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The Dangerous Waters
of Zipolite, Oaxaca

Zipolite, Oaxaca
Missing Persons
Visitors' Comments

The currents at Zipolite and nearby beaches have been reported to travel in circular patterns such as shown above. Adjacent circular flows travel in opposite directions so that there are areas where swimmers will be drawn out to sea or pushed toward the shore. To avoid the danger zone, enter shallow water and determine which way the current flows along the beach. Make your way against the current, remaining in shallow water, until there is no more current along the beach. This area should be relatively free of currents that would draw you away from shore.

If you are drawn out to sea, it may be difficult to swim directly back to shore since you will be swimming against the current that pulled you out. It is suggested to swim parallel to the shore until you can make your way back in.

In 1995, a group of volunteer lifesavers was organized. Piña Palmera has trained them in C.P.R. and a man from the U.S. named Joaquin Venado has trained them in how to rescue people from the water. In the following year, drowning accidents were cut by half thanks to the group. Drownings do continue to occur with alarming frequency, however.

The lifeguards are by and large a friendly, helpful group that may be able to provide assistance with problems other than drowning.

Another phenomenon to be aware of is a period of strong wave action called Rebalses.

From the Visitors' Comments section:

The riptide in Zipolite is horrifying. We watched two people drown in the waters the second day there...

March 1999

Here are some comments from visitors:

When you swim on the west end of Zipolite, watch out for the rip tide that runs along the rocks right next to Shambhala...dangerous! Ask anyone working there to point it out to you, and show you the safe places to swim.

Muchos Saludos
Sean Pogue

I have been to Zipolite many times over the course of several years of work and travel in Oaxaca. It's a great place to stay for very little money and truly relax. If you go there, be sure to check out the lesser-known beaches nearby. A hike north up the coast is well worth it. [There have been a number of robberies of tourists hiking north along the coast from Zipolite beach. Robbers target tourists carrying backpacks (that may contain valuables). -Tom] The beaches near the turtle museum are a lot less developed, sort of like Zipolite was 8 years ago. You should be aware, however, that Zipolite is a DANGEROUS beach. Dozens of unsuspecting tourists get caught in the rip tide there every year, and many die. There are no warning signs, nothing to suggest how deadly the current is, but if you ask around the locals will nearly always say 'oh, yes, someone died last week.' Take my advice -- don't go in over your hips if you feel the tide pulling on you, and if you get caught in a strong rip, don't exhaust yourself by fighting it -- swim perpendicular to the shore (away from the rocks if you're near the rocks) until you have crossed out of the rip current -- you may be frighteningly far out to sea by now -- then swim back to shore.

George Wing

November 1966

This happened to me there. I really thought I'd bought the farm. I was in shallow water enjoying the surf, and next thing I knew I was way out. Took a lot of self-control not to panic and swim for the shore. I did the parallel to the coast swim and slowly made my way in. Kissed the beach when I got to land. Other than that one of my favorite places in Mexico.


November 1966

Watch out swimmers, Zipolite can be lethal!

This story is about the courage of two brave men, visiting Gloria's Shambala retreat, who saved my life in Zipolite. I watched European women and their "mermaid like" swimming and divings, it looked sooo easy. We were on the far west corner of Zipolite's beach, where Shambala is on the cliffs. I figured as long as I stay close to the shore there will be no danger (looking at everyone else). Wrong!
Swimming in shallow waters, touching ground, I was truly enjoying jumping up and down in the ocean, but little did I know this particular area had strong undertow and dangerous currents and I got sucked into one. While jumping in the water a "remolino" (whirlpool) left me just a few feet farther out but in deep waters. I have no athletic build or resistance so I got tired of floating and tried swimming back to shoreline. As much as I tried I remained in the same spot suspended in what seemed a "black hole in the sea". The strong undertow would not let me loose and started dragging me away and out by two more currents coming in different directions. I was looking at getting thrown out of reach and close to dangerous rocks (ugly feeling realizing how powerless one is in the sea and what a dreadful end it would be getting smashed against them). I panicked and the person closest to me did nothing to pull me out of the current he just whistled for help as I was running out of strength and energy to keep floating. I tried swimming forward, backwards, even swimming doggie style and Nothing!
People watching in panic and disbelief sent a shiver up my spine, I was running out of time, energy and still there was no help. My whole life passed in front of me in seconds, thinking "now I am really in trouble I am going to die and not drowned by Asthma attacks but by my beautiful Mexican coast", as I had all these thoughts I kept praying for God to rescue me. Truly, I had no more energy nor strength to hold on, and nobody wanted to get close to me. I thank God that at least he whistled for I could not even do that. Suddenly two brave young men dashed to the beach with a lifesaver attached to a very long rope. They ran into the sea and approached the closest people to me so they could throw the lifesaver and then drag it out.
No one wanted to get stuck in the dangerous spot where I was but somebody managed to throw the lifesaver closer and I grasped it but as the men started pulling the rope another wave crashed upon me and the whole thing slipped out of my hands. This is it! I thought, I am going to die! Then as I pulled myself from under the waves to breathe again, I saw the two young men swim directly towards me, (the only great breathless sight for me) they finally reached out to me, grabbed me by both arms and pulled me swimming out of the undertow and towards the shore. They carried me to the sandy beach where they helped me recover from a huge shock! I could not even walk on the shore, my muscles seemed to have cramped up and I was terrified.
Fortunately I had not swallowed much water and I fell in love and gratitude for these natives' heroic rescue and the biggest favor they did for me (to say the least). Europeans came up to me offering oranges for the "susto" (frightening experience) and some time later I proceeded back to my room. The worst part is that I did not even venture into the deep of the Ocean, I was still touching ground closely to shoreline when it all went out of control and very rapidly. I am lucky to be alive, but many many others have not come out alive. In fact, during my last trip to Zipolite (February '98) somebody else drowned there.
After my near-drowning experience there was a big sign posted in 7 languages warning about the dangerous undertows and the risk for swimmers! Needless to say I did not touch the sea again for the next two days and then I left Oaxaca.
Despite this, I have gone back three times and can only say that my love for the people and the place went as far as an attempt to move to Oaxaca this last August 1997. Yet, with a strange premonition I could not pinpoint, I left Oaxaca to come back to California and only a few weeks later the hurricanes struck Oaxaca and ravaged it. Mind you, I really had to leave because I had lost all my documents (or so I thought) and it pressured me to come back to California. I am lucky to be alive and spared from the misery of a hurricane but my friends were brutally devastated.


Copyrighted material, April 1998

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