The Call of the Beach: Oaxaca!

A hut on a Mexican beach with palm tree in foreground.

Free camping in Oaxaca.

We’ve been in Mexico for a month when it starts: this nagging feeling that something is missing. We’ve watched the sun set from colonial rooftops, we’ve trolled through dim mercados ogling the produce piled jewel bright, we’ve been serenaded by a mob (and some amateur mariachis), we’ve camped in the shade of a smoking volcano, we’ve hiked the summits of Hierve el Agua…But something is missing.

The waking daydream sets in. My fellow beach bums (detest that term, but can’t think of a better one…beach aficionados?) will know what I mean. The daydream where you’re engulfed in a hammock with a good book in your lap and you’re staring out at the endless blue of the ocean, and you know you have nothing to do. (Getting up later to grill fish doesn’t count.)

We’re in the city of Oaxaca when I first get hit by the daydream. It’s so intense that I can hear the rustle of palm fronds, the sea wind whispering through the thatched roof of the palapa, the creak of the hammock, the clink of ice in my beer cooler. I can smell the smoke of a driftwood cook fire. I can feel the salty exhalation of waves hitting the rocks in Tenacatita Bay.

Our typical Mexico route takes us directly to the beach, or to the beach by way of San Miguel de Allende. Either way, we’re setting up our hammocks within a week or two of crossing the border. This year is different. This year, due to the ongoing occupation of Tenacatita, we are beachless. Thus we’ve elected to spend the majority of the trip exploring, mostly inland. And it’s been great. Until now.

“Ah, don’t you think maybe we should head down to the coast a day or two early?” I say casually. I know this is actually impossible, because our friend Laci and her little daughter  Maysa are flying into the Oaxaca airport in two days, and we have agreed to pick them up and show them the city before we loop down to the coast. It would be rude to nix their first visit to Ciudad de Oaxaca just to placate my intense craving for ceviche. Rich listens to my whining and shakes his head. He patiently lists the above information. I grind my teeth and count the days.

It doesn’t help that we run into a guy named Humble Jeff at a coffee shop. Humble Jeff is traveling around in his van. After sharing war stories about federales and attesting our undying love of both van travel and Mexico, we apparently pass some test. Humble Jeff lowers his voice and says, “Hey, if you’re going down to the coast…you ought to check out this cove…I haven’t been there in over ten years, but it used to beautiful.” He rhapsodizes about the clear azure water, the rocks, the little palapas…”As a matter of fact, I think I have a painting I did of it right here.” Before I have time to register this unlikely statement, Humble Jeff opens his laptop and pulls up a photo of the painting. I’m surprised to note that the guy’s an excellent artist: he’s exactly captured sunlight on cliffs, and the way rocks look under shallow water. Delightful azure, tropical water…I close my eyes. He draws us a vague map on a paper napkin, and I stuff it into my purse. When we leave the coffee shop, I’m still thinking about the lap of warm seawater on my road-weary feet. I begin building the perfect camp kitchen in the palapa of my imagination.

I  feel like a little kid on the day we leave the city for the beach. From the perspective of someone who is champing at the bit to get there, the road from Oaxaca City to Puerto Angel is comically slow. A steep, snaking strip of asphalt that cuts up through pine forests and winds down jungle mountains that look straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, Highway 175 is slow. Somehow I spend most of the trip stuck in the back of the van, where a tide of books, shoes, maps, clothes, and assorted flotsam is perpetually knocked back and forth by the hairpin turns. I keep craning forward between the front seats, hoping to catch the first delightful glimpse of blue water cradled by jungle shores.

I can imagine the moment: the shock of blue, that sense of well-being that always descends over me when I can smell, hear, and see the ocean. Thinking about this celebratory moment reminds me of the bottle of champagne I’ve been carrying with us for 3,000 miles (bought at Trader Joe’s in California). I’ve been saving it for a special occasion and now it comes to me: We’ll crack the bottle at our first glimpse of the Pacific.

250 kilometers and 9 hours later, the sun is setting over the jungle and I still can’t smell the salt winds. A small town is nestled in the valley ahead of us.

“Maybe we should stop here for the night?” Rich says wearily. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“We’ve got to be almost there,” I protest. I unfold the map I’ve been obsessively studying. “See–only a centimeter to Puerto Angel,” I say. To sweeten the deal, I tell everyone about the champagne: “In half an hour we’ll be sitting on the beach, drinking ice cold champagne…”Rich reluctantly agrees to truck on to Zipolite, where we will get a hotel for the night and assess the camping situation by daylight. We’re almost broke and I don’t relish the idea of staying in a hotel, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve been here and I’m aware that our chances of locating a camping beach at night are scant. For that matter, I don’t even know if camping beaches exist in this area anymore. “Maybe tomorrow we can find that cove Humble Jeff was talking about,” I say hopefully. But when I pull the napkin out of my purse, I realize that Jeff’s map does not display the same artistic integrity as the painting. All I can get from it is that the beach is somewhere north of Huatulco. And on the coast.

An hour-and-a-half, two traffic-choked towns, and one military check-point and vehicle search later, we drive into Puerto Angel. It’s pitch black and I still haven’t seen the ocean. As we rumble down the town’s winding streets, I catch a glimpse of boats bobbing at dock.

“Well there’s water.”

“It doesn’t count,” Gina says, definitely voicing my feeling on the subject. This water is not champagne worthy. I want to feel sand between my toes, dammit! I want wind through fucking palm trees!

The road from Puerto Angel to Zipolite seems to have vanished into the tropical night, and we end up driving in an endless, nightmarish loop through Puerto Angel. Finally we find a sign that points to Zipolite, but the road soon devolves into a steep wash, replete with giant boulders. We drive back to downtown for the fifth time. Rich is starting to froth at the mouth. He bangs his hands on the steering wheel in a way that reminds me of my dad at his most peevish.

Because I’m the only one in the van who speaks good Spanish, hassling people for directions is my problem. A group of women give us the typical “por alla” with a vague wave and a flourish of giggling. A leering drunk guy says he’ll show us the way, but only if we give him a ride. I’m on the verge of agreeing, but Laci voices dissent because she’s (reasonably) concerned for the safety of her two-year-old daughter, who is sleeping off a fever in the back of the van. I’m still sitting in the sweltering back of the van, and every time we stop to ask for directions, I am required to crawl up over the mounds of luggage and onto the cooler between the front seats to lean over Gina and poke my head out the window. I start to get inordinately annoyed by this situation.

“Maybe the road to Zipolite is closed or something,” Gina muses.

“I’ve asked ten people for directions and not a single person has said anything about the road being closed! I think someone would mention it!” I snarl.

If I have be the one who asks for directions, I should at least get to ride shotgun, I think childishly. Whoever heard of keeping your indispensable navigator in the back of the vehicle? These people would be lost without me!

It’s one of those nights when every decision seems to lead to a dead end. We all agree to give up on Zipolite and stay in Puerto Angel, but then somehow, inexplicably, we can’t find a  hotel in Puerto Angel. The van nearly shaves off a truck’s side view mirror as we careen down the same narrow street that I’d swear we’ve traversed 20 times. Rich gnashes his teeth. You know its getting bad when the calmest person in your group is a feverish two-year-old.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” I suggest. “Maybe we’ll have better luck finding a hotel on the highway to Puerto Escondido.”

Some time later, I spot a sign.

“Hotel!” I scream. Gina and Rich are so frazzled that no one even seems to notice that my scream is better suited to a war movie than a search for lodgings. Rich makes a sharp right and we’re careening down a rutted dirt road, heading deep into the night. We drive for a mile or two without any additional signs. We pass a few modest houses, pools of light in a tangle monotonous thorn jungle. Pretty soon we realize that we are, once again, hopelessly lost. This time, asking for directions requires getting out of the van and approaching an isolated rural house. Every bit of advice I’ve ever given other travelers about safe travel in Mexico springs to mind: don’t drive after dark, don’t explore out-of-the way places until you have a feel for the area…don’t, uh, blunder onto other people’s land in the middle of the night…

“Hola!”I shout into the shadowy compound. A shirtless guy wearing track pants emerges and comes down the fence, where I’m standing. He’s in his late twenties and I’m relieved to see that he has a friendly, open face.

“Do you know anything about a hotel around here? Or maybe camping?” I ask, in Spanish.

“Do you have stuff to camp with?” he asks skeptically.

“Yes!” I say.

“Well then you should just camp on the beach,” he says pleasantly. “No one will bug you down there. It’s about a kilometer from here.”

Can this really be? I bounce back to the van, my jubilation slightly marred by the fear that I won’t be able to sell Laci on the idea. She is intending to rent a house with friends in Mazunte, and isn’t equipped to camp. I can understand that setting up a guerilla-style camp in an unknown area in a supposedly violent country  with a sick kid and minimal bedding may not sound that appealing at this hour.

To my surprise, Laci is game, and we set off through the jungle darkness. The guy has given me detailed directions and I’m feeling grand. A half an hour later and several axle-grinding ditches later, we pull up to….a soccer field. Rich is at the end of his rope, so we stop and all pile out. I crack a Victoria and stare up at the stars. “Maybe we should just camp here…” I say sadly. I look over at Rich, but he is in some sort of quasi catatonic state. He won’t even accept the cold beer I offer him.

Somehow we get moving again and eventually we find another house. A family sits on the front porch. A gaggle of kids are swinging in a hammock.

I lean out the window and wearily ask about the beach. Everyone laughs and rolls their eyes. Yes, there is a beach. But no, it’s not exactly nearby. A man starts rattling off directions, but I can feel my circuits overloading. I stare at him helplessly.

“So wait, you go straight, and then you make a right? And then you make another right? And then you make a left? And then you make another right? And then you go straight again?” I croak.

He laughs. “Here, I’ll go with you and show you.” I turn to Laci helplessly, but this time she readily agrees to a guide. It’s true that this guy seems a lot more promising than the sleazy drunk guy in Puerto Angel. He climbs aboard with his small son. I suddenly realize that if anything, we are the ones that look threatening. A bunch of wild-eyed gringos drinking beer in a filthy van. The guy doesn’t seemed alarmed, however, and kindly guides us for another kilometer or so.

“You can let me off here. From here on out, just go straight,” he says.

“Don’t you want a ride back?” I ask.

He looks at me like I’m crazy. I realize he is not confident in our navigational abilities. Perhaps he’s on to something. We thank him profusely and trundle on…down a road that gets progressively steeper until I actually have that feeling that the van might start tumbling end over end.

And then we’re there. The road ends in a flat stretch of sand. And beyond that, a couple of palm trees sway beneath a starry sky. I grab the bottle of champagne and lurch out of the van, leaving everyone else to dismount at a more rational speed. At the first palm tree, I kick off my flip-flops. And then I’m on a tiny, beautiful beach. I can hear the water lapping on the shore, and I can smell the tidal rocks. Down the bay the lights of a camp or restaurant spill onto the sand, and just to my right: two tiny, empty palapas.

And so it is that we are sitting on the beach, our feet wet from the surf, drinking champagne beneath southern constellations. “So these places still exist,” I say. At last…My love has come along…And lonely days are over…and life is like a song…

Epilogue: In the morning I crawl out of the van to make coffee. When I have my coffee in hand, I walk down to the shore and stare at the little cove. Something about these rocks looks awfully familiar. Did we camp here when I was a kid? Gina joins me. She’s looking at the formation of the rocks too.

“It’s the cove,” I say slowly. “The cove from Humble Jeff’s painting.”

Women swim in Mexican bay.

At last! Laci and Churpa swim in warm tropical waters.

photo by Gina Dilello









7 Responses to “The Call of the Beach: Oaxaca!”

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  1. El Codo says:

    Excellent Churpa!
    Memories of (almost-mis) adventures like these are forever. Just when you think things have gone all-to-hell, up jumps paradise! As I age and get less and less mobile and able to do stuff like you and Rich are doing, my storehouse of memories comes into play! Love your description of crankiness, wide swings of emotion and the glee (there is no other word for it in my vocabulary) that you stumbled into knee deep clover. To me, this is hundred octane People’s Guide grade fare for us to feast on.

    As for Tenacatita the only fitting word I have is: ¡Alas! Getting robbed is an insult, getting robbed of the family jewels, unforgivable! This is why I was trying to hint at a beach 250 miles further south where my grand daughters could offer hugs and kisses, Brenda and Jesús the warmth that only a family can provide, and a beach with enramadas. To your outraged sensibilities over Tenacatita, my recommended beach may not be equal, but it’ll sure as shootin’ do in a pinch.

    Visiting México without visiting with her wonderful people is like preparing soup without ingredients; what’s left is a pot of water…

    But like with any “drug” withdrawal from a Mexican Adventure can be a forlorn and overwhelming sense of loss. My answer to my forced march return northward was “Someday goddamnit I am going to retire and move there, forever!” The neat part is you can bring all those old memories with you.

    Fill up your memories piggybank. Scrimp, save, sell, work, trade….whatever it takes.

    And keep writing these wonderful stories. Folks can bet their bottommost bippy the P.G. travel lifestyle is alive and very well down here. Oh my gosh Eduardo’s mother just invited me to comida: Abulón empanizado, Mexican rice, agua fresca de jamaica, and fresas con crema! Gotta go!

  2. Sam says:

    Great story. Great books. Great blog. Keep it up, I’ll keep reading.

  3. Tom says:

    I’m buying you guys a friggin GPS and a lifetime subscription to uploadable maps of mexico. And AAA. Or MAA.

    Then we are heading right for this beach. ASAP.


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