Mrs Smith is impressed, I can tell.
I’m chatting away to our Mayan barman in half-remembered GCSE Spanish and I don’t mean to boast, but it’s all going pretty well. I’ve just asked him what went into our deliciously refreshing welcome cocktail. He considers...
‘Menta, limón, pepino, azúcar...y mucho mucho amor.’
I laugh slightly too hard. Not because it’s particularly funny. But because it’s a joke. In Spanish. Which I understand. And I want everyone to know what a cultured, well-seasoned traveller I am. I glance up nervously, half expecting the barman to sneer at my pomposity. Instead he claps me on the back and chuckles along like we’re old pals. Either he’s adept at hiding his contempt for pretentious Englishmen abroad or here at Casa Sandra they’re all distinctly more laid back than I am.
The warm reception is more than appreciated. Isla Holbox is only accessible via an eight-mile boat ride from the remote Yucatan town of Chiquila. We’ve been travelling for the best part of a hot, dusty day and were accompanied on our final leg by a band of Hare Krishnas who spent the journey chanting, banging hand drums and attempting to convert us to an ovo-vegetarian lifestyle. It was actually more enjoyable than it sounds, but that’s not to say we’re not relieved to finally arrive at Casa Sandra’s sleepy beachfront locale.
Built and run by owner and artist Sandra Pérez, the hotel seems designed from the ground up to soothe the weary traveller. Hammocks pepper the shaded balconies of thatched huts. Inside, the rooms are restful havens from the scorch of the sun. White muslin drapes hang down from above while terracotta floor tiles are cooling underfoot. The walls are speckled with original paintings by the eponymous owner and a collection of like-minded local artists. It’s part beachside retreat, part hip East London gallery.
Don’t come expecting high-end luxuries, though. As our welcome letter explains, technology in the rooms has been banished as part of an ongoing effort to ‘eliminate external factors that cause stress,’ which is a nice way of saying there’s no phone, no fridge and a giant conch shell where the power shower should be.
Mind you, there’s also a huge claw-foot bathtub for those who fancy an indulgent soak and handmade Yucatan toiletries to help wash away the stresses of your pre-island life. Still, Mrs Smith and I opt for a quick, cooling shell shower (she’s not saying it but I can tell she got a little caliente under the collar witnessing my smooth Spanish repartee) and head off in search of sustenance.
We find it in the form of ice-cold beers and a light lunch by the shaded teardrop pool. Mrs Smith orders a zesty ceviche that can’t have been more than an hour out of the sea. I plump for the lobster tacos, drawn by the chilli smack of this Mexican staple paired with the opulence of that meaty shellfish. Little do I realise at the time that if there’s one thing that isn’t in short supply on Holbox, it’s lobster. They add it here like a seasoning. You can have lobster tamales, lobster enchiladas - and for the willfully sacrilegious, why not try the island speciality – lobster pizza. The sunburnt crustacean is so ubiquitous you feel you should add a disclaimer to everything you order: ‘Mineral water please. Ice, no lemon. No lobster’.
Lunch done, we head for the beach. One of the big draws of the island is the opportunity to swim with the magnificent whale sharks who make this place their home each year. But ever the poor planners we’ve arrived in January and missed the season by a good four months either side so we’re forced instead to just unwind on the shore. Mrs Smith does an admirable job of feigning disappointment.
Running only one-and-a-half kilometres across, Holbox is of course all about the coastline, and Casa Sandra sits on its own pristine stretch, looking out onto the clear turquoise Caribbean waters. Even the beach seems designed to eliminate any unnecessary stress. There are no rocks, no jellyfish, no surprisingly powerful undercurrents – just long stretches of fine white sand and gentle lapping waters. The hotel provides full-on king-size beach beds for those who simply can’t squeeze enough relaxation from an ordinary sun lounger and regular visits from our beaming Mayan barman who plies us with freshly made ¬ – smoothies made from mango, pineapple and chaya, a green leaf that locals will tell you treats anything from poor circulation to heart disease.
Not that I can imagine there’s too much of that on Holbox anyway. I’ve never been anywhere so calm and serene. On our way from the port we witness a man smash his golf cart (there are no cars on the island) into the back of another one delivering ice-cubes. I brace myself for an explosion of road rage but instead everyone gets out of their vehicles and just starts laughing.
Meanwhile on the beaches I notice that they don’t build sandcastles here. Instead they construct intricate scale models of the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza. And watching these blissed-out locals serenely composing the famous pyramidal shape, there’s something distinctly Close Encounters about the whole affair. The sand here is so fine and white that when it gets wet it even has the consistency of a good buttery mash so it’s all terrifically Richard Dreyfuss.
As the sun comes down we take a stroll into town to work up an appetite for dinner. I say town, though it’s really just a handful of streets surrounding a charming pastel shaded square. Rustic wooden shacks house a series of appealing little restaurants and boutiques selling local crafts. The place still retains a knockabout charm that you imagine the Thai islands used to have when smug friends would boast about travelling there in the late eighties.
Back in our room I’m starting to suspect that Holbox is working its magic on me. I’m even toying with wearing flip-flops down to dinner! So I’m somewhat perplexed to hear what sounds like workmen climbing onto the roof of our hut. And when one starts tapping on our window I get up to investigate fully ready to lose my rag... only to discover that it’s a gigantic iguana just popped by to say hello.
Mrs Smith and I take advantage of the photo opp before gliding down to dinner. We’re eating al fresco on the beach lit only by flaming torches and a galaxy of stars. I kick off my flip-flops and sink my feet into the sand. As the waiter comes by I decide to make everyone’s life easier and just order in English. ‘I’ll have the risotto.’
With lobster, of course.