Isla Holbox, Mexico’s best barefoot beach

CNN  — 

Isla Holbox is a small, slender island just north of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. Mexicans have long been in the know about this laid-back, go-everywhere-in-flip-flops getaway, but the news of Holbox’s beauty and ease of living has started to get out.

Though it’s in the state of Quintana Roo not far from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Holbox’s vibe is more barefoot on the beach than late nights at the club. If that weren’t incentive enough, it’s also a gorgeous destination, with clear green-blue waters in every direction.

How to get there

Ferries from the small town of Chiquila pick up throughout the day, and you often don’t need to make a reservation in advance. Getting to Chiquila, however, can be a travel challenge if you can’t or don’t want to drive.

There are two buses a day from Playa del Carmen, and taxis will be pricey. If you do drive, the trip to Chiquila is 2-3 hours (depending on traffic and whether you take the toll highways or the local roads), and the ferry is passengers-only, so you’ll need to leave your car on the mainland.

Aquatic-inspired art is everywhere on Holbox.

Generally, your best bet is to purchase a package from a travel company like Holbox Adventures, which will pick you up in Cancun at the airport or a tourist district hotel, drive you to the ferry terminal, get you and your bags on the boat, and meet you on the other side for hotel transport, all for about $145 per person (even though you may be in a small shared van with a few other people).

Several island hotels offer this door-to-door service as well, so ask about it when you book.

The good news is that once you actually get to Holbox, it’s easy to get around on your own by foot or bike.

In case you forgot how to spell Holbox, these letters along the beach should help.

How to pronounce it

It’s hole-bosh, not hole-box. And you can drop the “isla,” as locals generally just call it Holbox.

The lay of the land

Holbox is a small island that measures about 26 miles long and one mile wide, and it only has about 2,000 full-time residents.

Many love the simple way of life, but that simple way of life can sometimes come with a price – sanitation services are sometimes taxed by the high number of visitors at peak season, and it’s not unusual to have power and/or WiFi blink out for days at a time if there’s a lot of rain.

Still, the latter scenario is often welcomed by travelers who are trying to get off the grid for a while.

This is what passes for a busy street on Isla Holbox.

The roads in Holbox are narrow and not all paved, which means that the primary way to get around is by golf cart (if you see a yellow one, that’s a cab and you can hail it just like you would anywhere else in the world).

Pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way, but you should still keep an eye out for the occasional truck coming around a tight corner or who doesn’t have enough room to get around you.

Holbox's design aesthetic is all about bright colors.

Holbox is a great destination for street art. Many homes are painted in bright colors, and it’s not unusual for local businesses to hand-paint signs or decor for their restaurants and shops. On top of that, artist visitors often leave their own work behind them. To see great street art simply begin walking – you never know what you’re going to find.

Living la vida playa

Once you get to Holbox, you wouldn’t be blamed for doing absolutely nothing.

Each quadrant of the island is slightly different in terms of terrain, and the warm water is great for swimming. Along the northern shore, the water is often so calm that it feels like a warm, jewel-toned bathtub.

Don't miss a sunset on Holbox -- even the birds come out to watch.

There are stretches of sandbar visible at low tide, and most adults can simply start walking outward from the beach to the sandbar with the water coming no higher than their waists.

If you want to just spend the day in a palapa reading a book, Holbox is the perfect place for that. But if you want to go stand-up paddleboarding, swim, hike, do yoga, kayak or snorkel, there’s plenty of room for that too.

Many of the most beautiful discoveries are found along the northwestern shore of the island near the terribly named Mosquito Beach.

You’ll see a few ramshackle structures on the verge of toppling into the sea, hammocks or swings that are just inches above the water at high tide and bright letters spelling out “Holbox.” Unsurprisingly, these are all great spots for Instagram, and it’s hard to take a bad picture on Holbox with so much beauty accessible.

Food, drink, and more food

Holbox’s low-key lifestyle means that early risers might want to plan ahead if they like to eat first thing in the morning.

Le Jardin is a France-meets-Mexico café and bakery that opens by 9 a.m., which means that there’s almost always a line and visitors are encouraged to share table space with a new friend. In the French style, owner Stephane bakes fresh daily and when they’re out, they’re out – which means you’ll want to hurry if you love croissants, pains au chocolat and other sweets.

Once the afternoon heat kicks in, stop by Angeles y Diablitos in the main square for house-made ice cream or a cold beer (they have a solid selection of Mexican craft beers, including Quintana Roo’s own Cerveza Pescadores brand.

For an upscale (although still inexpensive by US standards) dinner, Los Peleones off the main square has fresh seafood and pasta plus a cutesy Lucha Libre theme. Just down the road is Restaurante Colibri, which is as notable for its daily seafood specials and hyper-strong coffee as it is for its decor of street and found art – yes, even on the ceiling.

Le Jardin, Calle Lisa 2, Holbox, 77310 Holbox, Q.R., Mexico, +52 984 115 8197

Angeles y Diablitos, Calle Porfirio Díaz 3760, Holbox, Q.R., Mexico

Los Peleones, Calle Tiburón Ballena, Holbox, Q.R., Mexico +52 984 120 9685

Restaurante Colibri, Calle Tiburón Ballena & Calle Porfirio Díaz, Holbox, Q.R., Mexico

Where to keep dreaming

One thing you won’t find on Holbox are mega-sized chain hotels. If you want the upscale experience without the pretentiousness, Holbox Dream is a good bet. Its central location means you can walk just about anywhere, and there are enough beachfront palapas that nobody goes without.

For a more remote option, Hotel Villas Flamingos is on the northeastern end of Playa Holbox, where the water turns melon-colored and the terrain feels more like a rainforest.

And if you truly want to embrace the simple life, Casa Barbara is just a five-minute walk from both the ferry terminal and the central square, with pared-back rooms, a small pool and nautical-themed decor.

Holbox Dream, Calle Pedro Joaquin Codwell Mza. 19, 77310 Isla de Holbox, Q.R., Mexico, +52 984 875 2433

Hotel Villas Flamingos, Calle Paseo Kuka S/N, Playa Norte Holbo, 77310 Isla Holbox, Q.R., Mexico, +52 984 875 2167

Casa Barbara, Av. Tiburón Ballena, 77310 Holbox, Q.R., Mexico, +52 984 875 2302