During a six-day visit to Puerto Escondido, a scruffy, though charming beach town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, my family and I joined Mexican families, European vagabonds and surf bums for an escape from reality. As it turned out, we didn't get that far.
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."
A tropical resort where goats graze outside hotels, development is helter-skelter and an elevator has yet to operate, Puerto lends an entirely new meaning to the term "all inclusive."
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.
Meet and greet
To get a better feel for the town, I met one morning with Al Steinberg, a retired businessman from North Dakota who is an active member of the International Friends of Puerto Escondido. The group was established in 1998 to assist foreign tourists and residents in need of medical or legal assistance and contribute to civic projects.
Steinberg picked me up in a battered Nissan for a quick tour of Puerto's beaches, swanky residential neighborhoods and its two, truly "all-inclusive" resorts.
We passed communities with a raw, under-construction feel where owners hope to establish luxurious retreats, even though Puerto doesn't have the infrastructure to meet the demands of wealthy residents. "There's no zoning here," Steinberg said. "Everything just happens."
The tour ended at the Rinconada, a former landing strip now lined with restaurants, salons, shops and Hostel Shalom, where travelers are greeted by a statue of a cigarette-puffing devil in bathing trunks.
The Rinconada, within walking distance of Playa Carrizalillo, is also home to a storefront lending library run by the Friends. The morning I visited with Steinberg, the group held a sidewalk book sale to raise money.
Salty and iconoclastic, Puerto's expats aren't retirement community material. They tend to stick together, patronizing karaoke nights at the Split Coconut and feasting on prime rib in autumn, when the snowbird restaurateurs who operate Hotel Ben-Zaa return. One by one, they all came to Puerto and found that its spirit matched their own.
"It's the mood," said Bill Missett, a ponytailed, grizzled expatriate who travels in a Volkswagen van illustrated with a colorful image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. "If Puerto were any more laid back, it would fall down," Missett said, paraphrasing a friend's observation.
A former California newspaper editor, Missett first visited Puerto in 1978 as a surfer. A decade later, "I decided I wanted to live here forever," he said, while cuddling a Chihuahua puppy named Picosa, which means "spicy."
We took Missett's advice and laid back. Had we stayed longer in Puerto, we may have invested in a turtle-watching cruise, a sport-fishing excursion or a kayak tour of one of the area's scenic lagoons, Manialtepec or Los Naranjos. We could have partied all night at Puerto clubs such as the Blue Station Bar. Instead, we assumed our usual beach position for the entire week: supine, with a book in one hand and a cold drink in the other.
Meals and deals
Hunger didn't take us far from our perches. Twice we lunched at Arcis, a friendly palapa restaurant on Playa Marinero. With a machete, the owner hacked off slivers of coconut meat, which he served with plates of fresh, sliced limes and chili sauce for starters. Then came soft tacos stuffed with chicken, luscious guacamole, salsa, rice and beans and ice-cold Cokes. Lunch for three cost $14.
In the evenings, we frequented Puerto's quirky Zicatela Beach business district, where a surfer-friendly economy prevails. "Free beer with one week surfboard rental," one sign read. Another announced Bible study for surfers. P.J.'s Book Bodega & Surf Shop offers one-stop shopping for surfing bibliophiles. Book sale proceeds are used to care for the town's stray dogs.
The bookshop, beneath the Zicatela Surf Hostel, also doubles as a cinema that seats 12 and serves popcorn, beer and iced tea. That week, features included "Walk the Line," "Nacho Libre" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," filmed partly in Puerto.
Twice, we had dinner at El Jardin, a palapa restaurant and superb vantage point for studying wayfarer fashion, which tended toward bohemian chic, with inventive head wrappings, strategic piercings, high-tech travel apparel and Mexican garb. El Jardin also served great brick-oven pizzas and restorative smoothies made from fresh ginger, pineapple and seltzer. One night, I feasted on homemade yogurt, topped with perfectly ripe papaya.
We breakfasted a couple of times at Carmen's Cafecito, another Zicatela mainstay, where early-morning customers can watch surfers while munching pastries filled with mango cream or empanadas with a filling of pineapple and apple.
Puerto boasts an unusual number of Italian restaurants, opened by emigres supposedly seduced by "Puerto Escondido," an Italian "travel and crime movie" filmed on location in 1992. The film is screened nightly at La Hosteria, a Zicatela restaurant and bar.
One morning, I hailed a taxi to Temazcalli, a spa tucked into the hills above Puerto, where massages, facials and "bioenergetic balance techniques" are offered. I opted for the Temazcal, a steam bath infused with eucalyptus, rosemary and arnica, among other herbs. Afterward, I sat on a patio and sipped a fruity glass of tea before returning to the beach rested and ready to rest some more.
El Adoquin, a lively promenade that parallels Playa Principal, serves as Puerto's de facto boardwalk. Its stalls -- crammed with souvenirs, beach toys, woven skirts, hammocks, drawstring pants and bikinis -- draw nightly throngs of flirting teens, families and backpackers staying in nearby hostels.
At an El Adoquin crossroads, Gina Machorro, known by admirers around the globe as the "Information Goddess," dispenses advice from a state-run tourist information booth.
Quick-witted, worldly and multilingual, Machorro always has something to say. Describing the steep hike to Carrizalillo, she quips, "That's the price of beauty." Of the Spanish instructor she has in mind for two German travelers, she commands: "Go. She's waiting for you."
Speaking to a tourist interested in sport fishing, she inquires, "Do you want to go in English or do you want to go in Spanish?"
A fatalistic sense of humor characterizes Machorro's feelings about her adopted town. Because it straddles two counties, Puerto, population 55,000, is governed haphazardly, the Mexico City native says. Recently, the town replaced all street signs, but neglected to include numbers, making her job directing tourists that much more challenging.
Puerto, though, has gotten under Machorro's skin. When the tourist season picks up in November with sail fishing and surfing contests as well as a folk dance festival, she gives tours of ruins and the commercial and residential parts of Puerto where few visitors would venture otherwise.
The Information Goddess didn't steer me wrong when I asked her to suggest a place for dinner. She sent us to Los Crotos, a seafood restaurant overlooking Playa Principal, where the morning's catch arrives. In the glow of twilight, we feasted on more red snapper -- crackle-y and suffused with garlic --- a tantalizing ceviche, margaritas and flan. Strolling musicians serenaded guests. The oceanfront soccer games continued until it got too dark to see the ball.
Puerto, I realized, is a place that you come to love for its scruffy qualities as well as its tropical beauty.
Mexicana Airlines flies to Mexico City. From there, Aerocaribe offers one flight daily five days a week to Puerto Escondido. Puerto Escondido can also be reached by bus, van or car from Mexico City, Acapulco, Bahias de Huatulco and Oaxaca.
Where to stay:
Hotel Santa Fe, 01-954-582-0170, is an upscale hotel by Puerto standards and pricier than most local accommodations. .
Hotel Mayflower, 01-954-582-0367, is an inexpensive hotel on El Adoquin favored by Europeans.
Hostel Shalom, 01-954-582-3234, is cheap, with private-room options and a swimming pool.
Las Olas, 01-954-582-0919, has budget cabanas on Playa Zicatela. .
Where to eat:
Carmen's Cafecito, 01-954-582-0516, is a bustling spot overlooking Zicatela.
Restaurante El Jardin, 01-954-582-2315, is another Zicatela restaurant with delicious vegetarian fare and great smoothies.
Restaurant Los Crotos, 01-954-582-0025, on El Adoquin, features romantic terrace dining.
Whether it's a question about where to stay or how to catch a bus out of town, multilingual Gina Machorro, the state of Oaxaca's information officer, can supply the answer. She is at her kiosk Monday through Saturday at the west end of El Adoquin. For advance information, contact her at Ginainpuerto@yahoo.com.
Mexico Tourism Board, 800-44-MEXICO, or visitmexico.com.