This Under-the-Radar Beach Town Is Mexico’s Next Great Destination
Go west, idyll-seekers. Mexico’s “it” destination is tucked away in the culture-rich, food-loving, bliss-inducing coast of Oaxaca
As we reach the outskirts of Puerto Escondido, my driver grins and gestures with his chin for me to look in the rearview mirror. Just above the horizon hangs a full yellow harvest moon, which washes this Mexican surf town on Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast in a magical light. We drive farther on into lush farmland, finally leaving the highway to traverse a rocky dirt road. In the silvery beam of the headlights, dozens of tiny frogs scatter into the jungle. Rounding a corner, we startle a huge white owl by the roadside, and it lifts off with languid grace, wings beating slowly as it disappears into the night. Oaxaca is wild.
It may feel like I’ve landed in some antediluvian land, but civilization lies close at hand in the form of Hotel Escondido, a stylish hideaway on a stretch of pristine beach. Well-traveled friends had returned from here the previous summer, rhapsodizing about both the property and the region, which reminded them of Tulum and the Riviera Maya before those hot spots had been discovered. They were speaking my language—I fell in love with the Yucatán Peninsula years ago, and the chance to add another Mexican beach idyll to my roster was irresistible.
Sure enough, the hotel proves a tonic for both soul and body. I’m soon settled in the open-air dining palapa—set between an infinity pool and the ocean—nursing a mezcal margarita garnished with a sprig of rosemary. The hotel hits that sweet spot between respecting the environment (the thatched-roof palapa suites are low-profile and unobtrusive; the landscaping an appealingly organic tangle of cacti, palms, and jungle) and providing an oasis of design-forward, laid-back luxury. Each of the villas has its own private plunge pool and a sandy path leading directly to the beach. Chic touches abound, like the stylish blue denim robes, organic toiletries, and a reading room stocked with art books, where guests can lounge on midcentury-modern furniture beneath a classic wooden surfboard, hung on the wall like art.
The beach town reflects the zeitgeist of the hotel that bears part of its name: It is a happy, scrappy place that caters to both upscale travelers and surfers, who flock here for the famous Mexican Pipeline on Zicatela Beach. In short succession, I see a solemn man in a white cowboy hat clopping through town on horseback, and a barefoot shirtless dude in the lobby of a fancy hotel, his surfboard dripping on the floor. Word has it that the Benito Juárez market and the Adoquín are great places to shop for Oaxaca’s glossy black barro negro pottery and hand-woven tapestries, and that the town’s stylish set likes to gather at Espadín, a restaurant inside the Villas Carrizalillo, for dishes like grilled fish with crushed pumpkin seeds and poached chicken breast with mole negro. My rhapsodizing friends spoke the truth, I think happily—this little town definitely has that buzzy DNA of early Tulum.
But I don’t want to get too comfortable. Puerto Escondido is an ideal base camp for exploring the “Costa Chica”—a stretch of coastline from Acapulco de Juárez to the central Oaxacan coast—and mining the region’s two heralded specialties: cuisine and folk art. I make excellent headway on the former with a breakfast of Huevos Escondido, a tortilla stuffed with baked eggs, slathered with mole sauce, and topped with avocado. Then I embark on a road trip up the coast past Playa Roca Blanca, a perfect arc of beach 15 minutes up the coast from my hotel and where the cult film Y Tu Mamá También was filmed, and then inland to the 1,600-year-old town of Tututepec, home to artisans who create garments featuring the distinctive “Shakira” beading on white cotton, and who weave hammocks using an ancient loom technique.
Related: Perfect Weekend in Tulum, Mexico
Another day I push farther northwest (about two hours by car) to Chacahua, a village on the Pacific shoreline of Lagunas de Chacahua National Park. There, a sprightly captain named Flavio takes me out on his wooden lancha—motorboat—to explore the mangrove-lined waterways, where I spot turtles, crocodiles, and birds galore. He zips out to the point where the lagoon meets the ocean—marked by a craggy, lighthouse-topped cliff—for a thrill ride on the swells, which crash onto surfer favorite Chacahua Beach.
Lunch is at Flor de Dalia, a roadside cocina económica (rustic restaurants serving hearty, made-on-the-spot traditional dishes), in nearby Zapotalito. I sit on a plastic chair beneath a palapa, sipping lemon-infused agua fresca and nibbling slices of fresh pineapple drizzled with extra-picante hot sauce, and watch as the owner/chef haggles with a fisherman who has just pulled up on shore. She weighs the catch in the fisherman’s bucket with a hand scale, money changes hands, and laughter ensues. Shortly afterward, she comes to the table bearing a huge platter of pescado a la talla, fish simply grilled over coals with a crust of adobe chile and served with steaming tor-tillas, lime wedges, and mayonnaise. (Back at the hotel another night, I’m served a fancied-up version of the same simple dish—a tale of two fishes that ends deliciously both times.)
I had heard good things about Mazunte, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos—Magic Towns—so I set my sights on a day trip there. It’s just an hour’s drive east of Puerto Escondido, but the vibe is far more blissed-out hippie: There are juice bars, a community radio station, and three distinct schools of yoga, along with a sustainability program that focuses on turtle conservation. I stroll the gorgeous beach—where the calmer waters are more suited to swimming than surfing—and then climb the steep, rocky cape of Punta Cometa, where I’m rewarded for my exertions with a dazzling, panoramic ocean view. I’m told yogis come up here every morning to perform sun salutations, and I experience a brief pang at not planning a dawn here. (Luckily, the sunrises and sunsets at Hotel Escondido are world-class shows in their own right.)
Back on Mazunte’s main street, I order enchiladas at the thatched-roof café La Empanada, and grab a green juice at El Tiburón before browsing the wares at Cosmeticos Mazunte, a women’s co-op producing a range of all-natural cosmetics and soaps. Both the workshop and boutique are in a casona—a large house—shaded by banana trees, and I stock up on products featuring ingredients like avocado, corn, beeswax, and plant extracts.
On my last day I pay a visit to Casa Wabi, an extra-ordinary artist space located just a stroll along the sand from Hotel Escondido. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the polished-concrete behemoth was founded with the intention of inviting artists from Mexico and around the world to collaborate with Oaxacan communities. The serenity here is powerful, a kind of ancient magic woven with modern sensibilities. I envy the artists who are lucky enough to spend time here.
That night, a post-dinner plan to float in the Laguna de Manialtepec, famous for its bioluminescence, is thwarted when I’m informed that conditions aren’t favorable. (Did I mention there’s a full moon?) I feign disappointment but relish the excuse to kick back in the open-air hotel restaurant, order another mezcal margarita, and savor the wild soundtrack of waves crashing on the sand beyond—smiling all the while at the rest of the world hustling to Tulum.
Both Puerto Escondido and Huatulco have international airports, with regular flights from the United States. The Huatulco airport is about a two-hour drive from Puerto Escondido.
For setting up base camp in Puerto Escondido, Hotel Escondido is a stylish, secluded oceanfront oasis with a top-notch restaurant. Rates start at $315. Close to Mazunte, Casa Sol Zipolite is a tranquil beachside guesthouse from the owners of Mexico City’s cult B&B, the Red Tree House. Rates start at $125.
Espadín is Puerto Escondido’s best dining experience. In Mazunte, La Empanada is a casual café dishing up everything from enchiladas to thin-crust pizza. Near the Chacahua lagoons, Flor de Dalia is a palapa-style restaurant serving home-cooked traditional dishes, set on the main highway through the town of Zapotalito.
In Puerto Escondido, the Adoquín is a pedestrian-friendly street close to the Plaza Principal lined with stores selling handcrafted Oaxacan goods from jewelry to alebrijes, colorful painted wooden figures. The Bazaar Santa Fe (tucked inside the seaside grande dame Hotel Santa Fe) showcases a range of Oaxacan crafts, textiles, jewelry, and coffee; hotelsantafe.com.mx. Meanwhile, Odyboards Surf Shop & Factory is the place to pick up a custom or secondhand surfboard, all handcrafted in Mexico. In Mazunte, Cosmeticos Mazunte is a women’s co-op producing an excellent range of all-natural soaps, cosmetics, and hair products.
Folk Art Fashion
Mexico’s traditional embroidery motifs are having an international style moment. Get the look with these pieces:
Gypset Coco Dashiki Embroidered Weekender Dress in White Cotton and Yellow, $350; shoplatitude.com
Figue Audrey Slide in Istanbul Ivory, $325; figue.com
KAYU Cactus Clutch, $205; kayudesign.com
Figue Violeta Dress in Clean White, $495; figue.com