Idyll Pleasures

Welcome to Puerto Escondido, where you can ride magnificent waves, hook a sailfish, or do absolutely nothing.

September 1994By Comments

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 was climbing on the rocky point in front of the hotel, I encountered the same family as they assembled for a religious service before an elaborate makeshift altar constructed of oyster shells, driftwood, and seaweed. As best I could tell, they were giving thanks to Jesus the Oyster King for the bounty of the ocean. An hour later they piled into their trucks and headed toward Acapulco, leaving their altar to the wind and waves.

In the course of my rovings, I stopped several times on the beach to talk with a fishing guide named Nacho, who offered to take me after “big fish” for $50. We made an appointment for the next morning. I arrived at dawn, only to find Nacho nowhere in sight. When another guide revved a big Merc outboard and backed his 22-foot panga onto the beach, I took one look at his brand-new Penn rods and reels and scrambled to get on board.

Under a full moon, Gilberto Ramírez and I were piped out of port by a military band from the army base just up the hill. Apparently the soldiers delight in rousing the tourists out of bed at the crack of dawn. As we left the harbor for the open sea, Gilberto turned in the direction of the city’s main church and dutifully crossed himself. At the same time he saw someone waving at us from the beach, and he circled back to pick up a couple of die-hard surfers who also turned out to be dedicated fishermen. They introduced themselves: Walt and Scott. (Walter Scott, I thought. At least I won’t forget their names.)

Dreaming of a sushi breakfast, we chased across the ocean, watching for schools of big tuna breaking on the surface as they fed on smaller fish; they were easy enough to find, since the spot is typically marked by dive-bombing brown boobies and giant prehistoric-looking frigate birds with seven-foot wingspans. An amazing creature, a frigate bird will drown if its wings get wet, so to survive, it must steal fish from smaller birds in flight. These maneuvers make quite a spectacle. Even though we never enticed a tuna to strike the larger orange- and red-skirted plugs we trolled through several feeding schools, I was more than content with the frigate birds, the constant parade of dolphins dancing under our speeding hull, and the rapid sideshow of flying fish.

I was scanning the horizon sleepily when I saw a tall sail fin racing toward my lure. Though the drag was set so tight I could barely pull off line myself, the clicker began to scream as the fish stripped fifty yards of line off the reel. My sailfish measured maybe eight feet in length, and his aerobatics combined with deep-water runs made it a long half hour before I could bring him near the boat. That’s quite a fight for a sailfish (or for a writer), and during several last-minute breaks, he nearly came into the boat of his own accord. Because I strongly believe in catch-and-release as a conservation tool, I had hoped to free the creature—even though it would mean paying Gilberto whatever he could have made by selling it—but, sadly, the fish was exhausted beyond survival.

If you have not the least interest in having your picture taken next to a giant dead fish, I still recommend a ride in a panga, either for the joy of the cold spray in your face or for the simple pleasure of a swim and picnic at one of the area’s more remote beaches.

Aside from fishing, the best day-long excursion from Escondido is to Chacahua National Park—a naturalist’s tour of mangrove-covered islands overrun by exotic birds, game, and plant life. You’ll see ibis, roseate spoonbills, black orchids, mahogany trees, and alligators, so don’t forget your camera. Tours depart from the Hotel Santa Fé and other wll-marked offices on the pedestrian street, Avenida Pérez Gasga. Prices run about $40 a person, including ground and boat transportation, and may also cover lunch at one of the rustic restaurants near the lagoon that serve such local specialties as snook and blue crab.

Hertz rents cars on Pérez Gasga for the standard exorbitant Mexico fee of $90 a day, but thankfully there are better ways to get around. You can catch a bus ($1 at the Estrella del Valle/Oaxaca Pacífico station, on Avenida Hidalgo) or a cab from anywhere in town ($30 and worth it) for the fifty-mile ride down the coast to Puerto Angel, a smaller and even more laid-back version of Escondido featuring Mexico’s famous nude beach. A majority of Angel’s visitors come from Europe, and I’ve been told that all the women are beautiful and all the men have severe sunburns.

Puerto Angel shares one downside with Escondido: Posted on the door of my hotel room was an advisory cautioning guests not to walk on the beach at night for fear of robbery. The well-lit and police-patrolled main street, Pérez Gasga, is considered completely safe, however. Besides, you’ll be so tired from doing nothing all day long that you’ll be asleep by nine o’clock. Several bars do stay open late, but this is not a mind-numbing, party-hardy town like Cabo San Lucas. It’s more reminiscent of a Lyle Lovett line I’ve always admired: “An acceptable level of ecstasy.”

As the world’s great paradises are one by one sucked under by tidal waves of tourists, you have to wonder if Puerto Escondido will survive. Luckily for those who enjoy the place for what it is, the powerful Mexican tourists development board, FONATOR, has not targeted Puerto Escondido for massive development as it has the lovely Huatulco Bay, eighty miles down the coast. In just five years Huatulco has become the home of numerous major hotel projects, from Club Med to the Sheraton Huatulco—none of which improve on the natural beauty of the area. What may ultimately save Escondido is the reluctance of the big hotels to build here because the strong undertow at Zicatela Beach is considered too dangerous for family swimming.

I’m not a surfer, but I could sit all day and watch those big waves roll in from the South Pacific. Through a pair of binoculars you can see both the triumph on the face of a surfer miraculously reappearing from inside a six-foot pipeline and the wide-eyed panic of someone catching an ungainly wave with nowhere to go but the bottom of the ocean. The regulars tell me that several surfboards are snapped in half by these powerful waves every day.

Begin a strong swimmer, one afternoon I pushed through the breaking waves for a long swim beyond the riptide. Well away from shore, I found myself stroking close to a couple of surfers awaiting the next good set of a New Zealand swell that had been building all day. With big smiles on their faces, they paddled my way.

“Where’s your board, hawg?” one called. I grinned like the fool that I was for being there and kept swimming. “Hey,” said the other, “this dude’s swimming to Acapulco.”

I stroked on, the waves rolling beneath me in their never-ending rhythm—a pulse more constant than all the clocks in the world. Time stood still, and there was only wave and water. Finally, I drifted like the huge sea turtle we had seen earlier on our return from the fishing trip. Scott and I had stood in the bow, watching the graceful giant swim slowly to the south, wondering where it was going.

“What day is it?” Scott asked. “Friday?”

“No, it’s Tuesday,” I told him. “I think.”

“Tuesday?” he said with surprise. “Wow.” There was a long pause. “So what month is it?”

I thought about it for a while, and though I’d only been here a short time, I really didn’t know.

Travel Information

Direct-dial 011-52-958 plus the local five-digit number.

Hotel Santa Fé, Calle del Morro. Double $75. Phone 20170.

Hotel Rincón del Pacífico, Avenida Pérez Gasga. Double $30. 20056.

Hotel Arco Iris, Zicatela Beach. Double without kitchen $30. Double with kitchen $39. 20432.

Bungalows Jardín, Zicatela Beach. Double $10. No phone.

Fishing trips. Look for Gilberto Ramírez’s boat Marissa, number 053.

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 was climbing on the rocky point in front of the hotel, I encountered the same family as they assembled for a religious service before an elaborate makeshift altar constructed of oyster shells, driftwood, and seaweed. As best I could tell, they were giving thanks to Jesus the Oyster King for the bounty of the ocean. An hour later they piled into their trucks and headed toward Acapulco, leaving their altar to the wind and waves.

In the course of my rovings, I stopped several times on the beach to talk with a fishing guide named Nacho, who offered to take me after “big fish” for $50. We made an appointment for the next morning. I arrived at dawn, only to find Nacho nowhere in sight. When another guide revved a big Merc outboard and backed his 22-foot panga onto the beach, I took one look at his brand-new Penn rods and reels and scrambled to get on board.

Under a full moon, Gilberto Ramírez and I were piped out of port by a military band from the army base just up the hill. Apparently the soldiers delight in rousing the tourists out of bed at the crack of dawn. As we left the harbor for the open sea, Gilberto turned in the direction of the city’s main church and dutifully crossed himself. At the same time he saw someone waving at us from the beach, and he circled back to pick up a couple of die-hard surfers who also turned out to be dedicated fishermen. They introduced themselves: Walt and Scott. (Walter Scott, I thought. At least I won’t forget their names.)

Dreaming of a sushi breakfast, we chased across the ocean, watching for schools of big tuna breaking on the surface as they fed on smaller fish; they were easy enough to find, since the spot is typically marked by dive-bombing brown boobies and giant prehistoric-looking frigate birds with seven-foot wingspans. An amazing creature, a frigate bird will drown if its wings get wet, so to survive, it must steal fish from smaller birds in flight. These maneuvers make quite a spectacle. Even though we never enticed a tuna to strike the larger orange- and red-skirted plugs we trolled through several feeding schools, I was more than content with the frigate birds, the constant parade of dolphins dancing under our speeding hull, and the rapid sideshow of flying fish.

I was scanning the horizon sleepily when I saw a tall sail fin racing toward my lure. Though the drag was set so tight I could barely pull off line myself, the clicker began to scream as the fish stripped fifty yards of line off the reel. My sailfish measured maybe eight feet in length, and his aerobatics combined with deep-water runs made it a long half hour before I could bring him near the boat. That’s quite a fight for a sailfish (or for a writer), and during several last-minute breaks, he nearly came into the boat of his own accord. Because I strongly believe in catch-and-release as a conservation tool, I had hoped to free the creature—even though it would mean paying Gilberto whatever he could have made by selling it—but, sadly, the fish was exhausted beyond survival.

If you have not the least interest in having your picture taken next to a giant dead fish, I still recommend a ride in a panga, either for the joy of the cold spray in your face or for the simple pleasure of a swim and picnic at one of the area’s more remote beaches.

Aside from fishing, the best day-long excursion from Escondido is to Chacahua National Park—a naturalist’s tour of mangrove-covered islands overrun by exotic birds, game, and plant life. You’ll see ibis, roseate spoonbills, black orchids, mahogany trees, and alligators, so don’t forget your camera. Tours depart from the Hotel Santa Fé and other wll-marked offices on the pedestrian street, Avenida Pérez Gasga. Prices run about $40 a person, including ground and boat transportation, and may also cover lunch at one of the rustic restaurants near the lagoon that serve such local specialties as snook and blue crab.

Hertz rents cars on Pérez Gasga for the standard exorbitant Mexico fee of $90 a day, but thankfully there are better ways to get around. You can catch a bus ($1 at the Estrella del Valle/Oaxaca Pacífico station, on Avenida Hidalgo) or a cab from anywhere in town ($30 and worth it) for the fifty-mile ride down the coast to Puerto Angel, a smaller and even more laid-back version of Escondido featuring Mexico’s famous nude beach. A majority of Angel’s visitors come from Europe, and I’ve been told that all the women are beautiful and all the men have severe sunburns.

Puerto Angel shares one downside with Escondido: Posted on the door of my hotel room was an advisory cautioning guests not to walk on the beach at night for fear of robbery. The well-lit and police-patrolled main street, Pérez Gasga, is considered completely safe, however. Besides, you’ll be so tired from doing nothing all day long that you’ll be asleep by nine o’clock. Several bars do stay open late, but this is not a mind-numbing, party-hardy town like Cabo San Lucas. It’s more reminiscent of a Lyle Lovett line I’ve always admired: “An acceptable level of ecstasy.”

As the world’s great paradises are one by one sucked under by tidal waves of tourists, you have to wonder if Puerto Escondido will survive. Luckily for those who enjoy the place for what it is, the powerful Mexican tourists development board, FONATOR, has not targeted Puerto Escondido for massive development as it has the lovely Huatulco Bay, eighty miles down the coast. In just five years Huatulco has become the home of numerous major hotel projects, from Club Med to the Sheraton Huatulco—none of which improve on the natural beauty of the area. What may ultimately save Escondido is the reluctance of the big hotels to build here because the strong undertow at Zicatela Beach is considered too dangerous for family swimming.

I’m not a surfer, but I could sit all day and watch those big waves roll in from the South Pacific. Through a pair of binoculars you can see both the triumph on the face of a surfer miraculously reappearing from inside a six-foot pipeline and the wide-eyed panic of someone catching an ungainly wave with nowhere to go but the bottom of the ocean. The regulars tell me that several surfboards are snapped in half by these powerful waves every day.

Begin a strong swimmer, one afternoon I pushed through the breaking waves for a long swim beyond the riptide. Well away from shore, I found myself stroking close to a couple of surfers awaiting the next good set of a New Zealand swell that had been building all day. With big smiles on their faces, they paddled my way.

“Where’s your board, hawg?” one called. I grinned like the fool that I was for being there and kept swimming. “Hey,” said the other, “this dude’s swimming to Acapulco.”

I stroked on, the waves rolling beneath me in their neve-ending rhythm—a pulse more constant than all the clocks in the world. Time stood still, and there was only wave and water. Finally, I drifted like the huge sea turtle we had seen earlier on our return from the fishing trip. Scott and I had stood in the bow, watching the graceful giant swim slowly to the south, wondering where it was going.

“What day is it?” Scott asked. “Friday?”

“No, it’s Tuesday,” I told him. “I think.”

“Tuesday?” he said with surprise. “Wow.” There was a long pause. “So what month is it?”

I thought about it for a while, and though I’d only been here a short time, I really didn’t know.

Travel Information

Direct-dial 011-52-958 plus the local five-digit number.

Hotel Santa Fé, Calle del Morro. Double $75. Phone 20170.

Hotel Rincón del Pacífico, Avenida Pérez Gasga. Double $30. 20056.

Hotel Arco Iris, Zicatela Beach. Double without kitchen $30. Double with kitchen $39. 20432.

Bungalows Jardín, Zicatela Beach. Double $10. No phone.

Fishing trips. Look for Gilberto Ramírez’s boat Marissa, number 053.

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