There are some places that get under your skin. Bring things to the surface. Teach you something new. Provide you with an experience you didn’t see coming.
Such was my recent visit to the tiny sand-bar off the Yucatan coast, Isla Holbox. I planned to go for a night, to meet with the manager of Villas Flamingos about my next retreat.
I booked a simple studio for the night, rather last minute, and jumped on the collectivo (small public van) to the port town of Chiquila before taking the ferry to the island.
I’ve visited four or five times, and every time, as I journey through the small villages in the interior of the Yucatan, like Kantunilkin and Solferino, a sense of peace and contentment manages to outweigh whatever thoughts I may have brought with me. On this particular journey, sitting up front with the driver while he played Latin pop songs added some extra flavor to the experience.
It’s moments like these, when I am filled with excitement and gratitude for living in Mexico. Colorful moments. Simple moments.
As I rode the ferry to the island, I saw a tiny beach-front restaurant in my minds’ eye. It’s a place I’d seen many times before, but never eaten at. I decided to eat lunch there that afternoon.
Arriving on the island, I made my way to the Hacienda La Catrina in the center of town and checked in, then jumped on the back of the managers’ scooter with him to be taken to their other property on the outskirts of town.
A simple white building greeted me, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the thing about Holbox being so small is that you are never actually far from anything.
My room wasn’t quite ready, so I waited as a friendly woman busied herself changing sheets and folding towels. I told her there was no hurry and that I was heading out anyway. I asked if I could leave my bag and we began chatting a bit – I didn’t pick up everything, but she kept mentioning a name to me – Alex- saying I had to meet this person.
I didn’t think much of it, thinking maybe it was a local tour guide (boat tours are a common source of income for the locals in the winter months), until she ushered me to studio next door and then called out to Alex, who invited me in to sit down.
Alex’s place was seemingly identical to the simple studio I’d rented for the night next door, only it was furnished with colorful curtains, personal trinkets and more kitchen items than could actually fit in the simple cocina.
Turns out that Alex, a woman from New York, had been living there for a year. A professional photographer, avid foodie and culture lover, she’d found her place in the sun which so obviously lit her up from within. As she chatted about her love of the island, her eyes sparkled with an excitement which was so familiar to me.
The excitement of discovering another place, another culture, another way of life.
It’s a feeling which I identify with, keenly.
After chatting for a few minutes, Alex suggested heading to Victor’s Palapa for lunch. I said I didn’t know it.
“It’s just down on the beach. A simple place. They do the best fried fish. And it’s cheap!”
We strolled along the sand street, past the empty football field, emerging at the beach.
Still, turquoise water stretched over the horizon like saran wrap. Pelicans soared overhead, massive wings outstretched. Children played in the shallows. Tourists baked in the sun.
“Here we are!” exclaimed Alex as we arrived at the palapa restaurant on the beach. It was same one I had in my mind while I rode the ferry.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this! I’ve seen this place before but haven’t eaten here, and wanted to, today!”
Under the shade of an old palm tree, we ate ceviche, guacamole and fresh, fried fish with our toes dug into the cool sand, talking and laughing about life’s ‘coincidences’ and how we are always being led where we need to be, at exactly the right moment.
After a swim and siesta, we returned to the water for sunset. The sunsets on Holbox are surely some of the magical I’ve ever seen. While I have no idea how, it’s as though the sun is closer and more present.
And there was something so deeply healing, meditative and connecting about watching a red disk sink into the horizon and disappear, leaving streaks of color in the clouds, surrounded by people doing the same thing.
I decided to stay a while. For more of these.
Sunsets are a shared experience on Holbox. Tourists, locals, expats, children and dogs all gather for the daily event. Conchs are sounded. iPhones are held at the ready, in an attempt to capture the beauty people are taking in with their eyes.
Glasses are clinked. Cans are cracked. Smiles beam and eyes gleam. It’s almost too much to take in, especially for those of us who don’t see sunsets like this every day.
Throughout the next week, I discovered so much more about the island than I’d initially hoped.
I visited Villas Flamingos several times for their amazing breakfast and met with the incredible staff, confirming it as the right place for the retreat (because, nutella for breakfast, hello).
I cycled around on a rickety bicycle, often at night, under a blanket of stars, feeling like a kid again.
And I met some incredible people, living and working on Holbox, including Lulu , a yoga teacher, who led me in the most beautiful private SUP yoga session one morning.
Oh, and not only did I meet Victor, the owner of the beach-front restaurant and cabanas, but I also found myself on a sunrise boat expedition with him and four British tourists to visit the flamingos of Ria Lagartos, via the small fishing town of El Cuyo where he was born.
This was a first for me and it was exhilarating to visit a new place, eating early morning street tacos while Victor roused his local friend from his post semana-santa hangover to drive us out to see the birds.
What affected me most about my time on Holbox, however, aside from the spectacular beauty of Mother Nature which is ever-present, was the sense of community there. Throughout the week I shared food, stories and laughter with so many different people, including Nora, the delightful caretaker of La Catrina.
One night, cycling back to my room, I saw Nora in the street. I stopped to say hello and she thrust a tostada into my hands, saying, “Eat! Eat!”
This level of openness and kindness, literally brought tears to my eyes, and came at a time in my life when I didn’t realize how in need of it I was.
Cycling through the sandy streets in the late afternoon, watching children play, unencumbered by technology or the threat of harm, gave me an insight into how things can be, when we live with less.
When there are less distractions, we are forced to be more present. When there are less ‘creature comforts,’ we are encouraged to be closer to nature. Less light pollution, more stars. Less television, more sunsets.
Less facebook, more actual face-to-face time.
On one of my final mornings, I sat at Victor’s cabana, having breakfast, and he came up to me, saying, in Spanish, “I have a gift for you from my heart to yours,” before placing two beautiful, tiny conch shells in my hands.
My heart almost exploded.
This unplanned trip provided me with more gifts than I’d anticipated, more love and more healing than I’d expected. And as a result, it solidified Holbox as a very special place in my heart.
Nine incredible women are joining so far, some who have attended previous retreats (the first woman to sign up this year came to the Holbox retreat last year! ), and several who I’ll be meeting for the first time.