Puerto Escondido was very nearly another Cancun. In the 1960s, the Mexican government was eager to boost mass tourism by finding places that could become the next Acapulco. The government sent out officials to scour the country’s coasts and recommend beaches that seemed ripe for resort development. They suggested several places, including Cancun on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula and Puerto Escondido in the southern state of Oaxaca on the Pacific Ocean.
At the time, Puerto Escondido was a village of about 400 residents. Its small harbor—a rarity on that part of the coast—was used by local fishing boats and occasionally by larger vessels shipping coffee grown in the nearby mountains. The only tourists who came to Puerto Escondido were surfers lured by the big waves on the two-mile-long Zicatela beach next to the harbor.
Disputes with local landowners kept Puerto Escondido from mass development, and the government turned its attention elsewhere. Today, the town is a popular vacation destination for surfers, Mexican families, and some foreign tourists, but on a modest scale. Small hotels and beach-umbrella restaurants are the norm, rather than all-inclusive high-rise resorts. Zicatela beach hosts a top international surfing competition each November. But for the rest of the year, it has a laid-back surfers’ and backpackers’ vibe, with hostels, bars, cafes, and tattoo shops.
We found out about Puerto Escondido while researching our trip to the city of Oaxaca in 2016. We remembered it this year when we were craving a quiet, fairly inexpensive, Western Hemisphere beach vacation where the water would be warm enough for swimming in March.
We picked our lodging, Hotel Santa Fe, because of pictures showing a swimming pool shaded by palm trees. Boy, did we luck out! We’re convinced that we ended up at the best hotel in Puerto Escondido. Pretty coral-colored buildings surround a large open-air restaurant with a thatched roof, a terrace overlooking the ocean, and two swimming pools ringed by trees and flowering bushes. It feels like a quiet, green oasis, where you can hear the surf and feel the ocean breezes while you loll in a lounge chair next to a pool. At $110 a night for a large, pretty, air-conditioned room, it felt like we’d hit the budget luxury jackpot.
For six wonderful days, we had absolutely nothing we had to do. We took long walks on the beach in the mornings and evenings, dipping our toes in the water and watching surfers out at sea, bobbing on the waves while they waited for one they liked. At mid-day, with temperatures in the upper 80s F, we cooled down in the hotel’s swimming pools, read novels in shady chairs, or lounged in hammocks at a terrific beachfront seafood restaurant (La Mariinera) across the street from the hotel.
We could easily have spent all six days in and around Hotel Santa Fe and considered it a great vacation. But we did venture farther afield for two fun outings.
A quick taxi ride took us to a sheltered cove on the other side of Puerto Escondido with a pair of little beaches, Playa Angelito and Playa Manzanillo. Unlike Zicatella, whose pounding surf and rip currents make it dangerous for swimming, these small beaches have calm water that’s good for swimming. They’re lined with little family restaurants, each with umbrellas and beach chairs in front, and tables and a kitchen in back. We found two beachfront lounge chairs draped with colorful cotton blankets under a shady tree (heaven!). We spent the day there people-watching, reading, drinking cold lemonade, eating seafood tacos, and taking turns going for a swim. Melissa brought her prescription snorkel mask and saw some colorful fish—her first snorkeling in more than five years!
Another day we got a taxi to Playa Bacocho, the longest beach in Puerto Escondido and one of the best for sunset views. We took a beautiful beach walk there, and Melissa channeled her father by shooting tons of sunset photos. But what really drew us to Playa Bacocho was the chance to release newly hatched baby sea turtles into the wild.
A wonderful nonprofit organization called Vivemar collects freshly laid turtle eggs each night from a 19-mile stretch of beach and moves them to sheltered hatcheries. There, they are protected from predators, people, and the sun. (Climate change can make the sand too hot for turtle eggs to incubate properly.)
Every day at dusk, visitors like us can donate a bit of money to receive a tiny turtle hatchling in a coconut shell. (We learned that it’s important not to touch them with your hands.) As quickly as we could, we knelt at the top of a dune and tipped the hatchlings onto the sand, so they could scurry down to the water.
Then we cheered like mad as our tiny green sea turtles made their bumbling way to the sea, while Vivemar volunteers threw sand at the seagulls and frigate birds to give the hatchlings a fighting chance. Both of our turtles made it to the waves! There’s no way to know what their fate will be after that, but at least we got them to the beginning of their life at sea. It’s funny to think that such tiny creatures can grow to be 3 to 4 feet long and can live for 80 to 100 years. That means that if our hatchlings beat the odds and make it to adulthood, they’ll probably outlive us.
The females will eventually return to Puerto Escondido to lay their eggs. And if we’re lucky, we’ll come back to this wonderful beach town someday too.