When you spend a month at the beach, some things are bound to go wrong. In our case, this was the start of our rift with Lonely Planet, as we began to realize that not everything is actually worth doing.
Two of the things we were most looking forward to in Mexico turned out to be our biggest busts: Hiking in the Isla Contoy National Park and swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Holbox.
Isla Contoy is a small island that has been protected by the Mexican government since 1961 and has been a recognized national park since 1998. Supervised eco-tours cap visitors at 200 people per day. The island is a safe haven for the four turtle species that nest there and a sanctuary for approximately 152 tropical marine birds. There is no naturally occurring fresh water on the island apart from the rain.
What sold us on a trip to the island was this line from Lonely Planet – “Guided tours to Isla Contoy give you several hours of free time to explore the island’s interpretive trails, climb a 27m-high observation tower and get in a little snorkeling.”
We don’t typically take tours, but it did seem like the simplest way to see the island. We found the company Ocean Tours, and their trip to Isla Contoy also included snorkeling and a stop at Isla Mujeres.
We set off on a Monday morning, fingers crossed it wouldn’t rain. We were pretty excited about the tour because it was one of our simplest travel days – the company was even picking us up and dropping us off at our Airbnb door.
However, that’s where the problems began. We were staying in Playa and the tour officially started in Cancun, but we didn’t think much of it – it’s only an hour long drive. However, one hour turned into nearly 2 1/2 hours as we picked up our fellow day trippers. This meant that we arrived at the pier late and had just enough time to use the bathroom before boarding the boat (no time to eat the breakfast that was on display). It took another hour by boat to get to Isla Contoy.
If I’m being honest, the island is absolutely stunning. Limiting the number of visitors really has preserved it and it was the most pristine beach we went to during our time in Mexico. But we hadn’t traveled all that way for a beach, we were ready for our hike through the national park.
We started on the beach and were quickly warned about an unusual amount of mosquitoes on the island that day. We applied some natural bug spray and made our way into the “museum.” I put museum in quotation marks because it is an open air room with some life-size papier-mâché animals and information displays about the island. Our guide was well informed about the history and animal life on the island, but we could barely hear him over the buzzing of the mosquitoes.
Next we were led to the mangroves, but were told it would be best if we could jog to retain some of the blood in our bodies. We followed the trail below.
We got to the end of the pier, hopped around to avoid what was somehow more mosquitoes, and were then told that the tour was over. It couldn’t have lasted more than 15 minutes. At no point were we hiking. There certainly wasn’t an observation tower we could climb. That was it.
And of the copious amounts of birds and turtles that call the island home, the only creature we saw were hermit crabs (albeit very cute hermit crabs).
At that point it was time for lunch – pretty inedible for vegetarians (which we had informed them we were when we made the booking) – there was some white rice, iceberg lettuce, and salsa…yum. Then it was back to the beach.
The beach was easily the best part of this stop – and it really was spectacular – it just wasn’t what we’d traveled 3 1/2 hours to see. We spent the next hour swimming and walking along the sand and then it was time to go to Isla Mujeres – an island we hadn’t planned on (but ended up being the best part of the tour. More on that when I write my Mexico: Beach Wins post!).
Our time at Isla Contoy was up and we were left wondering what we had paid so much money to see. But this wouldn’t be our only letdown in Mexico. The next one was our experience swimming with whale sharks in Holbox. We had chosen the company – VIP Holbox – based on recommendations from Lonely Planet that they were one of the few ethical whale shark companies in the area. The only downside? They weren’t located in Playa or Cancun, but on the island of Holbox, a 2 1/2 hour drive + 30 minute ferry away.
We had saved this activity for our last week in Playa so that my sister could join us. Great timing that I have, I got food poisoning on a Saturday (our five year wedding aniversary) and we picked up my sister at the Cancun airport the next day. We decided to use the company for our ride as well since we’d been unable to rent an automatic car (and also…the ferry).
I did pretty well in the car until about 15 minutes outside of Chiquilá (where we’d take the ferry), but then I was frantically motioning to Chandler to get the driver to pull over. After a bit of confusion, I was able to hop out of the van and throw up on the side of the road. Fun fact – after living in Ethiopia for 27 months in all sorts of driving conditions, I had never thrown up due to traveling.
I got back in the van (like a champ, I might add), finished the ride, took the ferry, road a four-wheeler to our hotel, and wondered how the hell I was going to get in a boat the next day.
Of course, we were up bright and early the next day to meet VIP Holbox for breakfast before setting off on our whale shark adventure. This trip was especially meaningful for me and Chandler because we had tried swimming with whale sharks for my birthday in 2013 off the coast of Djibouti, but the weather didn’t cooperate – so this was an eight year experience in the making.
We met the guides and were divided into three boats (it seemed to be language-based, though there was only one other American with us, as well as his French girlfriend and couples from the Netherlands and Switzerland). Then we got the news: We would be traveling by boat from Holbox to Isla Contoy and then out to sea, that’s where the whale sharks were currently located. It would take about three hours to get there.
Meaning, we’d been much closer to the whale sharks in Playa or Cancun.
Knowing that I wasn’t feeling 100%, I happily accepted the dramamine the company had on hand – they warned we’d have choppy waters due to Tropical Storm Elsa, which had just hit Florida. Choppy waters were an understatement. I made it about an hour before my sister was plying me with anti-nausea meds and everyone on the boat was surfing onboard to avoid permanent spinal damage thanks to the drops the boat was making.
We knew we were in the right place when we spotted 20 other boats out at sea, we pulled in alongside them and cut the motor. That was it for me. I threw up five or six times and swam with whale sharks three times in between.
I wish I could say swimming with the whale sharks was worth everything I went through, but it absolutely wasn’t. And that’s not because the whale sharks weren’t incredible – they were. But the entire time I was in the water with them, I felt so incredibly guilty.
We were traveling with an ethical tour company. They had rules: Two people in the water with a guide at a time, no touching the whale sharks, too many boats and we’d leave. Even with those boundaries in place it felt like we were hounding the animals – the boat needed to speed up to get in front of the whale sharks so we could jump in nearby to get a good view. And then we did our best to follow alongside.
I honestly don’t know why these creatures are so peaceful. They open their mouths wide and ingest any small fish, shrimp, and plankton that gets sucked inside. But if I was a whale shark, I would have eaten every human in site.
My complaints aren’t with our tour company in particular, other groups actually seemed much worse. Large swarms of people surrounding a whale shark, people reaching out to try and get rides on them, boats that arrived before ours and stayed long after. Our company’s goal was to get everyone two good swims with the whale sharks before taking off, disturbing them as little as possible.
The whole experience was incredible and revolting at the same time and it has me completely rethinking all animal tourism.
While I contemplated this, we left the whale sharks and traveled an hour and half back to an island for lunch. The only thing I could keep down were some Trader Joe’s peanut butter crackers that my Godsend of a sister brought with (I’m not convinced I would have survived this experience without her – though she vomited nearly as much as I did from that boat).
The island was beautiful, but once again, not the point of the trip. It took another hour to make our way back to Holbox and then after a quick meal (on blissful land), we made our way back to Playa via ferry and van (luckily the vomiting had subsided).
For me, these two excursions were a powerful lesson: Not everything is worth doing – and if many people don’t do it, there’s probably a reason.
Chandler and I had planned on going to Antarctica for his 40th birthday in five years – we are 100% not doing that. I won’t be setting foot on any boat that I can avoid for a long, long time. For now, we’ll stick to land : )
*As my Fujifilm X20 is definitely not waterproof, the two whale shark photos were taken by the American and French couple. You can see more of their photos on Instagram: @its_toum & @tj.sexton