Far from the may­hem of the Mayan Riviera, there’s a Mex­i­can lo­cale where beaches are still chill, surfers min­gle with ex­pats, and the lucky trav­eller can re­visit the Mex­ico of yes­ter­year.

Western Living - - CONTENTS -

This surfer’s par­adise is the next great Mex­i­can va­ca­tion hot spot.

I’ve barely wo­ken from my af­ter­noon nap when I’m sum­moned into re­al­ity by what sounds like a conch shell blow­ing. In any other sit­u­a­tion I might pass it off as a lin­ger­ing fig­ment of a dream, but I’ve been told in ad­vance what this sound sig­ni­fies: it’s time to re­lease the tur­tles.

I head down to the beach, still a bit foggy, to find a man un­load­ing a wrig­gling sack from the back of an ATV amid a small group of ex­cited tourists. Be­fore I know it, I’m handed a mi­nus­cule baby sea tur­tle tucked in a half co­conut shell (we’re given ex­plicit in­struc­tions not to touch them), and I race to give it a soft land­ing on the sand be­fore it in­stinc­tively cat­a­pults its tiny body out of its con­tainer and to­ward the sea. Fol­low­ing our own in­stincts, we hu­mans co­a­lesce into an ad-hoc cheer squad as our mo­men­tary charges bat­tle their way across what sud­denly seems like an im­pos­si­bly wide swath of sand and into the pound­ing red-flag surf. We watch un­til the last of the lit­tle guys fi­nally catches a wave, and, as the group fi­nally dis­si­pates, I turn my back on the wa­ter to re­al­ize the sound of the ocean al­most seems to com­ple­ment the con­struc­tion noises from the condo build­ings go­ing up in front of me.

The bal­ance be­tween un­spoiled na­ture and bur­geon­ing de­vel­op­ment de­fines Oaxaca’s Emer­ald Coast these days. This rel­a­tively un­known corner of south­west­ern Mex­ico called Puerto Es­con­dido has long been a beloved des­ti­na­tion for surfers lured by the truly epic swells and, more re­cently, by food­ies at­tracted to the re­gion’s dis­tinc­tive culi­nary fare: so-fresh-it’s-prac­ti­cally-mov­ing seafood, deep and com­plex moles, meaty Oax­a­can cheese and boundary-push­ing lo­cal del­i­ca­cies of the in­sect va­ri­ety. But it’s only now that the re­sort-style in­fra­struc­ture more com­mon to Mex­ico’s more pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions has started to creep in, and with it has come a push to ap­peal to more main­stream va­ca­tion­ers.

Cana­dian-owned Vivo Re­sorts, my home for the week, is the first multi-build­ing water­front re­sort to spring up along Pal­mar­ito

“The bal­ance be­tween un­spoiled na­ture and bur­geon­ing de­vel­op­ment de­fines Oaxaca’s Emer­ald Coast these days.”

Beach, 20 kilo­me­tres of oth­er­wise un­de­vel­oped sea­side ter­rain about 20 min­utes from Puerto Es­con­dido. But my fears that de­vel­op­ment means this par­adise may soon be paved in the man­ner of the Mayan Riviera are ve­he­mently quashed by the re­sort staff, who tell me the area lacks the same gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives that led to the row-upon-soul­less-row of all-in­clu­sive re­sorts em­blem­atic of Cancún or Cozumel. This re­gion, I’m told, has adopted a slow-growth phi­los­o­phy aimed at bal­anc­ing a grow­ing re­sort in­dus­try and its much­needed eco­nomic boost with the na­ture re­serves and bio­di­ver­sity that give the Emer­ald Coast its off-the-beaten-track feel ( hence Vivo’s part­ner­ship with the non-profit tur­tle sanc­tu­ary just up the road, and my thrilling end to the day).

Of equal al­lure is the lack of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the tourist ar­eas and the agrar­ian com­mu­ni­ties and pub­lic

beaches along the coast that pro­vide a win­dow into a slice of Mex­i­can life that is truly de­serv­ing of the term “au­then­tic.” Case in point: our way into Puerto Es­con­dido the next morn­ing is punc­tu­ated with run­ning com­men­tary by our driver and guide, Je­sus, who ex­cit­edly points out the peanut, se­same and corn fields that have long sup­ported the lo­cal econ­omy, and re­gales us with tales of his own child­hood in the nearby town of Chila. “My grand­fa­ther used to show me how to make salt from the dirt,” he tells us, ges­tur­ing to the abun­dant red earth.

That lit­eral salt-of-the-earth ethos ex­tends to Puerto Es­con­dido, a city of 45,000, first founded in the 1920s as an out­post for the cof­fee, co­coa and cin­na­mon grown in the nearby Sierra Madre moun­tains. A rel­a­tive zy­gote by Mex­i­can stan­dards, the city lacks the grandiose ar­chi­tec­ture or an­cient ru­ins of other des­ti­na­tions (for those, you’ll have to make the more than six-hour over-moun­tain trek to Oaxaca City) and, mer­ci­fully, is also with­out the shop­ping-mal­lesque tourist strips found in more es­tab­lished spots. Lo­cal crafts, sou­venirs and beach­wear are in­stead ac­quired on the Ado­quin, the beach­side stroll where you’re just as likely to find lo­cals head­ing out for a night on the town as you are sun­burned grin­gos. Per­me­at­ing Puerto is a laid-back boho vibe, a re­flec­tion of the surf cul­ture that has been cul­ti­vated here since the 1950s. The city’s fa­mous at­trac­tion, Zi­catela Beach, is or­bited by back­packer hos­tels, rustic ca­banas, hole-in-the-wall cafés and even a topless beach, and in the win­ter the area is be­set by surfers from all over the world who come to con­tend with up-to-10-me­tre ocean swells.

My visit in the off-sea­son os­ten­si­bly co­in­cides with what are in the­ory more man­age­able con­di­tions, but the waves on our visit are big enough to keep me hap­pily beach-bound as we poke into sea caves and watch a hand­ful of pre­sum­ably am­a­teur surfers at­tempt to avoid crash­ing into the rocks.

Aim­ing for a less adrenalin-fu­elled lo­ca­tion, we grab lunch at Vil­las Car­rizalillo, a clifftop col­lec­tion of up­scale pri­vate vil­las where the view alone is worth the trip. After a meal of fresh-caught grouper

and mar­gar­i­tas (the ob­vi­ous choice) we de­scend the 160 stairs to Car­rizalillo Beach, one of sev­eral smaller coves where the shel­tered wa­ters are, al­legedly, more amenable to swim­mers. I head in for a dip but after nearly los­ing my swim­suit to the shore break, I opt for a shaded beach lounger and a beer just as an af­ter­noon storm rolls in— an al­most-daily oc­cur­rence that pro­vides a wel­come break from the heat of the day and doesn’t seem to dampen any­one’s spir­its. Dry and con­tent un­der my um­brella, I pull out a book, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes from the in­creas­ingly stormy seas.

The next morn­ing brings the re­turn of clear skies and we ven­ture out to La­guna de Ma­nial­te­pec, a pro­tected coastal la­goon and cru­cial wildlife habi­tat. After yes­ter­day’s wild waves, the glass-still wa­ters are par­tic­u­larly en­tic­ing, as are the shaded ham­mocks on of­fer at the quaint lake­side café. But sies­tas are bet­ter when they’re earned, so I load into a Zo­diac to tour the man­groves (and nearly come face to face with all man­ner of storks, egrets and even an incog­nito iguana) be­fore ar­riv­ing at Puerto Suelo, a tiny ocean­front set­tle­ment on a sand­bar sand­wiched be­tween the la­goon and the sea. Je­sus tells us these mi­cro-vil­lages, of­ten with­out run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, are not un­com­mon along the coast, which is tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory to no fewer than 16 dif­fer­ent Indige­nous groups. This par­tic­u­lar one is home to just two fam­i­lies, who seem to be out for the day, so our boat cap­tain takes over host­ing du­ties by cut­ting us fresh co­conuts from a nearby tree. I sip the sweet co­conut wa­ter down near the ocean, mar­vel­ling at the sight of mile upon mile of com­pletely vir­gin beach sprawl­ing out be­fore me. I’m in ut­ter dis­be­lief that some­thing so pure still ex­ists in this world.

On our fi­nal day, we trade in oceanic Zen for the chaotic en­ergy of Puerto Es­con­dido’s Ben­ito Juárez mar­ket, where, on a busy Satur­day morn­ing, I do an ex­cel­lent job of get­ting in the way of the lo­cals as they go about their weekly shop­ping. This is a food lover’s dream, packed with more va­ri­eties of pro­duce than the typ­i­cal Cana­dian ever gets to see—who knew there were so many dif­fer­ent types of av­o­ca­dos? I sam­ple some mamey, a sweet-potato-meets-pa­paya sit­u­a­tion and, em­bold­ened by my dar­ing, dip into the over­flow­ing buck­ets of crick­ets, which pack a sur­pris­ingly fishy taste that I’m not in any hurry to make part of my ro­ta­tion. There are also end­less stalls sell­ing fish, cheese, meats and bags of freshly milled masa, all of which Vivo’s head chef, Roberto Cruz, em­ploys for our farewell din­ner later that night.

By the time I find my­self back at Puerto’s tiny air­port the next morn­ing—watch­ing old Mex­i­can mu­si­cals on the TV at the ridicu­lously charm­ing in-gate tiki bar, I can’t help but hope the Emer­ald Coast’s ac­ces­si­ble, au­then­tic char­ac­ter re­ally will with­stand its in­evitable dis­cov­ery by more peo­ple like me, which, I sup­pose, is the high­est praise a vis­i­tor can be­stow.

Chill Pill The surfer’s shacks have been re­placed by the odd low- rise, but dis­creet, re­sort.

Puerto Es­con­dido Only a few years ago this sleepy town was undis­cov­ered by tourists. Not any­more.

Colour Pal­ette From the colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture of the city to the crash­ing surf of Puerto Es­con­dido, Oaxaca’s Emer­ald Coast of­fers spec­tac­u­lar di­ver­sity.

Chow Down While the area is fa­mous for its surf, Oaxaca is in­creas­ingly be­ing known as a foodie des­ti­na­tion as well with both the famed (feared?) spirit mez­cal and the cho­co­late-based mole sauce hav­ing their spir­i­tual homes in the state.

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