By Julie Etra
What to do beyond the gorgeous beaches of Huatulco? Well, if you are a nature lover and want to experience unique ecosystems, consider a visit to the lagunas (lagoons) of Manialtepec and Chacahua. These are large, unique wetland ecosystems located along the southern Pacific coast of Oaxaca, west and north of Puerto Escondido. Together they are home to more than 327 species of birds.
Manialtepec, which means place of the lizards in Náhuatl (manine means animal that drags, e.g., lizard or perhaps crocodiles, which are known to inhabit the lagoon, while tepetl means location, usually a raised area) is the smaller of the two lagoonal systems and is located just a short drive west of Puerto Escondido. It is about 15 km (9 miles) long and up to 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) in depth. The water is brackish – a combination of fresh and salt water – and varies in salt content with the season and with the breaching of the barrier beach during the rainy season.
There is one outlet to the Pacific Ocean at the west end of the lagoon, known as Puerto Suelo or El Carnero, where it is joined by an adjacent river descending from the Sierra Madre Sur. Dense vegetation, dominated by mangroves, provides habitat for abundant wildlife, including many species of birds. The lagoon is an excellent site for bird watching.
It is also known for its phosphorescent microalgae, called dinoflagellates, which are luminescent in moving water and visible at night – it is best seen on a moonless night, and is said to be more prominent during the rainy season. When we were there a few years ago, a paddle, or even just a hand, sufficed. The luminescence is caused by a chemical reaction; although not all bioluminescence is well understood, in algae the mechanism provides protection from predators.
The Manialtepec lagoon is easily accessed from Highway 200 west of Puerto Escondido, and guided trips at dawn or dusk via a lancha are readily available.
Chacahua is a much larger system than Manialtepec; it comprises much of the Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua, established on July 9, 1937 (I can’t imagine what the coast looked like that far back!). In the Mixtec language, Chacahua means place of abundant shrimp, or chakal. Like Manialtepec, Chacahua offers a chance to experience bioluminescence caused by microalgae in the water.
The laguna is actually three lakes, Chacahua, La Salinas, and La Pastoria. This rich ecosystem includes 14,000 hectares (almost 35,000 acres), with over 153 species of birds, Abundant wildlife includes mammals and herpetofauna – amphibians and reptiles. There are two species of marine turtles (Laud [leatherback], the largest of the marine turtles, and Golfina [Olive Ridley]) and of course extensive stands of mangroves.
Four species of mangroves occur here: the red mangrove, mangle rojo (Rhizophora mangle); white mangrove, mangle blanco (Laguncularia racemosa); brown/salt mangrove, mangle prieto or saladillo (Avicennia germinans) and buttonhole mangrove, mangle botoncillo (Conocarpus erectus).
Mangroves provide nesting sites and cover for the myriad of avian species, but also harbor the nurseries for fingerlings (young fish) and marine/brackish water species, including crabs and shrimp. Mangroves are also nature’s engineers as they are essential for shoreline protection and erosion control.
There are several small islands in the lagoon, including el Corral, with its 80 inhabitants totally dependent on fishing for a living, and where chicken is considered a delicacy. The western end of the outlet to the sea is maintained by two constructed breakwaters consisting of rock riprap.
There is even a cocodrilario (crocodile nursery) founded in 1969, on the west side of the southern outfall, where two species of crocodiles (river and wetland), as well as caiman, are raised for reintroduction to the wild. The nursery has about 140 animals. Entrance is free, as it is operated by the federal government, but the visitor is encouraged to donate to its maintenance.
The Park’s famous surf break, called Chacahua, on the south side of the southern breakwater, is where most of the basic – read “funky” – tourist facilities are found, including surf lessons, rustic cabanas, restaurants, and small stores. Spectacular views from the lighthouse (el Faro), located at the southern end, include both the open Pacific and the lagoon to the north. The other outlet to the sea, at the east end of the lagoon south of the small town of Zapotalito, is often blocked by a sand bar and a smaller breakwater.
It is located farther to the west/northwest of Manialtepec – it’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Puerto Escondido to the community of Zapotalito; the Park can also be reached by boat.
Close to Home
If you are short on time but interested in wetlands and lagoons, you can explore several closer to Huatulco. Laguna Cacaluta (blackbird in Zapotec) is considered an ephemeral system, as surface water typically disappears completely during the dry season. Recognized by the Ramsar Convention, an international non-profit organization established in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, initially to protect aquatic birds, particularly migratory species (www.ramsar.org), Cacaluta was officially included in the global wetlands registry in September 2003 (Ficha Informativa de los Humedales de Ramsar [FIR]). In Huatulco, FONATUR developed the estuary of Chahue into the existing marina, but historically it was a backwater lagoon. Similar seasonal wetlands can be found along the road to Playa San Agustín and at Barra de la Cruz (barra refers to a sandbar).