Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast: Puerto Escondido, Zipolite, and Mazunte
Back to Puerto Escondido. Back to electricity, showers, flushing toilets, and contact with the outside world. It was bittersweet to be in Puerto, both good and bad to be back in the urbanized beach town. But I believe that lessons learned from living with surf bums for nine days will stick with us. Surfers tend to have a good deal of experience living on a shoestring budget and useful tips were silently passed on throughout the previous week. A bar of laundry detergent was immediately purchased to keep our handwashing skills honed.
Puerto Escondido translates to “hidden port” and it’s Bahia Principal is protected from the brunt of the mighty Pacific by it’s rocky headlands to the west. This gives the beach a calm and tranquil nature and I’m certain it was pretty damn awesome years ago. Puerto today has a very streamlined tourist feel to it with many savvy “business” men offering boat services for dolphin spotting, whale watching, and deep sea fishing. They speak English well and show you pictures of what they have to offer constantly while you stroll the beach. Being tourists I’m convinced we have dollar signs above our heads that are just out of range on the color spectrum for our eyes to focus on. I ran into Martin, a Mexican who we met the first time around, and noticed his prices increased due to the continuation of Semana Santa. He promised the world on his tours but after speaking with some others around town it became apparent that the tours promise to “look” for whales, dolphins, and turtles, not necessarily see them. I also believe we just missed the “tail” end of the whale spotting season and hiring Martin didn’t sound like a promising venture.
Puerto kind of feels like a beach town in California but has sweltering hot days and a party-town vibe at night. There are dozens of places on the streets offering Micheladas and shops are open late to cater to the crowds. Its neighboring town/strip is Playa Zicatela where the surfers migrate to try and catch some of the classic pipeline waves this beach routinely churns out. Take a walk down the main strip to see how ex-pats have adopted this town as their home and run a wide array of businesses and eateries that can keep you stuck in Puerto for longer than expected. We spent two days here recharging and getting a hold of our parents to let them know that we were still indeed alive after disappearing for nine days. The next leg of our journey was to head east for the pristine Oaxcacan coastline we’ve been hearing about since our feet hit Mexican soil.
An hour long bus ride dropped us off in the chaotically busy and horridly humid town of Pochutla. Pochutla’s existence seems like soley based on its location as a transportation hub between larger cities to the east, west, and north and the beautiful beaches south of it’s last “alto” sign. We had to ask about 5 locals where the camioneta (truck collectivos) were running to the coast before success was reached. Every soul in this town seemed to have weary eyes for travelers and no one seemed to notice we were walking in circles with hulking backpacks through the mid-day heat. After 45 minutes in the back of the truck we stepped off in the blissful little town of Zipolite.
We walked down to the main walking street determined to shop around and avoid the routine of striking a deal the first place we could lay our backpacks down. Zipolite’s main street was comprised of an eclectic bag of eateries from around the world with the most laid back beach atmosphere you could possibly imagine. This was a place for souls to get lost and relax while watching the sun sink and the sands shift. There are plenty of transplants who found this place and made it their mission to call it home. French cafes, Italian bistros, Argentinian barbecues, and of course local fare line both the road and the beach.
After looking confused enough some hombre lead us to the Brisa Marina hotel, coincidentally owned by a Polish transplant named Dan from California. Dan wore aviators, no shirt, and carried around a book along with a thousand stories whenever we saw him. Dan made millions in California during the real estate boom of the early 90’s only to lose his empire moments later. He found Zipolite by chance when his daughter left the LA Times open on his table with an article exposing the town as a place in Mexico where the beaches were gorgeous, hammocks cost a buck for a night, nudity was commonplace, and grass was everywhere. He immediately took us in offering us his humorous stories, knowledge of the town, and booze. He even conducted a paypal transaction for us when we were a little shy on cash. Good people. He immediately forced us to relax and lay in the hammock to take in the sights, the sounds, and smells of his little slice of paradise. I liked Dan.
The water on the beach was a warm and welcoming teal-bluish color with very high salinity. It’s said that Zipolite translates to “beach of the dead” with good reasoning. The undercurrent, convergent waves, and riptides here can be brutal and unforgiving. Flags on the beaches shores indicate the level of warning that swimmers should pay attention to and lifeguards routinely pulled people out of the water. I borrowed a boogy board and chased the big waves further out, naturally. A lifeguard came up to Elissa and asked if I was a good swimmer after noticing my repeated attempts. Su novio nada bien?
We spent hours walking the beach that was lined with a wide array of interesting and unusual accommodations. There were hammocks, tents, parked campers, stilted cabanas, hotels, and all-in-one hotel/restaurant/campground/bar/Jamaican music joints to lay your head down. Boogy boarders here were at a professional level, riding waves like surfers right into the beach. This stretch of sand was like none I’ve ever seen before, a wild-wild west of coastal towns bearing people of all flavors who flock here to stretch out their legs and do, well, whatever. Beaches have a magnetic attraction to most people and it’s easy to see why people get stuck in Zipolite’s field for months. The lodging was very cheap, the food was awesome, and there was plenty to entertain yourself with. This was also hippy land, most easily identified by the presence of bongo drums, devil sticks, bare feet, glazed eyes, and pot food expecting you to to give them your money for their efforts. The nudity kept us amused at first but eventually desensitization set in after continual exposure. They all blended into the background of the softly focused beach portrait our eyes were adoring. We also had the best coconut to date from an old spirit offering only furniture and the delicious fruit. Upon asking for a coco frio he looked up, got off his hammock, and cut the fleshy fruit open right before our eyes. It was worth the 15 pesos for the demonstration alone.
The next and final beach we sought out was Mazunte. It was a close neighbor of Zipolite and took about 10 minutes by truck to reach. We fell victim to staying at a thatched roof hotel/restaurant/bar on the beach due to the heat and discovered that we were back to bucket showers and toilets post payment. But Mazunte’s beach more than made ammends and was indeed gorgeous, carved out of the rocky headlands resembling giant stretched out horseshoes leaving sand behind for feet and bodies to enjoy. The bedrock tongues stuck out past high tide levels, isolating little sections and giving them a “next town over” feel. Mazunte is also home to a turtle reserve compound raising and releasing turtles back into the ocean. We spent hours watching the first part of their lives unfold in their temporary homes. Mazunte’s waves were bone-crushing and broke right onto the sand itself. Body surfing here should be performed with caution and the expecation that you will be tossed around like clothes in an industrial-strength washing machine. This was a prime location for skim boarders because beach shelf was kind of a like a steep ramp that rolled right to the water.
Mazunte’s unreal turquoise waters were best observed along the little hike to Punta Cometa just west of it’s beach. This 30 minute adventure brought you up and down some of the most spectacular cliffs overlooking coves, hidden beaches, and coastal ridgelines bearing giant cacti. I did not bring my camera for our sunset walk and immediately regretted this decision. Elissa and I sat on a rocky ridge that separated the headland from the arm of an ancient bedrock spit and took in another gorgeous Mexican sunset. The night life in Mazunte was relaxed and fun and we spent the evening listening to live reggae and acoustic versions of classic rock tunes. The following morning I took a quick hike back to Punta Cometa but the natural lighting and magic was just not the same. Departure from these dreamy sand havens was tough but we had another intense bus trip through the mountains to endure to get back to Oaxaca. The universe loves balance.