Puerto Escondido in February of 1998 - By Brian Larkin
Puerto Escondido is a travelers' and vacationers' market right now. Tourism is down this year to perhaps a third of its normal level. One government official told us that if it were not for "old timers like you we would have no one here."
[ Aside: The "old timer" comment referred to the fact that we've been returning for many years, and definitely not to our ages.]
Because there are so few tourists, service everywhere in Puerto Escondido this year is faster and more attentive. We never saw at any time of day or night more than few dozen tourists in the shops and restaurants along the Adoquin (pedestrian zone) on Avenida Perez Gasga by the Playa Principal.
Getting a good table for dinner was the least of our problems. On several occasions we were about the only patrons. In fact the only restaurants we saw that had more than a half dozen guests on a regular basis were the Santa Fe, Arco Iris, Art and Harry's, Lorenzo's (every table filled both times were there), and El Cafecito. If you thought Puerto Escondido was friendly in the past, try it now.
[ Aside: dinner for FOUR, including wine and tip, regularly was under US $40.00.]
In The Aftermath of Hurricane Pauline
The effects of Hurricane Pauline on Puerto Escondido last October were relatively minor to start (Hurricane Rick was just a big blow) and are largely invisible to visitors today. The few roofs that were damaged have been repaired.
A State Tourist Bureau worker showed us some pictures of the main street immediately after the storm. The amount of dirt and sand and mud that had washed down was quite incredible. "We all learned what to do with a shovel," she told us. By the time we arrived the tons of sand and dirt that washed down the hillsides into the Adoquin and Avenida Perez Gasga near the Palapa Restaurant had been shoveled up, carted off, and swept away. Hardly a sign of the hurricanes remained.
We had an opportunity to view a home-made 1 1/2 hour long video documentary of the Hurricane Pauline's aftermath in the small (population <5,000) Indian village of Nopala, a few hours from Puerto Escondido in the mountain coffee gowning region. It was made by a native photographer whose father had been the area photographer before him. Damage was relatively light (a bridge and trees washed away, houses flooded, and the like). The overwhelming reaction on the part of the people appears to have been one -- not of anger or pain or frustration or sorry or worry -- but wonderment. The river was higher than anyone had ever seen. Water was everywhere, in the streets, in homes, in drawers, sheds, everywhere. And everything was drenched through...clothes, food, everything. The sense of wonder was palpable.
Back in Puerto Escondido, all the scores of little palapas dotting the three beaches from the fishing fleet to Art & Harry's are still there and apparently unaffected by the storms. Symbolic of the shortage of visitors however, the three palapa areas on Zicatela nearest town are not being used this season.
[ Aside: We gained a new respect for those fragile looking thatched roofs that look like they would blow away in any healthy wind storm. Well, they don't blow away, but tiled roofs and asphalt roofs do. A local builder explained that when the air pressure changes suddenly and dramatically, as it does during hurricanes, the thatching lifts a bit allowing the pressure to equalize. Tile and asphalt roofs can't do that so they actually blow out.]
The weather was postcard beautiful but noticeably cooler this year with day time highs occasionally reaching to 80 but mostly only to the upper 70s, and evening lows in the 60s. Everyone blames El Niño. Once it was cloudy for part of the day. Otherwise we had -- as expected in the height of the dry season -- weeks of brilliant sunshine and no rain
[ Aside: As the saying goes in Puerto Escondido, "Just another ho-hum day in paradise."]
The cool onshore and offshore breezes were almost continuous this year. On several days it was too windy and/or cool for me to eat breakfast on our terrace . The waves were consistently stronger and higher for a longer period of time this year than any time in at least the last 10 years. Twice while we were there, the *Wave Fax* listed Puerto Escondido among the world's best.
[ Aside: After years of watching vacationers on Puerto Escondido's beaches, I've come to the conclusion that, generally speaking, 40-year-old men with pot bellies should probably not wear bikinis.]
The IN Places
The IN places to eat this year include most of the usual old stand-bys. The Santa Fe remains in a class by itself as the premier hotel and premier dining room in Puerto Escondido. The Arco Iris remains popular for sunset drinks and also for lunch and dinner (they have the most interesting and extensive Mexican menu on the beach and very modest prices). Art and Harry's at the far end of Zicatela is still a surfer's hang-out and is very popular with Americans of all ages. Sunday night is particularly busy. They have a talented Mexican trio who perform three nights a week.
In town, El Tiberon does a memorable chicken in orange sauce. Los Grotos and Danny's Terrace at the Rincon del Pacifico are also popular with vacationers. The Tequila Sunrise remains the one popular disco night spot.
Conspicuously missing from this year's IN list are the Perla Flameante in the pedestrian zone and the Flora de Marie. Not one of the 'regulars' ever mentioned either place this year, and while we did talk about trying them we just never got around to it, probably because there were a lot of other interesting places to try. The never popular Blue Iguana disco on Zicatela is not making it.
Eco-tours to the Manialtepec and Chacahua lagoons remain the single most popular day trips. Another popular excursion is a 2-hour float down the Colotepec River. Probably the most popular and interesting one night overnight trip is to Santo Reyes Nopala in the mountain coffee growing region. Paul Cleaver of the Tabachin del Puerto (at the Santa Fe) has a place in Nopala for overnight guest.
Out this year are side trips to Puerto Angel and to Huatulco. Hurricane damage to Pto. Angel has quieted interest in that direction, and periodic road blocks outside Huatulco set up by Indians sympathetic to the Chiapas situation have understandably dampened enthusiasm for that trip.
[ Aside: It is hard for two people to spend US $30 for a meal in Puerto Escondido, but it's possible. Elizabeth and I have done it twice in 10 years. The second was this year at the Santa Fe where we had a nice bottle of local white wine and the two most expensive dishes on the menu -- proving once again that with enough persistence most anything is do-able.]
Reporting on what's new, three of the biggest items for vacationers are new IN restaurants. Heading the list is El Cafecito, located on Zicatela beach next to Carmine's in the spot where Bruno's was last year (Bruno's is gone from Puerto Escondido). Cafecito is run by Carmine and Dan (of Carmine's Bakery fame) who did some remodeling (like e.e. cummins' Buffalo Bill, the bar is 'defunct' and the stairs are now on the right). They have a very limited, but as you would expect, an interesting and high quality menu.
[ Aside: The reason I spend a lot of time here talking about eating places is because eating is a really big deal for vacationers in Puerto Escondido. As someone put it to us years ago when we first started going there. "There are only two things to do in Puerto Escondido after dark," he said. "count the stars and talk about where you want to have dinner the next night." Elizabeth says he was showing his age.]
Another is Mario's Italian restaurant just outside the eastern end of the Adoquin and a few places down from (and not to be confused with) his Pizzaland. Mario greets guest personally and offers the warmest and most attentive service of any restaurant in town. It also has such amenities as white table cloths and cloth napkins, serves water without being asked, and provides beautiful light classical music in the background for dining. Typical of his attentiveness, on Valentine's day, Mario presented women with carnations. A very popular dish is the baked meat lasagna.
A third restaurant new to the IN list this year is Lorenzo's which moved from its temporary 3rd floor spot across from El Tiberone on the Adoquin to a location a block off Mexico 200 and across from the Suzuki landmark (1a Sur & 2a Poniente). The roast pork is probably (and deservedly) Larry's most popular dish.
[ Aside: As tangible evidence of Puerto Escondido's maturity, we ate fresh leafy green salads almost every day and in at least a half dozen places. Ten years ago, eating fresh vegetables any place in Puerto Escondido was a risky and generally not too smart a feat, even at the Santa Fe.]
A second new thing of interest to vacationers is the SUN, Puerto Escondido's free English language newsletter/newspaper (it looks like a newsletter, is the size of a newsletter, and is published monthly like many newsletters, but its publisher calls it a newspaper). It has a calendar of local events, advertising for many of the more popular tourist oriented businesses, information about local events of interests to vacationers, and even a column devoted to the history of Puerto Escondido. It offers US subscriptions for $25.
El Mercado (the old market) is being significantly expanded and modernized. Currently, fresh fruits, meats, fish, flowers and the like are the main items. A few blocks down from El Mercado, there is now Puerto Escondido's first real US-style super market (of sorts), Ahorrara.
[ Aside: We could buy all kinds of coffee in Puerto Escondido but nowhere could we find coffee filters. Even our maid came up empty handed when put to the task.]
On the beach, the grassy mall between the road and Zicatela Beach is developing beautifully. The tallest of the palms planted there five years ago now reach 15-20 feet. And for those interested in such things, construction of the prominently situated 4-story house at the end of the point beyond the lighthouse is finally completed.
At the Santa Fe, the luxurious Terrraza section is finished thus bringing the number of rooms to 72. The Tabachin del Puerto section remains a favorite with the arts and craftsy set. Phones and TVs have been installed in the suites in the Zicatela Bungalows section (not all of us are sure this is progress however). New lounges were added to their pool area.
[ Aside: One of our truly observant companions pointed out that each evening in February the sun sets in Puerto Escondido almost exactly one sun's width to the north of where it set the previous evening. Interesting factoid, isn't it.]
Crime in Puerto Escondido
Crime in Puerto Escondido has been widely reported on the Internet, and it has state and local tourism authorities worried. A frustrated government official told me that in one day alone the previous week there were six reports of burglaries and thefts from tourists. That is more than would be reported in a whole season 10 years ago. Three weeks ago, a man and two women were robbed at knife point after leaving the Tequila night club. Two weeks ago (according to a knowledgeable resident) four Puerto Escondido police officers were arrested (after the Police Chief was put in the public spotlight by a call-in talk radio program) for robbing tourists late at night near Art & Harry's (they reportedly used a Puerto Escondido Police car!).
Ten years ago, tourists could and often did sleep safely on the beaches at night. Five years ago we were 'advised' to avoid walking alone on the beaches late at night. This year we were 'told' to stay off the beaches after sunset. Crime has tourist officials concerned. Within the last month representatives from all the State and local agencies involved held a strategy meeting looking for ways to deal with the problem. At the same time however, for the first year since the murder on Playa Marinero in 1993, there are no police on the beaches. (But there are police guarding the chains that limit vehicular access to the pedestrian zone.) How serious the authorities are about crime is thus an open question.
Elizabeth reminds me that any incident can be magnified beyond all reasonable size, and Internet reports of crime in Escondido often fall into that category. She also reminds me to point out that at no time have we ever felt threatened or even uncomfortable in our years of vacationing in Puerto Escondido.
Preview of Coming Attractions
In the category of *coming events,* several interesting and potentially important things are either in process or on the drawing broads. Sewer lines are now being laid all along the three beaches (Principal, Marinero and Zicatela). A knowledgeable insider told me that all the businesses along the beach had gotten a letter from the federal government telling them to get hooked up or torn down. (The same letter allegedly tells them to keep their music down to 60 decibels.)
Also in progress, Mexico 200 (the Coastal Highway) is being widened into a 4-lane road from the airport through the city to the Colotepec River at Barra and the federal military base.
And the long planned and always deferred marina is now being started in front of the port captain's headquarters. The first piers were being put in before we left. The idea for the marina was part of the original Federal government plan for Escondido when it was planning to develop the 70 mile strip between the new resort of Huatulco, that it was going to (and did) build, and the old village of Puerto Escondido. The government built airports in both places, repaired the road between the two points, started to develop Huatulco, and then ran out of money. A dozen times in the ensuing years some group has tried to resurrect the marina idea, but without success.
Of interest to Internet fans, TelMex reportedly will put an Internet node in Puerto Escondido this June. I expect there will be an Internet cafe there when we get back next winter.
Finally, but certainly not least, Puerto Escondido with its alleged population of 40,000+ is fast on the way to becoming the City of Puerto Escondido. Presently, Puerto Escondido is claimed by two towns (different original maps). Because of the peculiarities of local and Oaxacan politics, there are now in effect FOUR mayors! While we were there, one of the towns was vacating their offices in downtown Puerto Escondido, and several people were actively campaigning for Mayor.
[ Aside: While I have no idea of its significance for the greater future of Puerto Escondido, time shares have arrived. US $450/month for 10 years (plus $130/month condo fee) will get you a 1-bedroom fully furnished unit with daily maid service in the Bocacho area west of town.]