back yard, the atmosphere is very relaxed and the service was very good. The menu is organised into three sections: typical Mexican dishes, Yucatan dishes, and local island dishes.

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We wanted to try some Yucatan specialities, so we shared a Yucatan platter for starter, and continued with octopus, fish and aguachile dishes. The food was decent, but we thought it lacked a bit of character. The Yucatan plate was dry and lacked a bit of taste, octopus was quite chewy and the fish filet was overcooked. Because of the nice atmosphere and good service we still enjoyed our dinner, but at the same time we were slightly disappointed that the taste wasn’t there.

Woody’s bar, San Miguel de Cozumel

For relaxed drinks in the evening I’d recommend Woody’s bar. It’s just off the main square in San Miguel. The bar is on a pedestrian street with many tables outside in the street. they have live music and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Many people just came to stand-by and listen to the live music. I recommend the margatitas,they were good and quite strong.

Villas el Encanto, Cozumel

Villas el Encanto is a small boutique hotel with a nice garden in the middle of the houses, a small pool and a palapa (thatched hut) where you can have your breakfast or drinks. The staff were extremely nice and helpful as well. There are small communal kitchens where you can get utensils and prepare your food. So we even had a dinner in the palapa by the pool one night

We were very happy with our choice and if we knew before that they have a hotel in Holbox we would have wanted to stay with them there as well. The only downside of the hotel was that it is some 20 minutes walk from the centre of San Miguel, but getting a taxi is easy and it costs only 40 pesos. The owners have many dogs in the garden and, while that was not a problem for us, I’d suggest them to put that in the description.

Experience with car rentals: Thrifty vs. Avis

Thrifty/Dollar

At Cozumel we rented a car for a day to give us more flexibility to explore the island. We booked and prepaid the smallest and cheapest car we found on rentalcars.com website. The actual rental company was Thrifty at their office just by the main square in San Miguel de Cozumel.

We booked the car for 9.30am pick-up, but we arrived more like 10am. As we arrived to the office the employee made a call to their office at the airport and told us that the car we booked wasn’t available, but that they had a higher category car available at the time (a Jeep). He gave us the option of taking the higher category car and paying $25 extra or waiting until (if) someone returns a car in the same category we booked (???). Clearly, we were not happy with either the option.

We contacted the Thrifty/Dollar call centre and the employee clearly explained to the local staff that they had to give us the higher category car as a free upgrade if our car wasn’t available. The local employee was still rejecting to acknowledge that, but we were very insisting. He called the airport office again and then (somehow) they found a car that has just been returned (hmmm). Not sure if that was not just a trick to get some more money from us, but it was not over yet.

We didn’t print the voucher rentalcars.com sent us, as their email was clear about being able to use the electronic voucher on their app (which I had presented). The local Thrifty employee insisted we needed to print it, but after some discussion he told us to email it to his private email so that he can print it during his lunch break. At that point I was very annoyed already and didn’t want to discuss any more so I just did it. However, after we returned the car he wanted us to pay 20 pesos for the printing service.

All in all, this was a VERY disappointing and frustrating experience. Clearly, there must be something dishonest, or even illegal, going on. I cannot understand how an international car rental company like Thrifty/Dollar can allow this to happen. I’ve rented cars in all continents of the world and never had such a disappointing experience.

Avis

We had a completely different experience was with Avis in Playa del Carmen, where we rented a car for the rest of our trip. We booked and prepaid a larger car for pick-up at Avis in Playa and planned to return it at Cancun airport 7 days later. Due to the bad experience with Thrifty at Cozumel we were quite worried for this one as well. When we arrived to Playa we realised that another Avis branch is much closer, so we called Avis and they said we could pick it up there. When we showed up at the branch the employee called the other branch to send the car. The car wasn’t immediately available, but he was doing all he could to get us a car as soon as possible. He called other branches to get another one and the car was there in 15 minutes. The staff at Avis were very professional and the whole process was very smooth, a huge difference compared to Thrifty.

Holbox island

Holbox is an idyllic and laidback island along the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. In order to get to Holbox we drove from Playa to Chiquila, from where there is a ferry that takes you to the island in around 30 min for 120 pesos. At the pier, there are also plenty of fishermen offering a ride in their boat for the same price, which would be handy if arriving after the ferry stops operating. We left the car at a parking lot just opposite to the pier and we paid 50 pesos per day (some others have prices posted for 100 pesos per 24h period)

On the island, there is a small village with mostly unpaved (dirt) streets. Instead of taxis they have golf carts taking people around. From the ferry pier to the main square it costs 20 pesos. I wouldn’t recommend dragging your suitcase on the dirt road, but for any other occasions the whole town is very walkable.

The main square is where most of the restaurants and bars are centred around with several small shops and grocery stores. A beautiful white sandy beach is on the north side and it stretches as far as you can see. On the south side (the side towards the mainland), however, there are no beaches, just mangrove forests and several smaller islands. So I would recommend to stay as close to the beach as possible.

The biggest drawback of Holbox are the mosquitoes. Every night at sunset there’s thousands of them descending to attack everyone. The first night we went out for a walk through the village and to the beach at sunset, which we realised was a bad idea. We used mosquito repellent, but it didn’t help much. We ended up with hundreds of bites each. However, maybe an hour later, all of a sudden most of the mosquitoes disappeared and we could go for dinner in peace – a very strange experience. For the next night we stayed indoors with air-conditioning during the mosquito hour.

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The next day, we wanted to explore the beautiful beach so we decided to walk all along. From the village we walked to the right as facing the ocean (towards east), passing by all the beach hotels. After the last hotel (Las Nubes) a beautiful white sandy beach stretches for miles. We continued all the way to the tip of the island, which took us about 1.5h one way (we still needed to come back).

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Along the way we took a dip in the ocean and saw lots of manta rays in the shallow waters of the beach. I didn’t quite like the idea of the manta rays swimming next to me, but for those that don’t mind, it is a nice sight to see them from close. After returning back from the walk under the sun we were quite exhausted and had a lunch at the hotel Las Nubes.

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There are also several tour options on Holbox. You can take an early morning kayak tour (700 pesos pp) through the mangroves or a boat tour that takes you to smaller islands around (450 pesos pp). Initially, we wanted to do the kayak tour, but due to all the mosquitoes we changed our mind. They apparently come out at sunrise as well and I really didn’t want to go through that again while on a kayak in the middle of a mangrove forest.

Holbox is famous for the luminescence of plankton being washed up to the beach. They say it’s possible to see it most of the year. We went to the beach at night, but couldn’t really see it. I don’t know if that was because we were too close to the village and artificial lights or any other reason.

Restaurants and bars on Holbox

A general note on food and bars on the island. There is not much choice, the quality is not very good, but the prices are relatively high. We were slightly disappointed with this aspect of Holbox. In addition, most of the restaurants/bars don’t accept credit cards so you need to bring cash (there are just a few ATMs on the island). The service is also extremely slow, I guess the effect of the laidback island life.img_4089-640x480

Colibrí restaurant: A small, very eclectically decorated house just off the main square, which serves some home-style Mexican dishes. We went there for breakfast and had some fruit and very basic egg dishes. The fruit plates were quite good, the eggs were decent but very small and the coffee was not very good.

DiVino restaurant: Oddly enough but Holbox is known for lobster pizza (pizza de langosta), which was apparently created by the pizzeria Evelyn on the main square. We wanted to go there but it was very packed and some people told us that at DiVino, just next door to Evelyn, they do a better pizza. Apart from the lobster pizza we also had a grilled mero (grouper). Both were very good, the pizza tasted lobster all over and had many pieces of lobster meat and the fish was very fresh and well prepared. The service was nice, but it was quite pricey for what it was.

Las Nubes hotel: After returning the long beach walk we had lunch at the hotel Las Nubes. The food was nice and the views were really great of the beach. Good option after spending time at the beach.

Jarocho street cart: This famous street cart is parked every evening in the north corner of the main square and serves crepes and marquesitas (Yucatan-style crepes that are crunchy and usually filled with cheese). You can ask them to prepare them with many different salty and sweet toppings. We had a marquesita with banana and peanut butter and it was delicious. Highly recommended.

Rosa Mexicano restaurant: This modern Mexican place is on the road connecting the main square to the ferry. It was a nice choice for an outdoors dinner. It has a small menu of the typical Mexican dishes, which were all very good and the atmosphere was very relaxed.

Zapata bar: Seems to be one of the most popular bars on the island. When we got there, there was a long waiting list for a table, as they also serve food. We decided to sit in one of the swings by the bar. The service is a bit disorganised but the atmosphere is nice. Definitely a good (if not the only) option for drinks in the evening.

Maya Hotel Residence, Holbox

On Holbox island, the tourist infrastructure is lagging behind compared the influx of people coming to see this beautiful island. When we were booking hotels there were very few options left to choose from and the prices were very high. We booked Maya Hotel Residence as it was one of the only choices at that point.

We needed to pre-pay half of the total upon reservation and after arrival we needed to settle the rest right away in cash. Then we were showed to the room, which was VERY simple, it only had a bed a shelf and that was it. The room was not very clean and the sheets and towels were stained. The first night there was no hot water and in the shower there were small little worms coming out of the drain after showering. On top of that, the cleaning service didn’t even pass by our room over the two nights we stayed there.

There is very bad mobile reception on the island (understandable) and the hotel WiFi worked only in the reception area. I would not recommend to stay at Maya Hotel Residence. Unfortunately, this hotel was the biggest disappointment of our trip and, at least for me, it stained my impression of Holbox island.

Summary

I really enjoyed both of the islands, but Cozumel was definitely a much nicer experience. I wish I could scuba-dive that would even enhance my Cozumel experience. Holbox, however, is excellent to relax and detach from the daily life.

Map of our travel

All the places we visited, restaurants and hotels we stayed at can also be seen in this map:

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2 responses to “Exploring Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan (part 2): Cozumel and Holbox

  1. Pingback: Exploring Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan (part 1): itinerary and archaeological sites – Marko's travel blog·

  2. Pingback: Exploring Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan (part 3): Riviera Maya – Marko's travel blog·

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