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Five Weeks in Puerto Escondido

by Alan Vlautin.
Taken from the Puerto Escondido Visitors' Comments 5/5/08
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Hello below is the last of a series of e-mail travelogues I sent to our families and friends during the course of a three month trip to Mexico this winter. It describes our five weeks in Puerto Escondido, many of the things we did and people we met and, I hope, conveys our enduring love for the area and country. I hope it is enjoyable for those who wade through it. The opinions are, as the Bard says, "one man's opinion of moonlight" and there is no desire to offend or annoy. Enjoy:

After weighing options and costs, we took an overnight first class bus from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido, avoiding the windy, over the mountain route and took the longer, but much smoother ride down from the Oaxaca plain to the coast and back up from Huatulco to Puerto Escondido, arriving around dawn as the fishing boats glided up on the beach with the day's catch. For accommodations, we were a bit at sea, as, in my massive genius, I waited too long to book a monthly rental on the Internet. Our fallback position was to stay a couple nights at El Tabachin. We had stayed there before and greatly enjoyed Paul Cleaver's hospitality and leisurely breakfasts in his and his guests pleasant company. We checked in, had a great breakfast, and set out to find who knows what for the longer duration. Well, it did not take long as, almost literally, around the corner; we found you can go home again!

We met 24 years ago at the Cabanas Acali and had not thought of them as they had gone a bit to seed when we last visited, six years ago. Now, to our happy surprise, they were renewed and refurbished with new tile bathrooms. We toured the vacant ones and soon settled into the cabana Paule was in when we met. Literally, our first home, in a compound of 16 cabanas surrounding a little swimming pool that replaced the palapa, which under we met. The grounds have grown lush with the many varieties of plants and palm trees the owners planted when they first built 26 years ago. The cabanas are simple bamboo and wooden structures. We share ours with an iguana, who mostly hangs out on the roof and in the walls but occasionally will let his tail hang down into the shower from the open roof area. A flick of a flip-flop sends him back to his bug catching duties. Our so not-our friends, the mosquitoes, are kept at bay by the mosquito net hanging over our bed.

Bug bites do happen. The first couple days here, the little monsters attack your lower legs and ankles, several times, leaving red welts that itch a week or so. After that, it seems the bug world has got what it wants from you and except for the errant mosquitos or sand fleas, that's that. I had an adventure from a couple bites of Paule's luncheon lobster, which engendered an allergic reaction that peppered me with scores of bite like eruptions. They subsided in a couple days and lobster has been off my menu since. Other than that we remain healthy, hearty and happy to discover you can go home again. Just to remind us of home, one morning around six we had a little 6.4 earthquake. I say little because, 6.4 or whatever, it was just a mild shack shaker as our shack mildly shook. Paule slept right through.

Puerto Escondido comprises a half-mile U-shaped bay and was founded in the 1920s to light coffee, grown inland, out to larger ships anchored off shore. It is said that the night watchman guarding the coffee was the first citizen but, if so, whom was he guarding it from? Anyway, at one end of the U is a lighthouse and harbormaster's office from whence the town grew and spread. At the other end, when I first came here in January 1977 there was little more than a massive rock formation and a few palapas with food and drink. Now the town's premier hotel, the Santa Fe, anchors that spot and the beginning of the 3-mile beach, Zicatela, that stretches south until it hooks into another massive and wind & sea worn rock formation. In front of the Santa Fe and above the rocks are a brick stairway that leads to a mirador that offers a scenic view of both the bay and Zicatela.

When I first arrived here, there was virtually nothing but the waves on Zicatela. Those waves have made it a world famous surf spot. Now, the three-mile stretch is dotted with hotels, homes, large and small, and a dazzling array of restaurants, bars and clubs on the beach and on the street that runs down about 300 yards from the tide line. As a magnet for surfers and, now, a recently "discovered" hot tourist destination, there is a young and old very diverse crowd of worldwide origin. Norwegian girls boogie with French surfer dudes, Italian restaurateurs fill plates for French and English Canadians, Dutch and Germans lap up the fine Mexican beer, as aging remnants of the 60's, some more tattered than others, glide by, holding mirrors?

Over the last three decades many tourists have found Puerto Escondido to become their ideal of paradise and have taken the plunge, buying land, building homes and starting small businesses. Many have found that these answered prayers are not all that they envisioned as land titles and construction practices can have very different interpretations than they do at home. For some, the decision to take the plunge becomes a challenge to fight the good fight and succeed in creating one's dream, for others it's a frustrating descent into endless disputes and bitter resentments. We are happy to visit as we can and rent for a while, rather than limiting or chaining ourselves to one "perfect" spot on Earth. When I hear others bemoan the changes that have occurred over the years here, I take solace in remembering what one fellow said to me as I was a few days into my first visit here, in 1977, and was waxing so blissfully about this serene paradise I had found, "You should have seen it in the Sixties".

The beach is the real tonic. After a few days of sun and surf, relaxation happens. Shorts, flip-flops and a shirt for dining (dude, I don't care how many tattoos you have blessed yourself with, wear the shirt when you are dining around others) are all the attire you need 24/7. Your pace slows: a morning dip in the ocean, shower, walk to breakfast, easily slipping into going to the same nice place each day, back to the cabana, maybe an Internet reality check, before, then poolside at the cabana or waves at the beach, books to browse/read, a late lunch/early dinner; sea food from the sea in the morning on the plate in the afternoon, beautiful sunset on the beach, couple drinks, seek music, live preferably, warm evening stroll home, drift off to sleep to the sounds of the waves hitting the shoreline, next day REPEAT.

This is not to say there is not a wealth of events and variety of spectacles to attend. An annual Blues Festival has taken root with four separate weekend dates, offering an eclectic blend of bands and musicians. A Carnival celebration was inaugurated this year but it fell flat, in my view, heavy on the corporate promotions and canned music. However, I retain fond memories of the Carnival parade and of the four "Corona Girls", nightly dancing on stage, they had the moves. Of course, there were a few surf contests as some of the best surfers in the world are local kids that started learning as soon as they could get in the water on hand-me-down boards, After 15 years of daily surf sessions, they are awesome. The one aspect of the surf contests I could not fathom was the music. A bigger brain than mine will have to explain how South Central thug rap correlates with the warm wholesome beach environment but yet there it was in all its pounding bass hideousness. Is Uncle Tie-dye showing his age?

There were also fishing contests, cockfights, Thai boxing matches, circuses, and live music in many venues. In between those activities, you make new friends and renew old acquaintances, learning more about the area and what's going on, letting your world narrow down smoothly into one little perfect slice of heaven. Even the most rigid Calvinist would soon succumb to this slacker paradise or stop breathing.

I got my exercise too; the ocean provides me that. I was in the waves everyday, several times, the first 13 days we were here. On the 14th, I had to visit the local surfer doctor to drain a plugged up ear. That was the only day I have missed. It took a while to get my body surfing chops back, finding my timing off and I was being way too hesitant taking off on larger waves. Soon, it all clicked back and I was catching great rides and taking the washing machine twirls when not. Paule is more apt to remain relaxing poolside at the cabanas while I thrash around in the sea but we take a morning dip in the bay where the ocean is calmer and usually end up there at the end of the day plopped out on lounge chairs, having a drink, watching the tide come in on the unsuspecting. Life is a totally relaxed regime; back in the same place we met, finding ourselves not too far removed. What else to say? The sunset on Valentine's Day was especially spectacular. Even the most jaded of surfers would be struck beyond cool as they emerged from the day's last waves to be encompassed by the golden hue that radiated over a sky totally immersed in rosy pinks, ocher and orange, all the way back to the coastal mountains. Awesome. We had a lovely dinner at the Santa Fe and slipped away early....

The previous night we spent at a coffee finica, 60 kms inland. As we have learned, the world price of coffee tumbled in the early 90s, finishing the viability of coffee growing in the region and the farms were left fallow. In the last few years, efforts are being made to revive them to provide high-grade coffee and create Eco-tourism sites. One of the Santa Fe's owners is taking a shot at this and we visited his efforts overnight with another couple. We had previously visited Paul Cleaver's ranch in Nopala, six years ago and looked forward to seeing a different area. It was great to get inland. I was amazed to see how lush the vegetation was as the rains are still a few months away. We took evening and morning hikes with Gustavo, a young Mexican naturalist whose knowledge of the local flora and fauna was eagerly shared. We learned and saw that the coffee bush can grow into a tree and that coffee "cherries" need to be picked, like huckleberries, one at a time, as they ripen. Before leaving we toured the coffee processing area. It's a real labor-intensive process to put that cup of joe in front of you.

We have not been totally sedentary here, although that's easy to do. One year here, in my airline days, when I was ready to leave after a couple weeks dancing with the waves, I realized I had not been across the highway and into the town center in the entire time. Google the map to see how bizarre that is! This time we took excursions. Twice, we went 30km north to Roca Blanca where, as you might imagine, a huge guano encrusted rock dominates the ocean view. It was serene, just a few palapas, with drinks and sea fresh food for lunch and miles of clear beach, interspersed with massive and individual wind and sand swept rock formations. One, about 12 feet tall, gives the impression of a Madonna holding a child. There was a garland of faded flowers around its neck and candle remains at the base.

Another day, we bussed 30kms south to Aqua Blanca beach, walking in a dusty km from the highway and finding another near deserted peaceful spot. Soon, a busload of third graders and adults pulled up for a cartwheel frolic on the beach, the best recess ever invented! Another sea real food lunch was had, waves ridden and we filed away another site to remember and revisit.

Sites are seen and people met. We happily renewed our friendship with Mario, the owner of the cabanas, then and now. The year we met his younger son was born. Today, he's in Australia, taking a year off after his college degree, surfing and dazzling the girls there. Time flies. I was particularly happy to renew my patronage and friendship with Alejandro, who each morning, save his church day, sells fresh squeezed orange juice from a little bike driven stand right outside the cabanas. I had been hoping to locate him as I developed a daily habit for juice and conversation. As serendipity has it, there he was right out our front door! We have made many new acquaintances at the cabanas, on the beach, in restaurants and bars and in just passing to and fro. Angel bewildered us long before we met him. On our second day here, Paule noticed what seemed to be someone walking on the water a few hundred yards out in the bay. Over the next few days the figure got closer and we made out it was someone on an elongated surfboard with a six-foot paddle for propulsion. It was Boardman, so named by a couple of puffing hippies on the beach. As time went on Boardman came into the surfline, getting better and better riding the waves. We were cheering! One night, on the way to dinner, we stopped in at the Central Surf shop on Zicatella and met Boardman. Angel Salinas, a Puerto Escondido native and world renown big wave surfer and founder of Central Surf. A friend from Hawaii turned him on to the paddleboard and for the last five weeks he has been the first Mexican paddleboarder, and I would have to say the current champion. Aside from that, his 15 year old Central Surf concern makes and sells in Puerto Escondido surf shorts, t-shirts and the masks he sometimes wears while surfs the big 30 footers, photos of which have traveled around the internet surfing world. His skills and business put food on a lot of tables here. How's that for your surfing win-win.

One Sunday evening, we dropped into a little open beach-side bar and discovered Jorge who plays ukulele and sings his original songs, accompanied by a drummer. With the high spirits of a born entertainer, he captivated us and we have returned each Sunday since. One morning, when we did not go to the place we made a six-day a week breakfast habit of, we found Jorge at his day job, waiting tables at the Santa Fe. He greeted us, told us he loved both jobs and pointing to the 180 degree ever changing ocean view welcomed us to share his "plasma TV".

Warren Sharpe, we kept running into at live music shows, on streets, at meals and in general, processing the pulse of the developing Puerto Escondido via internet, ubiquitous cell camera, and down home traditional journalism by footwork and raised glass, to edit and publish an increasingly impressive monthly magazine, El Sol de la Costa, devoted to the region. As some of Warren's formative journalistic days were in the Bay Area, we had fun sharing tales and recollections. His smile under that Panama hat will always be one of our happy memories. El Sol de la Costa recently celebrated its tenth anniversary of reporting on and serving its community.

Our, mostly regular, breakfast place, Cafecito, has a great French toast and fresh fruit dish and an across the street view of Zicatella's morning surf break. At least once a week, we'd return to El Tabachin for breakfast and conversation with Paul Cleaver and his guests. We met kindred sprits and lively wits there and, later took excursions with some. Paul is building an impressive library of books devoted to Mexico's history. I was happy to contribute Earl Shorris's, The Life and Times of Mexico, an excellent recent history; I'd read a second time during our travels.

Our dinners are all over the map. We can walk the little bay into town after sunset to dine beachside, feet in soft sand, fishing boats bobbing in the bay, 30 yards away. Or,across the street to sea food under large palapa, or cab into town for the real deal comidia oaxacana. The possibilities many. On the 20th, night of the lunar eclipse, we saw that big orange ball in the sky from the beach, infront of a restaurant, the band had the local costa chica chilan sound, five pieces, heavy on the brass and drums, but definitely danceable.

With the music of our Mexico traveling time fading out, days were getting short and precious. Our exit strategy is to spend the last three nights in a B & B in Huatulco to scope out the area that was just a series of bays, seemingly only occasionally populated by migrant fishermen and their families when we last visited in January 1985. Since then a series of luxury hotels and homes have been built, a jet airport landed and it has world-class vacation cache. Fortunately, for Puerto Escondido, the big money went there.

A couple days before we left for Huatulco, a day of trials and tribulations arrived. In my afternoon body surfing session, I got so carried away with good rides that I made a classic rookie mistake and got pushed out by the current past the first deck of waves and heading east. It took a good twenty minutes of hard swimming to get positioned to take a larger wave that I was hoping to see to back closer to shore. Fortunately, a lifeguard had noticed my predicament and, to my relief, was watching me from shore. Once, back on shore, I thanked him for keeping an eye on me and admitted I was out there a lot longer than I wanted to be, not mentioning the couple little streaks of panic that flashed in my mind when the going was getting rougher at first. Happily, later in the afternoon, I got back in for some more rides that proved to be my Puerto Escondido body surfing swan song for this year.

That night, we went to hear live music on the other side of town and the dinner I had there did not go down so well and around midnight was back up with a vengeance along with everything but a kitchen sink. All that left me pretty well knocked out for the next day. Luckily, it was just a one-day bout of food poisoning, probably heightened by the adrenalin I expended during my desperate swimming session. The morning of our departure, the surf really got huge, 15-20 foot breakers waving good-bye to an, again, humbled ocean aficionado and inviting me back for another go, a couple years hence.

Our last bus ride was a couple hours to Huatulco, where a cab took us to the B & B Paule had picked out. It turned out to be in a gated community in the highest range area. In the three days there, I hiked up, down and around the hilly perimeter seeing spectacular homes and compounds that we were told that the upper crust of Mexico, including the current President frequent. There were some real spectacular architectural flourishes and dramatically framed views laid out on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. As the topography twists and turns around Huatulco's many bays, beaches and coves. We were treated to the sun rising over the ocean each morning. Our hazy eyes would open to briefly soak in the dazzling colors before succumbing back to sleep's gentle embrace. The evening and morning quiet was welcome after the many late night shenanigans we heard and participated in on Zicatela's strip.

Huatulco, itself, was a whole other world. Spread out over more than 50 kms, as the crow flies, it's a cab ride wherever you want to go; from one spectacular cliffside hotel to another all-inclusive sprawling mega hotel or to the more real Mexico of Crucecita, the instant town, built twenty years ago to house and service those that would maintain the tourist hotels and serve and pamper their guests. That was where we gravitated for our meals and last minute shopping. After three months living under Mexico's flag and in its embrace, we felt much more at home there. In those three months, we never encountered a harsh word or worrisome moment. There is an expression used throughout Latin America, which translates, "courteous as a Mexican". The genuine kindness and consideration for others in the Mexican soul is something that we all would be wise to emulate up North and which we will continue to return to and enjoy.

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