Thursday, April 14, 2005

MEXICO, DAYS 18-20: The Oaxaca Coast – Puerto Escondido and Mazunte

Playa Zicatela at Puerto Escondido

On Thursday evening around sunset, we finally arrived in Puerto Escondido, hundreds of miles down the coast from Acapulco. Along the way we crossed from Guerrero into the much hotter and more under-developed state of Oaxaca (wa-HAH-ka), and we passed through some real no-man’s land, where abandoned cars are stripped and apparently left to rot for decades. We saw a wrecked fuel truck that had overturned and scorched the surrounding brush for miles; the burnt-out remains of the truck were still lying upside down on the shoulder, just a few feet from the highway.

According to the guide books, Puerto Escondido (hidden port) has long been a legendary destination for surfers, as well as travelers looking to make some cool connections. Once we arrived, it was easy to see why. We skipped past the main part of town and headed straight over to the east-side beach where the action is, Playa Zicatela. Here is the main surfing beach, about a mile long, paralleled by a single dirt street lined with moderately priced hotels and youth hostels, as well as a plethora of international food options, beach-side bars, and (surprise!) decent music. And everywhere you look there are tourists from all over, some speaking with Australian and British accents, others speaking French, German, and who knows what else. On Playa Zicatela, the white-skinned people definitely outnumber the Mexicans, but hey, we were ready for a break!

Seriously, the food options here really took us by surprise. Almost every single restaurant offers multiple vegetarian options, so Carley was in heaven. One night we ate at an actual Japanese-owned sushi restaurant, Sakura, right on the beach with our feet in the sand, the waves crashing down only 70 or 80 feet away. The next morning we ate breakfast at an Italian-owned place with a menu that rivals any of the over-priced Italian places we’ve sampled in the San Francisco Bay Area. That afternoon we sat at a beach-side bar drinking cheap Coronas and listening to an endless stream of classic rock oldies (The Doors, Beatles, Stones, Animals, etc.), most of which we hadn’t heard since college. The most amazing thing about Puerto Escondido for us, though, was our hotel room at Hotel El Aleman (the German). Set a few blocks away from the main action, this place was the cheapest hotel we’ve had in Mexico ($15US per night) and also the nicest and cleanest!

Chillin in Puerto Escondido

Sakura, the sushi restaurant at Puerto Escondido (with the yellow chairs)

Our view of Puerto Escondido while rocking out to the Classic Rock oldies.

Needless to say, we had to spend 2 nights here in Puerto Escondido. It was too nice here to think about leaving! By Saturday, however, we realized we had to get the ball rolling again.

Our next destination was Mazunte, only a 45-minute drive southeast from Puerto Escondido. Mazunte is a small beach-side village that used to be a slaughterhouse for sea turtles, until the practice was banned in 1990; now it is home to an ecological turtle reserve and aquarium where tourists can pay to see all 7 of Mexico’s huge marine turtles up close in big glass tanks. Mazunte is also very close to a few other popular beach-side villages – Puerto Ángel and Zipolite. However we chose Mazunte because it was the only village that offered tent camping on the beach.

The beach at Mazunte

Our camping plans were disrupted, however, by Carlos “Einstein”, the legendary (infamous?) proprietor of a beachside youth hostel. Seriously, this guy is a real character, full of friendly gusto and generosity, a real party animal, complete with wild white hair reminiscent of the famous German scientist himself. He greeted us with a bellowing “!Bienvenidos! Welcome! Welcome my friends!” Within minutes of Carley inquiring about a space to pitch our tent, we were handed shots of mescal de mango (mango-flavored mescal, a Mexican whiskey made from the same agave plant as tequila), followed quickly by a round of mescal de café (coffee-flavored mescal) shots. So we were won over, despite the fact that there was nowhere for our tent and we’d have to stay in a dungeon of a room with a putrid stench. We spent very little time in the room, as it turned out.

Our hostel at Mazunte, Carlos Einstein's

Our proprietor Carlos "Einstein" (right) and Edgar

We enjoyed an afternoon in the 95+ degree heat on the beach in front of the hostel. The beach was mostly empty, even on a Saturday afternoon. The water was great for swimming, yet the waves were still big enough for some serious body-surfing.

Then as we sat to eat dinner at the bar of Carlos Einstein’s, the action really got started. The shots of mescal kept coming, mostly without our asking for them, as Carlos seemed to have an interest in getting us drunk. Soon we had made friends with Stefanee the bartender, who was actually a French tourist who was working for Carlos to pay for her stay at the hostel; and shortly after that we had gotten them to play some of our CDs on the sound system. Later a local singer/guitar-player showed up and played some upbeat Mexican folk songs to a crowd of 20 or 25 who had shown up. All the while, Carlos Einstein was in serious party mode, handing out shots of mescal and blowing loud blasts from his conch shell. At one point he handed out musical instruments (cowbell, shaker, tambourine, etc) to many of us in the audience, and then we were all in the band, backing up the singer in a drunken dance party. At another point even later in the evening, Carlos Einstein brought out a glass pitcher full of red wine and took turns pouring it into the mouths of his drunken guests.

More cowbell is provided by Carley. Our French bartender Stefanee is in orange, Carlos Einstein on tambourine, and to Carley's right is Eddie, the ex-pat Merchant Marine now living in Yucatan



Rob's turn!

Needless to say, we were extremely hung over the next morning when we were awakened around 9am to the sound of Carlos bellowing his greetings to some potential new guests. We groggily downed our breakfast (at least this came free with the stench-hole of a room), and then decided we really needed to hit the road. The simmering heat and humidity were really starting to get to us. Carlos gave us a good recommendation for a hostel in the small mountain town of San José del Pacifico, and we were on our way to a much cooler ambiance!

On to DAYS 21-22: San José del Pacifico

MEXICO, DAYS 15-17: La Costa Grande - Zihuatanejo and Acapulco

While relatively small and laid back, Zihuatanejo is definitely on the tourist map, and we encountered a significantly higher proportion of gringo tourists here than in anywhere else in Mexico that we’d been so far. However, the typical gringo tourist in Zihua seemed to be of the gray-haired, pony-tailed and bearded variety, and there weren’t a whole lot of younger folks around, nor up-scale golfing types, for that matter. Nevertheless, unlike everywhere else we’d been in Mexico, most of the people working in the restaurants and bars here speak some English (making things much easier for Rob, who is still in the early stages of learning Spanish), and, despite Carley’s near-fluency in Spanish, our waiters and waitresses usually wanted to show off their English-speaking skills for us.

Zihua is such a laid back town, we ended up spending 2 nights here, even though we didn’t really do much of note. We could have gone diving, horseback riding, deep sea fishing, fine-dining on the cliffs, or any of a variety of tourist beach activities, but mostly Carley just got some work done and Rob did some reading.

On Wednesday we hit the road again, heading on down the Costa Grande (big coast) of the state of Guerrero. The highway actually runs several miles inland, and we passed through what seemed like hundreds of small inland towns, each with its set of massive speed bumps and roadside vendors. Around mid-afternoon, we finally reached our destination for the night, the biggest and oldest city on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the grand-daddy of Mexican resorts, Acapulco.

Greetings from Acapulco!

Acapulco has been immortalized in countless Hollywood movies (including the Elvis Presley classic “Fun in Acapulco”), and it’s usually remembered for its miles of beachside hotel towers situated on a beautiful bay. However, we rolled into the northwest side of Acapulco, the “old city”, a much seedier section of town crammed with traditional markets, piles of traffic, and a strip of old budget hotels. This was the area we were looking for (remember our budget?) and we settled into a cheap room at Hotel Coral, complete with a balcony over-looking the neighbors’ rooftop laundry.

The nice thing about the “old city” of Acapulco (besides the lack of overly-touristy tourists) is that it has its own little beach (Playa Angosta, mostly deserted) and a beautiful cliff-side walkway overlooking the ocean and La Quebrada, where you can watch the famous clavadistas (cliff-divers) perform their daily mind-blowing swan dives off of a 100-foot cliff. We could have paid a few bucks to watch the divers up close, but we chose to watch for free from a more distant walkway, where we befriended some Mexican students from Guanajuato, who hooked us up with some of their cold cerveza. We then sat at an outdoor table on the zócalo (town square or plaza) and enjoyed a delicious pizza (Acapulco has quite a variety of gringo-friendly restaurants) before hitting the sack early.

Peaceful Playa Angosta, with the Acapulco Bay in the background behind the hotel

A clavadista (below the white square with the blue star in it) prepares for his swan dive off the cliff, at La Quebrada in Acapulco

Thursday morning we hit the road early, eager to get out of Acapulco. We had a 6-hour drive ahead of us to reach our next destination, the legendary beachside village of Puerto Escondido. On the way out of Acapulco, we drove through the “tourist zone”, complete with its miles and miles of extra-large hotels, KFCs, Burger Kings, Subways and Wal-Marts. Yikes, they’re everywhere!!

On to DAYS 18-20: The Oaxaca Coast – Puerto Escondido and Mazunte