Home Activities Discovering Puerto Escondido, Mexico’s Boho Chic Gem

Discovering Puerto Escondido, Mexico’s Boho Chic Gem

Change is afoot in Puerto Escondido, a dazzling region perched on the Mexican Coast. However, as David Amsden discovers, the place still retains its raw-edged surfing soul…

by CN Traveler

By David Amsden
For CN Traveller

I spent my first hour in Puerto Escondido doing what many had done before me: driving along a snaking two-lane highway in a euphoric delirium. Though I was only a few miles from the centre of the town on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Oaxaca state, I felt an acute sense of being unmoored from the world I knew, stirred by a landscape of mountains and ocean and little else. I slowed for a herd of goats. I slowed for a man in a cowboy hat steering a tractor. I slowed, often, to scan the coastline for crashing waves, itching for a glimpse of their elegant fury.

It is not pure stoner hokum to say that Puerto, as everyone calls the place, is built on a wave, on the search for waves. Dig into the mouldier corners of the internet, as I’m prone to do when it comes to surfing matters, and you’ll find grainy footage of the area from 1977 that provides insight into how it came to be: shaggy-headed guys on the backs of burros, surfboards tucked under their arms, making their way through mangroves to a feral beach. That beach is Zicatela. Known for thundering barrels that draw comparisons to Hawaii’s famed Pipeline, it is today the town’s heart, those mangroves replaced by an ad hoc sprawl of tumbledown bars, shoes-optional restaurants and increasingly stylish hotels.

Some 15 miles north of Puerto, I veered off onto a dirt road. It was barely wider than my car and led to an empty beach. Did this place, I wondered, feel a bit like how Zicatela had for those dudes back in 1977? The question, I knew, was absurd, but still I felt that buzz.

Surfers are to certain beaches what artists are to certain neighbourhoods: accidental instigators of change. They show up in pursuit of something personal and in the process create a world that intrigues many. I was drawn to Puerto to surf but also to understand how the town has come to exert a fierce gravitational pull far beyond the world of surfing – drawing in design fanatics, digital nomads, acolytes of modern wellness and the rest. The constant comparisons to Tulum are reductive but also telling. After decades of being insulated, Puerto, it seems, is tipping in a few different directions, without any single group dominating the scene.

One of the shifts came into dramatic focus at the end of the dirt road. In 2014, Bosco Sodi, the celebrated Mexican artist, built a creative compound called Casa Wabi in the wilderness here. It’s part public art foundation, part residency programme and part private home for Sodi and his family. Designed by Tadao Ando, the Pritzker-winning Japanese architect, its mix of weathered cement and thatched-roof palapas provided the aesthetic template – sleek and austere, yet somehow earthy – for what followed. Now known as Punta Pájaros, the region has three hotels, two of them designed by the Mexico City architect Alberto Kalach, who also created a few of the fashionably sustainable homes that are peppered about and can be rented short term. There is a Japanese restaurant with an opaque reservations policy and a mezcal bar, operated by Sodi’s younger brother Claudio, which exudes curated mystique. As I approached, it all emerged like a mirage, an off-the-grid fantasia that felt as if it had been built to attract visitors from some very specific coordinates on the grid.

Checking into Hotel Escondido, where during my stay I would meet a fashion photographer from Brooklyn and a trend forecaster from Los Angeles, I was handed a glass of something exquisite involving mezcal and tamarind. With its 16 freestanding bungalows facing the ocean, each tucked into a tangle of vegetation, the property evoked the romance of surf culture. It seemed built to pay homage to Puerto’s past while pointing, in some way, towards its future.

“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it all started with Casa Wabi,” Sodi had told me before I came. He did not sound proud so much as weary about all he’d wrought. He had grown up camping in the area, and it was that experience – elemental, sweaty, rough-and-tumble – that inspired Casa Wabi. Now the influencers were coming and he was unnerved. “I think it’s becoming too fashionable, too much about the selfie,” he said of Puerto. “This place was ruled by tough surfers. You don’t want the essence to disappear.” He sounded like an artist from New York, where he lives. He also sounded like a surfer protective of the secret spot. The man who had brought change to the area did not want it to change too much.

“If you want to understand the Puerto I love,” he’d said, “go to Roca Blanca.”

I did as suggested, finding Roca Blanca, a curving beach of golden sand a few miles north up the highway, at the end of a labyrinth of sandy roads. The beach looked out on the craggy formation of white rock from which it gets its name. The white was the result of centuries of birds relieving themselves, but the rock’s effect was otherworldly from afar, like a fallen asteroid. Milling about were mainly locals and Mexican holidaymakers. I noticed they were doing something I hadn’t witnessed the artfully dishevelled crowd doing on the beach at Punta Pájaros: swimming in the ocean, fearless in the turbulent surf.

A handful of restaurants lined the beach, their wooden tables and plastic chairs shaded from the ferocious sun by thatched-roof structures identical to those at my hotel. Sitting down at one, La Puesta del Sol, I ordered fish tacos and a beer. My waiter was a young guy named Miguel Cobo, tanned, with penetrating hazel eyes and the sinewy arms of a surfer. Originally from Veracruz, he’d been in Puerto for a while and had a unique vantage point on its present incarnation. He had previously worked at Casona Sforza, a hotel on the south side of the town that opened last year, also designed by Kalach.

“It all brings in more money, which is of course good, since Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states,” Cobo said, when I asked how he felt about the new developments. “But it’s a different vibe. Like, the way you and I are talking right now, just hanging out? That didn’t happen at my last job.” His tone was not critical. “Puerto is special because you still have Mexican families. Mexican owned restaurants. Beers for 30 pesos. People on adventures.”

Like many locals I spoke to, Cobo said the town had changed dramatically during the pandemic, with remote workers streaming in, driving up rents and straining infrastructure. Still, Puerto remains notable for what isn’t here: towering mega-resorts, multinational conglomerates. In La Punta – an enclave of unpaved roads, hostels, bars and casual restaurants at the southern end of Zicatela, with a patina of grit and good times – I saw a large, rangy dog balancing on a small piece of plywood rigged to a dirt bike; a dude with a tattooed chest and pierced nipples meditating; and a leathery old-timer who, I felt confident assuming, came here to get weird a while back and never left.

Antsy to get in the water, I rented a surfboard and walked out to the beach where the waves are mellower than their menacing cousins a few miles along. The water was aquamarine in colour, amniotic in temperature. It was also very crowded. The popularity of surfing has created a world where people now go on far-flung surf trips to learn. In Puerto, this means that locals can make very good money running surf camps for the inexperienced, and that those who know how to surf, like me, can pay a local to get them to the top breaks, where there are fewer crowds. Cred has been commodified. Over the course of my four-day stay, I’d do plenty of enjoyable surfing here. But 1977, it was not.

Out of the water, I grabbed an early dinner at Fish Shack La Punta, a hopping little joint set in a narrow alley near the beach, shaded by swooping palms. The smoked-fish dip with avocado, griddled fish sandwich slathered in serrano-chilli tartare sauce and spicy Margarita were my first introduction to the area’s evolving culinary scene, which has brought foodie flair to humble surf grub. By the time I finished, the sun was a low gold coin and the herbals-and-hallucinogens crowd had begun to emerge from hibernation.

The qualities that once made a place like Puerto appealing to a self- selected few – it was hard to get to and rough around the edges – have now essentially become luxury commodities. But you can still discover something less curated, less crowded, in Chacahua, two hours north. Here, a handful of fishing shacks lines a river that connects a bioluminescent lagoon to the ocean. Across the river’s mouth are a few bars, a glamping situation; to get there you either take a boat or paddle over on a board. I first went searching for a break called, in the often literal parlance of surfers, the “other side”. What I found was sublime: a raw stretch of sand, four guys bobbing in the water, waves curling high over their heads in dramatic arcs.

Back at Punta Pájaros that afternoon, I moved to another property, Hotel Terrestre, the most recent to open and by far the most theatrical, with 14 rooms connected in an angular monolith of brick. There is a temescal sweat lodge, a massage area and a strong whiff of modern wellness. Terrestre is completely solar-powered, with no air-conditioning; a bold move for an expensive hotel and perhaps a sly act of preservation of both the land and that essence Sodi had spoken to me about.

Ambling onto the beach that evening, I came across a curious sight: an immense swimming pool of poured concrete, shaped in a perfect circle, ringed in a neon glow. Scattered about were tents. Squealing children splashed in the water. Nearby, on a makeshift platform, a group of adults were laughing, drinking chilled mezcal, smoking cigarettes, bantering in Spanish. They waved me over to join. They turned out to be members of the Sodi family; the land this pool is on is to be developed into the future home of Pablo Velasco Sodi, a cousin of the artist who was holding court in a ripped T-shirt and a pair of Seventies aviators. They were doing what they’d done as kids: camping on the beach.

“Our motivation for all this was to create a place where we could come to drink and smoke,” said Luis Urrutia, another cousin, who owns Punta Pájaros hotel up the road. He was joking, sort of. A gregarious ecologist, he spoke with a poet-philosopher’s verve about the region’s greater mission: sustainability, regeneration, creating a template for tourism that ran counter to other areas in Mexico. “Can we develop in a way that has a positive impact on the environment?” he asked. “That’s the intention behind everything here.” I found the atmosphere exhilarating. The appeal of any surf town, at its core, is its proximity to people passionate about something as ephemeral as catching a wave. This crew had the same passion for the lives they were carving out here.

I had arrived in Puerto with what turned out to be a deluded hope: to paddle out at Zicatela before the swells of summer made the surf too big. Alas, when I made my way to the famous beach the following morning, the waves were breaking at more than 10 feet, with enough power to shake the sand underfoot. Another time, I thought. I couldn’t help reflecting that, however much Puerto had changed and wherever it was going, it would ultimately be this, the ocean, that would protect it from tipping too far in the direction of Acapulco or Tulum. Digital nomads might find their thirst better quenched by a place where they could swim without fear.

That evening, I went for an early dinner at Kakurega, an omakase place set high under a palapa that has brought gastronomic cred to Punta Pájaros. The dishes arrived with casual showmanship, each explained by Saúl Carranza, the tattooed chef of Hotel Escondido, in long soliloquies. A sprig of broccoli was brought to life by an intricate mole sauce; a tender grilled quail arrived kissed by the grill. I left feeling like I’d been let in on something special. Then, in the fading light, I decided to head back to Roca Blanca, the beach I’d visited on my first day, after spotting what looked like a rideable wave forming in a rocky cove. I paddled out, keen to realise the moment I had been dreaming of, to be alone on the water.

Where to stay in Puerto Escondido

Two properties from Mexican hotel brand Grupo Habita inject trademark cool without disturbing Puerto’s easygoing spirit. At Hotel Escondido, rooms have palapa roofs and bare wood beds; a pool on the sand acts as the social hub. The recently opened Hotel Terrestre has 14 two-storey bungalows with private pools. The swathes of concrete come courtesy of superstar architect Alberto Kalach, who also created the earthy rooms at Casona Sforza nearby. If you prefer to rent, Kalach’s high-design Casitas by the Sea is a collection of homes with sea views available on Airbnb.

Where to eat

At Agua Salá on Zicatela, order the excellent tuna tartare with chilli aioli. Hotel Escondido’s Kakurega Omakase does sashimi using local ingredients, Terraza Molli has top tamales and casual La Puesta del Sol does the best fish tacos around. No matter where you eat, grab a nightcap at the rustic Cobarde, which pours small-batch mezcals.

Further afield

Puerto Escondido is an excellent gateway to this stretch of Oaxacan coast, known for great surf and laid-back towns such as Chacahua. Base yourself in Punta Pájaros; the town of La Punta has affordable options. From there, drive to Zicatela, the legendary surf spot, which is not recommended for swimming. Instead, try calmer Playa Carrizalillo.

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