By Carole Reedy
It’s just about an hour’s drive from Huatulco west to the small communities of Puerto Ángel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo, and Mazunte on the Oaxacan Coast. Puerto Escondido is yet another hour farther. Each of these communities has its own spirit and quirks, as well as an invisible thread that binds them closely. But in its own way, each has grown, developed, and changed with time, as all things do.
I landed in the region 21 years ago this month, charmed by the isolation and beauty of the area and by its distance from the clanging modern world. Over the decades, the influence of tourism and the presence of foreigners has changed some aspects of life in these areas, but certainly not the loyalty to land and community.
The beauty of the Oaxacan Coast is undisputed: shifting shades of blue, golden sands, a great expanse of sky, and the surrounding velvety vegetation welcome each day. In the evening, a red sun dips into the ocean, heralding restful sleep. The strong Oaxacan women and men, with Zapotec roots and little Spanish blood, awaken early to begin the day before the heat sets in.
A Bit of History
For decades the economy of the Costa Chica depended on the hunting, slaughter, and sale of turtles. Every part of their bodies, including their eggs, was sold. Most people in the region were employed in this venture and San Agustinillo was at the center of it, with the turtle abattoir enjoying prime beachfront property. Five hundred turtles daily were killed there.
In 1990 the Mexican government banned the killing of sea turtles and the locals had to look for new ways to make a living. With the government’s help in the form of permits, boats, and other financial assistance, the men became fishermen, bringing in tasty delicacies such as tuna, pez vela (sailfish), dorado (mahi mahi), and huachinango (red snapper), which were then sold to markets and distributed to businesses throughout the country. Shark was also a popular commodity, but lately it is frowned upon to fish for shark.
Back when turtles were slaughtered, an unpleasant (to say the least) odor permeated the coast. But without this stench the tourists began straggling in, despite the challenge of getting there: no roads or poor dusty, rocky tracks, basically through a jungle. There were few conveniences and no hotels, but some people would rent rooms to the visitors. Locals did not own cars, TVs, stoves or refrigerators.
Some foreign visitors viewed the isolated beach as a paradise and decided to stay, maybe even build a home and start a business, a restaurant, or rooms for rent. Since they knew what worldly tourists wanted and needed (more privacy, nice bathrooms, screens on windows for protection from mosquitos and little animals) they developed profitable ventures, and the locals followed suit.
When I began my 10-year stint in San Agustinillo, it was 1999. We were one of two residents who had a refrigerator, television, and car. There were no land lines or cell service, making communication with the outside world difficult. Lack of basic services was a deterrent for high-rises and big chain hotels, which to this day remains an advantage of this sleepy area. Yes, there’s still a corner of the world not dominated by tall buildings and glitzy services.
The Coast Today
Little by little, more conveniences arrived as the reliability of water and electricity service improved; a better road helped as well. A larger variety of items to meet the demands of people from all over the world lined the grocery store shelves. Young men started taxi services, providing tourists and locals with an alternative to the camionetas (small pickups) to get to Pochutla, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and the airports and bus stations. Eventually a cell phone tower appeared, as well as internet connection and service.
Eco-tourism took off. There’s a Turtle Museum in Mazunte where visitors can view the various types of protected turtles and read about the history of the area. Several times a year there are turtle-release ceremonies in which children, adults, and tourists can accompany baby turtles in their return to the sea. The relaxed ambiance of the region also attracts yoga groups. Today there is plenty to keep you busy: fishing, boats tours to see dolphins and whales, small shops including artesanías (handcrafts), surfing, and swimming. Or just sitting on the beach with a good book. San Agustinillo, Mazunte, and Zipolite now boast libraries, and a wine store recently opened in San Agustinillo.
Thriving businesses in San Agustinillo are examples of the new economy, some owned by locals and others by the foreigners who chose to settle in this incomparable paradise. The area is definitely more prosperous now than 20 years ago, but nothing can change the smiles on the locals’ faces or the determination of their hearts.
To reach the area by plane, fly into Huatulco or Puerto Escondido (each one hour from the four towns). If coming by bus, buy your ticket for destination Pochutla. Grab your sunscreen and bathing suit. Any time of year is good for a visit, perhaps with the exception of the very hot and dry month of May.
Ten years after settling into this idyllic coastal life, I left the 250 inhabitants of our small coastal town of San Agustinillo to join the hustle bustle of 20,000,000 urban dwellers in Mexico City, but I return regularly to see many old friends whose roots run deep.
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Every month I receive emails asking where to source small batch, traditionally made, high quality mezcal in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido. It’s always surprised me that there could be any corner of Oaxaca in which it could be difficult to find unique, fine-sipping hooch; after all, this state is Mexico’s ground zero for the production of the agave distillate. So when I first saw this month’s theme for the magazine, aside from the district’s meteoric growth over the past 30 years, the most significant and recent progress I was able to recall was the arrival of truly boutique, upper-premium mezcal.
Yes, of late mezcal watering holes have cropped up in both towns, featuring quality product; however, they typically offer the same artisanal brands one can find in major centers throughout the US and to a lesser extent Canada, albeit somewhat less costly.
Enter Mezcalería Gota Gorda, located in the still-quaint beach town of Zipolite, between the two burgeoning Oaxacan tourist resorts of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. It opened its doors just this past December, and has quickly found a following of locals, snowbirds and more short-term visitors seeking the real deal at accessible prices.
Gota Gorda owner Danielle (Dani) Tatarin has been in the cocktail and spirits business for 20 years. And for close to the past decade she has been honing her expertise in the area of mezcal, traveling dirt roads in search of rural makers whose families have been distilling for hundreds of years if not longer. Batch size of what she brings back to Zipolite, produced in both copper alembics and ancestral clay pots, ranges from 40 to 300 liters, and no more. Some of the agave is harvested from small plots under cultivation, while she also offers mezcal made from species sourced from the wild.
But Dani’s pedigree is even more impressive. The transplanted Canadian has:
-both won and been a finalist in cocktail competitions in Mexico, Canada, France, and the US
-been named bartender of the year by Vancouver Magazine
-presented as an honored guest at New Orleans’ prestigious Tales of the Cocktail
-co-founded one of the top ten rated bars in Mexico (Acre) as well as the Cabo Cocktail Festival
-founded one of the world’s top 100 bars (The Keefer Bar), as well as the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, which she served as president
But most recently it’s been Dani’s vision that has brought her to the Oaxacan coast. She initially planned to bring small batch high-quality agave distillates to parts of the country outside of Oaxaca and into the US and Canada and founded the brand Gota Gorda with that in mind. Then, while she was living in Baja California, a friend introduced her to Zipolite. When the opportunity arose to open up a mezcalería in a cool, tucked away little hidden spot, in a region surprisingly devoid of what she was interested in personally drinking, a light went on: why not bring fine ultra-premium mezcal to the area, while at the same time use the locale as a launching pad for Gota Gorda? Dani was actually shocked at the lack of good small batch mezcal available on the Oaxacan coast.
Not to mislead, the type of mezcal offered at her Zipolite mezcalería is indeed available at several small bars and mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca. But until now spirits aficionados visiting or living on the coast have had to drive about seven hours to the state capital to find this kind of agave distillate within the context of a curated experience – but no longer.
Mezcalería Gota Gorda currently offers eight different mezcal expressions at between 70 and 180 pesos per healthy pour, or a flight of six for only 300 pesos. Drawing upon her mixology expertise, she has also developed her own recipe for an additional agave distillate, prepared with a series of herbs and bitters. Clients have been raving about it. And there are apparently more unique offerings in the works. For those who are ready to depart Gota Gorda and lament about never again being able to replicate the experience, Dani offers sealed, labeled bottles of your favorites, ready to take home on the plane.
Gota Gorda also gives patrons an opportunity to sample real pulque, the aguamiel (honey water), or fermented sap, from certain agave species. In pre-Hispanic times it was reserved for gods and high priests. Pulque available in retail outlets throughout the country is typically adulterated with sweetener, fruit extract, thickener and even milk or cream to create what’s known as a curado. By contrast, Gota Gorda’s pulque is pure, with several scientifically proven medicinal properties. It’s a product of the natural environment with nothing added. When visiting Dani’s mezcalería you also get a lesson about pulque, and of course about mezcal. Since the locale is small and intimate, you’re able to interact one-on-one with Doña Danielle Tatarin, a treat in and of itself.
Gota Gorda is about a 45 minute drive from Huatulco, and 75 minutes from Puerto Escondido. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 pm to midnight; Calle Shambala s/n, Frente a Hotel El Noga, Col. Roca Blanca, Playa Zipolite, Pochutla 70904; cel 001 624 166 8730.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
By Julie Etra
Papaya (Carica papaya) is native to southern Mexico and Central America and has become naturalized throughout the Caribbean Islands, Florida and several countries in Africa. It is also cultivated in India, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and the U.S. state of Hawaii. The Maradol variety of papaya was developed in Cuba between 1938 and 1956 by self-taught breeder Adolfo Rodríguez Rivera and his wife María Luisa Nodal Ochoa. The name of the cultivar resulted from joining parts of the names of its creators—“Mar,” from María, and “adol,” from Adolfo. The Maradol is grown in many states in Mexico, including Baja California, Campeche, Chiapas, Colima, Guerrero, Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and throughout the Yucatán. Continue reading Oh Papaya!
By Julie Etra
This fungus, Ustilago maydis, which is parasitic on corn, has been considered part of the culinary heritage of Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. Cuitlacoche is the classic náhuatl (Aztec) word, Spanish-ized to huitlacoche since the Spaniards had a hard time with its pronunciation (this is reflected throughout Mexico, as various languages became mestizo-ized.) Cuitlacoche is derived from cuitlatl, which has been misinterpreted as meaning excrement, but actually means excrescence or outgrowth, comparative to a gall, and cochi, meaning sleep or sleeping. This is a good description of the parasitic fungi that grows in between and into the kernels of corn, impeding their development, leaving them ‘asleep’ and distorted. Continue reading Cuitlacoche or Huitlacoche
By Brooke Gazer
Walking through a food market or any major grocery store in Mexico you are likely to find piles of dried chiles. A staple in Mexican cooking, they are rated from 1-5 on a hotness scale, 1 being mild. (Ultimately, pepper hotness scales are based on Scoville Heat Units, developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, a chemist working for Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Company.) Dried chiles have a lower, slower burn than their fresh counterparts, and are perhaps sweeter. Continue reading Taking the Mystery Out of Dried Chiles
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Mexican soup, to folks north of the border, usually means tortilla soup, or as it is usually called in Mexico, sopa Azteca. Usually made from a rich chicken soup with pureed tomatoes and garnished with avocado and cheese cubes, cilantro, diced onions, and, of course, crisp fried tortilla strips, the exact flavors vary from cook to cook. Although it is a favorite throughout Mexico, the varieties of other soups are virtually infinite and vary from region to region and season to season. Continue reading Mexican Soups: Sopas, Cremas, Caldos, But Not Sopes
By Kary Vannice
I’m a pescetarian. Sounds pretentious, I know. I try to avoid using the word, actually. But it is an accurate description of my personal eating habits. It means I don’t eat land animals. Or as I used to put it… “No feathers, no feet, no fur.” That was until this last January when I was faced with the invitation to eat rattlesnake. Continue reading Rattlesnakes and Scorpions
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Street food is okay; you can drink the water in restaurants; salads are safe; and you can even ask for ice in your Coke. There. I’ve said it. But of course there’s more, and expanded explanations are warranted. Continue reading Guidelines for Safe Eating in Oaxaca
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
We snowbirds don’t really leave Mexico behind when we migrate north—we’re always somehow looking for a little taste of what we left behind. Didn’t Marcel Proust—author of Remembrance of Things Past—say that “the smell and the taste of things” involuntarily and unpredictably brings back memories as if they were real? How better to conjure up Mexico than in the scents and savor of its food! Continue reading From Tex-Mex to Haute Cuisine: Snowbirds in Search of Mexican Memories