The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico has it all: Mayan ruins, thousands of crystal-clear cenotes, beaches, national parks, and loads of attractions and things to do. The entire area is a gem, but I’m drilling down to a particular glint within that gem: Isla Holbox.

Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) is a desert island dream. Many international flights go into Cancún. Bypass it entirely and go straight to Isla Holbox – it’s a two-hour drive to Chiquilá where the ferries leave from. My boyfriend and I rented a car from the airport, and left it in a car park by the ferry port for a reasonable fee.

As with any paradise island worth its salt, there aren’t many cars on Isla Holbox. The sandy roads, particularly when we went at the start of rainy season, are a bit much for the average vehicle. The main sources of transportation on the island are golf buggies and bicycles. We paid 50 Mexican Pesos (around two pounds) for a golf buggy to our beachside hostel.

Although the area is changing fast, most accommodation on Isla Holbox is still simple and thematic. The attractive buildings have uneven lines; thatched roofs; visible, external beams and wooden staircases. Most line the beach and are inexpensive, in sharp contrast to Tulum where the beachside stretch is now reserved exclusively for luxury resorts.

We arrived just in time to see the sun set over the flat, vast ocean right outside of our room. Wading out into the shallow water, we watched the colours change as water lapped around our shins.

Then, drowsy with jet lag, we went searching for our first Mexican meal, opting for a simple, canteen-style taco restaurant in the town that was recommended by a worker at our hostel. Perhaps because it was our first meal – our first time helping ourselves to salsas and chili sauce, piling them onto our tacos – it was my favourite meal of the whole, 12-day trip. The fans whirred while we made appreciative noises.

We stayed around 20 minutes’ walk from the town, a criss-cross of streets around the obligatory Mexican central square, which comes alive at night. It’s a popular tourist spot, evidenced by numerous restaurants, bars and tour bookers but – for the moment at least – it retains a small-town, beachy vibe. The wooden buildings are strewn with hammocks and rope swings, and the seafront is always a skip and a jump away. In the evening, locals and tourists alike tumble out onto the beach to watch the sunset. In the words of a local: ‘The sunset is different every day.’

Whale sharks

The island is also known as a base for whale shark tours. We chose the most environmentally-friendly, sustainable group we could find. The tour included getting in the water with the whale sharks, a brief snorkelling session, and visiting the island’s migratory flamingo colony.

Seeing the whale sharks feed was extraordinary, but the area was pretty clogged with boats and – as a keen snorkeller and diver – I wasn’t a huge fan of the system that dropped life-jacket-wearing tourists into the water, bobbing like corks next to the shark for a few minutes at a time. When it was my turn, I mostly saw splashing and the whale shark swimming away. There were at least 10 boats full of tourists surrounding roughly seven whale sharks, and I worried that all the boats and snorkellers would disturb them.

Mexico is clearly very environmentally conscious, and is trying very hard to protect itself from the damage that its booming tourist industry is causing to its natural environment. Regulations have already been introduced to manage the whale shark tours, but I feel that there’s still a bit of way to go in this particular area. However, the situation is much better than in Oslob, the Philippines, where the whale sharks are fed and have stopped migrating as a result.

Afterwards, during the snorkelling, I was excited to see a couple of quite large rays – I’ve only seen the small, blue-spot reef ray before (they’re beautiful, of course). And the flamingos? There weren’t many left as it was coming to the end of the season. But we had a great, salty day out in the boat, and enjoyed fresh ceviche (with nachos, of course) for lunch.

Besides whale sharks, Isla Holbox is best for bumming on the beach – it’s a perfect beach. However, you can also hire kayaks and explore the mangroves, there are tours to see bioluminescence (another bucket list item for me, but this time the sharks took priority!), and there’s plenty of birdwatching to be done as flamingos aren’t the only birds who enjoy a seasonal desert island getaway.

I left Isla Holbox wanting more. My only worry is that – with the current rate of change in the region – it won’t be the same desert island paradise when I return.