Tag Archives: beach

On Sand and the Making of Castles

By Randy Jackson

To build a snow fort or sand castle? That is the (real) question. At this time of year, some northerners enjoying Huatulco might be wondering if their snow-fort building skills are transferable to constructing a sand castle. The short answer is no. But the desire to create an objet d’art out of something you try not to track in the house shows the right attitude. To build a moderately impressive sand castle involves five simple steps following the acronym LWBSF, and remembered by the phrase: Leave Winter Before Soul Freezes. Just two pieces of equipment are needed: A good sized bucket for hauling water, and something to sculpt with.

LOCATION: Choose a location. First choose a beach, one of the bays of Huatulco based on the type of sand. The more powdery the sand, the better it will compact for a lasting structure. Grainy beaches like Cacaluta are not good for sand castles. Once on the beach, choose the location of the castle itself. A place where the sand is moist below the surface is best. The farther from the water, the longer the water-hauling trips. And, of course, you want a spot above the high tide line.

Sand: As an avid hiker in the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes stand on some majestic rocky peak and grapple with the time scale it would take for the rock beneath my boots to become sand on a beach. It will, eventually. Sand is ground or eroded rock. Ocean waves do some of the work bashing against rocky shores, but streams bring most beach sand from rocky areas to rivers, then to oceans, where currents and tides deposit the granules back on land to make a sandy beach. Once a granule is chipped off a rock somewhere on a continent, it takes about one million years to move that granule each 100 miles along waterways. Think of the eons of time we could save if we all brought a jar of sand down on the plane.

WET DOWN THE AREA: Often a good location for a sand castle is closer to a beach restaurant where beverages can be supplied to the castle builder, but this usually means the sand is dry. Mark out a six-foot square with your foot. Then haul buckets of water up to this spot to soak the sand at least to the depth of one foot.

Sand: Not all sand is the same – there are some differences in the sand even among the bays of Huatulco. Around the world, sand comes in six different colours: white, grey, black, pink, green (yes, green – the most famous is a green beach in Hawaii), and the most common, golden or brown. Consistency of the grains also varies widely. Desert sand differs from beach sand. Beach sand and sand mined from river areas is in great demand, whereas desert sand has few uses. The issue with desert sand is that the grains of sand journey to the desert overland, blown by the wind. This makes the desert sand grains smooth and rounded, and rounded grains don’t bind well even in concrete. It’s the angular grains delivered through rivers and oceans that allow for bonding between grains and allows for compaction. Dubai, for example, has imported millions of tons of sand from Australia to build their new islands for condo towers. Their own nearby desert sand is of no use.

BUILD A VOLCANO: When the sand in your spot is sufficiently soaked, build a base in the shape of a volcano. Dig the sand up around the sides of a base about three feet across and keep piling it on, up to a height of about three feet. Keep flattening the top as you go. Once the sand volcano is high enough, scoop a crater out of the flattened top.

Sand: Sand is the second most-consumed natural resource on the planet, right after water. Cement is by far the biggest use for sand. But there are other substantial uses as well. Asphalt, glass and computer chips use significant quantities of sand. Civilization as we know it could not exist without the buildings, roads, and computer chips that are made from sand. Although in geological time, sand is a renewable resource, on a human timescale sand is a limited resource.

Demand for sand is outstripping supply. Most Southeast Asian countries have banned or restricted the export of sand. Sand mining has completely obliterated at least two dozen islands in Indonesia since 2005. The main culprit – Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer. Singapore wants to make more land, and sand is the best material for that. The Times of India has reported that the Illegal sand trade amounts to $2.3 billion per year. There have been hundreds of killings between “Sand Mafias” in India. Even beaches themselves are a source of demand for sand. The US Geological Survey estimated that two thirds of Southern California beaches may be gone by 2100 – only 80 years down the road. Moreover, virtually all of California’s water flows into the ocean are dammed and used upstream. This means the natural erosion of beaches is outstripping the natural sources of supply.

Remember in the movie, The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) says to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), “I just have one word for you – plastics”? He could have said “Sand.”

SOAK THE VOLCANO: Haul more water and pour it slowly into the crater on top of your sand volcano. Physics experiments have shown the optimum strength in sand structures has the ratio of eight parts sand to one part of water. Keep patting the sides of the volcano. Haul sufficient water until the flattened top of the volcano seems solid when you push down on it. Once this is done, flatten the top out further so it no longer looks as much like a volcano. You will now have the base of your sand castle, and it should last for more than a day.

Sand: Given sufficient geological time, with the gradual erosion of continental mountains into sand, will the earth one day be a planet of sand, as in the book/movie Dune? No: Very slooooooowly, rock makes sand, and sand eventually makes new rock. Sand settles in certain places where winds and currents leaves it. More gets added, and more and more, and the weight of the sand compacts and pushes the sand deeper and deeper into the earth. Pressure, temperature, and chemical reactions eventually transform sand into sedimentary rock. Yada yada … , and eventually tectonic plates push that sand-made-rock up to form new mountain ranges.

FREEHAND SCULPTURE: Here is where you need a wood sculpting tool. A wooden ruler is ideal, although one of the wooden book markers that vendors pedddle on the beach works OK, too. Begin by squaring out the sides of your flattened sand volcano. Next, scoop sand into your bucket, about 1/3rd full. Add to that enough water to easily cover the sand and let the sand settle into the bottom, below the surface of the water. After a minute or so, scoop out a handful of wet sand from the bucket and work it between your hands until enough water is pressed out to make a mucky ball. Place the ball on the top of your sand base, near the edge, making small piles about eight inches high. Each pile you make will become your castle turrets.

Once your blobs have been arranged all around the edge, use your sculpting tool to carve the sides into circular turrets. Notches can be carefully carved out of the turret tops. Use your sculpting tool to make a brick looking crosshatch in the turrets and the base of the castle. Use the soaked sand to add other features like walls between the turrets and a drawbridge.

Knowing a bit about sand makes the construction of a sand castle a kind of celebration. Celebrating that in the face of geological forces and time scales beyond our comprehension, we are here on a beach, making something from a substance the earth itself uses like playdough. True, our structure lasts a day, mountain ranges somewhat longer. Yet, both are temporary, on different time scales. But then again, who tries to contemplate all that when the air is warm, the waves are washing ashore, and you’ve built an outdoor structure without having to wear your snowsuit!

Romantic Picnic Options in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

Pondering ideas for a romantic Valentine’s Day? This year you might want to consider something safely away from crowded venues. Huatulco offers many possibilities to enjoy the great outdoors, so an intimate picnic for two could be the perfect option. Here are a few suggestions for sparsely populated destinations and some ideas as to what to bring.

Where to Go

Huatulco is blessed with beautiful beaches. If you are up for a bit of a hike, here are four possibilities.

La Bocana – From Los Güeros Restaurant (the one on the left facing the beach), follow the shoreline to the river. The walk on the sand is about fifteen minutes, passing enormous boulders reminiscent of Henry Moore sculptures. This beach can be rough for swimming, but you can refresh yourself along the way by getting your feet wet.

Playa Arena – On the highway heading west (from Santa Cruz towards Secrets Hotel), about 2 km past the hotels and shops in Tangolunda, you will find a footpath leading to this dramatic virgin beach. The entrance is not marked, but look for a cement post on either side of the path. The walk should not take more than 20 minutes and while not completely flat, neither is it overly challenging.

Cacaluta – Following the highway to Maguey, there is a sign for Cacaluta where the road branches off to the right, about 200 meters before Maguey. Do not confuse this with a service road marked “Tanque Cacaluta,” which dead ends and is difficult to turn around on. Your turn is a bit farther ahead. About 2 km past the turnoff is a small parking lot where the paved road ends. You must leave your vehicle here to continue along a dirt road down to the beach. This scenic walk through the jungle might take about forty-five minutes. Foot traffic and bicycles are permitted on the road, but not motorbikes.

El Órgano – On the opposite side of the highway to Maguey, i.e., when you are returning from Maguey to Santa Cruz, there is an opening in the forest with a sign that says “PRIVATE,” located about halfway between the turnoff to Cacaluta and the last glorieta (traffic circle) after Santa Cruz. There is no parking lot, but people do leave their cars parked on this road. The walk is fifteen to twenty minutes down to El Organo beach. Only foot traffic is allowed on this path.

For those who don’t find the prospect of hiking very appealing, you can rent a panga (small motorboats with overhead canopies) at the marina in Santa Cruz. Your hotel or a tourist stand can make the arrangements for you; if your Spanish is good, you can go down to the marina and negotiate for yourself.

The panga can take you to beaches farther out – Playas Chachacual, La India, Riscalillo, or Cacaluta. These are all gorgeous virgin beaches within the Bahías de Huatulco National Park.

For a shorter excursion, a panga will take you to virgin beaches within a half-hour ride, like Violín or Órgano. The captain will leave you and return a few hours later. You pay only for the return trip, so you can rest assured you will not be left stranded.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a non-beach interlude, here are two options.

The Huatulco National Park has an access in Santa Cruz. Follow Boulevard Benito Juarez as it branches off to the right at the Binniguenda Hotel and becomes Avenida Oaxaca. The sign says “Sector E.” At the end of Av. Oaxaca, a dirt road takes you into the park. Bicycles, but not motorbikes, are permitted on this. A short distance into the Park is a rustic open-air church where you can sit down for your picnic – just remember to carry out whatever you brought in! There are paths past the church through the park that will take you all the way to the beaches mentioned above or out to the main highway (Route 200) into Huatulco.

The Parque Ecologico Rufino Tamayo is underused and somewhat neglected, but it has some paved foot paths and concrete stairs. There are a few dilapidated benches and picnic tables (bring a cloth to clean them off!). This forest reserve has three entrances; the one on Calle (not Avenida) Oaxaca has parking. Calle Oaxaca is the street heading away from the main entrance to La Crucecita; the park entrance is located directly across the street from Jessic Toys.

What to pack…
Assuming you do not want to cook, these are a few suggestions should travel easily.

Several vendors throughout Huatulco offer roast chicken with tortillas and salsa.

Either of the big supermarkets has an excellent assortment of cheeses, cold cuts, and condiments like olive, pickles, or artichoke hearts.

Dozens of local restaurants will do take out, but these two do only take out. Nutrición Gourmet Huatulco offers a wide selection of sandwiches, salads, and sushi. Order by phone or WhatsApp, 958 124 2799. Punto y Come – offers vegetarian dishes, and falafel pitas, a 90-peso bargain, packed to assemble upon arrival at your picnic spot. Calle Palo Verde 210 in La Crucecita; order by phone or WhatsApp 958 125 5679.

Don’t forget a hat and sunscreen, and of course something to keep you hydrated.

You are unlikely to encounter any vendors, so leave your wallet at home. However, officially there is a small fee to use the Huatulco National Park. If you see a ranger, you might be asked for 10 pesos to buy a paper bracelet indicating you are authorized to be in the park, so have some change in your pocket.

Wherever you go and whatever you consume, I am sure it will be a memorable day. To ensure that others can enjoy a similar experience, please remember this simple international rule for visiting national parks and reserves: Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).

The Coral Reefs of Huatulco: Unnatural Changes

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.