Stepping off the plane in Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, I gulped the thick, tropical air. After three days in Mexico’s high-elevation capital, inhaling the vital, pungent smell of sea and damp vegetation felt like a resuscitation.
I hired an “authorized” taxi and drove northwest from the airport, passing papaya farms and low hills strewn with boulders. The landscape was bright green and pale yellow with pops of fuchsia bougainvillea and flame-hued lantana — a planter box ornamental at my home in California that here grows to the size of an apple tree.
There were delays: a young man on horseback wrangling a white steer and a crew of road workers with machetes waging an endless war against the encroaching jungle. Finally, we turned off the highway and onto a narrow dirt lane lined with branch-and-barbed-wire fence and tall grass that lashed the windows, as if we’d entered a dusty car wash. With each oncoming vehicle, the taxista played the world’s slowest game of chicken.
My plan was to spend the next five days hopping from one beach enclave to the next along the Costa Chica, which stretches from the neighboring state of Guerrero to roughly the middle of the Oaxacan coastline. My family has been visiting the “Small Coast,” which is famous for its wild surf, since before I was born. I’ve often wondered if the murderous waves that initially drew my dad and uncles — but make the water much too treacherous for casual beachgoing — are what has saved the area from the Cancun-esque overdevelopment that’s been the fate of many of Mexico’s most beautiful coastal places.
Instead, the Costa Chica has developed slowly and organically over decades. Its economy, long based on subsistence farming and fishing, now includes a modest tourism industry. The area is relatively hard to get to (there are no direct international flights), but that — like all the area’s peculiarities — ends up being a strength rather than a weakness. The outsiders who end up on this stretch of Pacific coastline are here for a reason. Beyond its bohemian surf towns, the coast’s evolving culture includes world-class art and architecture at Casa Wabi, a sleek, modernist artist’s retreat and exhibition venue designed by Pritzker award-winning architect Tadao Ando, among others; a small but notable gay community in the town of Zipolite; and the New Agers and yogis at Mazunte.
Settling in at Casa Tiny
By the time we were passing Casa Wabi, which was founded by Bosco Sodi, one of Mexico’s most celebrated contemporary artists, I was painfully hungry. Between Wabi and Hotel Escondido, the glamorous $325-a-night boutique hotel next door, I’d assumed there’d be somewhere, anywhere, to eat nearby. A palapa-style beachfront seafood shack, a simple tienda — something. It seemed I was wrong.
The road dead-ended in sand and the driver pointed to a wooden gate built into a wall of dry tropical forest. There, but out of sight, was my lodging for the night, a diminutive cabin I had been daydreaming about since the year before, when I’d profiled its Mexico City-based architect, Aranza de Arino. It was Arino’s first major project (she was a recent graduate at the time); photographs of the simple structure, which is listed on Airbnb, had stayed with me.
It was just me and the Henry David Thoreau-inspired cabin (copies of “Walden,” in several languages, occupied a nearby shelf). I admired the textural contrast of smooth concrete against pebbled floors, the basket of rustic must-haves (mosquito coils, a portable speaker, a deck of cards, candles and matches), the sturdy earthenware and rusty two-burner stove. A long concrete table was the cabin’s focal point; on it was a decorative bowl of apples, cucumbers, green oranges and a few spotted bananas. I opened the minifridge. Empty. This confirmed my fears: I might be eating fruit for the next 24 hours.
Casa Tiny was as minimalist as promised, a magical escape from the things (cell service, internet, distractions) I was suddenly, shamefully alarmed to be without.
It was approaching the hottest part of the day, a bad time for a walk. But I was hungry and needed to know what I’d gotten myself into. I cut over to the ocean on a deteriorating path through a field of cactuses. The beach was long and wild. At one end, a wall of sculpted stone stood like nature’s monument to itself; at the other, the sand seemed to stretch to the horizon. Scorching, it poured into my sandals, punishing my feet.
Finally, I arrived at Hotel Escondido — sweaty, thirsty and overwhelmed by the frenzy around me. The hotel, which had been booked for a wedding, was closed to the public. The event, I was told, would be one of their “biggest ever.” But recognizing I was in a bind, the hotel manager invited me in. I found a cool spot beneath a fan, ordered a pina colada and some food to go.
While my marlin ceviche and guacamole with chapulines (salty, crunchy, fried grasshoppers) was being prepared, I stepped out for my first glimpse of Casa Wabi next door. I’d missed the only public admission of the day. But with a wink, the staff at Hotel Escondido encouraged me to go anyway.
At a break in the compound’s fence, I tentatively entered. Having read about Wabi’s design, I’d been expecting a museum. A gallery. A showy institution. But instead I stood in an open-air ceramic workshop surrounded by dense foliage, with outdoor tables, half-completed projects and a large kiln. I wandered through a maze of head-high bramble carved with winding paths. Here and there, structures rose above the sea of green — an elegant brick tower mid-construction, an abstract pavilion of clay, and a long, black, rectangular building that looked like a modernist museum. But when I got closer, I noticed floor-to-ceiling cubbies and white birds. It was a chicken coop. This, I realized, was Casa Wabi. All of it. It wasn’t a single structure so much as an idea about how art can, and should, function in the world.
Next stop: surf town
While the Casa Wabi enclave is a baffling mix of cosmopolitanism and casualness, my next stop, Brisas de Zicatela, is a rowdy, bohemian surf town. After a 40-minute ride I was deposited at La Punta (The Point) — as the area, just south of Puerto Escondido, is known by locals — and Hostel Frutas y Verduras, a brightly painted backpacker hostel where I’d booked a modest room with shared bath for 500 pesos (about $27) a night.
After my time alone at Casa Tiny, the scene at La Punta was a culture shock. An international crowd of beautiful people wore the beach’s unofficial uniform: women in ultrashort jean cutoffs and blond dreadlocks, and muscular young men in bare feet and man-buns, arms scrawled with tattoos. Everyone seemed to be with someone — a friend, lover or soon-to-be-lover — and music pulsed constantly, as if I’d arrived at a never-ending party. I longed to be back at Casa Tiny.
Over the next two days, I lay under a palm-frond umbrella on the party-ready beach, people-watching. I sipped a mezcal cocktail at a feet-in-the-sand beach bar with swings as stools. I ate at a palapa-roofed restaurant run by a charming Argentine couple, watching them pass babies back and forth, sipping wine and mate, socializing with friends. I watched body surfers get tossed by La Punta’s shore break but didn’t dare go in myself. Not there. Instead, I walked and watched.
Despite an aversion to tours, I signed up for an evening trip to the bioluminescent Manialtepec lagoon. For 350 pesos (about $17), along with five other travelers I was chauffeured to the lagoon, where we were introduced to our captain and his crew, a father and his grade-school-age son. They wrestled the small skiff through a tangle of overlapping lines, pulling it to the narrow dock. The water was glassy, and the air, at nearly 8 p.m., was balmy and motionless. I was buzzed from my after-dinner mezcal and the rush of easy adventure.
I’d been warned that the moon, one day shy of full, might drown out the bioluminescence. But when the captain instructed us to dip our hands over the side, we left comet-like trails through the warm, black, brackish water as thousands of tiny aquatic organisms defended themselves with light. When we stopped, I lifted my dress over my head and threw myself overboard, my arms and legs turning the water blue and gray as the water became alive.
On to Casa Sol Zipolite: ‘Welcome, naughty friends’
The next day, I shared a taxi with German backpackers, dropping them in the little hippie town of Mazunte before continuing to Casa Sol Zipolite, a boutique hotel by the founders of Mexico City’s Red Tree House, a favorite from my childless days. (It, like Casa Sol, doesn’t allow kids.) I’d been a fan of the couple behind the hotel, Craig and Jorge, for years, so when the pair bought a former nudist resort on this remote stretch of Oaxacan coast, I was curious.
Zipolite is known for its openly nude beach, one of the few in Mexico, and the week I arrived was a particularly amusing moment for a first visit. A convention of swingers — mostly older Americans — had descended on the tiny pueblo. The hotel next door had a sign out front, “Welcome, naughty friends,” which became a running joke among the guys at Casa Sol.
Every night, Ernesto, Craig’s and Jorge’s right-hand man and the soul of Casa Sol, hosts a happy hour for guests, who gather for margaritas and conversation. During my stay, the place — which often has reservations a year in advance — was uncharacteristically quiet. It was just me and two couples. After drinks, I tagged along with one of them, Renee and Matt, from Vancouver. Around my age, they’d offered to help me find my way from Casa Sol’s cliffside perch in the dark.
I took Ernesto’s advice and hopped a cab to Mazunte’s Pizzeria. The area around Zipolite is overrun with Italian restaurants, so in the spirit of “If you can’t beat em, join em,” I found a seat at an outdoor table beside a blazing pizza oven and beneath string lights. The place seemed to be run almost entirely by kids, including a teenage girl who manned the kitchen, rolling dough with an empty Corona bottle and baking beautifully charred, Neapolitan-style pizza. A boy who looked no older than 14 was the pizzeria’s lone server and covered the tables like a seasoned professional.
At the long table beside me, there was a group that I imagined were foreign exchange students on vacation. I struck up a conversation with one of them, a young woman from London. She was there, she said, “working on her trauma” — likely a guest at one of several spiritual and healing centers in the area. She mentioned that there was a “jam session” at a bar around the corner and invited me to join. I’d had just enough wine to agree.
It’s easy to poke fun at a place like Zipolite. But during my five days on the Costa Chica, I was struck again and again by how different these countercultural enclaves — some of coastal Mexico’s few remaining pockets of weirdness and eccentricity, artists and bohemians — are from one another. While it’s tempting to dismiss places like this as “not the real Mexico,” whatever that means, they are spectacularly varied. Like Mexico itself.