Conde Nast Travel Concierge.com | Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
The Coast is Clear
by Mark Jolly
Published April 2008
Along a seventy-mile stretch of Mexico's Pacific shore, four towns include seemingly every stripe of simpatico beach getaway. Surfing, ecotourism, hippie chic, and luxe family resorts all coexist-and, blessedly, without any crowds. Mark Jolly discovers the multifaceted appeal of Puerto Escondido and nearby unspoiled seaside spots
By the time I drive into Mazunte, it's nearing the golden hour, and the late-afternoon wash of light beckons me to the sea. For three days now I've been scuttling from one location to the next, exploring the Oaxacan coast and pondering how I will ever, seriously, be able to brave the waters of this perilous part of the Pacific-which impishly touts itself as the Costa Chica, the Little Coast. I throw my knapsack into a beach shack and wander down to the waves.
In truth, the shores of this tiny village have been fine for swimming during the past few months. Only now, as the season slips into the stormy months of fall, has the ocean started to stir again. But at least, I realize as I get tossed about in the surf, there's not a single tourist anywhere along the mile-long bay; just a few fearless Mexican kids (who cast themselves into the swell as if it were their own private wading pool), some fishermen fixing their skiffs, and-wait, what's this?
I glance back at the beach and see that a dozen people have suddenly collected, jostling, pointing. The waves drown out their words, but I can tell there's excitement in the air. With great effort I paddle back to land and find, between them and me, a large turtle waddling along the sand. The crowd, now double in size, moves to let the visitor find space, and peace, to lay her eggs. They know the routine. Yet still more staring and pointing, more waiting and wonder. By the time I'm all dripped dry, the turtle has had enough and, without laying her eggs, has stolen away into the sea. The commotion, it seems, was too much for her.
Let's hope she can get used to it: Word is slowly starting to spread about the lesser-known Pacific Mexico. For years, the seventy-mile coastal strip of central Oaxaca-the nexus of the Costa Chica-has been in the shadow of its flashier, noisier neighbors to the north: Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and even small-town Zihuatanejo. Beyond the loyal coterie of international surfers and middle-class Mexicans, this seaside stretch between Puerto Escondido and Huatulco is still unknown-despite its spectacular string of beaches and its rich biodiversity (more olive ridley turtles hatch here than anywhere else on earth). I have come looking for a blissed-out Mexican beach dream, and-owing to a confluence of socio-geographical seclusion, government mismanagement, and singular surf breaks-it just may exist.
Or, rather, they may exist. Along with a burgeoning number of the cognoscenti, I am drawn to a handful of coastal towns, each an expression of someone's idea of unspoiled Mexico. My personal favorite is Puerto Escondido-a simpatico enclave that's grown beyond its surfer roots, with no big-brand hotels and no town planning, into one of Mexico's most naturally winsome beach towns. Then, a two-hour drive southeast, is Huatulco, a sprawling resort zone without the crowds. And last, midway between the two-lining the coastal dip in the map that's known as "the belly of the whale"-is a clutch of isolated villages anchored by the boho-chic communities of Mazunte and San Agustinillo (think yoga retreats, turtle tourism, and secluded virgin beaches). Simply put: These are a lot of flavors for a little coast.
I start my search for the Costa Chica's chilled-out charm in Puerto Escondido-or Puerto, as it's usually called. The first thing that hits you on arrival (at least if you're a man) is that shirt and shoes are optional. Scratch that: Wearing anything above the waist or on your feet is manifestly overdressing. Nobody shakes hands, either. Instead, from Chileans and Australians and Italians (in Puerto, just about everyone's from somewhere else), I receive a sort of surfer-dude salutation that involves a slide and click of the palms followed by a homeboy knuckle bump-and not once do I get it right. I don't even know what questions to ask. On several occasions-at a bar and on the beach-I get to talking and ask: So, what brought you to Puerto? Or, what do you do? The first would invariably evoke an answer involving a vacation gone hippie (came for two weeks, stayed for two years). The second mostly drew a blank gaze and a shrug, as if to say, Like I'd be so bourgeois to actually do anything....
This is the kind of town that had hippie roots before there were hippies. The first tourist hub on Oaxaca's coastline, the port began to prosper in 1928, exporting the state's famed coffee. By the forties, it was already dancing to its own tune: When a tax collector came in 1942, he wasn't just kicked out of town-he was killed on the road out. As Gina Machorro, the wondrously provocative veteran of Puerto's tourist booth, puts it, "We have this Oaxacan tradition of being unfriendly to outsiders-or at least to those outsiders who tell us what to do." Which perhaps explains why the federal government never made any headway-as it did, most famously, in Cancún and Los Cabos-with turning this singular piece of paradise into Resortlandia.
Thankfully, Puerto's main beach, Playa Principal, still looks almost exactly as it did half a century ago-a perfect arc of white powder sand fringed by a swath of palms leaning toward the sea. A clutch of palapa huts now skirt the sand, and the fishermen share the waters with teenage bodyboarders. Behind the trees, a pedestrianized downtown drag (or el adoquín, "paving stone") is home to a few decent restaurants, some primitive-looking nightclubs, and Gina Machorro's tourist booth.
"Our beloved governor is trying to rebrand us as the Oaxacan Riviera," Gina tells me on her walking tour of the town. "Even the guidebooks are using the name now. It's insulting. We're the second-poorest state in Mexico, we've got places down the road with no water or electricity, and now we're a Riviera." The Costa Chica is not the Mayan Riviera, nor was it meant to be. Unlike in Playa del Carmen-Mexico's fastest-growing tourist town-development has not spiraled out of control in Puerto: In fact, the town has yet to sprout any five-star resorts, designer hotels, or hipster bars. What it does have is a collection of beaches whose drama and diversity are unmatched anywhere in Mexico and whose Playa Zicatela is Latin America's hottest surf destination, bar none.
Half a mile from Playa Principal, Zicatela is where in the 1970s-just as Oaxaca's once-imperious coffee trade was ebbing-Puerto was reborn. Discovered by surfers from San Diego and now known internationally as the Mexican Pipeline, the waves along Zicatela's three-mile stretch break big and barrel into perfect tubes-much like Hawaii's fabled North Shore. So powerful are the waves-which regularly reach twenty feet but have been known to top sixty-that when I first stood on Zicatela's wide golden sands, I felt their vibration: The waves crash with the force of a thunderous storm and rumble your insides. And they don't stop.
"Every day it's like a machine," says Ángel Salinas, Puerto's de facto surf pioneer. "More longboards have been broken here than anywhere else in the world." Ángel should know. A surfer since the age of eight-and famous throughout the surfing world for the colorful wrestler masks he sports at sea-the forty-one-year-old champion set up the first surf shop in town, as well as Mexico's first surf clinic for children. Puerto now has fifteen surf shops in all and holds two international competitions annually, and about a third of the 450,000 visitors who come here annually are "serious surfers," according to Àngel.
"For years, people thought we were just a bunch of bums and weirdos," he tells me at his shop, Central Surf, on Zicatela's sole, seafront street. "It wasn't until 1987, when we had our first international tournament here, that the locals realized, 'Hang on! Everyone's hanging out, enjoying themselves-and they're not drug addicts.' It was, you know, mucha armonía [lots of harmony]. They realized, 'This is Puerto. This is our image.'?" By the nineties, Puerto was barely escondido (hidden) anymore, and nowadays you can find Swiss-made bagels, Japanese sushi, and a Czech-managed hotel on Zicatela-whose laid-back multiculti feel has eclipsed the stale Anytown, Mexico, scene around el adoquìn.
Angel's talk of armonía is more than just provincial posturing: Everyone in town wants to be my pal. Midway through our interview, a bleached-blond twenty-something walks in (no shoes; though she is, I concede, wearing a bikini top). In an improbable London accent, she introduces herself as Bella, scribbles her e-mail address in my notebook, and walks out. This is not, I assure you, the kind of thing I'm used to-yet it keeps happening. Later that afternoon, a dreadlocked Mexican girl selling necklaces on Playa Principal approaches and asks if I'm from Italy. No, why? "Because I was thinking of trying Italy next year, and I want to know if I need a visa."
Puerto's social kaleidoscope is matched by its changing shoreline. Playa Marinero, I'm told, provides the perfect induction for intermediate surfers and bodyboarders (read: those too awed by the Pipeline). Though truth be told, even Marinero's waves give me too brutal a lashing. Two miles from town, at the foot of a steep, forested cliff, the protected bay of Playa Carrizalillo is more my speed. From my hammock there-on my private terrace at Villas Carrizalillo, Puerto's most beautiful hotel-I feel like I'm floating over an aerial triptych of green, turquoise, and gold.
The Costa Chica's beauty bleeds beyond Puerto. Just inland are the jungled peaks of the Sierra Madre del Sur, home to Oaxaca's resurgent coffee plantations (one of which is now run by the Hotel Santa Fe). And ten minutes west of town is Laguna Manialtepec, a wonderland for birders and kayakers that is separated from the coast by a two-mile-long canal. That's where I'm bound with my half-Swedish, half-Dutch, Mexican-born host Gustavo, known affectionately to his fellow Porteños as Huachinango ("Red Snapper"), because he looks European-as opposed to, say, indigenous, or Afro-Mexican, as is common along Oaxaca's ethnically diverse coast.
Huatulco's vacationland is the Oaxaca that FONATUR wants you to see-rather than the rough-and-ready dreamscape of Y Tu Mamà Tambièn, which was shot along Huatulco's undeveloped beaches. To really experience the small-town magic of Oaxaca's coast, you must head to the belly of the beast, tracing what is nearly the southernmost point of Mexico. There, on the road from Huatulco to Puerto, you'll hit a pearl necklace of villages that includes Puerto Ángel and Zipolite. The former is, from a distance, an exquisite half-moon bay that on closer inspection is ratty and polluted; the latter is a nudist beach where drownings in the riptide are as common as the hard drugs sold there. But then you get to Mazunte, a pretty beach hamlet removed from the madding crowd-and what's more, it's the quiet, delicate epicenter of a marine miracle.
Mexico is home to six of the world's seven sea-turtle species-four of which gravitate to Oaxaca's shores to lay their eggs, and one of which, the olive ridley, now comes in record numbers (150,000 female visits were tracked over three days recently). Until poaching was outlawed in 1990, however, almost the entire community here depended on turtle hunting, with up to a thousand a day slaughtered (for the utility of their skin and not, as is often mistakenly thought, for the green shell that inspired their name).
Turtle tourism has brought visitors and paved the way for low-impact lodgings that embrace the topography. Perched on a steep bluff between Mazunte and neighboring San Agustinillo is Casa Pan de Miel, a five-room designer retreat with an infinity pool hovering over the ocean. Back at sea level, La Posada del Arquitecto is carved right into the rocks on Playa Rinconcito. Its catacomb of rooms feature hanging beds, a shower built into a tree trunk, and thick window shutters-all constructed with wooden nails to counter the oxidizing sea. Like private clubs savoring their anonymity, several hideaways have no road sign, no address, no announcement to the outside world. Rancho Cerro Largo, up a bumpy hill from an unmarked dirt road, is one such lodge, frequented by well-heeled weekenders from Mexico City-even though it has no Web site or phone number.
On Mexico's Pacific coast, Mark Jolly finds a community co-op watching over sea turtles and crocodiles and hotelkeepers carving out cliffs for sleeping. Surf's up!
The 70 miles from Puerto Escondido to Huatulco takes just two hours to traverse by road, but this lesser-known speck of coastline is stuffed with some of Pacific Mexico's most varied pleasures. The Costa Chica's three standout flavors of hostelry are the surfer enclave of Puerto Escondido, the big-box resorts of Huatulco, and the chilled-out string of villages in the middle-notably, Mazunte and San Agustinillo.
Peak season runs from December through mid-April, although Puerto is famed for its 12 months of surf, with the big breaks hitting from April through October. In the quieter (usually rainy) months of September and October, some hotels close, while others slash prices by up to 50 percent.
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