Costa Chica
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  Posted April 30th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | No comments yet.

Traveling Mexico

By: Damien Cave

Mexico without the crowds, or attitude!
EAGER young men waving us toward empty parking spaces by an eco-tourism kiosk, two excited toddlers in the back seat, and no way to turn back: tourism hell seemed to be upon us. After a long sigh, and a glance at the pristine Pacific in front of us, we gave in.

03MAZUNTE2-articleLargeRaking the sand of a beachfront restaurant in Mazunte

And then the Costa Chica, as this region of Oaxaca is known, surprised us. “It’s 400 pesos for a private boat tour with a guide,” one of the young men said. “But if no one else shows up, you can just pay the group price.”

03nextstop-map-popupOaxaca, Mexico – Costa Chica

My wife and I looked around; we were completely alone. So we ended up with a chartered boat for the price of a crowded one — paying the equivalent of about $10 for a 90-minute trip through mangroves teeming with mating birds, lazy crocodiles and neon-green iguanas. Our guide paddled the boat quietly while identifying the animals. Our children squawked with delight, and as we re-emerged to stunning views, my wife and I stared in awe.

This stretch of surf was one of those rare places — extremely hard to find in Mexico and the Caribbean — with natural beauty and tourists, but not a squeeze-the-tourist attitude. There was no charge for the beach chairs at the waterfront; no waitresses waving plastic menus to coax us inside. Instead, chefs in open-air kitchens offered to cook us affordable food not on the menu if it meant our kids would eat. Then toys, a cat or a playmate (same age as our children, occasionally nude) would often magically appear as we were seated.

DSC_2668Playa Panteon in Puerto Angel

The friendliness seemed unforced during our four-night stay at a rented house in San Agustinillo this spring. And it was a counterpoint to the monstrous waves and dangerous undertows that have kept the area from being overrun. Indeed, the Costa Chica was once hardly fit for tourists. For decades, the four small neighboring towns here — Zipolite, San Agustinillo, Mazunte and Ventanilla — were nearly empty except for fishermen hunting sea turtles or harvesting their eggs. Residents said the golden sand was often covered with turtle entrails, and with roads that were rocky at best, boats were the preferred form of transportation.

03MEXICO-slide-HVF6-jumboMazunte beach, on the Costa Chica in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mazunte is one of the small towns clustered along this stretch of the Pacific in the southern part of the country.

That all began to change in the 1980s, as the turtle population dwindled and the first mass of Italian tourists arrived. When the Mexican government banned turtle hunting in 1990, the coast here became a test case for how to shift from an industry that created environmental degradation to others that are eco-friendly. And now, with investment from government, nonprofits and green-minded businesses (like the Body Shop founder who helped establish a cosmetics co-op run by local women) the shift is nearly complete.

The fishermen here still occasionally pull in sharks despite pressure from the government and locals to end the practice; we saw (and smelled) carcasses from our table at La Termita during an otherwise enjoyable dinner of brick-oven pizza. But mostly, the area has found its sustainable groove. Much of the new construction is built to blend in with the surroundings, walkers outnumber drivers, and several business owners are now raving about plans for solar-powered streetlights.

“They’re doing a good job,” said Hugo Ascención López, 37, the owner of Arte Sano, an artisan shop in San Agustinillo. His story was a typical one. He came here for a brief visit from the city of Puebla 10 years ago, then quickly decided to move here. “In the city, there is no time for anything,” he said, as his dog and 2-year-old son showed my own children around the store. “I wanted a different take on life, and this is something simpler.”

03MAZUNTE1-popupFishermen head out to sea as they prepare to leave to fish at Punta Maldonado beach in Costa Chica, southern Guerrero state.

Local residents who have been here longer are equally proud, showing off their cooking ingredients, or the parrots that seem to be the favored mascot. San Agustinillo has more charm than the other three towns on the coast, with its smaller beach, its preference for cafes and its handful of newer, upscale hotels like Punta Placer (Pleasure Point) and El Sueño (The Dream). From our perch in our two-bedroom house up a steep driveway — with doors that did not lock and a terrace that lacked any sort of barrier — we could see that the little village fell dark and quiet before midnight.

Oaxaca State_La Costa Chica1La Costa Chica, Oaxaca state, Mexico

mexico-negro-costa-chica4t1991La Costa Chica, Oaxaca state, Mexico. This region is populated by a majority of Afro Mexican people.

Mazunte, a 10-minute walk away, was busier. Live music blared until a loosely enforced closing time — some said it was midnight, others guessed 2 a.m.

At sunrise, on the main road between the towns, women in baggy pants appeared with yoga mats in their arms. One of them, a young New Yorker, offered to whisk our children away for a class that would help them find their “Eye Center.” (After I realized that my 3-year-old son would be more likely to scream than stretch, I turned them down.)

DSC_2920Beach in Puerto Escondido

Breakfast seemed to extend into the afternoon at the restaurants on Mazunte’s main drag, where young backpackers finished their eggs and hitched rides to Puerto Escondido or Huatulco, the two nearest cities — each about an hour’s drive away. The cosmetics shop was filled with day-trippers from those two cities as well, some Mexican, many from colder places like Canada. But the main attractions here are the beach and the area’s totem of green conversion, the Mexican Turtle Center.

As for swimming, the waves simply require caution. We swam with our children in the small coves near a series of large rocks in San Agustinillo, starting shallow then slowly moving out a little deeper. It was a great way to show my son, who had been taking swimming lessons, why the ocean needs to be respected.

DSC_2829Playa in Mazunte, Oaxaca Mexico

The visit to the turtle center was more worry-free. An aquarium and research center showing off five of the seven turtle species found on the Mexican coast, it opened in the early ’90s near what used to be a turtle slaughterhouse. The goal now, of course, is to encourage conservation, and when we visited, fresh paint suggested its recent renovation and expansion. David Armando Rojas, a biologist at the center, told us that the welcome center and all the turtle displays would be upgraded by the end of the year.

FLIGHT2009Escondido11Arial view of Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca Mexico

What we found was simple but satisfying. Giant sea turtles, known as golfinas in Spanish and olive ridleys in English, raced around an aboveground pool just a few yards from crashing waves. Tourists mingled with a staff that interacted warmly with the crowd. At one point, a volunteer guided a blind man, his blind wife and their two children through the hatchery, placing 15-day old turtles the size of biscuits into their hands. The children, who looked to be about 8 and 6, giggled with delight.

“A lot of people in Mexico still see turtles as food,” Mr. Armando said. “It’s easier to convince the kids, to make them more conscientious, and then they will convince their parents not to eat them.”

THERE was definitely no turtle on the menus we saw. We ate almost as well as anywhere else in Mexico, but for less money. The dorado steamed with cheese and Sacred Herb (no, not that herb) at Olas Altas in San Agustinillo was fresh, simple and heavenly. Lunch for all cost 315 pesos, or $23 at 13.70 pesos to the dollar; beers were less than 20 pesos each.

DSC_2971Palm tree on beach in Puerto Escondido

Italian cuisine a few doors down, the pizza at La Termita and the fantastic risotto with Gorgonzola and guava at Punta Placer, also made us want to come back for a longer stay, without the children. Both restaurants offered views of the water at sunset, while reminding us that wherever Italians show up (we found them in Zanzibar too) good food, wine and coffee usually follow.

The lodging options also made us long for a second trip. Pan de Miel, sitting on the cliffs between San Agustinillo and Mazunte, has rooms for about 1,500 pesos a night that allow travelers to take in amazing views without interruption from children. (They aren’t allowed.) Rooms costing far less are at least as common at other hotels, many within earshot of the waves.

And the waves are important — loud and large, they define this place. We arrived with a healthy respect for them, or maybe fear, having read about the young Mexican wife of Francisco Goldman, a well-known author, who died in 2007 from injuries she suffered during a bodysurfing accident in Mazunte.

But for us, the threat of the beach could not be separated from the area’s appeal. The tubes of green surf rolling along the empty beach at Ventanilla and the undertow at San Agustinillo that pulled heavy rocks out to sea with ease were a perfect match for the cactus plants and palm trees, and even the fishermen hunting sharks. They all reflected a Mexico in (less sanitized) form, rough and raw, still dominated by nature and the struggle for identity.

DSC_2664Puerto Angel, Oaxaca Mexico

This is not the Mexico of Cancún, or even fashion-friendly, high-end Tulum on the calm Caribbean. We swam mostly at low tide. We met people we saw again and again. In a country filled with resorts emphasizing tourist convenience and the hunt for tourist dollars (I’m looking at you Ixtapa, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta), the Costa Chica is a mix of risk and reward well worth making.

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