Some 65km from Puerto Escondido, at the junction of Hwy-175 from Oaxaca and coastal Hwy-200, the oppressive, shabby town of Pochutla is the service hub for a string of beach towns and resorts that unfurl east towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Puerto Ángel, now firmly on the tourist radar, is a dusty, rough-hewn village that draws budget travellers with its unpretentious, low-key vibe and picturesque setting. Four miles west, the beautiful beach of Zipolite has gained a reputation for its liberal-minded, European-hippy vibe, while north over the headland, attractive San Agustinillo has a more restrained feel. Further west, Mazunte is the main nesting site for Golfina turtles. Rapidly developing, it has something of the feel of a junior Zipolite.
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Though it’s well established as a tourist destination, PUERTO ÁNGEL goes about its business as a small, down-at-heel fishing port with minimum fuss. Everything remains resolutely low-key – you may very well find pigs and chickens mingling with the visitors on the streets – and locals fish off the huge concrete dock, catching yellowtail tuna and other gamefish with a simple rod and line. Though it has a gorgeous setting – around a sheltered bay ringed by mountains – the beaches are less than pristine. Small hotels, rooms and simple places to sling a hammock, however, are abundant, with some of the most promising on the road between the main village and the Playa del Panteón. If you’re on a tight budget Puerto Ángel can be a fun place to spend a few days, meandering and sampling the superb local seafood.
Rounding the headland north of Zipolite you come to SAN AGUSTINILLO, another fine beach graced with good surfing waves. Fast developing, it has a more restrained vibe than Zipolite, with some charming and upmarket places to stay and eat. The sand is backed by restaurants, which offer space for a hammock or small rooms for rent in addition to reasonably priced, fresh seafood. Colectivos and pasajeras pass frequently along the main road, heading in one direction to Zipolite, in the other to Mazunte and Pochutla.
Though it has grown in recent years, the tiny village of MAZUNTE remains a languid, laidback place with a dazzling beach. It’s more peaceful than Zipolite, and lacking the party vibe, though still with very much an alternative feel. The surf is less powerful here and at the western end of the beach, beyond the rocky outcrop, there’s a smaller bay where the waves are even gentler and it’s safer to swim. The village’s name is derived from the Náhuatl word “maxonteita”, which means “please come and spawn”, a reference to the Golfina turtles that come here to breed. Mazunte was the site of a turtle industry and abattoir that, at its most gruesome, supposedly slaughtered three thousand of the creatures a day. In 1990, the Mexican government bowed to international pressure and effectively banned the industry overnight, removing in one fell swoop the livelihood of the villagers, who then turned to slash-and-burn agriculture. Since then, Mazunte has been declared a reserve, and more sustainable, long-term ecotourism programmes have been encouraged.
Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga
The government-funded Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga is one of the programmes set up to create a new economy for Mazunte. It features an aquarium with some particularly large turtles and a turtle research centre; well worth the visit, especially as proceeds go towards the conservation of this majestic species.
Don’t leave Mazunte without following the trail next to the Balamjuyuc, which runs past the remains of some unmarked ruins to Punta Cometa, a thirty-minute walk. This entrancing park on top of the rocky headland next to Mazunte beach is the southernmost point in Oaxaca, and has mesmerizing views at sunset. The “jacuzzi”, a rocky pool that fills with foamy surf as the waves rush in, can be accessed by scrambling down the rocks at the south end of the headland – it makes a good photo but it’s not safe to go in.
The lagoon at Playa Ventanilla, some 2km west of Mazunte, is home to around four hundred crocodiles, as well as a rich profusion of birdlife. You can test your heart rate by going out on the water in a shallow boat to navigate among the scaly inhabitants.