By Carole Reedy for The Eye Magazine
It’s just about an hour’s drive from Huatulco west to the small communities o f Puerto Ángel, Zipolite , San Agustinillo, and Mazunte on the Oaxacan Coast. Puerto Escondido is yet another hour farther. Each of these communities has its own spirit and quirks, as well as an invisible thread that binds them closely. But in its own way, each has grown, developed, and changed with time, as all things do.
I landed in the region 21 years ago this month, charmed by the isolation and beauty of the area and by its distance from the clanging modern world. Over the decades, the influence of tourism and the presence of foreigners has changed some aspects of life in these areas, but certainly not the loyalty to land and community.
The beauty of the Oaxacan Coast is undisputed: shifting shades of blue, golden sands, a great expanse of sky, and the surrounding velvety vegetation welcome each day. In the evening, a red sun dips into the ocean, heralding restful sleep. The strong Oaxacan women and men, with Zapotec roots and little Spanish blood, awaken early to begin the day before the heat sets in.
A Bit of History
For decades the economy of the Costa Chica depended on the hunting, slaughter, and sale of turtles. Every part of their bodies, including their eggs, was sold. Most people in the region were employed in this venture and San Agustinillo was at the center of it, with the turtle abattoir enjoying prime beachfront property. Five hundred turtles daily were killed there.
In 1990 the Mexican government banned the killing of sea turtles and the locals had to look for new ways to make a living. With the government’s help in the form of permits, boats, and other financial assistance, the men became fishermen, bringing in tasty delicacies such as tuna, pez vela (sailfish), dorado (mahi mahi), and huachinango (red snapper), which were then sold to markets and distributed to businesses throughout the country. Shark was also a popular commodity, but lately it is frowned upon to fish for shark.
Back when turtles were slaughtered, an unpleasant (to say the least) odor permeated the coast. But without this stench the tourists began straggling in, despite the challenge of getting there: no roads or poor dusty, rocky tracks, basically through a jungle. There were few conveniences and no hotels, but some people would rent rooms to the visitors. Locals did not own cars, TVs, stoves or refrigerators.
Some foreign visitors viewed the isolated beach as a paradise and decided to stay, maybe even build a home and start a business, a restaurant, or rooms for rent. Since they knew what worldly tourists wanted and needed (more privacy, nice bathrooms, screens on windows for protection from mosquitos and little animals) they developed profitable ventures, and the locals followed suit.
When I began my 10-year stint in San Agustinillo, it was 1999. We were one of two residents who had a refrigerator, television, and car. There were no land lines or cell service , making communication with the outside world difficult. Lack of basic services was a deterrent for high-rises and big chain hotels, which to this day remains an advantage of this sleepy area. Yes, there’s still a corner of the world not dominated by tall buildings and glitzy services.
The Coast Today
Little by little, more conveniences arrived as the reliability of water and electricity service improved; a better road helped as well. A larger variety of items to meet the demands of people from all over the world lined the grocery store shelves. Young men started taxi services, providing tourists and locals with an alternative to the camionetas (small pickups) to get to Pochutla, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and the airports and bus stations. Eventually a cell phone tower appeared, as well as internet connection and service.
Eco-tourism took off.
There’s a Turtle Museum in Mazunte where visitors can view the various types of protected turtles and read about the history of the area. Several times a year there are turtle-release ceremonies in which children, adults, and tourists can accompany baby turtles in their return to the sea. The relaxed ambiance of the region also attracts yoga groups. Today there is plenty to keep you busy: fishing, boats tours to see dolphins and whales, small shops including artesanías (handcrafts), surfing, and swimming. Or just sitting on the beach with a good book. San Agustinillo, Mazunte, and Zipolite now boast libraries, and a wine store recently opened in San Agustinillo.
Thriving businesses in San Agustinillo are examples of the new economy, some owned by locals and others by the foreigners who chose to settle in this incomparable paradise. The area is definitely more prosperous now than 20 years ago, but nothing can change the smiles on the locals’ faces or the determination of their hearts.
To reach the area by plane, fly into Huatulco or Puerto Escondido (each one hour from the four towns). If coming by bus, buy your ticket for destination Pochutla. Grab your sunscreen and bathing suit. Any time of year is good for a visit, perhaps with the exception of the very hot and dry month of May. Ten years after settling into this idyllic coastal life, I left the 250 inhabitants of our small coastal town of San Agustinillo to join the hustle bustle of 20,000,000 urban dwellers in Mexico City, but I return regularly to see many old friends whose roots run deep.