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Far from the mayhem of the Mayan Riviera, there's a Mexican locale where beaches are still chill, surfers mingle with expats, and the lucky traveller can revisit the Mexico of yesteryear.
I’ve barely woken from my afternoon nap when I’m summoned into reality by what sounds like a conch shell blowing. In any other situation I might pass it off as a lingering figment of a dream, but I’ve been told in advance what this sound signifies: it’s time to release the turtles.
I head down to the beach, still a bit foggy, to find a man unloading a wriggling sack from the back of an ATV amid a small group of excited tourists. Before I know it, I’m handed a minuscule baby sea turtle tucked in a half coconut shell (we’re given explicit instructions not to touch them), and I race to give it a soft landing on the sand before it instinctively catapults its tiny body out of its container and toward the sea. Following our own instincts, we humans coalesce into an ad-hoc cheer squad as our momentary charges battle their way across what suddenly seems like an impossibly wide swath of sand and into the pounding red-flag surf. We watch until the last of the little guys finally catches a wave, and, as the group finally dissipates, I turn my back on the water to realize the sound of the ocean almost seems to complement the construction noises from the condo buildings going up in front of me.
The balance between unspoiled nature and burgeoning development defines Oaxaca’s Emerald Coast these days. This relatively unknown corner of southwestern Mexico called Puerto Escondido has long been a beloved destination for surfers lured by the truly epic swells and, more recently, by foodies attracted to the region’s distinctive culinary fare: so-fresh-it’s-practically-moving seafood, deep and complex moles, meaty Oaxacan cheese and boundary-pushing local delicacies of the insect variety. But it’s only now that the resort-style infrastructure more common to Mexico’s more popular destinations has started to creep in, and with it has come a push to appeal to more mainstream vacationers.
Canadian-owned Vivo Resorts, my home for the week, is the first multi-building waterfront resort to spring up along Palmarito Beach, 20 kilometres of otherwise undeveloped seaside terrain about 20 minutes from Puerto Escondido. But my fears that development means this paradise may soon be paved in the manner of the Mayan Riviera are vehemently quashed by the resort staff, who tell me the area lacks the same government incentives that led to the row-upon-soulless-row of all-inclusive resorts emblematic of Cancún or Cozumel. This region, I’m told, has adopted a slow-growth philosophy aimed at balancing a growing resort industry and its much-needed economic boost with the nature reserves and biodiversity that give the Emerald Coast its off-the-beaten-track feel (hence Vivo’s partnership with the non-profit turtle sanctuary just up the road, and my thrilling end to the day).
Of equal allure is the lack of separation between the tourist areas and the agrarian communities and public beaches along the coast that provide a window into a slice of Mexican life that is truly deserving of the term “authentic.” Case in point: our way into Puerto Escondido the next morning is punctuated with running commentary by our driver and guide, Jesus, who excitedly points out the peanut, sesame and corn fields that have long supported the local economy, and regales us with tales of his own childhood in the nearby town of Chila. “My grandfather used to show me how to make salt from the dirt,” he tells us, gesturing to the abundant red earth.
That literal salt-of-the-earth ethos extends to Puerto Escondido, a city of 45,000, first founded in the 1920s as an outpost for the coffee, cocoa and cinnamon grown in the nearby Sierra Madre mountains. A relative zygote by Mexican standards, the city lacks the grandiose architecture or ancient ruins of other destinations (for those, you’ll have to make the more than six-hour over-mountain trek to Oaxaca City) and, mercifully, is also without the shopping-mall-esque tourist strips found in more established spots. Local crafts, souvenirs and beachwear are instead acquired on the Adoquin, the beachside stroll where you’re just as likely to find locals heading out for a night on the town as you are sunburned gringos. Permeating Puerto is a laid-back boho vibe, a reflection of the surf culture that has been cultivated here since the 1950s. The city’s famous attraction, Zicatela Beach, is orbited by backpacker hostels, rustic cabanas, hole-in-the-wall cafés and even a topless beach, and in the winter the area is beset by surfers from all over the world who come to contend with up-to-10-metre ocean swells.
My visit in the off-season ostensibly coincides with what are in theory more manageable conditions, but the waves on our visit are big enough to keep me happily beach-bound as we poke into sea caves and watch a handful of presumably amateur surfers attempt to avoid crashing into the rocks.
Aiming for a less adrenalin-fuelled location, we grab lunch at Villas Carrizalillo, a clifftop collection of upscale private villas where the view alone is worth the trip. After a meal of fresh-caught grouper and margaritas (the obvious choice) we descend the 160 stairs to Carrizalillo Beach, one of several smaller coves where the sheltered waters are, allegedly, more amenable to swimmers. I head in for a dip but after nearly losing my swimsuit to the shore break, I opt for a shaded beach lounger and a beer just as an afternoon storm rolls in—an almost-daily occurrence that provides a welcome break from the heat of the day and doesn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. Dry and content under my umbrella, I pull out a book, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes from the increasingly stormy seas.
The next morning brings the return of clear skies and we venture out to Laguna de Manialtepec, a protected coastal lagoon and crucial wildlife habitat. After yesterday’s wild waves, the glass-still waters are particularly enticing, as are the shaded hammocks on offer at the quaint lakeside café. But siestas are better when they’re earned, so I load into a Zodiac to tour the mangroves (and nearly come face to face with all manner of storks, egrets and even an incognito iguana) before arriving at Puerto Suelo, a tiny oceanfront settlement on a sandbar sandwiched between the lagoon and the sea. Jesus tells us these micro-villages, often without running water or electricity, are not uncommon along the coast, which is traditional territory to no fewer than 16 different Indigenous groups. This particular one is home to just two families, who seem to be out for the day, so our boat captain takes over hosting duties by cutting us fresh coconuts from a nearby tree. I sip the sweet coconut water down near the ocean, marvelling at the sight of mile upon mile of completely virgin beach sprawling out before me. I’m in utter disbelief that something so pure still exists in this world.
On our final day, we trade in oceanic Zen for the chaotic energy of Puerto Escondido’s Benito Juárez market, where, on a busy Saturday morning, I do an excellent job of getting in the way of the locals as they go about their weekly shopping. This is a food lover’s dream, packed with more varieties of produce than the typical Canadian ever gets to see—who knew there were so many different types of avocados? I sample some mamey, a sweet-potato-meets-papaya situation and, emboldened by my daring, dip into the overflowing buckets of crickets, which pack a surprisingly fishy taste that I’m not in any hurry to make part of my rotation. There are also endless stalls selling fish, cheese, meats and bags of freshly milled masa, all of which Vivo’s head chef, Roberto Cruz, employs for our farewell dinner later that night.
By the time I find myself back at Puerto’s tiny airport the next morning—watching old Mexican musicals on the TV at the ridiculously charming in-gate tiki bar, I can’t help but hope the Emerald Coast’s accessible, authentic character really will withstand its inevitable discovery by more people like me, which, I suppose, is the highest praise a visitor can bestow.
If you need to fly directly to Puerto Escondido, your only choice is to route through Mexico City. However, if you don’t mind a short drive, the easier option is to take one of the numerous direct charters (Air Transat, WestJet) to the package-tour destination of Huatulco, then rent a car and take the picturesque drive north. It’s only two hours and it will give you the mobility to explore the neighbouring area.
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