If you’re looking for a beach town in Mexico that has genuine local charm and culture, great seafood, a variety of beaches, dolphins, baby turtles, great fishing, surfing, and a distinct lack of mega resorts and tourist kitsch, Puerto Escondido may be the place you’re after.
Actually, scratch that. It’s definitely the place you’re after.
Located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, the town of Puerto Escondido isn’t big — it has a population of about 45,000 residents — but it’s spread out, with several beaches stretched along its coastline. Its name means Hidden Port, and while nowadays the port may not feel so distinctly hidden, its tiny beach coves certainly do. The largest beach is at Zicatela, the main surfing spot and home to the famous Mexican Pipeline, while a host of smaller and more sheltered ones lie closer to the main town.
Puerto Escondido is pretty easy to explore. Taxis and colectivos (shared taxis) can get you anywhere for fairly cheap, and almost any place in town can be reached within 10 minutes. Also, unlike many beach towns in Mexico, Puerto Escondido has managed to dodge large hotel developments and all-inclusive multinational resorts. Most accommodations and restaurants are family-run. As a result, genuine Mexican culture thrives here and is around every corner.
When it comes to the perfect beach, it’s hard to go past Playa Carrizalillo, which is found on the north side of town. Instagrammable shining seashore and swaying palm trees? Check. An array of reasonably priced eateries? Yep. Soft waves for learning to surf (lessons available) and a safe swimming area? Done.
However, you do need to earn it. You have to tackle a lengthy, winding staircase to reach the thousand-foot-long beach — but it’s deserving of every twinging muscle there and back.
Once on the sand, you’ve got the ubiquitous umbrellas, along with thatched huts (palapas) where you can get all your food and drink by the waterfront. This is just as well because you don’t want to ascend again to seek sustenance. And as another bonus, the area is mercifully free of that destroyer of mellow beach vibes: errant, noisy jet skis with towed inflatables, accompanied by the dulcet tones of screaming passengers.
Slightly farther to the south is Playa Puerto Angelito. It’s a working beach with small fishing boats that frequently shuttle in and out, but there’s a roped off area for swimming. This is where the locals go, and prices are definitely cheaper for food and drink than elsewhere. It has a good vibe.
Take a stroll farther south, just over the rocky headland, and you’ll hit Playa Manzanillo. Another secluded cove, Playa Manzanillo is a larger beach with fewer boats, plenty of space to swim in calm water, and marine life to admire while snorkeling. You’re not going to see the full cast of Finding Nemo down there, but as a way to cool off in the water, it’s great.
El Mercado Benito Juárez
Mercado Benito Juárez is the main market and it’s a must-visit, whether you’re shopping for ingredients to cook, seeking a quick meal, or just want to browse the fresh local products available. It’s largely covered, located smack in the middle of town, open every day, and is a treat for the senses.
As soon as you stroll in, you’re welcomed by the bright colors of flowers and woven blankets, smells of fresh tortillas, coffee beans, a huge array of fruits, veggies, and often still-wriggling fish. You’ll also always find some sort of hanging offal, which will certainly add to your overall sensory experience. It’s probably far more exciting than your supermarket at home. While there, also be sure to check out the food court, as there’s a good variation of local dishes. Your taste buds will thank you and more than likely take you back again.
El Mercado Benito Juárez is a great spot to spend a couple of hours, but just a quick tip: Don’t take photos of the stall holders without asking. While they’re friendly and helpful, you need to ask for permission before you snap any photos.
Fishing trips for every budget
The deep water surrounding Puerto Escondido is home to an abundance of dolphins, manta rays, and turtles, which you can view on rented boats, as well as game fish. Yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi (also known as dorado or dolphin fish), mackerel, and snapper are the most common that are regularly caught on many of the fishing charter boats, and the fish are available in almost all restaurants and cantinas.
If you’re keen on a game fishing trip, there’s a whole range of boats to choose from. There are outfitters wearing spotless shirts who can take you out in a sleek boat alongside others that look like their boat has been re-floated a handful of times. Whatever you choose, be sure to negotiate an all-inclusive day fee. And no, you don’t get a discount if you bring your own life jacket.
Watch baby sea turtles take to the ocean for the first time
A large number of sea turtle eggs are buried under the sands, both close to town and on the surrounding beaches. The nests are monitored and specific hatcheries are shaded. More females are born as temperatures rise, so shading regulates the heat and ensures an even number of males.
A turtle conservation group looks after the recently hatched, and for 100 pesos you’re able to release a baby turtle and watch it plunge into the Pacific. Head to Playa Bacocho, a 10-minute taxi ride out of town, for a 5:00 PM start to see the turtles take their first sunset swim.
There are also a couple of beach clubs here where you can watch the sunset with a cerveza in hand. It’ll take your mind off of worrying about the safety of your newly adopted shelled newborn.
If the previously mentioned beaches are all too quiet and relaxed for you, then Zicatela, the largest beach and Puerto’s headliner, may do the job.
Surfers come here from all over. In fact, it’s surfers who kickstarted tourism here — Zicatela has been on the surf map since the early ‘70s. It’s one of the few spots that breaks onto sand, as opposed to rocks or reef, delivering huge, rideable waves very close to shore. If you don’t surf, a great way to spend part of your day is to watch the action from the safety of the sand as thrill-seeker surfers catch, drop down massive walls of water, and then get blown out of giant liquid barrels. You should only paddle out here if you’re a very experienced surfer. Be aware, even when the waves aren’t huge, a powerful undertow is ever present.
And a quick tip: Early in the morning, you can watch a group of bodysurfers, mostly comprised of the local lifeguards, who swim into and ride the waves with their flippers.
One of the great personalities of Zicatela to look out for is Carmelo. He drives a red, classic VW Bug with flames down the side and picks up boards to repair that’ve been snapped by the powerful waves. And there can be quite a few every day during the prime surf season from late May to early October. He’s one of the few surfers on Earth who smiles when they see a broken board wash up or has one handed to him by a sad surfer.
Eat near Zicatela
If you’re after a less life-threatening way to enjoy Zicatela, there’s no shortage of great restaurants and bars to watch the sun slip under the horizon. You can bar-hop for many nocturnal hours along this stretch.
Fun times can be found everywhere from People Beach Club to Revolution Beach, which serves excellent margaritas and bloody Mary’s. The Costa Hermosa, meanwhile, remains a perennial favorite. It’s family-run and offers a large and varied menu. This is the sort of place that’s the norm, rather than the exception, both in Zicatela and Puerto Escondido in general.
Staying up on the hill behind Zicatela Beach is a good option, too, as the hill catches more of a breeze than the beachfront hotels. The hillside accommodations offer great views and you’ll definitely get some exercise heading up there. That said, you may feel a little isolated, as it’s a bit of a walk to get anywhere else in town. It may also take a while for a collectivo to cruise by, as this area is off the main tourist path. Then again, that might be exactly what you’re looking for.
If you want to venture farther, a little outside of town you can do trips to swim with bioluminescent plankton, visit waterfalls, ride ATVs, or gallop on horses. And while these are all worthwhile and adventurous on a varying scale, the temptation to simply stroll from sand to market to seashore to restaurant to beach bars and thatched roof cantinas is as ever present as it is alluring.