By Brooke Gazer
When we first drove into Huatulco, in May of 1999, we were impressed by the wide paved streets that were bordered by green, well-groomed boulevards, and bedecked with stately palm trees. Twenty-one years later, there may be a few more potholes, but FONATUR, the federal tourism promotion agency that manages the resort, has done a superb job of maintaining the major streets in our town. What has changed is the amount of traffic. During those early years, it felt as if we had the roads practically to ourselves and more than two cars at any intersection could be considered a traffic jam.
The increase in traffic is not just related to population growth; back in the early 90s, financing a car or motorbike was practically impossible, and this limited the number of people who could purchase their own transportation. A local friend wanted a car, and this was how he purchased it. He joined a group where each member put in an initial sum of cash. Every month everyone added to the kitty until there was enough capital to buy one vehicle. They drew names and the lucky member drove away with his new purchase. My friend paid into this scheme for almost two years before it was his turn to own a vehicle. Of course, everyone continued paying until all the cars were paid for, but when they got one was literally “the luck of the draw.” Today, traditional financing is much more common, but only on new cars. This explains why we see so many shiny new vehicles cruising around town.
First, I want to explain one of the quirks about driving in Mexico (or at least in Huatulco). As a Canadian, I’ve been conditioned to follow the rules, so when we began living here, I stopped at intersections with stop signs. I looked right, left, and right again before proceeding. In our first month, I learned this wasn’t the correct way to drive in Huatulco.
When a woman bumped into me from behind, I jumped out of my car and in broken Spanish, I tried to ask for her driver’s license and insurance, even before assessing any damage.
She was incensed and ignored my request. “What were you doing? What did you stop for?”
I pointed to the red hexagon on the side of the road, “Well, there’s a stop sign …”
“But there’s no traffic. Why would you stop when no one’s coming? No one with any sense stops for nothing. Are you drunk or just stupid?”
Seeing there was no real damage to either vehicle, I slunk back into my car and drove away. This was a cheap lesson on Huatulco road etiquette.
A few years ago, the town installed its first traffic light at the intersection where my mishap occurred. By this time, traffic had increased significantly in our little town, and I envisioned local drivers ignoring the new signals, sailing through a red light, and multiple crashes. The chief of police must have been on the same wavelength; he stationed officers with whistles and ropes strung across the intersection. After several weeks, local drivers understood that a red light required them to stop regardless of traffic flow.
We now have five controlled intersections and most vehicles actually do stop. Like everyone else, I wait at traffic lights but sail through stop signs as if they’re merely a suggestion. Occasionally this causes a gasp from a guest I’m chauffeuring, but I assure them it’s the only safe way to drive. People don’t always follow rules as strictly as we from up north are accustomed to; one-way streets might also be merely a suggestion, and adhering to the speed limit could cause a collision. But on the whole, traffic flows smoothly, and drivers are courteous and flexible.
The same generalization does not apply to motorcycles. Many are courteous, but a few can be unnerving. It peeves me when I leave a comfortable space cushion between me and the vehicle in front, and a motorcycle weaves around me to fill the space. However, I understand that one’s personal space in Latin America is considerably smaller than I am accustomed to, so, regardless of the safety concern, I chalk it up to a cultural difference. What I really find annoying is when a motorcycle buzzes up on my right at an intersection and cuts me off as it turns left, just as I am about to go forward. Originally, I suspected they didn’t know any better but a visit to the state police office assured me they do, and the problem is one of attitude. Some drivers either have a death wish or believe they are immortal.
Elektra and Chedraui finance these machines to young people with only a small deposit and payments as low as $250 pesos weekly. It made me wonder how many injuries and fatalities result from it being too easy to acquire a motorbike? According to state police records, nine accidents with serious injuries or deaths involving motorcycles were reported in 2019. The damages assessed totaled a whopping $180 million pesos. I was surprised by the low number of accidents, but discovered that unless a death or significant injury occurs, most are never reported. You can’t legislate common sense, but I wonder if these kids paid in advance for the motorbike would they treat them, along with their fellow drivers, with more caution and respect?
Still, by the overall standards of Mexico, driving in Huatulco is a piece of cake.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco: http://www.bbaguaazul.com.
By Julie Etra
I have been scuba diving and snorkeling here since our first trip in 2007, but I am no expert and certainly don’t have the decades of history and knowledge possessed by the locals regarding pre-Huatulco-resort (1985) conditions. What I can contribute are my observations from repeated trips to several reefs over the years, as well as some review of reef studies and possible preservative actions.
Huatulco’s nine bays and 35 beaches host18 coral reefs. For snorkeling I typically go to Entrega, San Augustín, and more recently, Riscalillo. Tejoncito is a sweet little cove within Bahia Conejos, but it is pretty rocky, with some coral but typically not great visibility. Arrocito is another popular spot for some of our good friends, but it does not have the fabulous reefs that support aquatic diversity. Maguey has a great reef for scuba diving, accessible by boat. All lie within the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, and all are managed under its jurisdiction. (The Park was established in 1998 through a presidential decree.)
Entrega. Huatulco’s reefs and beaches are gems, and like so many beautiful natural resources everywhere, they are being loved to death. Entrega is a bay within the larger bay of Santa Cruz, both protected and at the same time somewhat contained due to its configuration; it is the most popular and accessible reef of the nine major bays of Huatulco. Entrega has its own sewage treatment plant behind the restaurants.
We always make it a point to go early to Entrega as even during the week this beach is frequently packed. There are just too many people, too many boats, and, despite the treatment plant, perhaps inadequate sanitation.
Entrega, which means ‘delivery’ or ‘surrender’ in Spanish, is named for the unfortunate fate of Vincente Guerrero, the Mexican Republic’s second President. The liberal Guerrero was deposed by his conservative vice president, Anastasio Bustamante; in the ensuing conflict, Guerrero was lured onto a French ship in Acapulco, carried to Huatulco, and surrendered on the beach at Entrega. Thence he was transported to Oaxaca City, tried and convicted, and executed by firing squad.
San Augustín has a large accessible reef, both by car and boat, and no engineered waste treatment systems. There are baños/sanitarios but their design and effectiveness appears questionable. Sweet Riscalillo, recently accessible by car, has a gorgeous reef but absolutely no sanitation facilities. I have only been there a few times so can’t comment on its change, if any, but it is on my radar.
Studying the Reefs – about a Decade Ago
From 1998-2012 the Federal Government of Mexico monitored the health of various reef ecosystems in the Mexican Pacific, including reefs in Bahías de Huatulco. It used the Coral Health Index (CHI) to look at fish populations and the bottom layers of the ocean (an “ichthyic” and “benthic” survey). According to a 2013 master’s thesis on the survey, prepared by Montserrat Molina Luna, the CHI values for Huatulco were at an “optimal health state” after the initiation of protection measures through the creation of the Parque Nacional in 1998. The fish populations of all the evaluated reef ecosystems were herbivorous, which promotes a balanced ecosystem by controlling the proliferation of algae.
So as of 2012, the reefs of Huatulco, according to this report, were in good shape. But were they? In 2011, the independent news and analysis agency Quadratin published an article on studies conducted by the Parque Nacional, which found that the reefs of Entrega had diminished by 80%, due to such factors as climate change, pollution and poor tourism practices. Natalia Parra del Ángel, at the time coordinator of CostaSalvaje, an international eco-organization focused on preserving coastal and marine ecosystems, warned that these factors could lead to the extinction of Huatulco’s coral reefs.
At that time, the Parque Nacional suggested to the local CostaSalvaje team some actions that swimmers, boaters, and tourist guides could take to help preserve Huatulco’s 12 types of coral reefs. Boats should not drive over the reefs, much less anchor on them or drop oil or gasoline. The most important was that divers and snorkelers should make sure they did not damage the coral – preferably, they should be accompanied by certified, trained guides. Swimmers should not wear sunscreen, because it creates a floating grease stain that prevents light from reaching the live microalgae inside the coral. Divers, snorkelers, and swimmers should not stand on the reefs.
Protective Practices a Decade Later
And did these practices take hold? Not really – and this is far from a comprehensive list of examples.
2013: Scientists like Carlos Candelaria Silva, a research professor at UNAM, began pointing out that the deterioration of the coral reefs at Entrega and San Augustín was very “worrying.” Sediments carried down in the rainy season, rubbish left behind by beach-goers and swimmers, added to boat traffic and large numbers of snorkelers, were damaging the reefs. By 2015, Candelaria was saying that measures to “protect and heal” the coral were urgent.
2016: Fisherman and oyster and octopus divers complained that the construction of Barlovento, a 15-condo development above a little beach next to Entrega, was dumping tons of construction debris – dirt, stone, and mud – right onto the coral reef. If the coral reef were to die, the divers and fishermen would lose their livelihood. While the divers and fishermen were not opposed to development per se, the fact that the Barlovento was taking no measures to protect the reef was unacceptable. Meanwhile, the presale materials for the Barlovento touted how ideal “the quiet bays of Huatulco” were for a “wide range of water sports. If you practice diving or snorkeling, you will be amazed at the purity of the waters. The rugged coast of Huatulco and its unrivaled coral reefs will surprise you with their extensive underwater biodiversity, waiting to be exploited.” While they might have meant “explored,” yes, they said “exploited.”
2018: This was a mostly bad news/some good news year. The Chiapas-based news service Noticias: Voz y Imagen reported that snorkelers and divers who rented equipment and set off to view the living coral reef were being allowed to snap off chunks of live coral as souvenirs. No one, “not the restaurant owner, not the waiter, much less the maritime business that rented the equipment and sent them off into the sea,” told them breaking off the coral would “significantly alter one of the most valuable ecosystems” for thousands of marine organisms and hundreds of species.
The problem was most out of control at San Agustín; the coordinator of Nature Tourism for the Municipio of Santa María Huatulco, Pedro Gasca, said that with 44 restaurants and 20 places that rented snorkel gear in the low-season, many more in the high season, it was difficult to counteract the business practice of “the customer can do whatever the customer wants.” He suggested that education was the key, and prepared a workshop for the snorkel outfits; the content focused on educating the customers how to view the reef without destroying it.
At this point, the three major threats to coral reefs were identified as climate change, ocean acidification, and the usual biggie, mismanaged tourism practices. Climate change and ocean acidification combine to make it very difficult for coral to create and deposit the calcium carbonate that extends the “skeleton” of the reef. This is most obvious as bleaching; when corals are stressed by changes in temperature, light, or nutrients, the symbiotic algae living in their tissues die, causing them to turn completely white.
Between 1998 and 2018, Pacific corals thinned out, i.e., they were 20% less dense and grew more slowly (they were only making a centimeter – just over ⅜ of an inch – of skeleton a year as it was!). Some corals (the slowest-growing ones) adapt, others bleach out and die.
Given that mismanaged tourism is a more immediate problem to address, CONAMP started supporting CostaSalvaje in projects to protect the reefs. CostaSalvaje used CONAMP resources to string buoys to keep tourist boats from driving over and dropping anchor on the reefs. CONAMP developed educational programming for tourism providers and guidelines for tourists, although it appears the latter must be accessed on their website,
2020: In January of this year, CostaSalvaje and CONAMP were among multiple government, educational, and organizational sponsors of the first annual Festival Coralinos de Huatulco: Tesoro del Pacifico Mexicano (The Coral Reef Festival of Huatulco: Treasure of the Mexican Pacific). With scientific poster sessions, workshops, and meetings on the marine environment, the goal of the Festival Coralinos was to inform the public about the importance of the reefs to the region and to promote better tourism and environmental practices. Informational installations were set up in the central park in La Crucecita, in Rufino Tamayo Park, and in the Sports Plaza.
What It Really Looks Like Right Now
When I first arrived in November 2019, Entrega beckoned. I went out there with my good buddy PauI Biernacki and was appalled to observe what appeared to be an obvious decline in reef health since my last visit in April 2019. Huge algal blooms floated over and coated the reef, especially close to shore, where the sea seemed unusually murky and almost oily.
Algal blooms are described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “overgrowths of algae in the water, which can be caused when nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water fuels algal growth. Note the murkiness of the surface water due to overgrowth of algae.”
Local guides I have spoken with have also noted the decline in reef health at Entrega. Basically, the blooms suffocate the reefs. Guides continue to see other sources of reef damage that have been discussed over the last decade (bleaching, sedimentation, physical damage, and chemicals such as sunscreen). Although the sedimentation can be natural, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by the turbidity caused by boat propellers.
Where do the nitrogen and phosphorus that kick off the algae blooms come from? Obviously not agriculture. Sewage? Currents bringing in contaminants from other sources? During multiple trips to Entrega over the winter, I noticed the currents had pushed the algae and deposited it on the northern part of the reef. I am happy to report that on an early morning swim on March 16, most of the algae was gone and the huge schools of green jacks (jurel bonito) were back.
I have not noticed algal blooms at either Riscalillo or San Augustín, locations that don’t get the same constant traffic as Entrega; however, like Entrega, San Augustín appears to be suffering from bleaching. We have seen the algal bloom called “red tide” from time to time in Huatulco, but red tide occurs naturally. And that sargassum we hear about over on the Mayan Riviera? It’s a type of kelp that isn’t often found in this area of the Pacific.
Of course, reef deterioration can be cyclical and caused by multiple factors, including seasonality and temperature associated with prevailing and changing currents. But human impact – those poor tourism practices – cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, restricted use or quotas imposed by the government are unlikely to occur in a beach destination like Huatulco, whose economy depends on that tourism. It would be nice to at least see a monitoring program designed and implemented, and good science conducted with data made available to the public. Certainly, the universities on the coast, especially those that participated in the Festival Coralinos, can help.
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
On February 28, 2020, Mexico confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the infection caused by the latest coronavirus (there are many, and there will be more). On March 21, 2020, as this issue of The Eye closed, Mexico had confirmed 164 cases, and 2 deaths. The state of Oaxaca had 2 cases, both in the capital city Oaxaca de Juárez. Although it’s been suggested that the relatively low rate of confirmed cases is due to sluggish testing, and that in fact there may have been many more by mid-March, the government – including and especially President Lopez Obrador – has been reluctant to require, or even recommend, preventive measures as of March 21. No changes necessary.
From High to Low – Overnight
Not so here in Huatulco. The foreign tourists who populate Huatulco’s high season are taking the corona virus seriously as their governments started “calling them home,” Canada on Saturday, March 14, and the U.S. on Thursday, March 19.
Both countries issued a travel advisory, Canada putting out a “Level 3” and the United States a “Level 4,” the difference being that Canadians were told to “Avoid non-essential travel” and Americans were told “Do not travel.” In remarkably similar language, both countries urged their citizens to return home as soon as possible.
If you were already abroad “in countries where commercial departure options remain available,” you were to “arrange for immediate return.” If you did not do that, you had to be “prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” The advisories noted that countries with COVID-19 outbreaks were “closing borders,” mandating quarantines, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry “with little advance notice.” Moreover, it warned that airlines had canceled many international flights: “Your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside [the country] for an indefinite timeframe.”
Notice that the presumption of the travel advisories is that people had traveled by air. Neither government said a word about driving across the border. Neither government explicitly defined “essential.” Neither government explained that “closing borders” did NOT mean the border was actually closed – it was closed to everything but that undefined “essential” travel.
The online universe of English-language travel advice for Huatulco – and Mexico as a whole – went wild. Snowbirds, expats, and tourists, anxiously working on exit plans, tried to remedy the information deficits in the travel advisories. (Postings are from “On the Road in Mexico” and “Huatulco – What’s Up … Happening,” and have been edited for clarity.)
Asking for suggestions for friends en route to British Columbia but still in Mexico: “The room they booked in Tucson for tomorrow night has just closed. Now they are worried the rest of their trip [will be] CLOSED CLOSED CLOSED. Anything they should know that I can pass on to them?”
Reply: They are screwed.
Report from someone who crossed at Nogales: I heard the Mx. Border is closed today … Does this mean that Canadian gringos will have to ship their vehicles around the USA?
Query: Does anyone know if a Canadian would be allowed to travel through to reach Canada? Tried to call every number I can find and can’t get through.
Report: Tomorrow night. Land border shutdown begins. US/CDN.
Reply: Stop repeating this sh*t, you idiot.
Administrator (“On the Road in Mexico”): Name calling will not be tolerated … PLEASE and THANK YOU.
Report: Bill Gates told us about the Coronavirus in 2015.
Comment on a report of border crossing: Thanks so much for posting. The huge mass of mis-information has been frustrating and of no possible help.
Reply to comment: I don’t think any country will close a border to its own citizens! You are essential.
Another reply: Did you have to show your passports?
Query: Am I officially screwed if my return flight to states is on Wednesday (3/24)? I’ve been trying to contact my airline, but they’re busy and never answer.
Report: Sounds like people trying to get home from Mexico with West Jet are getting screwed. Westjet is trying to charge them anywhere from $500 to $1000 per person to change their flights … sad really.
As for Westjet, on Monday, March 16, the airline announced that, based on the Canadian government’s call to Canadians to return and its recommendations to control the coronavirus, it was suspending all flights as of 11:59 PM, Sunday, March 22. On March 18, Westjet posted a list of 21 flights between February 12 and March 12 that had carried “guests who have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).” On Saturday, March 21, Westjet posted that, “During this continued time of uncertainty, we’re continuing to bring Canadians home from around the world. Between March 23 and March 25, 2020 we will operate 34 repatriation flights from international destinations to ensure the safe return of WestJet guests and Canadians who remain abroad.”
On March 15, the administrator of “On the Road in Mexico” posted “New Rules, please limit posts on Corona virus, to verified information, no conspiracy theories, guesses, or race blaming, people are worried enough without adding to it with rumors and opinions laying blame.”
On March 20, a member of Huatulco – What’s Up … Happening, created a new Facebook site, “Repatriating Canadians and Americans in Huatulco,” intended to provide updated information. “As we receive many comments and not always correct information, this site might help alleviate your concerns. We urge you to start referring to the information being posted here.”
With so few cases in Mexico, and none in Huatulco, people also contemplated staying in Mexico; on March 18, according to a post citing “the Mexican news,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that “Any foreigners stranded in Mexico needn’t worry about coronavirus treatment should they contract it. President López Obrador said today Mexico will treat and care for any foreign patients with Covid-19 because medical attention is ‘a basic right.’ ” Foreigners would receive “full protection and attention. If they are infected, we will take care of them here regardless of their country of origin because that’s universal brotherhood.”
Recall that just the day before (March 17), NBC News had reported that AMLO had been “ripped” and “slammed” for “disregarding his own government’s social distancing guidelines,” trusting to “luck” and his “moral strength” to combat the virus. The post about healthcare for foreigners elicited strongly divided comments.
Comment: Universal brotherhood and universal medicare. Now that’s a powerful combination! Way to go Mexico.
Comment: Geez, guys, careful, saying it and doing it are two different things.
Comment: Wonderful news! What a Great Leader!!
Comment: Wow! That is impressive! This is how it should be done right now everywhere. People need to unite.
Comment: They SAY what you want to hear. However, they are not staffed or stocked to help the masses of poor.
Comment: Fantastic … GOD bless President Lopez Obrador!
Repost (March 20): “Mexico City Nurses hold a demonstration outside a Major Hospital to protest lack of supplies, training and support to battle Coronavirus.”
Query: How many ventilators in Huatulco?
Reply: I’m sure you’re going to get a ventilator inMexico.
Reply: I heard only 2 in the area from a friend whose husband has COPD. They have checked it out already and are on their way home.
Reply: Some say Mexico could become the next Italy, for lack of awareness. So be prepared!
And on March 20, right in the middle of it all:
Question: I was at Secrets in February and they had the best frozen margaritas! I think the bar tender was only using ice, tequila and Gran Marnier but was wondering if maybe he used bar lime or something else, because I can’t replicate it. It was the same recipe when we went into town and stopped for a drink. Anyone know the recipe?
Replies: So far, there have been 21.
And How Is Huatulco Responding?
Quick to appear was an online campaign on the theme, “Don’t cancel, change the date – Save Mexican Tourism.” In Huatulco, online advice from two residents was more on the theme of “Just go home.”
My heart is sad, better return everyone to Canada. I know what will happen, we will be too difficult. Huatulco lives on tourism; unfortunately, Huatulco does not have a hospital. This disease will come here … restaurants, hotels are thinking of closing. I think it [leaving] will be the best.
Please go home with your fear, do what is good for you, stop spreading fear … we live in paradise, find a physician to cure your mental illness, we don’t believe in fake news. Thank you, but no thank you.
And gone they are, the snowbirds and short-term tourists.
Several restaurants have closed, others have limited hours, and many are now offering takeout and delivery. Amigos de la Música canceled its March concert. The Mercado Organica de Huatulco has been suspended. The municipio of San Miguel del Puerto has closed access to all three major waterfalls, the zipline, and the cooperative eco-adventure business El Remolino. Service providers were requesting cancellation of events for the Fourth Friday of Lent (Samaritan Day, March 20); some events were held, including the traditional dances in Santa María Huatulco, but the municipio president, Giovanne Gonzales Garcia, reported that activities were curtailed, and no foreigners attended. There were fireworks, including the traditional “Burning the Castle.” That day, Huatulco hotels reported a 35-40% occupancy rate.
Schools were closed two weeks early, from March 20 – April 20, for the Santa Semana break. Santa Semana, the period between Palm Sunday (April 5) and Easter (April 12), is a major tourism event in all of Mexico. Apparently Cancun has upped its advertising and hotel discounts to try to entice national visitors to fill the emptied rooms, but Huatulqueño hoteliers predict a complete collapse of Santa Semana tourism. In Oaxaca, they have begun to worry about whether the 2020 Guelaguetza (July 20 – July 27) will take place.
And the Future?
One of the big changes in Huatulco lately – construction. Hotels, retail, and condos are popping up here, there, and everywhere. As can be seen in the number of abandoned, half-finished structures, though, construction depends in large measure on cash flow.
More serious is the possibility the pandemic will cause widespread health impacts; without sufficient preventive measures, which seem slow in coming in March, will Mexico’s generally solid health system be overwhelmed? While the health system for foreigners is woefully lacking, for Mexicans there’s a basic public healthcare system for low-income residents, a plethora of pharmacies, and a good number of hospitals and clinics.
Mexico’s health system does have some infrastructure issues, and the AMLO government has changed some fundamental processes. The hospital coverage is concentrated in urban/urbanized areas, so the size and quality of facilities in remote places isn’t great – these are precisely the places that will be wiped out if a single case appears. Since more than half of Mexican workers are self-employed in informal activities, they can’t readily stay home and self-isolate – basically another cash flow issue.
Implementation of AMLO’s changes to the public health system has been rocky, and whether the new insurance coverage for IMSS-Bienestar, called Instituto de Salud de Bienestar (INSABI), will work is debatable. Worst of all, analysts say INSABI will need a major cash infusion if COVID-19 services are to be covered. AMLO’s approach to spending money is not to spend it, in the name of “republican austerity.” The international Organization for Economic and Community Development (OECD) recommends that a country spend 9% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health care. Mexico is one of only five countries that spends less – in 2018, Mexico spent only 5% of GDP on health care.
What will Huatulco be like when we come back? Will we all come back? ¿Quien sabe?
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We first drove into Huatulco in 2001 – almost twenty years ago. Our trip from the U.S. down to coastal Oaxaca had been spread over many months, Mexican cities and states, and thousands of kilometers of rough roads filled with potholes, topes, dogs, burros and pigs. We were literally homeless at the time, and our old grey Toyota Camry held all our possessions that weren’t being stored in the U.S. Essentials in our car included a PC for Marcia’s research projects, some clothes, a pot, pan, and toaster oven, snorkel equipment and a cooler filled with water, cheese, and tortillas. Since the Kindle had not yet been invented, Marcia had stuffed all the remaining space with paperback books. Book exchanges in the major cities helped circulate used books out and new books into the car.
Our stay the night before our Huatulco arrival had been in a cabaña in San Jose del Pacifico, on the highway from the city of Oaxaca. Our fire had gone out well before dawn, and when the roosters started crowing, we awoke to temperatures hovering around freezing. We decided to leave as soon as there was enough light to see the road clearly when driving through the mountains. In many places the road had been entirely washed out by previously gushing water, and we held our breath as the trusty Camry forded arroyos and streams, often scraping bottom. When we reached Pochutla, the topes slowed us to a crawl, as we needed to navigate each slant-wise to prevent losing our undercarriage, but they were welcome since they let us know we were almost to Huatulco.
The highway from Pochutla had many tight curves and was primarily jungle for kilometers on both sides. Highway 200 had not yet been straightened and widened, so the trip from Pochutla was almost three times as long as it is today, especially when we encountered one of the ubiquitous, lumbering Coca Cola trucks that were impossible to pass. But the occasional glimpse of sandy roads toward the ocean were exciting promises of deserted beaches for snorkeling. Given our early start, we reached the Huatulco turnoff in the early afternoon and couldn’t believe our eyes.
The roads were straight, wide, multi-lane, flawless and held very few cars or trucks and almost no taxis. Rather than burros and pigs, the animals crossing the streets were large iguanas that scrambled across in front of our car. The areas now home to supermarkets, stores and restaurants were stretches of trees and bushes filled with birds. There were no traffic lights or traffic circles or topes. The many Alto (Stop) signs were gleaming red but so numerous that obviously no one was going to stop at each of them for the nonexistent pedestrians. We followed the Centro signs to Crucecita down a street with a few tiendas; the Madero Mall was not yet even a twinkle in a developer’s eye.
We stopped at the central plaza; it was pristine and absolutely charming. We promised each other to return in the coming days to tour the church. Ravishingly hungry, we felt as if we had struck gold when we discovered, right off the plaza, Panificadora San Alejandro. The sight and smell of the fresh empanadas were irresistible. Since our Spanish at that time was minimal (and there were no English speakers anywhere around), it took us a while to figure out that one takes the items on a tray to the front counter, receives the total on a slip of paper, pays for the items at the cashier counter and then returns to pick up the baked goods – a process that eventually seemed normal. We were concerned that it seemed we were being charged for only one empanada when we actually had five in the bag — the price was so low. With a lot of sign language and laughter we completed our purchase, returned to the plaza to sit on one of the benches in the shade and wolf down the empanadas.
Bellies full, we drove to Tangolunda, where we had rented an apartment. We had previously searched the internet for places to rent all over Mexico and had easily found condos, apartments, casitas, and hotels with kitchen facilities. Our needs for Huatulco were simple – a bed, a bath, a stove and a refrigerator – but we really wanted a place with a view. Since plans for constructing condominiums in Huatulco had not yet reached the stage of development, Huatulco had a dearth of places with views other than hotels. One condo associated with the Camino Real Zaashila kept popping up in internet searches but, compared to other places we had rented elsewhere in Mexico with great ocean or city vistas, the price seemed exorbitantly high. Ultimately, we found an ad for and rented an apartment that turned out to be located at the west end of Tangolunda over a Budget rental car office (which is no longer there).
It was perfect. The bedroom looked out over the golf course, and a spiral staircase from the kitchen area led to a rooftop terrace with a view of the ocean – a distant view over the golf course – but still close enough to see waves and imagine we heard them at night. We were within walking distance of the hotels lining the bay but far enough to escape the noise of parties. And we loved having a few geckos sharing each room with us. We were far less enchanted with the scorpions and spiders and a few small snakes that visited from the surrounding undeveloped areas; but we learned to shake out our shoes before wearing them and watch where we were stepping.
The hotels in Tangolunda were essentially earlier versions of the ones that still exist. The most popular resort, the Gala, was later resurrected as Dreams. The Sheraton became the Barceló. And Club Med eventually became Las Brisas. Although one or two of still existing restaurants were operating, most, such as Viena, had not yet been established. Since most of the hotel guests didn’t venture off the grounds, we were guaranteed a good night’s sleep – which we really needed.
Our agreement was that Marcia would stop working at 2 pm, after which we would head to a different beach every day for hours of snorkeling. The work day began at 5 am with a break around 8:30 am for a quick trip to Crucecita to buy piping hot tortillas and one of the local cheeses for breakfast, and – for that night’s dinner – fresh fruits and vegetables from one of the tiendas or street vendors and whichever fish had slept in the ocean the previous night; these were available directly from fishermen who sold their morning’s catch from coolers on several downtown street corners.
Exactly at 2 pm, on sunny days, we’d head off with our snorkel gear to one of the bays. We quickly learned that not all of the bays were inviting for watching fish, but those that were provided expanses of wide, pristine beaches, absolutely crystal clear water, primarily undisturbed coral, and thousands of fish and other sea life. Although Maguey and Entrega hosted many local families on the weekends and holidays, on weekdays the beaches and palapa restaurants were largely vacant. Even when families flocked to the beaches, very few people ventured beyond the shores, and they weren’t even dressed in what you would call swimwear. Our snorkeling was by and large undisturbed for hour after hour, except for the occasional motorboat that passed too close for comfort.
It was possible to hover over the coral and watch scenes that were worthy of National Geographic presentations, such as a hungry octopus camouflaged under a rocky ledge darting out a tentacle to catch unaware fish. Or a veritable food chain in action, with tiny fish nibbling at the coral being eaten by slightly larger fish who, in turn, were gobbled by good-sized fish who became tasty morsels for larger fish who swept in from the depths and after gulping down their prey, quickly returned to deeper water. The colors were brilliant and the varieties seemingly endless. Sometimes, schools of fish of the same variety would form large masses, and by slightly waving our hands, we could orchestrate the school to perform a water ballet.
The local families were as interesting as the sea life. Usually appearing in groups of three or four generations, the grandmothers wore dresses and aprons, and organized their clan at tables and designated the position of the coolers that the sons and grandsons carried to the beach. Babies were passed from family member to family member. Toddlers carried small pots or pails down to the water edge and were primarily supervised in their digging activities by older siblings and cousins. We almost never heard squabbling among the children. The adults, although seeming to be engaged in their own conversations, immediately dashed down to the children if one of the youngest seemed in danger of being caught up by the incoming tide or if a pail was suddenly caught by a wave. We must have presented an anomaly to these families, given their surprised looks when we emerged from the ocean wearing our snorkels.
We quickly became spoiled and instead of snorkeling on cloudy days, we happily spent afternoons watching the thousands of birds that inhabited Huatulco or were migrating back to northern territories. The antics of large flocks of magpie jays in the brush were always a source of amusement. Many beautiful herons and egrets inhabited freshwater ways running down to the ocean. Almost every bay had resident pelicans to watch filling their bills, holding more fish than their belly could; they seemed very tame and merely grunted at us if we walked or swam close. The three local varieties of vultures circled high above; since their nesting grounds were relatively undisturbed by development, unlike today, they rarely mixed with humans.
The noisy squawking and flash of color of hundreds of parrots filled the air at every sundown as they left and returned to their roosting trees; we especially loved the parrot clamor in Santa Cruz – which, before the cruise ship dock was built, was a quiet village, except for the parrots. But no bird was as loud and grating as the large ungainly chachalacas that were our alarm clocks in the morning and entertained us as they squabbled over territory which they ultimately lost to the development of single-family private homes. At the other extreme, little doves visited our terrace and they billed and cooed as they searched for tiny bits of tortilla that escaped from our table.
Some days, work-related tasks required communicating with colleagues north of the border. Internet connection was possible through several internet service stores in Crucecita – Terra Cotta was one of the first restaurants to install a computer that could be used to check and send international mail. To make an international phone call, one had to go to a specialized office in Crucecita, sign up for a call, wait until a staff member connected to the number being called, and, when informed by the staff member that the call had gone through, enter a designated telephone booth, wait for the phone to ring, and answer the ringing phone hoping that the desired person would actually be at the other end. As was true of almost all purchases at the time, we paid for the call in cash.
In 2001 Huatulco, credit cards were largely useless and ATMs a feature of the future. Use of travelers checks, an acceptable method of payment in large cities in Mexico, required a long wait in a line at a Huatulco bank that accepted them, provision of passport and visa and prayer that the particular bank teller would agree to the extensive paper work required to hand over cash for the travelers check. Fortunately, even though the exchange rate of dollar to pesos was under 1:10, we needed very little cash. Our expenditures were mainly for food and fish, fruit and vegetables, which were very inexpensive. We’ve never been bar-goers. There were no movie theaters, upscale restaurants, or the now ubiquitous fundraising concerts or festivals. An evening’s entertainment was usually a trip to San Alejandro’s for a delicious pastry to share in the Plaza while watching the local children play, and then back to the apartment to curl up with one of the books stuffed into the Camry.
There were no vendors with extensive displays of their wares in the plaza. There were no stores that could by any stretch of the imagination be called a supermarket, much less a department store, no air-conditioning at most of the airport, no caravans of buses delivering tourists. Yes, Huatulco has greatly changed since 2001. But when we mention this to our Chilango cousins who visited Huatulco from Mexico City years before we arrived, they laugh and say, “But we remember back to when the area was entirely fishing villages.”
By Susan Birkenshaw
The first time I was in Mexico was for a student exchange in 1968. While I had been fortunate enough to travel with my family to many places, I had never been “let loose.”
Arriving in Mexico City even then, my first thoughts were – where are all the trees? There are so few places of green and so few kids on the streets simply playing tag or kick ball. I loved the family I stayed with, and learned a great deal about the culture and history of this country – all in Spanish, an incredible experience for a young and impressionable 60s era kid.
Fast forward to 2005 when, with my husband, Michael, we made our first trip to Huatulco, to a classic all-inclusive resort chosen mostly because it was cheap, available last-minute and included a direct flight from Toronto. Obviously, there were very few choices and yet we had an extraordinary two weeks. I remember we said to ourselves “Maybe someday this will be a place to consider retiring to!”
From our memories, the changes we note are numerous. In 1995, our first adventure was to walk down to the “beach” – remember this was historically a fishing village. There were still many fishing boats pulled up on shore with the catch of the day displayed for locals to shop from for the next day or two. Michael and I knew without a doubt we were looking at that evening’s meal.
We took a taxi away from our resort to see what else was in the region. We could see that the area around Santa Cruz and what is now known as La Crucecita were ready for development. The roads were dirt and oil but beautifully laid out and waiting for finishing when development made it necessary. The design has not changed.
Here and now in 2020, I write about the rapid change that our paradise has experienced. Because I have only lived in Huatulco for 2 seasons, I did an unscientific survey amongst the extraordinary friends I have made in that short time. I asked only one question: “In the time you have been coming to Huatulco, what are the 3 – 5 biggest changes you have seen and experienced?”
Despite some big variations, there was a series of common threads; these changes, I believe, are serving to increase numbers of both locals who move here to benefit from the town’s growth and the numbers of tourists who arrive needing (or demanding) services.
Without a doubt, the most important change and positive addition that has happened in Huatulco is the advent of a good, reliable internet system. The feeling I got in my conversations was that it was virtually impossible to keep up with the outside world or “mom” as recently as the late 90s. This led to huge frustrations, inability to work and large prayers that there were no emergencies on the home front. Now with fibre optic cable and huge variety of streaming services, Huatulqueño expats can work remotely, stay informed and entertained. Moreover, increased technology has created jobs for the newly self-employed locals and for those they can hire.
The next most important to all who live, play and work in Huatulco is the huge increase in the medical services here in town. There are well-trained doctors who care about their patients and speak at least enough English to help us. A new clinic – Clinica San Miguel – is well run and well equipped; there is a CAT scan available and if current conversation holds true an MRI will arrive soon.
Last in the big change list is the huge increase in construction. Condos all over town which seem to be selling consistently at varying price points. There are both very positive aspects to this growth and very sad issues that create jarring changes in town. First, the construction creates employment, income and ultimately increases tourism. All of these are great for the economy of the town and financially for its residents.
On the other hand, this construction ultimately leads to great losses as each project takes away natural highlights like beaches, natural habitats and even large mountains of granite which provided habitats for many of mother nature’s creatures. I believe that there needs to be a balance found between the construction and Mother Nature – easier said than done but this needs to be acknowledged and supported throughout Huatulco.
I sent my small survey to 16 friends. Each responded with some variation of my Big Three list, but then, things went off in a variety of tangents – but note that each point is some aspect of the theme of rapid growth, positive or negative!
– From scrub to cement – paved more and more parking lots
– Huge growth all around the town
– Land for sale is increasing in cost and amounts
– Huge demands from less and less aware tourists
– Way better roads – for example – look at the road to the airport – it’s clean and paved
– Huge cleanup efforts
– Cleaner beaches
– Private beaches are being lost
– Spay/neuter clinics
– Knowledgeable and ethical realtors
– Far more tour options with well-trained guides
– Workplace safety on the increase
– Parking problems as everywhere in the world
– The oceans are at risk – live coral is dying, tropical fish are disappearing
– Nature is at risk as are natural wonders
– Far more cruise ships – not necessarily a good thing
– Big houses – numbers are increasing
– Far more flight choices
– Rental prices are ever increasing
– The pathway joining Santa Cruz and Crucecita is magnificent
All these things come from the big three changes, technology, higher medical services and rapid growth. New services have arrived, restaurants change every day (mostly for the good) and shopping for food and necessities is readily available – larger shopping centres, larger stores and much faster delivery of goods responding to the tourist’s demands. Sadly, more cement will not make the tourist or expats any happier – there need to be additional controls.
In 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote and sang a song called Big Yellow Taxi. The first verse went like this:
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
How sad that Huatulco is now at great risk of being simply a big parking lot!