In "Puerto," mesmerizing views of the Pacific Ocean co-exist with piles of trash, stray dogs frolic on the beach, and an oceanfront snooze is sure to be interrupted by a stream of vendors hawking everything from shrimp cocktails to semiprecious jewelry to "your name on a grain of rice."
We arrived in early August after visiting Oaxaca City, where a teachers' strike had escalated into a huge -- and at times violent -- protest. Day after day in the Zocalo, the city center, thousands of vendors and protesters commingled, setting the stage for a strange carnival of commerce and Communism. In January, the U.S. government downgraded its earlier warning to avoid Oaxaca City by urging tourists to "use caution" in the region. The unrest was a riveting spectacle and not at all relaxing. Puerto, which has remained untouched by the turmoil, called.
This imperfect paradise is difficult to reach. While speedy, a round-trip flight from Oaxaca City would have cost $1,000 for a family of four, a sum that could otherwise buy gallons of margaritas and a tub of flan. So we opted for the twisty over-land route. The trip, including van and taxi rides to get to Puerto, and a return bus from Puerto to Oaxaca City, cost approximately $125 for the four of us.
The journey was seven hours from Oaxaca City over the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range to Pochutla, an hour east of Puerto. There, we caught a kamikaze cab, whose driver blew past buses, collectivos (pickup truck taxis), pedestrians and animals in a gallant effort to reach the beach in record time. During the breakneck ride, soothing glimpses of the sea, lagoons dense with mangroves and coconut farm stands blurred past.
It was late afternoon when we checked into the Hotel Santa Fe and were met by a friendly staff, thick beach towels and a chirping lizard in our kitchenette. At the beach across the street, a herd of boogie boarders barrel-rolled and pivoted to shore like so many cowboys astride bucking broncos.
That evening, we ate red snapper grilled with lots of garlic at the Santa Fe's palapa (thatched roof) restaurant. We eavesdropped as two leathery surfer dudes debriefed a glamorous production crew in town to film a commercial featuring Puerto's storied surfing beach.
Before the completion of a paved road to Puerto in the 1970s, the fishing village and former coffee port became known as one of the world's premier surfing spots.
The languid pipeline that breaks on Zicatela Beach draws an international crowd of surfers, boarders and their comely entourages. Mid- to late summer is low season for tourists, but prime time for perfect waves and international tournaments.
The ESPN X Games 12 surfing competition was held in Puerto last July. In February, the MexPipe Challenge, a surfing championship, took place on Zicatela Beach. The event coincided with Carnaval de la Costa Puerto Escondido Oaxaca, a pre-Lent festival.
Experts alone should brave Zicatela's thrilling swells. Others can choose from several lively Puerto beaches. Mexican families flock to Playa Principal, home to the town's fishing fleet. Here, visitors wade among the boats, picnic on the sandy shore and play soccer games until well past dusk.
Playa Manzanillo and Puerto Angelito occupy a cove to the west. Crammed with seafood shacks and frequented by busloads of visitors, Angelito is hardly an oasis. Buses can't get to the more-serene Manzanillo, despite an ill-conceived road that is so steep, rain sluicing down its surface has on occasion wiped out seaside businesses.
Farther west, a 167-step descent down a cliff leads to Playa Carrizalillo, a gorgeous crescent of sand nestled in a rocky cove. An inexpensive water taxi ride from Playa Principal is another option for getting to Carrizalillo, but choppy surf can turn the brief hop into a trial.
We encamped daily at Playa Marinero, the beach closest to our hotel, where the surf was ideal for acrobatic body boarders and decent swimmers like us. Each morning, a friendly 13-year-old named Emmanuel, employed by Restaurant Liza's, set up the chaises, adjusted umbrellas and kept us hydrated with sodas, beer and coconut milk -- all for a few dollars.
Still, it took awhile to get used to this unkempt getaway.
At first, the dogs, the litter, the fear of intestinal distress and security warnings threw us a bit off our game. Accustomed to fun but predictable summer sojourns, we required a day or so to adapt to Puerto's homely undertow.
We quickly found that bottled water was readily available and restaurants were usually meticulous in preparing fresh produce for consumption. That news reduced chronic fretting to a minimum. And we resolved to play it safe, avoiding the beach at night, but not to vacation in fear. While sipping milk from a chilled coconut under palapa umbrellas, it didn't take long to fall into a soporific, Puerto frame of mind.