Sliding inside a chauffeured German sedan with tinted windows, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 beginning our two hour drive across an austere Yucatán highway should’ve cost more than 50USD, however, it doesn’t in the Mayan jungle — I’ll often pinch myself remembering Mexico’s currency isn’t Monopoly play money.
If you heard about a quaint island near Cancun with virtually no cars, whose visitors and some inhabitants instead taxi around by golf carts on sand roads, who wouldn’t be intrigued? Internet photos were more than alluring: white sandy beaches, turquoise Gulf water, tempting random palapas, right out of the boat seafood cooked any way you want it: shrimp, langosta, octopus, red snapper, stingray. Valladolid to Chiquilá is ninety-nine miles, once there you’ll board a ferry operating every hour, depositing passengers onto Isla de Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) thirty minutes later.
We stood taken aback in the middle of Chiquilá’s main port street with our gear staring at Holbox Express’ ferry ticket office at one side, while an opposing glance noticed water quite dissimilar to cunning internet pictures. These reality checks require supersonic rationale. In other words: quickly email Hotel Casa San Roque who scheduled our lip-locked driver, have them phone him on his cell, hope he answers, turn around to pick us up again, driving another two hours the exact opposite direction.
Our daughter appeared genuinely charged; she doesn’t know the difference between Mexico’s Gulf and (you get what you pay for) St. Bart’s Caribbean water. Since we bailed on Tulum I figured planning an alternative far-flung sojourn would give her something to get jacked about for her upcoming thirteenth birthday. After my wife purchased ferry tickets departing forty-five minutes later, the three of us sauntered further out along Chiquilá’s pier, stopping at a tented waiting area with cement benches. Slowly, but surely, couples mostly, alongside several to a group started to take their seats; we though had the bird’s-eye view facing Holbox’s lengthy stick thin strip of an existence.
Here’s where opinions ought to differ dramatically. I don’t know about anybody else, yet from my clearheaded comfort zone, observing Mexicans arrive carrying styrofoam chests overflowing with packaged ice, while friends in tow schlep plastic bags of 3 liter Coca-Cola bottles, others lugging Bacardi and Tequila quarts, some carting cerveza cases on their shoulders, those having one free hand guzzle suds, getting sauced at eleven something, minutes before our 11 a.m. departure had me feeling ultra-straight. We darted for the upper deck’s front aluminum seats, baggage stored safely down below; our ecstatic daughter beamed singing, “It’s a Small World,” as that cloud nine tune played during our recent automated boat ride at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.
A miniscule part of me hoped the water quality would somehow transform into another color the closer we approached Holbox. This unattractive celadon-olive shade never magically morphed into one of those “gotta get a ticket” Corona commercials. If anyone chuckled watching Roberto Benigni clown for his son in Life is Beautiful, they’d understand why I playfully reminded our daughter, “this is where you’ll turn thirteen,” while we both watched a Mexican Gilligan’s Island appear to gradually grow larger.
When all three of us attempted to tell the golf cart taxi driver our hotelita’s name, he seemed perplexed, along with other drivers we probed, eventually one pointed us in the right direction, although away from anything remotely convenient — third yellow flag if anybody’s counting.
The proprietor wasn’t in as her email said she’d be. A hag housekeeper was, setting forth an unsavory greeting for famiglia di Schiavo’s record books. Master plan was to store our bags until 3 p.m. check-in time. Once again friends, another lovely Airbnb layout online, however, physically something entirely contradictory; rather like an eight-unit East LA slum, only there, in a Boyle Heights apartment complex those grounds are paved. Our daughter and I to be absolutely certain went upstairs for a thorough investigation discovering what this thirty night half payment was gonna get us; my perceptive wife didn’t bother wasting her energy climbing the stairs. Disoriented, tired, dripping hot, hungry and thirsty not knowing plan B opened the proprietor’s unit’s front door to store our stuff while we searched for immediate alternative accommodations elsewhere — no can do kids, even bags deserve better.
Meanwhile proprietor showed up on her trike, vintage granola type in a scuzzy way. She started to welcome us by introducing herself; I stopped Dertie dead in her tracks announcing, “the space will not work for my family.” As if this newsflash was the biggest surprise she’d ever heard in her entire life inquired, “Why?” “Please, let’s make this as easy as possible for the both of us.” In Dertie’s Sardinian accent she repeated herself adding, “Why, why is it not for you?” “Please, I want to leave your space, it’s not for my family.” “But why, you must tell me why?” Back and forth, unnecessary verbal ping-pong. Remaining calm I believe usually produces positive results under these especially sensitive circumstances, remember she’s already been paid fifty percent through PayPal. “Alright,” she said, “I dun’t want you to stay where you’re not ‘appy, I refund you theese money.” If she wasn’t so sweaty, I might’ve hugged her, nah, not really. Not two hours later, we ran into Dertie; Jekyll and Hyde, poor dear must’ve desperately needed financial assistance; she then informed us we’d receive but half of the fifteen nights we paid for.
Had a pricier hotel in mind, my wife reminded me they had rooms available; kind of pissy, I sarcastically inquired, “as of when?” (this being Saturday morning, partay weekend.) “Yesterday.” “When yesterday?” “Last night.” Hailed down another golf cart, sounds strange huh? Headed toward the first overbooked hotel, they referred us somewhere else — nada, niente — third, same story with another clerk’s disingenuous sympathetic shrugging of shoulders. About 2 o’clock that afternoon my wife and I really thought we lucked out, stumbling onto “Hotel OCD.” Italians fleeing Italy for Holbox seems to be quite popular around there; Hotel OCD’s coupled proprietorship arrived from Florence. We couldn’t find, if we tried with all our might to select accommodations the reverse of Dertie’s dump, goes without saying, those hosts idiocy as well. A full-time male employee rakes sand; he forms flawless lines in the common area’s expansive decorative sandbox. Another female employee sweeps granules off polished concrete surfaces: foyer steps, terraces, dining and lounge platforms all freaking day long under the proprietor’s micromanagement.
Famished and dangerously parched, we were I tell you. An open-air mercado sells ferried-in wilted produce, however, we thought a vendor preparing ceviche, fish tacos and guacamole should hit the spot, accompanied by one tall pitcher of cold lime-chaya juice. After finishing lunch, the host/cook/waiter/cashier asked us if we had any USD to pay him with. Explaining we’d been touring Mexico for weeks and only had pesos; he nudged an orange ceramic elephant forward telling us it wasn’t a piggy bank, but the tip jar for his two children attending college in Chicago. Ordering whatever was on his menu apparently wasn’t sufficient, not enough to curtail this unsubtle vie for gratuity.
That following afternoon we returned to taste what wasn’t available the previous day — octopus. A jovial older fellow we became acquainted with in Castellammare del Golfo dove using fins, snorkel, mask, diving knife, mesh bag and inflatable safety buoy; he snagged octopus every single day by noon. He taught me and others around how to clean, cook and dress this slithering delicacy. I’ve eaten sublime Sicilian octopus insalata prepared with celery, carrots, potatoes, olives and peppers. That octopus this Mexican vendor pan fried was atrocious, I imagine like chewing a dog’s squeaky toy.
No worries, there are other places to eat on Holbox. We located an indoor fruit market which carries overpriced produce that’s barely bruised. Stingray empanadas were supposed to be worth trying, total grease bombs. A Frenchman opened an “authentic” French bakery; his quiche was soggy, the crinkle-cut fries were frozen. The closest to ice cream we’ve had thus far in Mexico is on Holbox, that’s because it’s gelato wannabe, made by another real live Florentian. Most dishes from Holbox restaurants (plug your nose, turn your eyes) look like throw-up on a plate.
We set out for the beach, if anyone can call it that, instantly to hear our daughter’s disdain, “oh great, my only saving grace, now what?” The salt water leaves skin itchier than a junkie scratching on his nod, an annoying rash develops before drying. Holbox is crawling with hostels, these free and easy guests have dreamcatcher sensibility, oblivious of smoldering palm fronds asphyxiating us ultra-straight people.
Who would’ve ever thunk you could befriend the Holbox mafia hiking along its shell laden shore? Underneath a 300 sq. ft. palapa locates their chummy clubhouse. They control: whale shark tours — supply fish for Holbox restaurants — rent bikes — GoPros — golf carts — quads — kayaks to two-man sailboats — cabanas — the flower store — operate a pair of popular hot spots, one serves booze, another prepares “slow-cooked food” — organize Playa del Carmen’s PGA tournament at El Camaleon Mayakoba Golf Club and run hotel water tour concessions throughout Quintana Roo. By the copious quantities of weed they smoke, I presume these barefoot entrepreneurs provide gange, alongside whatever dreamcatchers inevitably request.
This motley assortment’s palapa is indeed open, though barricaded by partially occupied hammocks at each supporting zapote post. What possessed me to venture inside really seemed harmless; I wasn’t searching for anything their sandwich board listed, two gorgeous butterflied fish being coddled over did. Mid-afternoon, six to a dozen club members (depending on the moment) were fairly buzzed — bloodshot and weaving. Tiny offered me a cerveza, I declined; he lured me, señor curioso closer toward their plywood propped countertop next to this ridiculous barbeque — crooked and lopsided utilizing Holbox scrap. Fresh tortillas arrived, so did a fat red onion, one garlic bulb, four tomatoes, limes, poblano, jalapeno, mirasol and habanero peppers, each in assorted colors, and of course, another case of ice cold Montejo.
Lushes in packs have the burning desire to encourage someone sniffing around, such as myself, into their lair. We were solely interested in that meal’s preparation, waiting it out sober was a different can of worms I for one didn’t deem worth opening. They teased us for leaving so soon slurring, “it’ll be done in forty minutes, if you change your minds.”
My daughter ran ahead, in the meantime my wife and I digested that incredible hospitality of wild strangers en route to Holbox’s flamingo reserve. Aside from the not much to look at Gulf water shade lacking transparency and ninety degree temperature, let’s also include seen better days fishing skiffs lining the beach, along with grubby accoutrement, tangled nets, forgotten five gallon plastic buckets, anchors etc. — our conversation kept creeping back to Tiny’s offer.
Returning inside palapa mafioso, an adjacent diver in full wet suit was being photographed by vacationing tourists, who were about to social media blitz the crap out of this guy’s thirty kilo red snapper haul — caught using a spear gun. The Holbox Cosa Nostra’s two large butterflied fish were replaced with four slightly smaller beauties. After inquiring what happened to the other larger fish wasn’t entirely clear upon hearing his answer. This time we weren’t leaving without trying a taste first. All those ingredients for top-notch salsa were roasted on Tiny’s pirated barbeque; he emulsified everything using brute force, employing the bottom of his beer bottle. No hoity-toity Food Network cutting boards, gleaming cutlery, overkill range, or hi-tech pressure cooker.
Tiny, has the potential of being Herculean if ever he contemplates embracing sobriety; his passion for cooking is commanding. Tiny mentioned he wouldn’t open a restaurant until the trees and gardens he’s planted are harvestable, providing diners what they should eat. He talked sustainability at the very second demonstrating; staggering outside the palapa, heaving fish guts straight upward feeding delighted pelicans.
The four slightly salted beauties roasted between a blackened metal wire grid, several tortillas also atop began curling from the white hot grey embers — light years more satisfying than those chips Holbox restaurants serve drenched in days old canola oil.
Not many peepers, if any, wander into the Holbox mafia palapa, they have no idea what they’re missing. Bobby Flay eat your heart out, Holbox mafioso tacos rule. Without question, no one, Iron Chef champions or anyone else can eat three meals a day under that gangsta palapa, which would leave the balance of us hungry, high and dry — out-of-towner grub just don’t cut it on Holbox.
And whooosh, suddenly they were gone….