This article is from the April 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
Bahías de Huatulco
by David Simmonds
It was September, a perfect weather month in San Diego when the tourists have returned to their less desirable hometowns, leaving the beaches and freeways to us wise enough to reside here, when I got an email inviting me on a press trip to Huatulco on Oaxaca’s southern coast to cover a half-marathon in November. My first question was: “What’s a half-marathon? Real short strong guys?” Ignoring my sarcasm, I was informed that Huatulco was hosting the event for the fourth consecutive year and that world-class male and female athletes would be competing in a 1.2 mile ocean swim, 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run in oppressive heat and humidity that would liquefy the cerebral cortex in mere mortals. “Sounds like fun¼any cold beer down there?” Assured that beer and AC would be amply provided, I immediately saw the opportunity to lengthen my summer by a week by enthusiastically signing on for the trip. It proved to be a very wise decision, notwithstanding a scarcity of muscle-bound midgets. In 1974 Mexico’s National Trust Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) was formed to oversee and plan tourism projects in specific areas of Mexico, thereby raising the population’s standard of living and encouraging foreign investment. The five original sites for development were Cancun, Ixtapa, Loreto, Los Cabos and Huatulco. Most observers would gauge the success of this plan by the number of hotel rooms that have resulted and the visitor traffic. By these measures, Cancun has been an enormous victory with Los Cabos a distant second, followed by Ixtapa, Huatulco and Loreto. Not surprisingly, I would reverse the order, based on my theory that “smaller is better,” at least when evaluating places I like to hang.Huatulco, with just 2,300 hotel rooms, was originally planned to accommodate ten times that many, but it just never took off when the demand wasn’t there. Even though they have an airport that can handle large volumes, not many airlines fly in. Thankfully, the developers and FONATUR didn’t build-out all at once, and when they saw that it was going to be a tough sell, they, and the times, decided that creating an environmentally friendly resort would be a wise move. And that is what we have today, a tropical, in many ways stunning, coastal resort with the daily pace of an indigenous village. The local building ordinance allows for no building to be over six stories and all rooftops must be red tile. All of the locals in the tourist industry that I talked to were very proud and in support of the low-key plans for the area, quite sure that another Cancun is not in the making.
Prior to 1982 the Bays of Huatulco were mostly uninhabited with locals eking out a living by farming and fishing, much as they did when the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century. For a brief period from 1540 to 1560 the area served as the major port between New Spain and Peru, eventually moving up the coast to Acapulco where the deep water bay proved to be more accommodating. The many bays and coves of Huatulco provided logistic havens for pirates Thomas Cavendish and Francis Drake, resulting in orders from Spain to destroy the primary port in 1616. Not much changed for the next 375 years, about the time coastal highway 200 was extended past Puerto Angel to the west, into the undeveloped coast. Soon, the government began displacing the local farmers inland a few miles into the Sierra Madre. A new town was conceived and born, Crucecita, on Bahía Chahué to house the construction workers, support service personnel and hotel workers who would be necessary for FONATUR’s next tourist creation. Now numbering a population of 10,000, Crucecita reminds me of a small south Florida town, well-kept and clean, but with very few cars to disrupt the calm and quiet. Just to the west is Bahía de Santa Cruz, home to the boat harbor, followed by three undeveloped bays accessible only by boat or dirt trails, Bahía Organo, Bahía El Maguey and Bahía Cacaluta. These are followed westerly by Bahía Chachacual, and Bahía San Augustín. East of Chahue is Bahía Tangolunda, the major hotel zone, and then Bahía Conejos. Those are the nine, spectacular bays that comprise Bahías de Huatulco, measuring 25 miles from east to west. The Half IronmanUpon my arrival for the event, I was surprised to learn that nearly 250 participants from around the world pay their way (unless they have a sponsor) to test their endurance in what is widely acknowledged as one of the toughest courses on the circuit. The triathalon had moved from May the previous year due to temperatures topping 100 degrees, to November, when the heat topped out at about 87 degrees. A major draw is the visual beauty of the area, presumably diminishing the effects of pushing the body to levels of exhaustion that would fell a yak. For most of the athletes, the goal is clearly to finish, content in the accomplishment. Once the race begins it is evident that there are just a handful of the participants who are trained and able to compete for the top prize. The race times separating the elite professionals from the amateurs are considerable. The Pro Purse totals $25,000, with $12,500 allotted for each gender. First place grabs $5,000 with the remainder divided by the next four finishers. Attaining personal wealth is not a major, or realistic, motivating factor, although product endorsements are available to the top dogs.At the pre-race dinner banquet, hosted by the Camino Real Hotel, I met Jessi Stensland, a New Jersey native who now lives and trains in Carlsbad, California. A young Kim Basinger look-alike, the ripped, 28 year-old is a magna cum laude graduate of George Washington University where she excelled in Division 1 swim competitions. Upon graduation, Jessie began triathlon training, winning her first event one year later at the St. Kitts International Triathlon. As we shared a dinner table with several others, Jessi confidently predicted a victory the following day, her first time to compete at this grueling distance. The table clinked margarita glasses and wished her luck, confident that a more experienced competitor would prevail.Early the next morning all of the athletes were facing the ocean, male and female, awaiting the signal to start the 1.2 mile swim out to a distant buoy and back, fighting a slight chop and ocean currents. It is an amazing sight to see 500 arms churning in unison, the placid sea turned into a salty washing machine. Any doubts about Jessie’s earlier prediction were quickly dispelled as she was the 6th overall to exit the ocean, and by a long margin, the first woman. She appeared to be barely breathing as she sprinted off to her bicycle for the next leg., a 56-mile hilly, winding course that separates the contenders from the pretenders. Jessie increased her lead on the bike, with only a 13.1 mile run to go – just as the blazing sun was at full-furnace force and the spectators were scurrying for shade and something cold to drink. I think I noticed a trace of sweat on her at this point. Had she exhausted her reserves, failing to properly pace herself due to inexperience? Her first place finish for women, tenth overall, with a time of 5:05:49, proved her prediction of victory to be right on point. The second place winner was Kimberly Hager 16 minutes later, with Mexican 19-year-old Circe Saucedo finishing third with a time of 5:29:34.
Australian Chris Leigh was the men’s champion, winning for the 8th time in the 10 event season for this circuit, with a second-ever best time at this venue of 4:13:27. Michael Lovato from the United States crossed the line 2nd, four minutes later, with New Zealand’s Bryan Rhodes filling out the winner’s podium with a time of 4:19:13. Mexican men boasted 5 of the top 9 finishers, a well deserved source of pride for the local hosts.
That night, many of the pro athletes met at a local disco to celebrate. The bar was equipped with a huge sound system and a stage in front of a huge aquarium housing a variety of tropical fish. Not being a big disco fan, I left after a couple of beers, but the next morning I heard that a few of the top marathoners displayed the passion that propels them to insanely train by stripping down to their skivvies and plunging into the aquarium. Somehow I think the Aussie might have been the lead spirit in that decision. Huatulco will host the event again this year in November, although the exact dates have not yet been announced.
Other Reasons to Go
So, is there anything to do if you don’t go for the Half-Ironman? Although a bit sleepy compared to the more popular beach resorts, Huatulco offers an atmosphere for you to be as lethargic or active as you like. The beaches are as fine as any in Mexico, with the many bays providing safe swimming and world-class diving. There are coral reefs and steep canyons that house abundant marine life. The reefs haven’t had the traffic and resulting destruction that you find at many Caribbean dive sites, and sport-fishing, if not as stellar as at Los Cabos in Baja California, is still very good. You can spend your days touring the bays by boat, mountain biking through lush hills, horseback riding, bird watching, white-water rafting in the Copalita River or visiting the nearby coffee plantations for a taste of “Pluma,” Mexico’s best coffee.
There is also a seldom used golf course, nestled in the coastal hills and extending down to an ocean green. It is not in great shape, but not bad either. You can play 18 with cart for around $60.00.
Most of the major hotel properties are in Tangolunda Bay, with just eight properties nicely spaced around the perimeter. The most impressive, and most expensive, is the Quinta Real, perched on a hill overlooking the mouth of the bay. With only 28 suites, this blend of Moorish and Mexican architecture is a perfect splurge choice. The Camino Real Zaashila, the Gala Resort, and Las Brisas are other good options, all offering fine accommodations for reasonable prices. Nowhere in Huatulco will you be fighting the crowds or hiding behind a book to avoid time-share and trinket salesmen. And if you want to get a little crazy there is always the disco where you might find a drunken marathoner aquarium-swimming late at night, in training for the next big event.