Not long ago I began looking for a place where I could spend a few months relaxing while spending very little money. My destination would have to offer a leisurely lifestyle, great weather, even better food and — to reiterate — as a writer, an affordable price tag.
Last summer I settled on Mexico, where wordsmiths such as Lawrence and Steinbeck, Burroughs and Kesey all ended up at some point.
But I'm not talking about just any part of Mexico. I'm talking about Puerto Escondido, on Oaxaca's Pacfic coast. And I'm not saying you must be a writer to come here.. As far as cost-effective vacations go, Puerto Escondido is among the best options on the continent.
It should be noted that there is always a devil in paradise. Puerto Escondido is a poor town of about 45,000 people that is still modernizing. Some neighborhoods are distinctly impoverished, with homes and buildings haphazardly constructed using scrounged materials.
The power is known to dip and even black out for an hour or more. Services such as garbage pickup and firefighting are seriously lacking. Stray dogs (friendly, from my experience) are everywhere.
Summer is Puerto Escondido's off-season. The town was dead quiet most of the time, which served my purposes well; I went to write, not party. But the locals assured me that during the late fall, winter or spring, the beaches, streets and bars are filled with Americans, Australians and British who are looking to avoid Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and other tourist destinations.
In recent years, Puerto Escondido has become known as one of the world's premier surf destinations. With its idyllic beaches and substantial waves, it attracts board jockeys from far and wide.
Then there's the food. Although Puerto Escondido's gastronomic delights run the gamut from traditional Mexican dishes to seafood delicacies, there's only one word you need to keep in mind — mole.
For the uninitiated, I'm not talking about the rodent. Mole (with an Fonzi-esque "ay" sound at the end) is a Mexican sauce native to the Oaxaca region. It is delicious, and you will want it.
Delectable eats and sensuous beaches aside, another of Puerto Escondido's big attractions involves the price tag. Although a room at a high-quality hotel in Cancún can cost upward of $400 a night, the best hotels in Puerto top out at about $150, and most are significantly less.
A plate of food you'll remember for the rest of your life will cost a few dollars. I had the best massage I've ever had for about $20, and that was expensive for the region.
Bottom line: Puerto Escondido offers everything you could want from a Mexican vacation destination at a much lower price.
Puerto Escondido is stretched across a series of beaches, but for our purposes we'll focus on four. Each has a unique vibe.
First, to the south, there's the main party and surfing beach, Playa Zicatela, which runs the length of a street called El Morro. This is where you go to find the fiesta. Dance clubs and bars line the white sand, surf shops and restaurants abound and English is in the air.
Continue north and you come upon Playa Principal. If Zicatela is ruled by tourists — and it is — Principal is as local as it gets. Here you'll find fishermen and their boats, local children swimming and playing, and a string of restaurants and bars along El Adoquín.
Follow the beach west and you encounter a beautiful water's-edge path cut in stone. This will take you beneath the cliffs and a lighthouse to the quiet cove of Puerto Angelito. This is a good place to enjoy a drink or meal and snorkel away from the crowds of the aforementioned beaches.
Finally, Playa Carrizalillo. The best way to approach this one is from above. Make your way by foot or taxi to a bustling street called Benito Juárez, which is lined with some of the best restaurants in town. The route to the beach is clearly marked. Follow it to a series of stairs, and prepare yourself for uninhibited beauty.
Playa Carrizalillo, a popular surfing spot and relatively untouched with no more than a couple of restaurants, is in my opinion the most beautiful place in Puerto Escondido. When you imagine the ideal tropical beach, you're thinking of a spot like Carrizalillo.
Where to Get Food
When it comes to eats in Puerto Escondido, you're in luck. Pretty much everything is amazing. You have three main options for food.
First are the restaurants, of course. You'll likely focus your search around Zicatela or El Adoquín, and although both offer great Oaxacan and seafood options, the best restaurants are the little places you'll find deeper in town.
They might look as if they're run out of someone's home (and they often are). But I promise you, the more the furniture reminds you of a nursing home cafeteria, the more memorable the food. One favorite, in particular, is a roomy taco joint called La Parrilla Mixteca on Avenida Oaxaca. The seating is at a long communal table, and the food is muy bueno indeed. Delicioso, even.
Then you have the Súper Che, which is comparable to your average large-scale grocery in the U.S., if a bit less organized. Here you can find the comforts of home such as peanut butter, which are otherwise unavailable.
For the authentic Puerto Escondido shopping experience, you must go to the Benito Juárez Market. Its dizzying maze of stalls and stands sells produce, meat, cheese, flowers, leather goods, toys, clothing, furniture and a million other odds and ends, it absolutely assails your senses with sound, sight and scent. It's open daily, but Wednesday and Saturday mornings are the best time to visit, because these are the days when produce suppliers from across the region arrive with their wares.