The search for the perfect beach town is for some a quest comparable to the pursuit of the Fountain of Youth. To free yourself—however briefly—from the unending constraints of time and responsibility grows harder with each swiftly passing year. In addition to a beautiful stretch of shore, the perfect beach town must also have good food and drink at reasonable prices, not too many tourists, and very little to do. And even though I’ve always considered such a quest to be its own satisfaction, I recently came dangerously close to finding perfection on the gloriously blue Pacific Ocean, in the Mexican fishing village of Puerto Escondido.
Until a few years ago, most of the tourists who ventured to Escondido were surfers who came to test the powerful waves of Zicatela Beach—the Mexican Pipeline—which has some of the finest right- and left-breaking waves in the world. But in recent years the word has leaked out that this is also a fine spot for wandering up and down soft sandy beaches, eating fresh fish, sipping cold beer or fruit drinks, and taking long, lazy siestas. To get to this little corner of heaven, you need only take Mexican Airlines to Mexico City and on to Puerto Escondido. Alternately, you can go through Mexico City to Oaxaca and from there catch AeroMorelos’ one daily flight to Escondido—a turboprop adventure that flies wing-to-peak with the towering Sierra Madre del Sur. Skimming just above the treetops, you have magnificent views of densely forested slopes dotted with a few small villages and cultivated clearings, some of which seem to harbor tall stands of marijuana—still a major cash crop for the area despite government efforts to eradicate it. Coming out of a steep descent, your plane banks sharply over the ocean and lands at a small airport, where you take a colectivo van to your hotel for four bucks. Welcome to paradise.
Like a clinging vine, the town of Puerto Escondido winds around the side of a hill surrounding a beautiful south-facing bay. Just steps from the shore are numerous open-air restaurants, several small hotels, and a modest market selling lots of sandals and a fair selection of native Oaxacan crafts. Atop the hill is another area of businesses, where the locals do their shopping, but the heart of the town is on the ocean’s shore. From October through the middle of May, the weather is gorgeously tropical and humid. Shorts, sunglasses, and sunscreen are essential packing, and you may crank up the air conditioning even in December. From mid-May through September, sometimes into October, however, it rains frequently, mosquitoes abound, and the weather is hot. No problem; simply go during the seven or so nice months of the year. Plan now and you can be there as soon as the heat breaks.
You can live two ways while you’re in Puerto Escondido: one as a tourist, the other as a surfer. The top-of-the-line tourist lodging is the American-owned Hotel Santa Fé, which overlooks the rocky point separating the downtown beach from the surfing beach. One of the best-designed hotels in Mexico, the Santa Fé is blessed with rooms that are like secret hideouts, with cool stucco walls, tile floors, balconies on one side with views of the ocean, and best of all, air conditioning. Guests pass the time lolling around the secluded palm-shaded pool, in the breezy open-air restaurant and bar, or on nearby Playa Marinero, which offers sunbathing, safe swimming, and a parade of swimsuits and suntans.
The surfers, on the other hand, hang out on Zicatela Beach, where the waves are big and the accommodations are cheap. The Bungalows Jardín have spartan rooms with cinder-block walls, a nice pool, and a safe in the office for you valuables. The whole place sits under a dense canopy of tropical vegetation, so the fans in the rooms are enough to keep you cool. Directly in front of the hotel is Bruno’s Restaurant, which offers the cheapest, most reliable food in town. Breakfast, American or Mexican style, costs $2; the two-for-one burger special at dinner is $3. By contrast, a big meal at the Santa Fé runs twenty bucks a person.
Another good place to eat in town is La Perla Flameante, which has views of the town promenade and serves fish about a dozen different ways. I had red snapper that had been out of the water less than an hour, and that is a very good definition of “fresh.” Dinner with beer cost less than $10. Il Cappuccino is a hip espresso house that plays French, British, and American radio for homesick tourists. Just across the street is a giant ice cream stand with a variety of flavors that will seriously challenge your Spanish vocabulary.
To work up a big appetite for dinner, you can take a long walk along an amazing path built at the base of the cliffs on the north side of the bay. With many steps and footbridges, the path winds up and down the face of the rocks, passing below a lighthouse and just above a number of brimming tide pools. Half a mile from town, you finally turn the last corner of the cliffs, from which you can watch the crimson sun sink slowly into the ocean.
To get to know the locals, lend a hand when they drag one of the heavy fishing boats out of the water and across the sand for repairs. You can also rent horses to ride on the beach, so even if you’re not a surfer, you can still pound the waves.
The farther south I travel in Mexico, the more in awe I am of the strange mix of pre-Hispanic myth and Western religion that structures people’s lives. Parked on the street in front of the Santa Fé were two Ford cargo trucks carrying the worldly belongings of an extended family of Indians—thirty in all—who spent their time entertaining their babies, cooking on a smoky grill, and hawking fresh oysters to the tourists on the beach. Later, as I