By Kary Vannice
April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our annual celebration of Mother Earth. A day when we pay homage to the natural beauty that surrounds us and take stock of the environmental quagmire we find ourselves in 50 years after the start of the environmental movement.
There are few who would balk at calling our planet “Mother Earth”; after all, she does provide us with the essentials to maintain human life – food, water, and shelter (for some). But would any of us really treat our true mother as we treat Mother Nature?
Fifty years is a milestone, a time when we often take stock and look back to see how far we’ve come, to assess the progress that’s been made … or not made.
On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans, one in every 10 people, took to the streets demanding that the US government pass laws to protect them, the animals, and the environment from rampant air and water pollution, which, at that time, was almost completely unregulated.
Celebrations of Earth Day 2020, due to the COVID-19 virus “shelter in place” orders in 45 of the 50 United States, have been almost entirely virtual, and have exerted much less impact. It has been the same in Mexico, where one scientist candidly pointed out the irony of the situation: “Social distancing from home will imply an excessive increase in the use of electrical energy. The consumption of electrical energy is one of the factors that produces the greatest number of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This electrical power will burn more fuel, considerably polluting the atmosphere.”
But, while the only thing these situations may seem to have in common is irony, that’s not entirely true, as this excerpt from an Earth Day article published on Fortune.com points out.
Virologists and scientists say that our broken relationship with nature is at the very heart of this pandemic. Accelerating biodiversity loss—caused by a mix of pollution, over farming, urbanization, and changing temperatures—has made complex ecosystems much simpler and more unstable. That makes it easier for viruses to jump from animals to people, as they have begun to do with alarming frequency.
The truth is, we haven’t come far enough in 50 years. While some things have gotten better, many have gotten worse, and we are not where many eager young environmentalists had hoped we would be in 2020.
On the first Earth Day, polluted rivers, many of them veritable oil slicks from factories’ unremittent dumping, were a top agenda item. And, while most first-world countries have indeed regulated corporate sludge dumping, some developing countries still lag far behind. And our oceans are far more polluted than they were 50 years ago, so much so that scientists can’t even quantify the effects that plastics will have on the biodiversity of sea life, not to mention the fact that our oceans are also warmer and more acidic than they were in 1970. It all adds up to a grim prognosis for all, not just our fishy friends, since biodiversity really is the key to health, at both the macro and the micro level.
This year on Earth Day, The New York Times reported that the World Wildlife Fund estimates that, on average, thousands of different wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent since1970. And that “last year, a comprehensive scientific assessment from the United Nations warned that unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals.”
We haven’t done much better on land either. The rate of rainforest destruction has also increased. Before the 1970s, deforestation in the Amazon was mostly done by local farmers, clearing the land to grow crops. In the latter part of the century, deforestation became more of an industrial affair, when large-scale agriculture entered the region. By the 2000s, cattle ranching was the number one cause. In 2018, 30 million acres of the Amazon rainforest were lost. That was slightly less than in recent years, but it’s not slowing fast enough.
Why does it even matter? Well, this brings us back to our Mother. The Amazon has been called “the lungs of Mother Earth,” the largest producer of life-giving oxygen and a huge storehouse for carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming. We humans need the trees to survive. But it doesn’t stop with the trees. The Amazon is also the richest, most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity. And biodiversity equals health, not just for Mother Earth, but for all her inhabitants, including humans.
After 50 years, if you run the numbers for air pollution, water pollution, environmental toxins, species extinction, deforestation, overpopulation, waste disposal, and climate change, you’ll see that while some areas have made some small gains, there are simply too many losses to make up the difference. Far too often the real issue comes down to the environment vs. the economy. And in this fight, the environment will always be the loser, unless the consumer, the true driver of global economies, starts to make environmentally friendly products and companies a priority, sending the message that they aren’t willing to sacrifice one to benefit the other.
Now consider your real mother, what would you be (or have been) willing to sacrifice for her health and well-being? Does Mother Nature not deserve the same sacrifice?
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 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).
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