Puerto Escondido is a gem of a beach town, a hidden oasis of tacos and surf tucked away on the Oaxacan coast. In a way I feel bad for writing this, because one of the things I love about Puerto Escondido is the fact that it exists for Mexico, not for American tourists eager for an all-inclusive resort that caters to their every need. When you wander the streets of Puerto you will see school children nabbing a quick elote loco (a corn on the cob bought on the street and garnished with either mayo, ketchup, and cheese or lime, chili, and salt) before their next class, bronzed surfers from every corner of the world, and Mexican families on holiday from across the country. Puerto Escondido is not Cancun and I hope, for its sake, that it does not become just another Americanized piece of the Mexican coastline. So before I go further, I implore you, if you choose to visit Puerto Escondido do so respectfully, eat at local restaurants, engage with the culture, and make sure your money goes to sustaining small, local businesses rather than padding the pockets of foreign owned hotels.
Why Visit Puerto?
Puerto Escondido wasn’t actually an inhabited town until the 1930s when the port there began to be used for shipping coffee, though indigenous peoples have lived in the surrounding mountains and valleys since pre-Hispanic times. Tourism began to be a main contributor to the town’s economy in the 1960s when a road was built connecting the town to Acapulco and since then it has been a haven for surfers, backpackers, and vacationers from Mexico City seeking a more rustic version of paradise than found elsewhere in the country. People still come for what drew the very first tourists back in the 60s, the beautiful beaches, impressive waves, and quiet, laid back beach town atmosphere.
Puerto’s main tourist attractions are the beaches, with the main one’s being Zicatela, La Punta, Carrizalillo, Angelito, Manzanillo, and Principal. Playa Principal is the main beach in the city center, which isn’t really much of a swimming beach as it is mainly used for anchoring fishing and tour boats, leading to a distinct smell of gasoline in the water. However, fear not, I’m listing these beaches in order from worst to best (in my non-surfer) opinion. From there it’s only a short walk to Playa Angelito which gets very crowded very quickly due to it being a taking off point of many boat tours as well. Manzanillo is quieter as there is no road access and quite acceptable for swimming, but as my heart was already stolen by Carrizalillo by the time we made it here it really doesn’t rank in my eyes.
Zicatela and La Punta are really the same stretch of beach, with Zicatela being the long main stretch of beach home to the famous “Mexican Pipeline” and La Punta being the very end of the beach with a decidedly different break due to it being on the point of land, similar to other beaches know for point breaks. In my time in Puerto Escondido I never once got in the water at Zicatela, because to put it simple, I’m not nearly a good enough surfer to brave the waves. I’m a strong swimmer (hell my parents had me in the water long before I could walk and I grew up swimming around the pier of my Californian beach hometown), but the waves at Zicatela are not to be taken lightly, especially in the mid to late summer when they are at their zenith. The danger, and thrill for those daring enough, comes from the fact that these monster waves break so close to shore, crashing with the fury of a thousand suns onto shallow sand.
This last time in Puerto Escondido, Kane and I were staying at an AirBnB owned by an American surfer who first came to Puerto 40 years ago and never left when he told us about a surf competition that was on, so we got up uncharacteristically early and headed down to Zicatela at 9 am (I know, we’d fully embrace the vacation lifestyle by this point for 9 am to be considered early). I know nothing about surfing, but even as a total amateur I could see the skill involved in riding these waves. Like the North Shore of Ohau, the competitors are towed quickly through the danger zone of the break by a brave (or stupid) man on a jet ski. Then they sit quietly, not all that far out, waiting for their chance to challenge Poseidon’s beasts. When someone decides to go for a wave you can almost hear the crowd suck in their collective breathe as the surfer is visible for about two seconds, then disappears into the bowels of the barrel. Even I found myself holding my breath, praying that he’d pop back out the other end. In the end some crashed spectacularly, their boards shooting up out of the white water like mini rockets and their bodies flailing somewhere below the surface, but some would emerge, victorious, from the belly of the beast and the crowd would cheer his cheating death one more time. Suffice to say, I left those waves to the professionals.
My favorite beach in Puerto Escondido, and one of my favorites in the world, is Playa Carrizalillo, a welcoming little bay of no more than 300 feet of yellow sand surrounded on both sides by cliffside jungle. The blue-green teal of the shallows are bathwater warm and rock-free except closer to the cliffs, while the cobalt depths offer a slightly more refreshing temperature and the occasional brush with a local tortuga (i.e. turtle). Carrizalillo is a favorite for casual swimmers and beginning surfers alike, because while there can be a bit of a shore break during the summer months it isn’t too strong to worry mother’s whose children insist on playing the “let’s see who gets the most smashed by the waves” game and there is a second, moderately sized break further out that offers beginners a safe spot to learn to surf. I say safe because all beginners wipe out and it’s a much better situation to crash in deep water where the force of the wave is unlikely to crunch your neck into the sand than to flirt with a C-spine injury in shallow water.
Kane and I would spend most of our days in Puerto Escondido on Carrizalillo, waking late and arriving to the beach after lunch to avoid the most intense of the suns rays (the sun in seriously strong here, just check the UV ratings if you don’t believe me) while spending the rest of the day waffling between reading in the shade of the beach hut palapas and swimming amongst the surfers further out into the cove. While the water of Carrizalillo is definitely the most inviting the beach is small and beach shacks take up most of the shade selling $4 USD cocktails delivered straight to your beach towel or only slightly overpriced fish (I’ll give them the mark up, after all everything has to be hiked in down the steep stairs). The best strategy we’ve found is, if you’re going to be in Puerto for a while, is loyalty. The first day we walked down the beach and found a nice spot to put our towels in the shade and bought drinks from the beach hut that owned the territory. The next day we bought 300 pesos worth of lunch, enough to earn us a table and chairs for the day. We continued on like this, some days buying a single piña colada, some days snacking on homemade guacamole, until the owner, a slight lady who loved to joke with the young Mexican men buying too many beers, began to expect us. This loyalty won us her acceptance and help, because not only did she not mind the days when we’d put our towels under her palapas without buying anything, but she also moved our stuff onto a chair when we were out swimming and hadn’t realized the tide had come in.
What to Do and When to Go
Aside from swimming, surfing, and eating your way through the city (for an in depth guide to food in Puerto Escondido read this) there are markets to wander through, beachside clubs to dance at, and movies to watch on the beach. However, I must warn you that the best time for surfing (mid to late summer) is considered the low season for tourism due to the heat and increased likelihood of torrential tropical downpours that will have the streets resembling muddy rivers in minutes and many of the extra things to do in Puerto Escondido are closed or off during the low season.
If you are in Puerto Escondido during the high season (winter to spring) there are free English movies every Wednesday night at Hotel Suites Villasol (check their Facebook page for movie times and what’s showing), turtle releasing at sunset on the Playa Bacocho (the same beach as the free movies), and the waves at Carrizalillo will have calmed down to a gentle lull. Puerto Escondido is home to turtle nesting sites from October to May and in an effort to make sure the eggs survive to hatching locals find the nests and moves them to safer, marked areas of beach so they don’t get trampled by tourists. One of the benefits of this, aside from making sure the babies make it to the water safely, is that, for a small fee that goes to supporting the organization, you can help carry one of these little wiggly darlings to a safer spot on the beach and let them go. It’s adorable (and slightly hilarious) to watch their widely flapping fins battling the waves as they start their perilous journey to become one of the wise old turtles munching algae in Carrizalillo. You can only send them off with the hope that they might be one of the few who beats the odds to make it back to this very beach years and years in the future to lay their own eggs. If you want to read more about exactly why conservationists move turtle nests and release at sunset (instead of noon when most eggs hatch) Till the Money Run’s Out wrote a good post on the matter (however, some of their information is incorrect as you do not need to book a 500 peso tour, just show up at Playa Bacocho around sunset with around 50 pesos for the guy who runs the operation).
While the movies and turtle releasing is off during the low season, the surf is up and it’s the perfect time to take a surf lesson at Carrizalillo or watch the pros at work at one of the many international surf competitions that come to Zicatela this time of year. If you’re lucky your time in Puerto Escondido in the low season will be blessed with sunny skies for lovely beach days and the occasional tropical thunderstorm, because, despite them muddying up the water in the days immediately following a big storm, the storms here are something to see. There’s nothing quite like huddling under the awning of the closest store as you watch the heavens open up turning the streets into knee-deep rushing rivers that threaten to carry away poorly parked cars and small children alike. In our two weeks in Puerto Escondido this last time during low season we had many wonderful beach days and only two rainy days, one that was a short afternoon storm without much oomph and another that had me staring up the roiling clouds in awe. Puerto Escondido is lovely year round, just for different reasons; so take this into consideration before you decide when to go.
How to Get There
There are two main ways to get to Puerto Escondido, fly in from Mexico City or Oaxaca or take a 10 hour, winding bus ride through the mountains from Oaxaca. I’ve never personally taken the bus, but I have it on good information (i.e. Kane and his brother Logan) that the bus spends almost all of its time on two wheels as it careens around hairpin mountainous turns. While the bus is the cheaper option (~250 pesos or $13 USD), it is not for the weak of stomach and if you get at all carsick spending more to fly is worth it. Personally, I think trading a 10 hour bus ride for a 30 minute flight is worth it for the approximately $100 USD per person ticket. The bonus of taking the only flight from (or to) Oaxaca on Areotucán is because the plane is teeny tiny (there are 10 total seats and only one flight leaving daily from Puerto to Oaxaca at 8 am) you basically get a scenic flight over the sparsely inhabited Oaxacan mountains. If you’re coming or going from Mexico City you’ll miss out on the scenic flight but get a bigger plane and more flight options with VivaAerobus, Interjet, or AeroMexico.