The coast of Oaxaca State, Mexico, is blessed. Puerto Escondido's Playa Zicatela is known as the third best surfing spot in the world; the stretch of shoreline to the north of Puerto Escondido, down to Puerto Ángel is dotted with mangrove marshes and lagoons that are year-round pit stops for hundreds of different migratory birds from north and south America; and the warm Pacific Ocean here is favored by sea turtles, who come ashore and lay their eggs along the beaches. Ecologically, this is one of Mexico's most diverse regions.
Economically though, Oaxaca is also one of Mexico's least developed states. This is a region of Mexico which depends largely on tourism, yet despite the huge government investment at Huatulco with hopes to duplicate Cancún, tourism has yet to really boom along the coast. On the surface, this is great for the independent traveler. The Oaxaca Coast is isolated from the interior, cut-off by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. It's a treacherous and tortuous eight-hour journey over a twisting mountain highway to the capital of Oaxaca City, a jewel in Mexico's tourism cache. Otherwise, it's a five-hour drive south of Acapulco. Air service to Puerto Escondido is minimal and expensive. As a result, the towns along the coast remain much as they did some 30 years ago, when North American and European counter-culturists discovered the sands and set up cabins and hammocks to extend their stay.
Puerto Escondido translates to "Hidden Port", and the modest tourism that finds its way here is the lifeblood of the local communities. Due to the recent social unrest in Oaxaca City, the entire state has seen a tremendous drop in tourism. A statewide teacher's strike in 2006 escalated into a large scale protest calling for the governor to step down. Combined with the fervor of the presidential election, massive protests were staged in Oaxaca City and the center was occupied by the protestors. Ultimately, federal troops were called in to restore order in October 2006, and a relative calm has settled. All this was happening in Oaxaca City, 254km (158 miles) away from the coastal town of Puerto Escondido and its neighboring hamlets.
On a visit to the coast in March, I asked local business owners what they thought of the protests in Oaxaca City. They all had one answer: The bad press had a very tangible and adverse affect on business, yet sleepy Puerto Escondido has very little to do with Oaxaca City. Occupancy was down; the annual surf carnival, which usually draws hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists, attracted only a fraction of that this year. When the protests and violence flared up in Oaxaca City, U.S. online travel boards burst with postings from travelers seeking advice on whether or not to cancel their vacation to the region. At one point last year, both the U.S. and Mexican governments issued travel warnings against the entire state of Oaxaca. Many people have opted to travel elsewhere. Unfortunately, news about the peaceful and prosperous community development in Puerto Escondido hardly ever makes the headlines.
This piece of Pacific Coast is home to 10 of the world's 11 varieties of sea turtle. This is "El País de la Tortuga", Turtle Country. For decades, the primary source of income for the coastal Oaxaqueño villages was sea turtle poaching. The communities just south of Puerto Escondido are said to have killed 1,000 turtles a day in the 1980s, threatening the very existence of the entire species. A heavily enforced federal law passed in 1990 made the killing of turtles illegal. While this immediately halted the slaughter, it left dozens of villages without any means of monetary support practically overnight. And yet, the law forced a major paradigm shift among the people of this region.
The town of Mazunte, approximately 64km (40 miles) south of Puerto Escondido, was supported by jobs at a turtle cannery. When the cannery closed, Mazunte all but collapsed and the people had to come up with new ways of supporting themselves. The community was approached by the Body Shop, with the idea of creating a natural cosmetics cooperative -- clearly a novel and even incongruous prospect, given the town's former preoccupation with turtle poaching. Yet the concept worked. With the monetary support and recipes of the Body Shop, Mazunte created a 13 person cooperative which currently produces natural soaps, lotions, and hair care products using local and traditional ingredients such as avocado, honey, and coco. They've paid back their loans and are fully independent and self-managed. They sell their products in boutiques and to hotels and small inns across Mexico. While visiting this one road town, stop in at the cooperative store located at the Fábrica Ecología de Cosméticos Naturales de Mazunte, next to the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga.
Remember that turtle cannery? In 1991 the government turned it into the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga (Mexican Center for the Turtle; Spanish-only website, www.centromexicanodelatortuga.org, or www.tomzap.com/turtle.html), with the intention of attracting tourism. Today, this is Mexico's premier turtle research center and sanctuary. It employs 30 people from Mazunte, and receives over 200 elementary school groups a year, along with around 350,000 visitors from Mexico and beyond. Visitors tour the facility with a researcher or volunteer, whose main focus is to discuss the fragility of the turtle life cycle and foster respect for their eco-system which is shared by the coastal Oaxaqueño communities. On display are live specimens of five species of turtle. Some were found sick or injured, while others were donated by their owners who had bought or captured them as pets.
A sea turtle reaches reproductive age at 15, which means the turtle population that relies on this coast will only have the potential to grow after 2009. Thus, much emphasis is placed on caring for the turtles' nests. In fact, the nests are protected by the national army. While traveling throughout this region you will likely see armed troops shuttling back and forth to the beaches to prevent looters and poachers from stealing eggs. Near Puerto Escondido, Playa Escobilla and Ventanilla are two favorite nesting grounds. It is also here that curious travelers have the opportunity to get up close to the turtles and get to know the locals who are now personally invested in the success of the turtle population. Playa Escobilla is a key observation base for the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga and visitors can join overnight trips from July to September when the majority of golfina (or Olive Ridley, as their known in English) turtles heave themselves on shore to lay their eggs. The cost is a mere 20 pesos ($1.80) and must be arranged directly in person at the Centro.
Ventanilla is another example of a typical seaside village which was adversely affected by the ban on turtle poaching. The 1990 law left the community completely reliant on government food aid. Dependence, along with the new perception of the turtles as something to be protected, spurred the community to create a mini-ecological reserve and tourist attraction in Ventanilla, which already encompassed acres of mangrove forest, a small lagoon inhabited by crocodiles, and a beach favored by golfina turtles. Despite many setbacks, the community spirit was fortified by the success of the Mazunte cosmetics cooperative, and now a 16-person cooperative manages the Ventanilla wild-life sanctuary, which has been certified by the government to maintain and protect the area flora and fauna. On site you can enjoy lunch at the palapa restaurant fronted by the ocean and take a boat ride through the lagoon to spy on crocodiles and birds. The attractions themselves are minor, although creeping by crocodiles in their natural habitat is a thrill. If you are interested in grassroots eco-preservation projects and sustainable tourism, you will definitely want to spend an afternoon talking with the guides and learning about their self-managed program. Since the community owns the land and runs the program, all the money stays in their hands and contributes directly to the success of their families.
Then, of course, there are the turtles. Every nest on this beach is watched over by the community of Ventanilla. As soon as a mother lays her eggs, a worker collects them and reburies them in a gated-off strip of sand and marks the nest with the date. After 45 days, the nests are dug up and hatchling turtles pop out and are collected in a bucket. Visitors who happen to be around on a hatching day bring the turtles to the high tide line, and release them onto the sand. When I visited, four nests had hatched. A handful of visitors joined the locals in cheering on the Post-It note-sized turtles as they scratched their way to the sea. Everyone in the village is involved in the project, and the lessons are certainly not lost on the children, who all join in. My guide gushed with pride as he expertly explained the life cycle of the turtles. He wished he could continue to protect the turtles, even after they swam into the sea. Considering that only 1%-3% of all hatchlings will reach reproductive age, the honest dedication and empowerment displayed by the community to protect the eggs is quite a change from the perception of the turtles as fuel for day to day subsistence. Together with Mazunte, the people of Ventanilla are working to support other cooperatives and spread the concept of home-grown preservation projects to ever more villages.
Turtle tourism isn't the only eco-tourism to be found in the region. The coast here is also a magnet for migratory birds and visitors can explore two nearby lagoons for bird watching. The presence of birds will permeate any trip to the region, even if the traveler does not intentionally seek them out. You can hear them singing even while you swim in the ocean -- they're that prevalent. Parque Nacional Lagunas Chacahua is a 32km-long (20 miles) brackish mangrove lagoon which was over-fished by locals some 30 years ago and subsequently protected by the government. Today, you can take a noisy motorboat tour with one of the former fishermen, who will explain in Spanish the role of mangroves in shielding the inland from hurricanes and take you to the isolated towns and beaches on the lagoon. Oddly enough, these tours are quite expensive (300 pesos/$28 is your cheapest option). You can explore the lagoon on your own by using public boats or driving to the beach, but then you would miss out on the information shared by the fishermen. I prefer the tours at Ventanilla (which cost a mere 40 pesos/$3.60), or better yet, at Manialtepec. For about the same price as a tour of Chacahua, you can arrange a tour of Manialtepec lagoon with English speaking bird watchers and specialists who will take you on much quieter, low-impact kayak tours and explain and point out each bird, from the pelicans, to the pink herons, kingfishers, warblers, parrots, parakeets, osprey, and Canadian geese (to name a few), depending on the time of the year. In Puerto Escondido, contact either Rutas de Aventura, run by Gustavo Boltjes at the Hotel Santa Fe (tel. 954/588-0457; Spanish-only website www.rutasdeaventura.com.mx), or Agencia de Viajes Dimar, for Michael Malone's Hidden Voyages Ecotours (tel. 954/582-0734; www.viajesdimar.com).
Eco-tourism attractions are not reasons alone for visiting Puerto Escondido. In truth, the major attraction here is the beach and the lifestyle. By all means, please spend your days surfing and sipping margaritas in the shade. No one will complain if you wear your bathing suit the whole time (in fact, you might even opt to take that swim suit off while swimming and sunning). This is the type of place that you might take a week to explore, and wind up staying for a year. But if you approach this destination as only a hippy beach haven, then you've missed the point. Beneath the laid-back exterior lies a local ingenuity and energy that is boldly experimenting with eco-tourism. You can read a lot about community empowerment, and sustainable tourism. Why not go and see it first hand? It's all happening right now and it's worth the trek.
If the civil unrest in Oaxaca City flares up again, use your best judgment to gauge your own comfort level at the prospect of traveling in the region. Stay on top of the issue by visiting http://travel.state.gov, which lists U.S. government travel warnings, but know that the sleepy communities around Puerto Escondido are a world away from the bustle of Oaxaca City.
To get to Ventanilla, Mazunte, and their tiny neighbors, take a colectivo (public van) from Puerto Escondido south, about 74km (46 miles) to Pochutla. Colectivos there run a route that connects the towns along the coastal road to Ventanilla and back up to the main highway to Puerto Escondido. For some reason, they do not run the other way, which means you'll have to back track if your intended destination is Ventanilla. To make it easier, take a taxi. If you are headed to Ventanilla via colectivo, tell your driver and he'll let you off at the junction which leads to the village. From there you'll have to walk the sand road (not suggested) or hail a taxi. If you know you're staying until sundown (when turtles are released), ask your driver to wait or comeback for you. Walking the long unlit road from Ventanilla at night is not recommended.
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