This article is from the July 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Puerto Angel, Lost In Time
by David Simmonds
This is the kind of place I SHOULD like. It’s remote and sits on a small, beautiful protected bay. It claims no blaring discos, pay phones or street side hustlers.. .no time-shares, Westin or neon. But, friends, something is missing, and I’m not sure what it is. Who was it who said there’s no THERE there? Well, it has a little THERE there, but not much. Maybe it was the fried oysters I ate upon arriving in town. After madly traversing the Sierra Madre del Sur from Oaxaca City for six hours with my buddy Hogan, all I wanted was fresh seafood and a cold, cold cerveza. Now usually when ordering anything fried I’ll wander back to the kitchen and check out the oil in use to make sure it’s been changed in the last week. Because that is often the source of stomach problems.. .not the food, but the cooking oil. Remember those petri dish experiments in high school where stuff grew that could kill a buzzard? Same concept with the oil. Anyway, I failed to inspect it and I knew something wasn’t right about halfway through the plate. And, of course, being one who rarely follows his own advice, I finished every last one of the oysters. So maybe it wasn’t Puerto Angel at all, just a crummy disposition from a trampoline stomach. But I don’t think so.
The town gained a reputation as a hippie haven in the 60’s with one of the most picturesque and pristine settings in Mexico. And maybe that’s the problem today. The 60’s were a wonderful, tumultuous time in history, but it is just that.. history. It’s time to bury the tie-dye and glazed eye stares and jump on the internet. Heck, even the recently deceased Timothy Leary (“tune in, drop out, turn on”) understood that. By the 70’s he was heavily into computers.
Before becoming fatally negative, there are some things I liked about Puerto Angel. As mentioned, it is quite pretty. The views from the hills looking down on the village are postcard material. But you get into the guts of the town, walk the streets and the shore, and it just feels dirty. Not the kind of dirty you get while camping or mountain climbing, it was something else. Maybe too many years of peso-less hangers-on have deprived the town of the pride and fastidiousness that you see in small villages throughout the country. Maybe it’s because fresh water is always the problem, preventing the development of larger hotels and other money producing endeavors.
Which brings us to the people. Most of the folks I met were cordial, if not overly friendly. Maybe civil but slightly jaded would be an apt description. They seem content in their lives but perhaps lacking hope for a better future. It takes away some of the spontaneous joy you would normally see through the course of a day. Perhaps I’m being too critical, but I saw a remarkable difference driving fifry miles up the road to Puerto Escondido (Mexico File, April 1996) later in the week. Escondido is a happy place. Angel seems rather sad. Yin and Yang.
I did enjoy La Posada Cailon Devata located on the Playa Panteon on the west side of the small bay. Suzanne and Mateo Lopez (now divorced) have constructed an interesting array of rooms running up a canyon just off the beach. Suzanne is an American who now runs the hotel with her grown son and daughter who just graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara. There are a variety of rooms ranging from $15 US to $40 US depending on the quality of the room and the time of year. This is an ecologically-oriented inn and the tree-shaded restaurant serves only vegetarian, but sorry… no sodas. Suzanne has some definite ideas about how things should be-but if you can overlook that, it is a fine place to stay with the upper building providing an incredible view of the town and bay.
I met people from all over the States at the hotel and everyone seemed to be enjoying their stay. Just don’t expect to order one of those harmful sodas if you get thirsty. The hotel can be contacted at: 011-52-958-430-48.
This is the beach where you can stay as long as you want for around three bucks a day, depending on your appetite, gastronomic or otherwise. This mile-long beach, two miles north of Puerto Angel, is lined with very cheap accommodations. You can string a hammock under a palapa for a dollar or two a night and use a communal shower and toilet. Or some of the establishments offer bare-bones rooms for five to ten US dollars. Backpackers from the States and Europe are the predominant clientele and generally seemed content and satisfied with this part of their journey. I have to remind myself that twenty-five years ago I was doing the exact same thing all along the Mexican coast. I have never regretted it, and it helps me appreciate the whole scene.
This beach, like so many on the south coast, has some tremendous surf, not to be taken lightly when swimming. Try to swim where others seem safe, out of the np currents that can take you out to sea. As mentioned in previous issues, if you get caught in a rip, swim parallel to the shore until you are away from the current, then swim in. Above all, don’t panic. Same thing if you get pounded by heavy surf. Just roll with the wave until you surface. Don’t fight it. As you come to the surface, take a deep breath without swallowing water and get prepared to be hit again, just in case. If not, catch your breath and work your way into shore. Or even better, let the next wave carry you in.
You’ll see topless bathing on this beach, and at the far end total nudity. So if that’s an issue, take heed. You’ll also be approached to buy marijuana, and inasmuch as the guy doing the peddling is probably related to the local police, it’s best that you decline.
There is some remarkably good food along the beach at the thatched roof restaurants. The fresh fish, soups, pastas, fresh fruit and yogurt w~re delicious and well prepared.
I kind of liked Zipolite, but only for a short time. Doing nothing but laying in the sun day after day with little local interaction makes little sense, whether it be here or at the Camino Real. Although I’ve been guilty of both from time to time, it’s not my preferred journey.
Five miles further down the road from Zipolite is the turtle town of Mazunte. Mazunte was for years the turtle slaughter capital. This is one of the primary beaches where the turtles lay their eggs and the turtle slaughter house still stands, although abandoned. By the late 1980’s the turtle population was in serious trouble and the turtle fishermen were losing their livelihood. Many turned to the slash and burn technique of farming for survival, in the process destroying bird habitat. Fortunately, the Mexican government stepped in and outlawed the capture of turtles and their eggs in 1990. The next year the government created the National Mexican Turtle Center in Mazunte where all the varieties of turtles residing in Mexican coastal waters are on exhibit. Six of the world’s seven ocean turtles live on Mexico’s beaches and all are here at the museum.
Mazunte has now declared itself a Reserva Ecologica Campesina. Its purpose is to preserve the local environment while at the same time maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. Nutrition education and garbage separation are being pursued, as well as tourist oriented projects of an ecological nature. The local fishermen will take you out to sea to view the turtles and dolphins and the local people you hammock space or a bed for overnight stays with meals. Just seven miles from Puerto Angel, I found the people of Mazunte to be much more trusting. These people had to change their way of life completely and have done so with enthusiasm and success. I liked this little town and will someday return. The museum is well worth a morning’s visit. The guided tour in English was tremendously informative and to see the different turtles up close was a thrill. The price is 10 pesos and slip the tour guide a few more upon completion.