One question keeps cropping up as people look for the next up-and-coming gem to uncover on the stunning Yucatan Peninsula.
Which is better, El Cuyo or Isla Holbox?
If you have this question, too, then we may be able to help. After spending time in both El Cuyo and Isla Holbox, we have a pretty clear-cut view. But of course, whether we can answer for you is a different story.
If your priority is water-logged hammocks, bars with rope swing seats, trendy cocktails, linen stores, and maximizing the potential for Instagram-able moments, our points of view may not align.
Which Is Better, El Cuyo or Isla Holbox?
For us, El Cuyo.
In our mind, there is no question El Cuyo is a beautiful and serene fishing village. An authentic Mexican town to the north of the Yucatan Peninsula with white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters.
While sharing many traits with El Cuyo, Isla Holbox is an ecological nightmare. An exercise in human greed that has trashed one of the most beautiful places on earth. It made us sad to visit, and we don’t plan to return.
However, that’s just our opinion; any destination has pros and cons, and we will try to outline them for you.
With that said, this will be a pretty one-sided affair, a glowing review of El Cuyo and a fairly scathing takedown of Isla Hobox. Nevertheless, let’s dive into the pros and cons of each.
El Cuyo Pros and Cons
El Cuyo Pros
El Cuyo is a charming beach town on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. There are several pros to visiting El Cuyo:
+ El Cuyo Is Less Crowded, Commercialized or Developed than Isla Holbox
El Cuyo is less crowded and commercialized than many popular tourist destinations in Mexico, including Isla Holbox. The beaches are largely undeveloped and pristine, although trash washes up on them frequently (as is sadly common on the Yucatan). Nevertheless, the area’s natural beauty remains largely untouched and uncrowded.
+ Cheaper Prices
As a result of its lower profile, more remote location, and lower levels of amenities, prices for things like accommodation and restaurants are slightly cheaper here than many Mexican beachside destinations. However, due to the increasing attention El Cuyo is receiving, prices are starting to increase.
The area around El Cuyo is a paradise for birdwatchers. Various bird species can be spotted in the nearby Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, including herons, pelicans, and the flocks of flamingos for which it is famous.
+ Kiteboarding and Water Sports
El Cuyo is known for its excellent kiteboarding conditions. If you’re a water sports enthusiast, this is a great place to visit. The consistent winds and shallow waters make it perfect for beginners and experienced kiteboarders. Several schools here are more than happy to show you the ropes.
El Cuyo is an ideal destination if you’re looking for a quiet, laid-back vacation. The peaceful atmosphere makes it a great place to relax and unwind away from crowds, noisy vehicles, and busy beach bars that spill out onto the sand.
+ Local Culture
El Cuyo offers an opportunity to experience authentic Mexican culture. You can interact with friendly locals, savor traditional cuisine, and immerse yourself in the local way of life.
+ Nature Reserves
Apart from Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, there are other nearby nature reserves and national parks where you can explore diverse ecosystems, including mangroves, wetlands, and dunes.
+ Sustainable Tourism
El Cuyo is a destination that promotes sustainable tourism practices. By visiting, you are supporting the local economy and contributing to the preservation of the natural environment. We only hope that the sustainable tourism promoted here doesn’t become eroded into a marketing gimmick as it has been in Isla Holbox.
El Cuyo is a great spot for fishing enthusiasts. You can enjoy both deep-sea and fly-fishing experiences in the waters surrounding the town. One caveat is that fishing from the beach or pier can be challenging when it is windy (and it often is).
+ Great Restaurants
Some really incredible restaurants have sprung up in El Cuyo. From the authentic Mexican of Casa Mangle to food trucks, like La Casa Palma, serving wood-fired pizza and empanadas, to vegetarian cafes like Naia and the degustation at El Chile Gordo, the number of quality restaurants in the tiny town is ridiculous!
El Cuyo’s charm lies in its simplicity and natural allure. This might be your perfect destination if you appreciate unspoiled beauty, outdoor activities, and a peaceful atmosphere.
El Cuyo Cons
While El Cuyo has a lot going for it, there are a couple of potential drawbacks to consider:
– Limited Infrastructure
El Cuyo is a small town, and its infrastructure, including roads and public services, might not be as developed as in more popular tourist destinations. This can sometimes lead to inconveniences. Inconveniences such as the lack of even an ATM in town!
– Limited Amenities or Luxuries
El Cuyo doesn’t enjoy the same level of amenities and conveniences that tourists might be accustomed to after spending time in larger resort towns or tourist hubs, especially those on the eastern Yucatan. You won’t find sprawling all-inclusive resorts, supermarkets, or even a familiar Oxxo here.
El Cuyo’s charm lies in its seclusion, but this can be a drawback if you’re looking for a vibrant nightlife or a wide range of entertainment options. There isn’t really a bar scene here, and most places are closed by 10 pm. The quiet town might not appeal to travelers seeking a bustling social scene.
Like many areas on the Gulf, El Cuyo is susceptible to severe weather-related issues such as hurricanes and storms, especially between June and October. Inclement weather could disrupt travel plans or sour a beach trip.
The proximity to water bodies means mosquitoes can have a significant presence in El Cuyo, especially during and after the wet season. The mozzies can be extremely fierce, especially around dusk.
– Limited Internet and Mobile Coverage
Due to its remote location, El Cuyo has fairly limited internet connectivity and mobile phone coverage, which can be a challenge for travelers who rely heavily on these services. Currently, the region is only serviced by 3G bandwidth.
Getting to El Cuyo might require some effort, especially if you’re flying into a major airport and then need to arrange additional transportation. The journey can be time-consuming and unsuitable for travelers looking for a quick and easy getaway. For example, it takes approximately 2.5 hours to reach El Cuyo from the Cancun airport by private transfer and much longer by public bus (almost 4 hours and requiring a bus transfer).
– Environmental Concerns
As tourism increases, concerns about the impact on the local environment, including waste management and the conservation of natural resources in such a delicate ecosystem, become increasingly important. We hope this challenge is properly managed and lessons are learned from the over-development of other areas like Isla Holbox, Tulum, and Sayulita.
The downsides of visiting El Cuyo mostly come from its remote location and lack of infrastructure. Those who make the journey and can survive without premium amenities will be rewarded with an authentic and naturally beautiful experience.
Isla Holbox Pros and Cons
Islas Holbox Pros
Despite concerns regarding overdevelopment, overcrowding, and ecological damage, Isla Holbox attracts many visitors yearly. Here are some things that still make Isla Holbox an attractive destination:
+ Natural Beauty and Wildlife
Isla Holbox is renowned for its natural landscapes, and with good reason. It features breathtaking beaches with clear, shallow waters and soft, white sand. It’s home to diverse wildlife, particularly famous for being a site where visitors can swim with whale sharks during certain seasons. The island is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, an area celebrated for its biodiversity.
+ Adventure and Water Sports
For active travelers, Isla Holbox offers kayaking, windsurfing, paddleboarding, and birdwatching. Its location also provides an excellent setting for fishing, particularly fly fishing.
Kite surfing is particularly popular here because of the consistent winds, warm shallow waters (as well as the beautiful setting). Our experience learning to Kite Surf with KukulKite on Isla Holbox was the highlight of our time on the island.
Isla Holbox is relatively easy to reach, especially for tourists already visiting Cancun or the Riviera Maya. This accessibility makes it an attractive option for those seeking a quick day or weekend trip.
+ Amenities and Infrastructure
The tourism boom here has meant that no amenity or luxury has been forgotten. From all-inclusive resorts to luxury spas, beach bars, and hammocks in the water for a perfect Instagram shot, there’s no shortage of things to do, buy, and photograph here.
Isla Holbox Cons
In our opinion, several significant issues might make you want to reconsider visiting Isla Holbox.
At the heart of all its problems, Isla Holbox has become a victim of its popularity. A remote village off-the-beaten-path destination suddenly became recognized as one of North America’s most beautiful beach destinations.
Now in the busy season, it attracts as many as 60,000 visitors daily.
The first time you get a sense of how busy this tiny island has become is waiting in the crowd to board the ferry, which runs every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Despite being an annoyance in their own right, the crowds drive many of the other issues on Isla Holbox.
The rapid rise in tourist demand has led to a boom in construction. This has resulted in the loss of the natural habitats that made Holbox so special and an increased strain on the island’s limited resources. Everywhere you turn in Holbox, the relentless construction reaches further through the beautiful jungle and white sandy beaches.
Besides being an eyesore, the appeal for us, and many other places like this, is the beautiful natural environment. The development here is having an observable and terrible impact on that pristine environment.
– Waste Management Issues
The swarming crowds visiting the island generate tens of thousands of kilograms of trash and waste daily.
The infrastructure of Isla Holbox has struggled to keep pace with the surge in visitors. Waste management, in particular, is a challenge. A ridiculous amount of trash is strewn throughout the town, empty lots are filled with garbage, and streets are littered with waste. A publicized lack of proper sewage treatment threatens to pollute the pristine waters around the island.
– Drainage and Flooding
Additionally, the concrete construction has blocked the town’s drainage. By the end of the wet season, you have to wade everywhere through the floating trash and sludgy brown muck. The same swamp breeds many mosquitoes, which descend upon the town at dusk.
– Loss of Authenticity
As with many tourist hotspots, the rise in tourists has led to a loss of authentic local culture. The influx of foreign influences has drastically diluted the very essence of what made Isla Holbox special in the first place.
– Pressure on Wildlife
The island is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, which is home to various species. Four hundred twenty bird species and a wealth of other wildlife, including jaguars, tapirs, crocodiles, monkeys, hawksbill turtles, and the whale sharks for which the area is famous, all rely on this essential habitat.
Increased human activity and habitat destruction put pressure on this natural ecosystem, further threatening these species.
– Price Inflation
Prices around Holbox are easily two to three times what you would expect to pay in other parts of Mexico for accommodation, restaurants, and beers at the bar. If you do decide to visit, budget accordingly.
This is perhaps the most disappointing thing about Isla Holbox. The island is sold as a natural paradise. Free of cars, committed to environmental preservation, and driven by eco-tourism initiatives designed to put visitors in touch with the natural beauty and abundance of the island.
Before you even get on the ferry, people are collecting an environmental tax in exchange for wristbands (whether this is legitimate or not is hard to say), and a video about the importance of maintaining this important environment is played on the ferry over.
It is much more disappointing when you arrive and souped-up gas-powered ATVs are there chugging along when you step off the ferry. Should you choose to waive off the aggressive ATV taxis, the ensuing wade through the trash-filled swamp to reach your accommodation is the first revelation that everything is not as it is presented on Holbox. When you arrive at your accommodation, the additional environmental tax added to your bill is galling, to say the least.
Only when you finally get down to the beach only to find it covered in influencers swinging in hammocks in the sea drinking watery margaritas from the bars allowed to spill out onto the sand do you finally realize the extent to which you’ve been hoodwinked.
Final Thought on El Cuyo or Isla Holbox
If you’ve made it this far, it’s obvious that we have a clear preference for El Cuyo over Isla Holbox.
However, we hope that in time balance might be restored in Isla Holbox and the natural environment for which it is so famous can be properly safeguarded. Similarly, we hope that El Cuyo retains its authenticity and takes cues and lessons from the missteps that have happened in other areas that have made the transition from hidden gems to popular tourist destinations.
If you have a question or think we got it horribly wrong, let us know in the comments below!
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