By Jamie Ditaranto
Jan 4, 2022
AT 6:30 IN THE MORNING, there is only one place to get a cup of coffee on Playa Zicatela, but despite the crowd gathering on the beach, the line at El Cafecito was short. Everyone sat looking out at the southern horizon line, which was rising toward the shore and crashing down like thunder on the sand-bottom beach. These were the legendary waves of Puerto Escondido, amplified by the large Pacific swell that attracted this early morning crowd. Their focus was on the surfers who were already in the water, sitting just beyond the breaking point, waiting to catch a ride.
News of the incoming swell buzzed about town in the days before, but I learned about it up the coastline while bobbing along in the beginner break of Playa Carrizalillo. My surf instructor, Jan Bernard, an experienced rider of Zicatela, told me to get there early — at least before 10 a.m. when the offshore winds would start to render the waves unrideable. If the waves of Zicatela were a full-size orchestra, the fountain shows in Las Vegas would be a dollar-store music box. But more impressive than the roaring display of misty explosions were the tiny people paddling into these watery mountains, pulling off feats I thought were only possible in cartoons.
A small city in southern Oaxaca, located at the bottom of Mexico’s sloping Pacific coastline, Puerto Escondido is the stuff of surfing legend. Its sun-weathered, sand-blasted charm has persisted through the decades since pioneering surfers looked at the seven-meter waves crashing down on Zicatela and dared to ride them. It’s the kind of beach town where you’ll see a surfboard hanging out the window of a vintage green cab and can find a storefront solely dedicated to selling coconuts, hacked-open upon purchase.
Spoiled for beaches
Although it’s lined with bars and hotels, the main beach at Zicatela is mostly unswimmable due to the force of the waves, but Puerto Escondido has many other options for cooling down. A short walk from Zicatela, past the rocks and toward the fishing boats, you’ll find local children and their families splashing around in the calm harbor of Playa Principal. Or, you could grab a snorkeling mask and explore the underwater sea life of Puerto Angelito and Playa Manzanillo, which share a sheltered bay. But if you fall under the spell of the daring surfers at Zicatela, report to Playa Carrizalillo for a lesson — or just to see what many agree is Puerto Escondido’s most beautiful beach.
Located at the bottom of a long staircase behind the strip of restaurants and boutiques of the Rinconada neighborhood, Playa Carrizalillo is a rocky bay sparkling with clear, blue-green water and a consistent right-hand break ideal for beginners. On the beach, high tide brings the waterline up to the edge of the cabanas, but I spent most of my time here floating out in the water, trying to read the waves and occasionally catch them. Once in a while, someone would spot a sea turtle shell drifting by and my focus would break to marvel at this small piece of the wild ocean that I occupied.
When it comes to Puerto Escondido’s beachside neighborhoods, Zicatela is old school, Rinconada is laid back, and La Punta is where the party is. Located at the point of the longest beach, hostels and beach clubs have sprung up, attracting a younger crowd. The streets are lined with mopeds, boutiques, cafes, and surf shops. The sand extends from the beach into the first line of restaurants, and even off the beach, sports bars, skate bars, and food truck courtyards keep the energy moving. It’s a hipster paradise on a wild beach, but many locals and longtime residents worry that Puerto Escondido’s quickening popularity is rushing it toward “Tulumification,” or getting too trendy for its own good.
Not so hidden anymore
During the pandemic, Mexico became one of the most popular countries for digital nomads, many of whom came for the lenient entry policies and stayed for the tropical weather and cuisine. And Puerto Escondido, although well-known among vacationing Mexicans and the surf scene, quickly rose in popularity among the digital nomad set.
In September 2020, it was ranked No. 6 on Nomad List’s Best Places to Live in Mexico page, and today, it has surpassed the tourism juggernauts of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Puerto Vallarta, taking the No. 1 spot. Reviewers on the platform bemoan the weak Wi-Fi, but praise the affordable prices and general good vibes and beaches. The latter motivations are how I found myself renting an apartment and buying a 10-pack of private surf lessons.
Puerto Escondido is not a secret, but it does demand a different kind of traveler. It’s a place where the horizon line charges at you with the full force of the Pacific, where you can board an early morning fishing boat to spot dolphins offshore and release baby turtles before dinnertime. You might be called over by a group of strangers to even out the teams in a serendipitous beach volleyball game, and if you’re lucky, someone might let you in on their favorite sunset spot and make you swear to its secrecy. You’ll eat well and can party hard if you want to, but mostly you’ll be left dreaming about the beach bum life and how easy it could be to stick around a bit longer than you had planned.
And if you did, you’d be far from alone. Change is coming quickly to Puerto Escondido, and while the existing infrastructure is struggling to keep up, the influx of foreigners and gentrification is causing prices to rise, making things more difficult for locals. However, Puerto Escondido is still not the easiest place to reach in Mexico. The sand may not be as sugary-white as the ones on the Mayan Riviera, but the ocean is deep and blue and wondrous. Unlike other resort-lined beach destinations in Mexico, it has a small airport and there are no direct international flights from the U.S. To get there from the state capital of Oaxaca City, it’s at least a six-hour drive through the mountains. All this to say, Puerto Escondido is not your typical Mexican vacation; it calls for a traveler with a little bit of grit and offers rewards in spades.
I arrived during the mango season when the trees were dripping with the ripe, sun-colored fruit. You could spot one falling overhead into the street at least once per day and people gathered the excess into plastic crates for passersby to grab. With the bounty of mangoes, I felt immediately welcomed, but it was just the beginning of a perpetual marathon of exhilarating ocean swells, fiery sunsets, and nights spent in the sand laughing and dancing among new friends.