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Everybody knows you go to Honduras' Bay Islands to swim with whale sharks. Well at least everybody who loves the ocean, loves diving and has the complete box set of Jacques Cousteau on DVD.

But the small, funky island of Isla Holbox – a tiny spit of sand just a day’s travel from the glitzy (and slightly chintzy) Mexican resort city of Cancún – is an equally great spot to swim with the biggest fish in the sea, and the island is an attraction in its own right.

The waters surrounding Isla Holbox are slightly muddier than those found to the south, along the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, but the reward is an island paradise where people get around by golf-cart and your biggest worry of the day is whether to walk to the end of the island for bird watching, hang out in a hammock or cruise out with your buddies for a day of whale watching. Lucky for you, it is easy enough to fit all of these into a couple of days on the island.

A day with whale sharks is unlike anything you will have ever experienced. From July to September (July is the best month) a couple of thousand of these big boys come to feed off the plankton-rich seas. Once you are in the water, face to face with a 15-ton, 15m-long giant, the rest of the world seems to fade away. Their grace, colourful spots (some folks even call them “dominoes”) and unworldly bulk take you back to the time of dinosaurs and leviathans.

And while such close interactions with wildlife is definitely a delicate topic, local tour operators have teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to create some best practices for the tours. Visitors are required to wear a life jacket or wetsuit, you cannot feed the fish or submerge yourself beneath them, only three people (plus a guide) are allowed in the water at one time, and, no, you cannot catch a ride on their fin.

On your way back to the island, ask your guide if you can stop for a snorkel. If you are lucky, you may spot a manta ray soaring through the shallow depths.

Eats, treats and sleeps
It sometimes feels as if there are more Italians living on Holbox than on Italy’s own Amalfi Coast, and you will find good Italian cuisine, as well as fantastic seafood and international offerings in the small town centre (you can walk end to end in less than 10 minutes). Los Pelícanos and the Buena Vista Grill are island favourites. Carioca’s is a good spot for sunset cocktails. And when it comes to bedtime, head over to the Hostel Ida y Vuelta for digs on a dime or splurge on the refined beachside resort at Casa Sandra.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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