Tag Archives: Food & Dining

The Lebanese in Mexico:How and Why They Got Here

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

The Lebanese began arriving in Mexico even before Lebanon existed as its own country. Its official geographic identity started in the late 1400s, as the Emirate of Mount Lebanon, part of the Ottoman Empire. Mount Lebanon was home to multiple religious groups; leaders of the emirate came from different groups over time, but no one seemed to like each other, much less the Ottoman (Turkish) governors, so there were several uprisings. France first (1860) became an interested party in the area when they came to the rescue of Maronite Christians being attacked by Druse Isamites. (Lebanon would become a French protectorate when the West divided up the Ottoman Empire after World War I; it would win its independence in 1943.)

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, connecting Europe with the Far East and causing the Lebanese silk industry to collapse. Thus it was, in 1892, that the first Lebanese immigrants arrived on a French ship sailing from Beirut. Over 100,000 Arabic speakers – mostly Lebanese – arrived between then and the 1930s; they settled mostly in the Yucatán and along the Gulf of Mexico, with some moving out across northern Mexico. Although the Lebanese made up only 5% of immigration in the 1930s, they were responsible for about 50% of immigrant contributions to Mexico’s economy. If you go to the harbor in Veracruz, you will find the Plaza of the Lebanese immigrant, which contains a statue dressed in 19th-century Lebanese garb. There are copies of this statue elsewhere in Mexico and around the world, but the one in Veracruz is matched by one in Beirut – the starting and ending points of the Lebanese diaspora in Mexico.

Perhaps the most noted Lebanese citizen of Mexico is Carlos Slim Helú, born on January 28, 1940. Multi-billionaire business magnate Slim made his money mostly in telecommunications. In 1989 President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico’s first economist president, embarked on a program of economic modernization that included privatizing telecommunications. In 1990, Carlos Slim put together a partnership that bought a controlling interest in TelMex. Nowadays, building on his fortune – he was the world’s richest person in the early 2010s – Slim is more known for his philanthropy, if not for the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Corso in Mexico City (there is an earlier one [1994] in Plaza Loreto). Slim built it in 2011 in memory of his wife Soumaya Doumit, who died in 1999.

As Maronite Christians, the Lebanese brought with them a favorite religious figure, the “miracle monk of Lebanon,” Charbel Maklouf (1828-98). Maklouf, a hermit thought to be responsible for miracles of healing; although he was not beatified until 1965 or canonized until 1977, he arrived in Mexico with Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900s. Saint Charbel is fairly popular; people adorn his statues with listones, long ribbons with requests for miracles or intercessions written on them, accompanied by a drawing of a cedar tree. Lebanese Muslims built the first dedicated mosque in Mexico in 1989; the Suraya Mosque is located in the city of Torreón in Coahuila.

Perhaps the most delectable Lebanese contributions to Mexican culture are culinary. While the meat on the spit is more likely to be pork or goat, not lamb, don’t we all crave tacos al pastor (shepherd tacos) or tacos árabes (Arab tacos)? Lebanese culinary influences are probably strongest in the Yucatán, where the Lebanese first arrived. Eggplant and potatoes, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, lamb, yogurt, onions, and olive oil, not to mention mint, oregano, cinnamon, and cumin, are all used in Mexican adaptations of Lebanese cuisine.

Then and Now, A Guidebook to Mexico

By Randy Jackson

When I was in the second grade, my family moved to a small tourist town in British Columbia in 1964. The welcome sign to the town proclaimed “55 Businesses to Serve You”; the running joke was that 50 of them were motels. Such places in those days only saw tourists in the summer months, and most motels sat empty for five or six months each year. The owners were rumoured to be in Mexico for the winter. One of the motels was named “La Siesta” and the sign out front showed a man sleeping up against a cactus with a large sombrero pulled down over his face. When the snow had piled up sufficiently, the only thing showing was the cactus, like a green middle finger, flippin’ the bird at winter.

Growing up, I was aware of a number of people from our little mountain town who ventured to Mexico. These were all overland journeys, seemingly packed with daily adventures. More than the escape from winter, Mexico represented a wildly exotic place. It seemed incongruous that such a different place could be driven to. And in keeping with the 1970’s, what my friends and I came to see as something we had to do in life, was to explore Mexico in a campervan. While still teenagers, some of my friends had already done just that. It took me a bit longer.

Of course this urge of young adults seeking adventure and exploration beyond their own familiar world was not new. The “Grand Tour” of Europe taken by young aristocrats dates back to the 17th century. By the 1970s this luxury became available to the burgeoning group of middle-class youth, the Baby Boomers. They took up independent budget travel in large numbers. In Europe this overland youth exploration route came to be called “The Hippy Trail,” which ran from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan to India. The comparable route in North America became known as “The Gringo Trail.” Although this “trail” stretches all the way to the tip of South America, for a lot of us wistful youth of the 70s, the destination was Mexico.

While my Mexico dreams were still formulating in the snows of British Columbia, Carl Franz and Lorena Havens had been exploring Mexico on the cheap since the 60s. Their meeting in San Miguel with John Muir (no, not THAT John Muir), who had successfully published the book How to keep your Volkswagen Alive in 1969 (various editions had co-authors), convinced Frans and Havens to publish The People’s Guide to Mexico. The first edition came out in 1972.

My copy is the 13th edition – 2006 (as I said, it took me a bit longer). This book certainly fueled my notion of an exotic land crying out for exploration. But it meant more. By the time I got to it, the book was a cultural reference to a time and place, a quintessential expression of the youth of the baby boomer years that still resides in the neurological stalactites of my personality cave. To quote the authors directly:

One of the main purposes of this book is to show the traveler how to accept, as calmly as possible, the sights and experiences of a strange place.

This “strange place” is probably intended to mean any place that is unfamiliar. But Mexico is the unique tableau on which such a laid-back, hippy-dippy, humorous expression of time and place shines through. Mexico’s cultural strengths and quirkiness enable this guide book to stand up against the passing decades. Where else, for example, would a story of policemen stopping someone to syphon gas from their vehicle so they could get to a gas station (and offer to pay for it), resonate – besides in Mexico? Or the advice to clear out a bug stuck in your ear by adding a little tequila.

More than a guide to Mexico, this book captures the energy of the coming-of-age youth of the 60s and 70s who travelled to Mexico on the cheap, seeking their own versions of freedom and independence. That energy wave echoed along a far-away valley in British Columbia, where I heard it rattle the windows of those closed motels. Of course, this group of travellers that I so desired to join back then, were but one of many different groups of migrants and tourists over the ages seeking something in Mexico. Independent travel in Mexico still requires that attitude of calm acceptance of things that come your way. Mexico, then as now, isn’t as easily anticipated as, say, Singapore or Denmark. For good or bad, Mexico leaves a mark.

I’m still connected to this little mountain town my family moved to in the 1960s. Needless to say things have changed. Motels now receive tourists throughout the year. This modern and charming village has its own library, and their catalogue will soon include The People’s Guide to Mexico. I will donate my copy in the hopes that it will fuel the aspirations of future visitors to Mexico.

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.” — Henry David Thoreau’s journals

I fell in love with the landscape of this place almost instantly. It were as though the earth reached up and took hold of me and said ‘you are mine.’

Love is an invisible thing, a gravitational pull that can’t be explained and defies practicality and reason. My heart soars everyday as I arrive home. The breeze off the river wakes me each morning with sweet caresses and a rippling sound that reminds me that everything is constantly changing. At night the moon hangs over me with her pensive calming demeanor and a reassurance that all is right in the world. In the afternoon the parrots squawk past my house telling me to find the lightness in things. The expanse of night sky, unblemished by light pollution, is to feel the grandness of the universe greater than in any cathedral. Even the earthquakes and storms feel like a conversation between the elements and an intrinsic part of life.

What is the purpose of our lives if not to find balance and harmony with the natural world around us? More than ever we need to evaluate our effect on the world around us. There has never been a time when human beings’ need for stuff has damaged so much of the planet. Our consumerism is destroying ecosystems.

But instead of focusing on changing our habits: recycling more, driving less, eating more sustainably, maybe we should focus on getting out in nature more. Hug more trees, take more walks, look up at the sky and breathe deeply, listen to the birds, love all animals the way we love our pets. Fall in love with the natural world around you and you won’t be able to help but change the way you live.

This month our writers focus on the environment. The beauty of what it has to offer and the wins of the past year, because it isn’t all dire.

Also we are approaching the deadline for our essay contest about your Mexico Moments. Thank you to everyone who has already written in with their uplifting and interesting tales of what it is to love this place. I look forward to reading the essays that are still brewing.

Thank you for reading and being a part of The Eye.

Jane

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
Terrence Malick

It’s almost Valentine’s Day … again. When The Eye contributors discuss upcoming topics there is always a bit of a sigh when it comes to this issue as we try and weave something about love and romance into it. Most of our contributors are married and have been for decades – the Chaikens met as children and have been married for almost 60 years! Can you imagine! Well, maybe you can, but I assure you it is difficult for me.

I am from a generation that craves variety and doesn’t really expect anything to last that long. Just a few decades ago people bought appliances for life. They would have a TV set for 20 years! I am from a generation that upgrades. And while the latest model may be sleeker and have a sharper image, it’s also made of flimsy plastic and not made to last. It’s built to be tossed into a landfill in four years.

With a cultural diet of romantic comedies, love songs and fairy-tale happy endings, is it any wonder that many of us have gotten used to moving on when things aren’t picture perfect, rather than focusing on repair? We live in a time where you can reject dozens of people with a swipe over your morning coffee. Has romantic love become disposable?

I am very fortunate to be surrounded by many amazing and long-term couples like those who work on The Eye, but I am sure they would tell me it hasn’t always been easy. In a time where women celebrate their financial and emotional independence more than previous generations it is understandable that we have come to expect more, although I am not sure we are better for it.

I also know many inspirational women who are going at it alone. When I asked an older Mexican friend if she would consider getting a boyfriend she laughed and said that she didn’t want to have to do more laundry or cook for more people.

Wherever you are on the romantic relationship spectrum, it’s easy to invite more love into your life this month. Talk to your neighbors, help a stranger, write a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in twenty years, call your parents, your siblings. Wish the best to those who have wronged you and fissured your heart and surround yourself with people who want the best for you. Hug a tree, pick up garbage, repair things, use less, buy less, give stuff away, pick up the check. Love your life and let that love spread out and touch everything.

See you next month,

Jane

It’s Not Over until the Tamales Sing!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you’ve spent more than one winter in Huatulco, you know all about the roscas de reyes, the usually ring-shaped “king cakes,” covered with candied fruit and thick icing strips, that replace all the whole-grain baguettes and ciabattas you went to get from the Chedraui bakery. The rosca is to celebrate the January 6 arrival of the three Magi, or kings, at the birthplace of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, bearing, of course, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And that, you think, is that for the season of Navidad. Back to the baguettes.

Oh, no, not so. Within the rosca is a tiny figurine of baby Jesus – big roscas have several. Should you get a baby Jesus in your piece of the cake, you are obligated to Navidad right through Día de Candelaria, or Candlemas Day, on February 2. Jesus was born Jewish, and the rituals of birth required that when he was 40 days old, he and Mary would go to the temple, where Jesus would be presented and Mary would be purified – February 2 is the 40th day after December 25. And in the Aztec calendar, some say February 2 is New Year’s Day (more likely February 12 or 13), so the Christian Candlemas was easily combined with the Aztec celebration.

And what is your obligation on Día de Candelaria? You host a party, and you serve tamales! The tamales are usually accompanied by atole (a corn/masa-based hot drink) and/or champurrado (the chocolate version of atole). The menu is an Aztec/Spanish “mashup”; the Nahuatl word tamalli means “wrapped food” – and what are tamales, if not “wrapped food”! Oh, by the way, the thing itself is a “tamal” – no ‘e’ on the end, that’s part of the plural ending. Of course, as they say on the Sabritos potato chip truck, ¿A que no puedes comer solo uno?

And tamallis were exactly what the Aztecs offered the gods Tláloc, Chalchiuhtlicue, and Quetzalcóatl at their February New Year’s Day celebration. According to Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, author of the Florentine Codex (a hand-written 1577 manuscript describing life in New Spain), the Aztecs “made some tamales called tzatzapaltamalli, made of pigtails (amaranth) or ashes … and they offered them in the same temple of the place in front of the goddess they called Coatlicue or Coatlantonan.” (Who knows how the names of the gods were really spelled? And whether, bless them, they were happy eating ashes?)

At the time Christ was born, the Aztecs might have offered tamales with just the corn dough filling, or they might have used turkey or turkey eggs, flamingo, rabbits or gophers, squash, beans, fruits, honey. They even used fish and that little aquatic salamander, the axolotl. (Greatly endangered, the axolotl is soon scheduled to appear on a new $50 peso note; it is hoped the cutie-pie portrait will encourage conservation – for other updates on Mexican currency, see article elsewhere in this issue.)

Do It Up Right in Tlacotalpan

While Día de Candelaria and fiestas with tamales are not celebrated everywhere in Mexico, one of the best places to go is Tlacotalpan (in Nahuatl, it means “the land between the rivers”), a colorful town (no paint has been spared) on the banks of the Papaloapan River in the state of Veracruz.

From time immemorial, the inhabitants held a festival for Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of the seas and of beauty, who wears a skirt of jade. Nowadays, Tlacotalpan celebrates Día de Candelaria with a ten-day festival dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria. This version of the Virgin is the patron saint of the Canary Islands, but she came to Latin America with the conquistadores, reportedly on a religious medal around the neck of Hernán Cortés.

The festival in Tlacotalpan has parades with mojigangas, puppets with papier mâché heads – giants for the adult parade, minis for the infantil parade; bull-running; a cabalgata (a parade on horseback, brilliant costumes, floats, etc.); jaraneros, or musicians who play the jarana type of son jarocho (sound of Veracruz), perform; everywhere, people are dancing the fandango; and the Virgin arrives upriver in a boat parade and is carried through the streets to the square.

And the Tamales?

Mexican tamales pretty much all start with masa, a corn dough, but every region seems to have a unique version of the “wrapped food.” Even the wrappings vary, from corn husks to plantain leaves, and if you’re an ace, strips of maguey cactus or empty avocado shells. One culinary website estimated that you can find 500 – or so – types of tamales in Mexico.

Here in Oaxaca, tamales are usually wrapped in plantain leaves, and can include a variety of fillings – chicken, mole sauce, and chepil (a local green, very common in next-door Chiapas) are just a few of the possibilities sold on the beach in Santa Cruz Huatulco.

If you go to the Yucatán, they might call your tamales “vaporcitos,” meaning the pork and/or chicken-filled tamales are steamed. Actually, most tamales are steamed, they just aren’t called “vaporcitos” and cooked in a hole in the ground called a pib, as they are in the Yucatán. The filling is spiced with recado, usually a red spice mixture that can contain annatto, oregano, cumin, garlic, salt, ground dried peppers, and allspice, cloves and/or cinnamon.

In Campeche, also in the Yucatân, you can get tamales chaya, filled with ground pork, tomato, olives, toasted pumpkin seeds and lots of chopped chaya, a local green. Once you unwrap your tamal chaya, you can top it with tomato sauce and fresh cheese.

In Puebla and Morelos, you can get tamales de frijol, filled with pureed beans and cheese.

With about 495 types of tamales to go, the list is endless. You can get tamales by color, that is the color of the sauce added to the masa – verde or rojo. You can have tamales with mole – that distinctive sauce, claimed by both Oaxaca and Puebla that comes in seven (más or menos) varieties. There are tamales de rajas, strips of peppers, from mild to off the Scoville scale, covered in melted cheese.

Finally, you can have tamales for dessert. These are the pink, or sweet, tamales. The masa filling is complemented with chocolate, berries, pineapple, sweet spices, or other fruits, and tinted with red food coloring. Back when tamales were made for the gods, however, the pink tamales were tinted with cochineal, those little red, scaly insects found on cactus paddles and used to make textile dye. Are they safe to eat? You betcha – ¡buen provecho!

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

The New Year can be magical, depressing or just another day. It’s hard to believe that 22 years ago the world waited with baited breath to see if all our technology would collapse. I was pregnant at the time and already living in a Mexican village without a telephone so I wasn’t too worried about what it would mean for me if all the computers shut down.

Back in 2012 we pondered the Mayan doomsday prophecy that the world would end. I wasn’t too concerned then, either – just wanted to be surrounded by people I love.

Well, technology is still going strong and there are more of us than ever before – even with a pandemic, the world population is 7.9 billion, so I don’t think we will be going on the extinct species list anytime soon.

The go-to man for predictions for the last 500 years or so has been the French physician Michel de Nostredame, most commonly known as Nostradamus. For 2022 Nostradamus has predicted asteroids raining down on the earth, massive world hunger, migrant issues, inflation spiraling out of control, the fall of the European Union, shortage of resources leading to a climate war and a massive earthquake.

And it is the season when the message board threads fill with cringe-worthy questions and comments regarding the cheapest way to get from the airport or warning people about waiters scamming them. The underlying vibe of these queries seems to be that the posters are worried about being overcharged or scammed, which suggests they have the expectation that is the norm here. It is not.

The airport: Like most international airports there is transportation. Average cost, per person, is 180 pesos. There is no need to arrange beforehand. Easy. To return to the airport at the end of your holiday expect to pay about 200 pesos for a standard taxi. The variation in cost between coming and going has to do with airport transportation services paying more for their license etc. This is common practice in many places. Don’t overthink it.

Tipping: Tip a minimum of 15% at restaurants. If the beach waiter adds 10% service (which is often how it is done here) be sure to add some extra to show your gratitude for great service. When someone bags your shopping at the grocery store, pumps your gas, delivers food, massages you, pedicures your dry winter feet – tipping is standard etiquette – not charity. Be generous, be gracious and be grateful and you will find yourself surrounded by a community of hard-working people who will go above and beyond to help you.

My theory is that reality will rise up to meet your expectations. So whether it is what the new year has to offer or what to expect on your holiday, move through the world with positive purpose, be respectful of the unknown, seek out the good in each moment – especially in the difficult moments.

See you next month,

Jane

Year of the Tiger 2022: Big Bold Books to Devour

By Carole Reedy

In China, the tiger is considered the king of beasts, symbolizing power and a great deal of nerve. The authors below have proven their power, using the written word as a way to understand our mysterious world. These are the fresh voices of the 21st century exciting us about the future of books and keeping high the bar for fine literature. (Publication date in parentheses.)

Douglas Stuart: Young Mungo (April 14, 2022)
Stuart stunned us in 2020 with his first novel, Shuggie Bain, richly deserved winner of the Booker prize that year. His story of a young boy growing up in Scotland has assured Stuart a place among classical writers. The ambiance of the place and time, the vivid endowment of the characters, and the raw emotion in the novel drew millions of readers who ended up loving little Shuggie.

Stuart may have another hit on his hands with Young Mungo, the tale of two young men, one Protestant and the other Catholic, growing up in Glasgow. Assuredly, it will generate some of the same emotion and tension that drew readers to Shuggie Bain.

Stuart has led a rag-to-riches life, growing up in Scotland, moving to England, and ultimately having a successful career as a designer in New York. With Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, his writing career is just beginning, and we can look forward to many incisive novels in the future.

Hanya Yanagihara: To Paradise (January 11, 2022)
A Little Life, the lengthy, imposing novel of friendship and pain, put Yanagihara on the map as a brilliant writer. Many of us thought she deserved the Booker Prize that year for her story of the very emotional journey of four young men.

A new twist, but surely another whirlwind of emotion, is presented in her new novel, On Paradise, which spans three centuries and covers three different versions of what the US becomes. Surely the themes of love and pain will dominate, as they did in A Little Life.

Olga Towkarczuk: The Books of Jacob (February 1, 2022)
Get ready for the literary ride of a lifetime. This book is being called the War and Peace of modern literature. Polish wordsmith Olga Towkarczuk has gifted us with books such as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and taken us on philosophical journeys with her award-winning Flights.

Towkarczuk has clearly taken seriously the responsibility and implications of the Nobel Prize she was awarded in 2018. The Books of Jacob has already won the coveted Nike award in Poland for best novel.

Marcel Theroux of The Guardian explains: “It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes.” He compares it to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and calls the novel one that “will be a landmark in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it.” I hope to be among the first to try!

Emily St. John Mandel: Sea of Tranquility (April 5, 2022)
This young Canadian writer follows up her successful novels The Glass House and Station Eleven (available to stream as a limited miniseries on HBO Max) with her latest glimpse into the future.

The novel begins in 1912 on Vancouver Island and takes us 300 years into the future to a dark colony on the moon. That should pique your interest, but in addition to the metaphysics and time travel, St. John brings the delicate side humanity, as always, to the novel.

This is just the beginning of our 2022 review. In future issues of The Eye, we’ll explore the new books of our favorite and new authors. Perhaps, as I am, you are grateful for the hours of entertainment and contemplation brought to you by these writers.

Understanding Huatulco

By Randy Jackson

The best part of my morning swim in the Santa Cruz Bay is, after I’m done with the exercise bit, when I pull my goggles up on my forehead and lazily tread water while looking around. It is this very spot, this bay, that has always been the epicentre of Huatulco. Oceans battle their containment everywhere. Waves are relentless against rocks and beaches. But we land-dwelling creatures have always needed calm harbours, like this spot, to land and launch our boats (and to swim). This bay has been a gateway to the land and to the sea for centuries, well before the conquistadors made it a shipping and distribution port in the 15th century.

Until the 1980’s, when the Puerto Escondido to Salina Cruz highway (route 200) was constructed, the bay at Santa Cruz was the principal connecting point for this area to the outside world. And here I am, langorously sculling water, one of many of us from that outside world. How many times over the centuries, I wonder, have outsiders looked upon this bay and these hills and stopped to ask: What is life like for the people who live here? Although this is an open-ended question, this sentiment of curiosity about Huatulco remains among many of us outsiders. I seek to scratch that curiosity itch with three more specific questions:

(1) How are people here organised (governed)?
(2) What are the principal concerns (issues) for Huatulco?
(3) What is the plan for Huatulco in the future?

(1) Governance

What most of us foreigners know as Huatulco, is a coastal area within the Municipality of Santa María Huatulco. A municipio in Mexico is an administrative division comparable to what Canadians and Americans might know as counties. It is a constitutionally defined level of government within a state, in this case the state of Oaxaca. The municipality has the responsibility to provide its residents with the public services: water, sewage, roads, public safety (police), public transport, parks and cemeteries. It is also required to assist state and federal governments with fire and medical services, social and economic development, and environmental protection. The municipio has the authority to collect property taxes and user fees, such as business licenses. The boundaries of the municipality are shown on the map below.

The municipal area is 514 square kilometres (±198 sq. mi.), 211 sq. km. (±81 sq. mi.) of which is the coastal zone, known as the Bays of Huatulco (Bahías de Huatulco). On the map, this coastal zone is the area south of Highway 200 between the Coyula River on the west and the Copalita River on the east. This area was expropriated under a presidential decree in 1984 for tourism development under FONATUR (Spanish abbreviation for National Tourism Fund). This decree did not remove any rights or obligations of the municipality for this area, rather FONATUR became the legal property owner. As legal property owner, and developer, FONATUR planned to re-sell its property for specific tourism uses – these were spelled out in a development plan (more on this below). The federal government, through FONATUR, expropriated this land to further the federal objectives of social and economic development through large scale tourism projects, similar to those in Cancun and Ixtapa.

As of 2020, the municipio of Santa María Huatulco (MSMH) has a population of 50,862 people. The three largest urban areas in the municipio are La Crucecita (pop. 19 K), Santa María Huatulco (pop. 11 K), and Hache Tres (pop. 5 K); 30% of the population lives in or near one of the 93 small rural communities within the MSMH. The population of the municipio is increasing at an average rate of 30-35 people per week. People are migrating here in search of employment or to start small businesses. Many people who move here are finding few employment opportunities; the wages are low and Huatulco is relatively expensive. This results in people living in areas without adequate public services.

MSMH has neither the capacity nor the resources to keep up with the increasing demands of the public services they are mandated to provide. Of the $329 million pesos ($17 million USD) MSMH received in 2017, 26% was from local tax sources. Federal contributions were 58% and the state of Oaxaca contributed16%.

The federal funds do not include services for garbage collection, the municipal landfill, drinking water, or sewage treatment for La Crucecita and the Bays of Huatulco. These services, as well as area maintenance and cleaning of the coastal zone are provided by FONATUR. The federal government maintains Hwy 200, and most major arteries of MSMH are built and maintained by the state of Oaxaca.

Desarrollo, the Spanish word for development, is the key term in virtually all the documents relating to Huatulco governance. We outsiders enjoy the Bays of Huatulco, often without realizing we are in the second poorest state in the country; 13% of the population of the state of Oaxaca is illiterate (MSMH a bit better at 8%). In MSMH, 58% of the population has only a primary school education. Social and economic development for MSMH is of primary concern. In its development plan for 2019-2021, MSMH quoted a federal study indicating that in 2015, 49% of the population of the municipio lived in poverty.

Long term progress towards solving these problems relies on one principal industry in Huatulco – tourism. Tourism represents 90% of the direct and indirect economic activity of MSMH. There is no question that the investments by the Mexican government (through FONATUR) for the creation of Huatulco as a tourist destination have fundamentally changed this municipality. Before FONATUR’s “CIP” (Central Integrated Plan) for Huatulco, 2,500 people lived in MSMH. There were no paved roads, clean drinking water or sewage treatment. There were high incidences of malaria, dengue, and intestinal infections. Today progress seems obvious. Yet a central issue remains: to what extent will Huatulco develop as a tourist destination, and how will this impact the local population and environment.

2) Principal concerns (issues) for Huatulco

As centrally important as Huatulco-the-tourist-destination is to the people of the municipio of Santa Maria Huatulco, only the federation of Mexico or the state of Oaxaca has the resources or capacity to determine the future of Huatulco. This brings up the question of just how important is Huatulco to the tourism industry in Mexico, and in the state of Oaxaca?

Statistics from Secretaría de Turismo (SECTUR) in Mexico show that for 2019, Huatulco was the 22nd most popular destination for tourists in Mexico (8th most popular beach resort). In the state of Oaxaca, Huatulco is the second most visited destination for tourists. Oaxaca City (Oaxaca de Juárez) receives 24% of tourists visits in the state, and 32% of the tourism revenue. Huatulco sees 12% of tourist visits in the state, but 44% of the tourism revenue. On average, tourism in the state of Oaxaca comprises 97% national (Mexican) visitors, and 3% international visitors. In 2007, Huatulco hosted 83% national and 17% international visitors. .

Of the four large FONATUR CIP resorts in Mexico – Cancun, Ixtapa, Los Cabos and Huatulco – Huatulco has struggled the most. And not for lack of investment through FONATUR. Between 1974 and 2015, FONATUR has spent $10 billion pesos (± $48 million USD) on CIP Huatulco (source OECD/DATATUR). This is more than what was spent on Ixtapa and Los Cabos combined, and second only to Cancun, where $14 billion pesos (±$672 million USD) were invested. Results, measured by hotel room capacity (re: 2013 Tourism Competitive Agenda) were:

    Hotel Rooms                Annual Occupancy

Cancun 30,027 65%
Los Cabos 12,123 61%
Ixtapa 4,988 45%
Huatulco 3,409 49%

The last major injection of funds by FONATUR to develop Huatulco was under the administration of Felipe Calderón (2006 – 2012), under his “Relaunch Huatulco” plan (Relanzamiento del CIP Huatulco). This plan spelled out specific long term development objectives for each of the nine bays of Huatulco. The sum of this planned development adds up to 20,000 hotel rooms, a second golf course, and numerous residential and commercial properties. Some of the near term objectives of the plan were accomplished, including the expansion of the airport, the pedestrian walkway between Santa Cruz and Crucecita, and the Copalita Anthropology Museum. Yet the hoped-for commercial investment in Huatulco did not follow these initiatives.

Secrets, built in 2010, was the last major resort hotel constructed in Huatulco. Previous to that was Quinta Real in 1996. In 2014 Melia Hotels announced the construction of a 500 room resort, and in 2018 there was an announcement to invest $5 billion pesos ($256 million USD) for a hospital in Huatulco, primarily for medical tourism. Now, years later, neither of these two projects has begun construction.

Under the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18), a review of the tourism sector was undertaken. The 2013 Tourism Competitive Agenda provided a detailed review of CIP Huatulco. This seems to have marked a change in the approach to development in Huatulco. The “build it and they will come” model, which worked for Cancun, Ixtapa and Los Cabos, wasn’t working for Huatulco. FONATUR was restructured away from a purely real estate sales model to a broader development model. Starting In 2016 FONATUR could act as a venture capitalist and invest up to 25% in a tourism venture. They were permitted to contribute land up to a value of $7 MM USD to a tourism project (as long as that did not exceed 49% of the overall project value). The gist of the numerous reports under the Peña Nieto administration seems to have been finding a way to market Huatulco strategically, in line with the specific realities of Huatulco itself, while avoiding further social and environmental problems.

The current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has committed approximately 250 million pesos (±$12 million USD) to Huatulco to improve deteriorated infrastructure, but nothing further. His tourism expenditure priority appears to be building the Mayan Train.

3) What is the plan for Huatulco in the future?
Alas, after a month of research and several interviews, I am forced here to quote Yoda: “Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.” Nonetheless, I offer up what I have distilled on this information quest.

-There appears to be a recognition among all three levels of government (municipal, state, federal), that the earlier FONATUR CIP Huatulco development model has not succeeded and a new approach is needed.

-It seems obvious to any observer of Huatulco over the years that growth is taking place despite the lack of large-scale resort investments. Tourism statistics show steady growth since 2008. I note a mention in one of the FONATUR planning documents a recognition of the demand in Huatulco for second residences. This seems evident in the construction of new condominiums.

-The state of Oaxaca together with the municipio of Santa María Huatulco have initiated a plan for 2019 – 2023 to Transform Huatulco (Desarrollo Turístico de las Bahías de Huatulco). This is an aspirational document, but with objectives outlined and steps to be followed (without mention of funding commitments). This document recognizes that commercial investment rather than large government expenditures is the path forward for Huatulco. The plan calls for a focused strategic marketing plan to differentiate Huatulco as a unique destination, calling for, among other things, bike paths, pedestrianisation of central La Crucecita, and an overall emphasis on the environment and sustainability. Here one could quote another movie figure, Jerry Maguire, in saying “Show me the money.” Noticeably absent from this Transform Huatulco document is the FONATUR logo.

-The autopista cometh. Connectivity has always been an issue for tourism development in Huatulco. A new highway that connects Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido, and thereby Huatulco, appears to be near completion. This autopista is 17 years overdue, but it looks as if it will be finished in 2022. This shortens the drive from Oaxaca City to the Coast to two hours from the current six. This likely will increase the number of national tourists to Huatulco dramatically. In turn, this will, no doubt, exacerbate the poor social conditions with even more people living in marginal, unserviced areas.

So now, back in Santa Cruz Bay, treading water and watching the on-shore restaurant staff ready tables and umbrellas for the day’s tourists, I wonder what I have actually learned about Huatulco? To start with, things are more complicated and nuanced than I had imagined. There are no clear indicators of the path forward for Huatulco, and problems are many. But I’ve also learned that these problems are well understood and documented, and many people are seeking solutions to them. It occurs to me that Huatulco as a paradise, like any paradise anywhere, is a veneer. A thin strip of coastline with turquoise bays, where children play in the sand and people enjoy themselves. I think Yoda is right, the future IS uncertain for Huatulco, but for now, here we are in this beautiful place.