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From Geo Mundo Magazine

published in Spanish

OAXACA COAST - IMPRESSIONS OF NATURE

Randa Bishop

(also available in Spanish)

I vividly remember a man walking with his dog, a solitary figure strolling along the water's edge. I originally spotted him far down the beach, a rather hazy image, blurred by a light spray pushed up by the ocean and glistening sun on the white sand. As he came closer, I could see the dog was somehow tethered to the man, but it wan't an ordinary leash. Suddenly, in a moment's time, the image cleared, and I realised the dog was bound by a long vine of green leaves which was draped over the man's shoulder and running half way down his back.

This charming scene made me chuckle, almost with a quick gasp, and I knew that I was in Mexico's Mexico -- far from the concrete highrises that litter the beaches of Cancun, very far from the winter crowds and discos at Acapulco, and a good distance from what promises to be in Huatulco.

Actually, I started my visit to the Oaxaca Coast in Huatulco. For several days, I stayed in the massive pink goddess, the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza that edges level-by-level up against a hill, providing a good view of the Sheraton and Royal Maeva which are situated below on the shoreline, with the Club Mediterranee in the distance. My room was situated 7 or 8 levels up where I could walk straight out to a deck with a huge swimming pool with the same view.

Not to be outdone by the "beach" hotels, the Plaza has its own club-like beach facility with a restaurant and swimming pool next to the Sheraton.

Later, I stayed a few days at the Maeva and listened to the hum of people having fun - which, it seems, is what all-inclusive hotels are about. The place was packed with guests; a social host announced the pool activities as the day passed by - people built human-pyramids in the pool or played water volleyball or beach volleyball. There seemed to be perpetual motion here, if not poolside games, a steady stream to and from the restaurant, bar and buffet.

Down on the beach, guests signed up for snorkel trips (very popular) and scuba diving. Some took off from shore in small blue sailboats, or plastic canoes. The beach wasn't crowded, but then again, several hotels are still under construction.

The most I saw of Club Med was its rather ugly multi-colored stacks that stick out of block-shaped buldings, as I cruised down the coast on an excursion. Club Med's waters were a splash of colorful windsurfers whizzing back and forth along the bay.

The original local town was picked up and moved inland a few miles, some years ago when Fonatur decided to develop Huatulco's 21,000 hectares of coastal lands. Develop they will, for sure - it may take 15 years or so, but one day all the nine pristine, white beach bays will glisten with concrete hotels and condominiums, and I will head directly to Puerto Escondido.

Wintertime is dry on the Oaxaca coast, trees dry up, and the rolling hills appear a brownish color as far as the eye can see. As our van curved through the hills, past the Hualtulco airport, toward Puerto Angel, the best views were from bridges overlooking rivers with stretches of lush green on both shores. We stopped at Coyula River to watch some energetic boys playing ball on the sandbars. At the turn off to Puerto Angel, we twisted and turned along a winding road until we reached the small sleepy port.

In a glance, I knew that no developer had come here. This was a place "Made in Mexico" by Mexicans. A fisherman stretched his net over the beach and knited in repairs under the hot sun, a teenage boy ran along the beach with his dog fast to his heels, against a background of tourquoise blue waters. Clustered wooden boats with chipped and faded paint swayed in the light swell of the water. A family enjoyed their afternoon repast at an outdoor restaurant, while their young daughter eyed the beach scene from her perch on a wall behind a green tropical plant.

Small individual houses are built into the hillside which rises high over the harbor. A few look big enough to be small hotels. I walked onto a jettey pier, followed by a smiling girl whose arms were laden with beaded necklaces. Her tentative air of salesmanship appeared more satisfied with the photos I took of her, as she smiled into the camera for a portrait. It was an all-too-brief visit, but enough to let me know, the further I got away from Huatulco, the closer I was to Mexico.

We continued the short trip to Puerto Escondido and arrived at the Fiesta Mexicana Hotel about an hour later. The hotel is relatively large, but quite simple in appearance. It's rooms are also simple with barely adequate airconditioning but ample mosquito netting around each bed which ward off mosquitos at night and give the rooms a colonial atmosphere. The rooms surround an irregularly shaped swimming pool with a bridge crossing over to a restaurant nestled in the trees. The hotel is located at the top of a high cliff overlooking Bocacho Bay. In fact the hill is so steep, only the huge Bay can be seen from the restaurant and it is not until you walk to the cliff's edge that one can see the beautiful white beach far below.

Late morning, I joined a group of nine people in a crowded van and drove to nearby Manialtepec Lagoon. At the water's edge is the Isla de Gallo restaurant, so popular with sightseers as a breakfast stop, that sometimes they run out of eggs. Here, we were greeted by Fernando Garcia, Director of the Fiesta Mexicana. In his effervescent smile one could read immediately his love and enthusiasm for this area, as if it were his child. After a quick snack we loaded into a small, canvas-topped boat and motored slowly into the lagoon.

As we putt-putted by a number of small outcrop islands, with names like Isla de Gallo and Las Negras. Our guide pointed out the various birds crowding the branches of trees on each island. We saw waders, ibis, herons, exotic white fronted parrots, roseate spoonbills, and the woodstork.

Our destination was a huge "barre" that separates the sea from the lagoon. At the end of the lagoon we climbed out of the boat in front of a hill of sand, and could hear the thunder of the sea on the other side. We mounted the hill and saw a wide, glistening, pristine beach running for miles with a steep descent to the sea. It was obvious that swimming would be risky, so we were satisfied to play with the sea as it reached wave by wave onto the beach. We had a swim in the lagoon before continuing along some of the lagoon's narrow canals. Filled with mangroves, birds, and palm trees which stretch over the canals, the lagoon is filled with life. We even sighted an osrey sea eagle. A few people inhabit the area, and we saw the occasional mule, a women washing clothes, and a family walking along the banks of the canal.

When we returned to town, Senior Garcia met us for lunch at one of the seaside restaurants which border between the sea and the Andador Touristico, at the heart of Puerto Escondido, where cars are forbidden. Red Snapper was the "fish of the day," as it is every day in this area. Later we had some time to stroll through town with its many restaurants, and shops, and even a Swiss Patisserie. Some shops are entirely devoted to surfing equipment, others have jewelry, several sell clothes and excellent beachwear, and in between, on both sides are a few small hotels. An ice cream cart was pedaled down the Andador, some people passed by on bycicles. At one point the street leads down to Marinero beach, where tourist stalls are erected with the expected handicrafts typically found in a small town.

For sunset, we drove down to Zicatela Beach, which is well-known in Mexico and throughout the world for its beautiful rolling surfing waves. We climbed a Mirador hill for a wonderful view down the long beach to watch the Sunday evening activities on the beach front. Groups of men rode horseback at a gallop, kicking sand up behind the horse's hooves. A few surfers rode the waves inward toward the beach. Families still gathered under colorful umbrellas to watch the sunset. A road runs along the immensely wide beach and is clustered with small hotels side-by-side, with names like Beach Hotel Ines, Santa Fe Hotel and Acoiris (Rainbow) Hotel. They are most popular with surf-enthusiasts. We watched the sun set in a ball of red fire in front of us and knew that another beautiful day had just come to its end.

Early the next morning, before breakfast, we went into town and headed directly to Marinero beach to watch fishermen as they came in, boat by boat, with the day's catch. People crowded around each boat to see what the sea had offered that morning. Four young boys tussled with an enormous fish, struggling to drag it across the beach. We walked along the bay, watching the boats bob up and down in the ocean's smooth swell, and continued on to Zicatela Beach where the surf was up, and surfer's were already testing their skills on the waves, against the background of town and its lighthouse.

Back at the Fiesta Mexicana we feasted on an ample breakfast from the outdoor buffet to start our day of relaxation on Bocacho Bay. A pink jeep wound its way down the steep cliff to the beach and we settled under the shade of white beach tents for an hour of relaxation and a dip in the sea. The rough waters of the ocean are tamed here due to the wide curve of the bay. Avocencio Martinez, the hotel's dive master, had brought in the Banana Boat and we watched a small group climb aboard for the bumby, fun, and sometimes hilarious ride around the Bay. We walked along the beach before returning to the hotel for a dip in the swimming pool and refreshments at the pool bar.

Senior Garcia was holding court in the restaurant, surrounded by a group of people, heartily laughing at his amuzing stories. We joined him for lunch at the beach restaurant and he told us the romantic story of the enormous mural painted across the back wall of the restaurant. Grilled red snapper surrounded by fresh grilled onions was as delicious as it looked. Senior Garcia helped us plan the coming days, vividly describing the Chicagua Lagoon, a horseback ride in the jungle, and a trip to some of the surrounding villages.

That afternoon we opted for a boat tour of the nearby bays, snorkeling and fishing with Avocencio. To our great surprise and delight, two Orca whales suddenly passed off the bow of our boat. It was a tremendous scare at first, but that faded quickly as we attempted to spot them and take pictures as they surfaced again, and again. In the distance we saw two more whales, and as we watched the sun set, several dolphins danced across the sea.

The evening was filled with festivity as a large group of local dancers filled the open air stage in the Fiesta Mexicana garden to perform the Guelaguetza (which means "offering") authentic folklore dances of the area. The celebrations called "Monday on the Hill" are symbolic of the ancient customs of the Zapotec people and have come down over the centuries. Traditionally, contributions are made by an entire community toward the celebration of one of its members. The recipient is obligated to reciprocate - cooperation and participation - small gifts of typical products and crafts of Oaxaca lands. The group performs with gusto dances from some 16 ethnic groups wearing different regional costumes. After the festivity, I retired to the security of my mosquito net, while others jeeped back downhill to dance the night away in the discoteque.

The next morning we made the journey to Chicagua Lagoon in a short, bumpy, wooden-seated bus. Our guide, Antonio, spoke some English, but most of the visitors had flown down from Mexico City on a charter flight for the weekend, and the chatter on all sides was Mexican and laughter.

We passed pastures of grazing cattle at San Isidro and through several towns along the way. At San Jose we made a short stop for water and watched a woman making Chicharon (pig skin) in a huge black kettle on an open fire. The small town of Santa Rosa was lined on one side of the road with open air shops where young girls stroll by wearing colorful dresses. At Cacalote, we made a brief turn off the road to see the "Lover Trees" where an Amate and palm tree have grown tall to the sky, completely entwined together.

Finally, we arrived at Zapotalito, the tiny village where we climbed aboard two boats for our day on Chicagua Lagoon. Felix was the proud boatman of our launch, the Rebecca. We travelled through the lagoon passing many islands as Felix told us each island's name, an explained which birds were nesting there. Pato Buso (Diver Duck) had an overwhelming population, often crowding every small branch of the trees with their elongated, shining black bodies. At Deer Island we spotted a water eagle. Father Island, Black Bird Island, and Little Pineapple Island had more flocks of Pato Buso. Scorpion Island is not named for its Scorpion, Felix explained, but for its many snakes. We tried to spot the Tihera (scissors bird) by its red neck among the black Pato Buso. At one island we saw a group of huge Ciquena Storks nesting. As our boat approached they spread their huge white and black wings, but held their territory.

We continued on travelling through some mangrove canals, spotting the white Garca, several varieties of Heron and finally came to the "barre", a large beach called Hermosa. At one point the lagoon opens to the sea and one can actually see where the two bodies of water join together. We walked along the calm lagoon shore, watched a fisherman shucking fresh oysters, and enjoyed a cool, refreshing swim, before continuing our journey.

The open stretches of lagoon were now filled with flocks of Pato Buso, resting in the cool water. As our boat passed by, the flocks fled to the air in a great swirl of black. We travelled through more mangroves, passing an occasional tiny village, until we reached our lunch destination, the village and beach at El Faro. Two boatloads of hungry travellers feasted on the fresh fish and garlic schrimp offered by Zaptecolany restaurant. We made a very brief visit to an Alligator farm in the village, before taking a walk on El Faro Beach, and having a swim in the deliciously cool ocean water. Except for our group, the long beach spread out to an empty infinity. I rested under the shade of a beach side tavern, relaxing in one of several pink chairs, when my reverie was interuppted by a vision far down the beach. It was the man walking his dog on a vine leash.

We reluctantly departed El Faro Beach and travelled along the lagoon, as the sun set behind us. Back onto the bus, our tired group had a second wind and burst into song as the bus bumped along the lonely road into the night, and later Antonio kept us going with a string of hilarious jokes.

Our next Oaxacan journey was to a few of the mountain villages. Not far from Puerto Escondido is the small town of Tututepec, where a deserted cathedral sits atop a large hill, and outside under a small shelter are several Mayan archeological carved stones. We continued our journey to Jamiltepec where a local market is held on Sundays. Along the way we passed the Rio Verde which our guide explained runs all the way to Oaxaca City. The rural countryside was lovely with pastures, patches of lavendar water lillies, and the occasional white heron.

Finally, we started our climb into the mountains, curving upward until we reached the mountain town of Jamiltepec. Here, many women still wear beautiful embroidered huipiles, and even some of the men dress in a local costume, typical to these people of Mixteca heritage. The great church of Santiago Jamiltepec is under repair. We were disappointed to find the craft center closed down, but visited the market which was small but lively and colorful. Famous here, is the local jail, which can be visited by tourists. Prisoners make handicrafts of many kinds, and sell their wares from behind the bars. Some make baskets with a colorful border, others carve trinkets from black coral.

Outdoors, once again, we ran for cover as a splash of rain spread over the village. Locals sprinted along the streets, avoided puddles, under cover of umbrellas. We got back to our car before getting drenched and started the drive back to Puerto Escondido. The road was a blur of rain, and which forced us to stop for a while, as a flood of water poured downhill in front of us. Our guide explained that it rains every day in the mountains, but there would be no rain at the coast. His words were hard to believe, but true. As we coasted down the hill and out of the mountains, suddenly we were back in the desert dry coastal band, and the sun shone brightly all the way back to Puerto Escondido.

We had no time to take the jungle trip by horseback, or to make other discoveries along the Oaxacan coast. But, of course, that leaves time for dreams of another delightful venture of adventures in this beautiful area, so far from modern development, and so close to nature.

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