As a fearless and highly adventurous diver, my friend and travel buddy, Bernardo, had been raving about his marvelous underwater adventures around the globe for years, in order to convince me to learn how to scuba dive. However, having heard stories about scuba diving casualties, shark attacks, and seeing the movie Jaws, diving didn’t particularly sound that appealing to me. Dominos changed my life!
High on his bucket list was to dive with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world. Bernardo had gone to Australia and Galapagos, famous for whale shark sightings, but never saw one. Then he learned about the little hidden island of Holbox in Mexico, where these sharks’ migration occurred in July and August, so he asked me to join him in his search. I asked every Mexican friend and other people I met the next few weeks about Holbox, and was really surprised about how many of them had not even heard about the island. The thought of having a unique experience sparked my interest; I saw myself on an unspoiled island with a picturesque fishing village, walking barefoot on the white sandy beaches, horseback riding, enjoying the freshest seafood right off the ocean, sailing around the Yucatan Peninsula, not even thinking that we might actually even see a whale shark.
So we headed down to Mexico—my first trip to this wonderful country. We arrived in Cancun around 11 p.m., right before an airport blackout that created a lot of confusion among disoriented travelers. Having experienced quite a few blackouts in Peru in the 1980s, we calmly headed out, using our cell phones as flashlights, finding our way to the car rental where we were able to get a car right away, avoiding the rush. On the way to Holbox, we stopped at the side of the road for our first taste of what was yet to come. We were greeted by the most hospitable lady making tacos, a taquera who after seeing how excited I was about my first street taco, kindly invited me to go into the taco stand to make my own. I had an array of grilled meats to choose from, small white corn tortillas and a variety of nostril-opening Mexican peppers that totally woke us up and got us on our way to the little town of Chiquila. We arrived at 3 a.m. but our ferry to Holbox wasn’t leaving until 7a.m., so we stayed at the only hotel in town. I was so exhausted that I overslept, so I quickly jumped into the shower not realizing that there was no towel around, which led me to use the bed sheets to dry off, in my rush to get to the ferry on time. This is when I knew it was going to be an unforgettable vacation.
When we reached Holbox, we got into a golf cart, the only means of transportation on the island besides horseback riding. We drove around town on white sandy streets, passing charming and rustic bright-colored houses with palm leaf roofs, crossing paths with local fisherman walking barefoot and carrying their fishing gears, until we got to our destination and met our tour operator, Roddrigo, who calls himself “The Whale Shark Daddy”, and is an American married to a local Holboxian. Already waiting for the tour was a young Mexican couple from Yucatan, an American couple who had retired at the Rivera Maya, and some scientist on an expedition. While waiting on the dock, surrounded by fishermen, boats, seagulls, pelicans and taking in the fresh sea breeze, I overheard one of the locals and our captain talk about underwater “dominos”; so I went up to them and asked why they were talking about water dominos. Was this a new game I didn’t know about? After a big chuckle, our captain explained that the local fishermen called whale sharks “dominos”, due to the white dots on their backs. No whale shark has the same lineup or combination of dotted skin.
We were not allowed to use any type of sun block or lotions that would disturb the sharks. I still went with it, thinking that I would get a nice day on a boat on this beautiful sunny morning with our new found friends, not realizing that we would even see one “domino”. It didn’t really hit me until 30 minutes later, when our captain announced a sighting. He said that only 2 people could swim with whale sharks at a time. Before I had a second to blink, Bernardo was already sitting on the edge of the boat, all geared up and ready to go, when the captain asked which two people would go first. I don’t think anyone else had a chance. Due to the rush, I didn’t pay much attention. I saw a fin at a distance, so I geared up and then, and only when I was ready to jump, I saw what looked like a 35 foot spotted submarine emerge to the surface. Suddenly it became very clear that this was not the playful type of domino effect I had initially thought; instead this was another type of effect I was going to experience, a ripple effect from the tail of this humongous gentle giant that would push us aside.
I didn’t even have time to calculate how much bigger this shark was than me, and at that moment, I tried to tell myself what Bernardo had been telling me all along. This was not like any other shark or like the one in the movie Jaws, because it was toothless and only fed by plankton, so I was not an appetizing dish in his diet. Suddenly I heard a splash. I turned my head and all I could see were Bernardo’s fins kicking away. I had to jump now or never, so I just plunged into the blue.
The first couple of minutes, I was intimidated by his grandeur. I tried to swim as far as I could from it, but once I realized how gracious and docile the whale shark was, I was inexplicably drawn by its magnetic effect. Then it was our turn to go back to the boat for the next two people to relay us and I didn’t want to leave. On my second time around, I was not fearful, but instead couldn’t wait for that rush of adrenaline. Even if this wasn’t a person-feeding shark, the size of its mouth was the size of my whole body. He could engulf me in a millisecond –with just one gulp I could end up like Pinocchio inside this creature’s belly. But like kids at the amusement park getting off a ride and running back to line up so they can go on it again, we swam with countless numbers of whale sharks for 3 hours. It was a life changing experience — that very day I realized I had to learn how to scuba dive to experience the magnificent marine life I had been hearing about.
Despite the painful sunburn, back at the island I was both giddy and happy. Images of the unforgettable ride kept flashing back to me, giving a whole new meaning to the domino effect. We were all sharing our stories and the pictures on our cameras and wanted to continue with this euphoria, so we headed out to get lunch at the main square of Holbox. The Mexican couple from the Rivera Maya recommended Edelyn’s, I was thrilled to be hanging out with locals until I got to the restaurant. It was a pizza joint on the main square. Yes! a pizza place. Not my idea of an island lunch, until I was urged to get the house specialty: the scrumptious lobster pizza.
After what seemed to be the longest day, we went back to the Whale Shark Daddy’s home to pick up our bags, and finally check into our eco palapa hotel called Xaloc, to freshen up and rest. Not longer after, we went for a walk along the beach, stopping for dips in the ocean accompanied by pelicans and other exotic birds,until we bumped into a small beach shack. We sat at the bar swings having Mexican beers, listening to reggae music, sand between our toes. We asked if we could have something to munch on and the bar tender offered us ceviche. I looked around, but there was no kitchen in sight. Puzzled and curious, I accepted his recommendation. Growing up on the Peruvian coast city of Lima, I can be pretty snooty about ceviche and have very high standards on the quality of fish and preparation, but I took the bait. A few minutes later, I saw the bartender approach us from the dark, carrying the ceviche on the palm of his hand on a flimsy banana leaf, spilling its juices on the sand on the way to the bar; I was really stunned. I took a second look and realized there were no dishes or silverware. After all, we were in a real beach shack. I think it was because of how relaxed it was on that swing after a couple of beers, that it all felt so natural. We had to use totopos –tortilla chips–as utensils. For my first bite, I tried to get as much fish as I could onto a single totopo, juices flowing on the sides of my month, my fingers soaked in the juices. It was perfection: Imagine this fish coming from the boat docked next to us, with the freshest, limiest, spicy flavorful taste, hot local peppers, lemon juice and onions. I asked the bartender to introduce me to the cook. After a day full of surprises and unexpected experiences, this was the icing on the cake –an experience to “cerrrar con broche de oro,” as the saying goes. The cook turned out to be an Australian who came to Holbox on a vacation and fell in love with the island: the ultimate Latin Lover! He said he would cook for shelter. So he became el cevichero –the ceviche maker of the dish I named the “swinging ceviche”. This was one of the trip’s finest moments. Totally unexpected. I spent my night indulging all the senses, swinging to the mellow music, enjoying the local cold beer, having ceviche right out of a fisherman’s boat, and thinking of dominos!