This article is from the April 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Puerto Escondido, Europe Discovers Gilligan’s Island
by David Simmonds
The Mexican state of Oaxaca has some seventeen different groups of indigenous peoples, each with its own Ianguage, culture and dress. It’s a very spiritual, ancient society that firmly grasps its pre-Hispanic customs. Modem day life has yet to impose on many of these smallish, very brown-skinned, gentle people. Their independence is best illustrated by its two most famous sons: Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, both of whom were instrumental in Mexico’s quest for self-rule in the nineteenth century. The drive from Oaxaca City south to the coast is a grueling six to nine hour roller-coaster ride (depending on weather, slow trucks, pit-stops). At the top of the majestic Sierra Madre del Sur you expect to see a guy in lederhosen yodeling to a St. Bernard with a beer keg around his neck. A Mercedes running up your tail pipe. But you don’t. These mountains are inhabited by the same people who have been there for centuries. The road you are driving was dirt twenty years ago. And although it is now paved, you don’t see much traffic. Not many of the locals own cars and most visitors have the good sense to FLY to the coast. Fortunately, my long time friend, ex river runner, raconteur Christopher Hogan joined me on this trip and helped with the driving (yes, Barbara, your husband really was useful).
Anyway, you see all this indigenous culture, the rural remoteness, and you finally get to Puerto Escondido on the beach. And what do you find? A turn-of-the-century pueblo caught in an incredible time warp, anticipating the day they will be blessed with electricity and a daily newspaper? Surprise. Instead you notice the German inn-keepers, Italian restauranteurs, world-class surfers and bare-breasted Scandinavian girls all getting along marvelously. It’s Club Med without the structure and expense. Gilligan before the Captain and MaryAnn. Vallarta before Dick and Liz.
You settle in just before sunset and mumble to yourself, “I’m going to like this place.” The palm trees are taller than the buildings. Siesta is routinely observed by the local businesses. And everyone is moving at a very slow but resolute pace. And as the days progress you will learn what makes this a favorite hang-out for an increasing number of visitors from through-out the globe.
ThE MEXICAN PIPELINE
Electricity arrived in Puerto Escondido in 1969, followed shortly thereafter by the first surfers who found waves that rival those of Hawaii’s famed North Shore. During the rainy season (May through October) the waves are world-class and you can witness some top ranked practitioners tearing it up. There is an international surf contest in November. But the waves can also be formidable the rest of the year and should be approached by only strong swimmers who understand ocean currents. Zicatela Beach, a short stroll east of town center is the most commonly surfed break. I recently body-surfed this beach with swim fins I had packed for the trip and it was all I could handle. Forty-something year old lungs don’t have the capacity they used to, and you don’t really realize it until you’re tested. It’s deceptive and it’s dangerous. So be careful, and stay close to shore when you go in to cool off.
Fortunately, there are plenty of safer areas to swim. The main beach in town is called Bahia Principal. This is where the local fishermen keep their pangas and bring in their daily haul. These waters are rich with sealife and it is truly a fishing village in spite of the advent of tourism in recent years. At the east end of Bahia Principal is Playa Marinero, another safe and popular beach. You can walk from one end of the Bahia to the other in a few minutes. At the end of Playa Marinero there is an out-cropping of rocks and on the other side starts Playa Zicatela, a long, wide beautiful beach where the European custom of topless is widely practiced and
accepted, if not necessarily legal. In the other direction (west) lie three more beaches that aren’t as easy to reach by foot. The first beach is Puerto Angelito, a beautiful little sheltered bay good for snorkeling or scuba. It can be reached by cheaply hiring one of the boats in town to drop you off and pick you up. Or you can go west on highway 200 for one-half mile, turn left at Avenida Miguel Hidalgo. Turn right at the trailer park sign and find the trails leading down to the beach. Just around the rocks from there is Carrizalillo, another small cove. The diving visibility is excellent here with plenty to see, including coral. Still further in that direction is Playa Bacocho, another long, beautiful beach with heavy surf, although not favored by the surfers for board-riding. This stretch of beach will probably be the area of future development from the big hotels chains. That should be a few years off, since the area known as Bahias de Huatulco is just 70 miles away and is slated for fill development over the next fifteen years. Best Western already operates a property here on Bacocho (Hotel Posada Real) but it is very modest in proportions compared to Cancun, Acapulco, etc. It runs about 540.00 per night, but I can’t really recommend it. However its location, high on a hill overlooking the Pacific, would be a good spot for a sunset margarita.
WHEN & WHERE TO OO
You may be surprised by the vegetation in this part of Mexico. In the dry season, it is very dry. The rains generally end in October, and by March and April it is mostly brown. You would think that the farther south you are, the greener it would be. Not so. There are lagoon areas and river valleys that maintain their color and the palm trees look good, but it’s not rain forest. But go in the rainy season or just afterwards and you’ll see green, lush tropical everywhere. Of course it will be hot, humid, sultry…perfect. It will also be cheaper, in what is already an inexpensive place. The prices might go back up for the month of August when all of Europe travels and the hotels are fairly full.
Speaking of prices, it seems that southern Mexico hasn’t heard about the 50% inflation the rest of the country is experiencing. My home away from home in Puerto Vallarta, Posada de Roger, has increased the price for a double from 140 pesos to 240 pesos in recent months. Of course that may decrease again after the season.
The beautiful Zicatela Beach in Puerto Escondido is lined with hotels and restaurants but it is very low-key with no building over three stories. A small road, just recently paved, runs between the properties and the sand but you are essentially ocean-front. My large room with two firm double beds, private patio and ocean view at the Arco Iris was 140 pesos…$19 US. The patios have hooks to hang a hammock. This should be mandatory in every hotel south of Albuquerque. The third story of the hotel has a very good, open-air restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pool and the manicured grounds are first class in this 20 room inn that caters to people of all ages. Young surfers amicably share space with older retirees who are in for the season. And as mentioned, they come from all over the world.
Just down the beach is the Beach Hotel Ines, named for the German daughter of Peter Voss. Peter (a Sean Connery look-alike) traveled throughout Mexico in the late 1980’s looking for the best place to build or buy a hotel. The search ended in Puerto Escondido. The hotel has been a work in progress since. Situated in a palm grove, several buildings surround the swimming pool/restaurant area that serves as a central gathering place for socializing. The twenty accommodations vary from basic thatched roof bungalows for the younger crowd to a house suitable for a couple of families. Ines, an attractive late 20’s lady, seems to run the place with the help of her father, his German girlfriend and his ex-wife. One big, happy family. The food is excellent with an obvious European flavor and draws an interesting crowd. At a recent dinner, we were sitting with the family, drinking, chatting with several Germans, when an American lady got up and started singing. Her best days (voice and otherwise) were obviously a memory but you could tell she probably did this professionally at one time. The problem (?) was in her choice of music. Cabaret. The Liza Minnelli song from the movie about the Nazis. What started out as a tense moment turned into a hand-clapping good old time. But that’s what is so great about Puerto Escondido. It’s a very accepting place where everyone seems to get along. There is a common thread of peace and decency amongst locals and visitors alike that I think stems from each person knowing they have found a unique place as yet untainted by commercial excess. It’s a collective holding of one’s breath, knowing that someday it will all change, and these days will never return.
Another place to recommend on Zicatela is Cabo Blanco. The owner is Gary Valdez, originally from Cuemavaca. He attended the American School Foundation in Mexico City and speaks English without a trace of an accent. I didn’t stay at his hotel, but the bar and restaurant are terrific. He and his wife Roxana prepare fresh fish dinners with eight different sauces for under 55 US that are gourmet quality. After dinner, entertainment was a French folk-singing troubadour backed up by Gary on harmonica with a lot of the local transplants gathered around comparing world visions.
Probably the most popular restaurant on Zicatela is Bruno’s, a small open-air joint with the bar fronting the sidewalk. A great place for people-watching, good food and lively conversation. Don’t look for an owner named Bruno, however. The restaurant was named after a hammerhead shark that used to scare the frijoles out of the surfers off shore. Our tall, gorgeous waitress was from Brazil and on Tuesday nights the specialty is sushi. It’s that kind of place. I had a plate of delicious pasta, green salad and roll for 15 pesos…$2 US.
There are numerous other choices for lodging and dining along the beach, but you’ll see them when you go. I’m sure they all have things to admire, so check them out, and send your findings along to this newsletter so we can share the information.
The alternative to staying along Zicatela is to stay in town. And if you’re an in town kind of person, instead of the beach, there are plenty of options. Some of the hotels do front the Bahia Principal and others are just a block or two away. I noticed primarily Europeans staying in town, as is much more customary on the Continent. Either way, everything is close by in this town of over 30,000 and taxis are plentiful if you don’t want to walk (ten pesos – Zicatela to town). The actual majority of the town sits on the other side of highway 200, rarely seen by visitors. It makes the downtown and beach seem much smaller that the reported population.
The one in-town hotel I found appealing is Hotel Paraiso Escondido. The colonial style, rambling building has carved stone and other artwork scattered about with room terraces looking out to sea. It is very serene, oozing character, and I observed an older, affluent clientele. I didn’t notice these people hanging out at Bruno’s slamming tequila shooters later in the evening. But you never know. This hotel deserves consideration but you’ll pay quite a bit more. A double will run 450 pesos ($60 US). I’m not sure it has that much character.
The “class” hotel in the area would have to be the 40 room Hotel Santa Fe. Located between Playa Marinero and Playa Zicatela, The Santa Fe offers about as much luxury as can be found on this stretch of coast without going to Acapulco or Huatulco. The air-conditioned rooms are tastefully decorated with colonial style furniture, file floors and hand woven fabrics. Most rooms have private balconies with ocean views. The vegetarian restaurant is excellent and serves fresh fish in a variety of ways. I heard it said that the own~r~ are American but it seems to be very Mexican in ambience. Doubles, in season, are $75 US.
The center of town is Avenida Perez Gaga, running parallel to Bahia Principal. About two blocks of this is closed to traffic and has helped create a pedestrian mall of restaurants, shops and nighttime entertainment. Live music and dancing can be found at Bananas, Coco and Baba/u. Some of the hotels along here will also have things going on various nights of the week. All of this “action” is actually very low-key and does little to subvert the peace you came all this way for. Most people I encountered were more interested in a good, lengthy meal and lively conversation with new-made friends.
Canadian ornithologist, Michael Malone, operates Hidden Voyages Ecotours through the wild lagoons of the Puerto Escondido area. Reservations can be made only at Turismo Rodimar Travel Agency, ~905 Perez Gaga on the pedestrian mall in town. Besides bird-watching, you will see wildlife and the tropical flora of the region. They offer three different trips, all with English-speaking guides. Prices vary from $30 US to $38 US.
You will find other tour operators along this same stretch on Perez Gaspar offering trips to Puerto Angel, Bahias Hualtulco, coffee plantations, horseback riding and hot springs. Or you can participate in the area 5 most appealing activity…collapsing on the beach with a good book and a cold beverage. Playa Zicatela is lined with palapas and beach chairs. You will be expected to pay a few pesos for the use of these, but it is money well spent. This southern sun can get hot, so bring a hat and carry fresh drinking water, whatever your activity.
A WORD OF CAUTION
I guess, unfortunately, every place has its detractions. Sometimes you hear unfounded rumors that defy logic and you choose not to believe them. Other times you discover the rumors to be true. I had heard that there is a band of local robbers working the Puerto Escondido area. I talked to a girl who was robbed of $200 US at knife point. She and her boyfriend were out of town, away from any other people. The boyfriend was in the water surfing, she on the beach with her purse. I asked Ines, the German owner of the hotel, about these type of robberies. “Yes, they do happen. But people just need to use some common sense. If you’re going to a remote area, don’t take any valuables. The bandits aren’t out to hurt anyone physically. They just want what you have. Other people have been robbed on the dark beach at night walking back from town. So you need to stick to the well lit road or take a taxi. The local police won’t do anything about this. They seem to be protecting the bad guys.”
So there you have it. You have to be careful, as you would in many parts of the world. I don’t want to make excuses for thievery, for there are none. But be aware that Mexico has undergone a huge financial disaster. Many of the Mexicans who cross our border seeking work come from Oaxaca. What has always been one of the poorest Mexican states has suffered mightily. In this area there is no industry, besides fishing and farming, to provide jobs. People will do what is necessary to feed themselves, and a small minority will break the law. Other than this risk, the people of Puerto Escondido are tremendously kind and helpful.