Thursday, June 13, 2024

Puerto Escondido: From sleepy backwater to the new hip destination

With over 10,000 km of oceanfront, Mexico is still blessed with beaches that are (relatively) untouched. But more and more are being “discovered” by Mexicans and foreigners, bringing the perennial challenge of balancing conservation and economic development.

One area experiencing this quite acutely is the Oaxaca coast from Puerto Escondido southwest towards the already-developed Huatulco. As local newsletter publisher Tony Richards says, “The world has discovered Puerto Escondido and the world has been coming.”

Sea turtles remain economically important to Mazunte, just down the coast. But instead of slaughtering them as in the past, the town depends on them for tourism. The animals are the basis for Mazunte’s status a Pueblo Mágico. (Alejandro Linares García)

Puerto Escondido has a strong reputation for being a hidden getaway known only to the adventurous. In the colonial period, it hid pirate ships from authorities. Through the 20th century, development was spotty at best, overlooked by other areas on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

The boom

It was always known. Puerto Escondido has long attracted those looking for a quiet getaway, and Zipolite Beach is internationally famous among professional surfers.

The main attraction has always been long stretches of (nearly) undeveloped beach. My first visit 20 years ago took me to La Ventanilla. Looking down a beach with no human structures in sight was terrific.

Nearly unspoiled beaches like La Boquilla and El Venado exist, but no one expects them to last forever.

Puerto Escondido (simply called “Puerto” by locals) is the cultural and economic center of the region, now a bustling small city with plenty of bars, restaurants and all kinds of lodging. It and Huatulco attract about 65% of the visitors to Oaxaca’s coast. These visitors are mostly Mexicans from central and northern Mexico (thanks to the airport). Foreign visitors that make it here are overwhelmingly from North America, but it is becoming more popular with Europeans. 

The recent growth of Puerto has pushed some locals and others to explore the coast for more quiet, but the city is still different from Puerto Vallarta. Many elements of a small town remain. Walking the old city and waterfront esplanade (malecón) remains popular, especially during cooler temperatures. But traffic and the growing presence of English underscores how Puerto is changing.

These changes prompt development along nearby beaches, but it needs to be more balanced. For example, Mazunte is developing rapidly partly because of its turtle fame and status as a Pueblo Mágico. But places like Agua Blanca are still pretty quiet due to the need for more reliable electricity, potable water, and cell phone service.

Playa Carrizalillo. (Flickr)

Why now?

Development of the Puerto stretch of coast has proceeded slowly until recently as several factors come together.

First, a 20-year effort to build a modern highway connecting Oaxaca city with Puerto Escondido may finally open “soon” as progress is made on a tiny stretch left. While the new and large airport has been significant, the highway means cutting travel time from 6 hours on winding roads to 2, meaning that visitors to Oaxaca no longer “need to choose” between the two regions.

The next was the pandemic, says Richards. Ironically, it brought many people to the area looking to escape, assembling them in Puerto. He says it and the Starlink have been “game-changers,” as digital nomads are now flocking to the area. 

Effect on the local economy and culture

Overview of Ocean Oasis in Agua Blanca, a still relatively isolated beach community. (Courtesy: Curtis and Tracy Goure)

As expected, the boom in tourism and the arrival of short and long-term new residents produced mixed results. Almost everyone in the region is involved in tourism in some way, at least part of the year, so more tourists means more opportunities. Those opportunities are not equally “shared” as those with outside investment money or connections to government tourism agencies (often the same) tend to benefit more. Farmers and fishermen struggle to maintain access to land, water, and fishing rights they need to maintain traditional livelihoods, even well inland from the beach. 

There are complaints that the influx of outsiders (foreigners and Mexicans) is gentrifying the area, driving land prices beyond the reach of locals. Richards notes that land prices have gone up as much as fourfold only in the past few years, but beachfront property has not been within reach of most locals for a long time. He adds that local reaction to new outsiders is mixed, with some even stating “…if [foreigners] respect us and our laws they have a “right to come here.”

The most important is developing the region without spoiling the laid-back feel that brings people here and, more importantly, the environment. Richards notes, “You can maintain an attraction if you plan for the growth and act accordingly.” Unfortunately, Mexico’s political class does not have a very good track record here. 

Tourism development in Mexico has long been plagued by insufficient planning, even for basics like water and sewerage, and uncontrolled growth that ignores federal laws related to ejido (communal) land rights and environmental protection.

The main challenges ahead

Slawomir and Barbara Grunberg established the Beachfront Paradise Boutique Hotel after their successful pierogi restaurant in Puerto Escondido.

Two issues right now have provoked the ire of residents of all types. One is that insufficiently treated sewage is polluting beaches. The other is the development of Punta Colorada, still mostly pristine beach and lagoon but very close to the new airport. The federal government expropriated it in the 1970s for development, but only recently has its interest in it returned.

Local concerns are often ignored, both because of the attitudes of Mexico’s elites and because locals often feel that they cannot do anything about what is happening.

This may not be the case in Puerto Escondido. Richards states that younger Mexicans, in particular, are “furious” about these two cases and more, and they make up a larger percentage of tourists and new residents than in other oceanside communities. Complaints and protests are far stronger than what was seen in the past, including one just last September in Puerto. 

New property owners, aware of the development down the road, are not waiting for the government to protect their investment. Slawomir and Barbara Grunberg of Beach Front Paradise and Curtis and Tracy Goure of Ocean Oasis in Agua Blanca organize with neighbors to educate themselves on local law and custom, not only to get basic services (like electricity) but also to protect the environment of “their little piece of paradise.”

With any luck, such grassroots organizations can mitigate some of the effects of chaotic development, keeping the beaches from Puerto to Huatulco a quiet getaway for the next generation.

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

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