The overnight bus from Mérida bellyflopped over an outsized speedbump and rumbled into the grey predawn silence of Chiquilá. A procession of sleepy passengers snaked from the bus down the wharf. In a few minutes the small catamaran ferry appeared from the darkness of the bay. Once the pile of luggage had been transferred, the boat lurched from its moorings and thrummed out onto the crumpled velvet ripples of the lagoon separating Isla Holbox from the mainland.
My trip to Holbox was the product of a childhood spent thumbing through too many fishing magazines. The island is famous for its tarpon, a silver-plated species renowned for dramatic leaps, and the supposedly remote setting appealed to a sense of adventure. As the ferry glided into the dock in Holbox's still-slumbering harbor, the sun crept above the horizon and my trip began.
The island is a long scruffy sand spit, cast like driftwood onto the northeastern corner of the Yucatan peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea swirl together. On the long outer beach, sunbathing tourists recline near the bobbing lanchas of local fishermen, the torpor of the former contrasting with the tidal coming-and-goings of the latter.
Eventually I set off to fish, the boat skimming westward past low palms and desolate beaches toward Cabo Catoche and a massive lagoon. Nature, however, conspired against my hopes. New moon tides had left little water over the sea grass, and strong winds strafed the bay, sending battalions of foam fleeing across the surface. Though the sparkling cerulean stretches of ocean seemed to whisper possibilities, it was not to be.
At the island's western end, a collection of unpaved streets run past squat wood and concrete houses, connecting the bayside harbor with the small hotels along the oceanside beaches. Rusted handmade stop signs fade into creeping foliage. Golfcart taxis and pushcart tricycles lounge on shaded corners of sunbaked streets, not until dusk drives sunbathers from the beach will the town's center awaken. Restaurants that would be quaint, if they were not unabashedly tourist-fare, crowd the streets around the central plaza. Yet visitor and resident mingle easily here; Holbox is too small for it to be otherwise.
As the sun disappears behind the hard edge of the western ocean, I wander along the now quiet waterfront. When night falls, few people linger on the cool sand of the beach. Behind me, lights from the town cast long shadows of palm trees down to the gently lapping waves. Without a moon, the soft velvet blackness of the night is peppered with the tiny pricks of light from countless stars, only visible when my eyes adjust to the darkness. In town, the plaza buzzes with pre-carnaval activities and children chase the darting spotlights beaming out from the stage. Everything beyond these lights, out in the shadows, away from this small village huddled on the corner of this island, seems very far away and very big.
The following morning, the ferry departs for Chiquilá. On board, a group of French tourists smoke and cluck, the imminent return to the mainland perhaps awakening a need to shred what few traces remain of the island's tranquility. And out along the beach, far past the farthest edges of the hotels, small waves lap at the footprintless edge of a ruffled sandbar.