By Brooke Gazer
We began 2020 full of optimism; 2019 had been a good year for our B&B, and January’s bookings indicated this trend would continue. Many guests book months in advance, but about half make their travel decisions four to six weeks ahead. This means that after Christmas, we usually see a lot of requests for late February and into March. When this didn’t happen, I knew we had a problem but had yet to identify it.
People were talking about something called the “corona virus,” but no one seemed to be taking it too seriously. On February 1, one guest took a selfie with a pyramid of empty Corona beer cans. He posted it with the caption, “Recuperating in Mexico from the Corona Virus.” A month later, no one was laughing.
Hindsight is so much clearer, but to be objective, few of us saw this coming, nor could we imagine how rapidly the fabric of our society would be altered. On January 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Official declared, “There has been no evidence to date that this illness, whatever it’s caused by, is spread easily from person to person; no health care workers caring for the patients have become ill; a positive sign.” Just over two months later, the World Health Organization uttered the dreaded word – “Pandemic.”
On March 14, Canada suggested that anyone abroad should return home; the USA seconded the motion days later, and flocks of snowbirds headed north. With several bookings throughout March and April, we faced a dilemma. My husband has a severe heart condition, putting him into the high-risk category, but on-line booking sites penalize properties for canceling reservations. Most of these were for Mexicans and Mexico had yet to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Incredibly, Mexico’s President insisted that charms and amulets would protect him. With heavy hearts, on March 18, we began canceling future reservations. A week later, memos from booking sites urged us to waive any cancelation fees due to COVID-19. It seems we were ahead of the curve, but only slightly.
Before long, Mexico started implementing emergency restrictions. In Huatulco, hotels and bars were closed, a few restaurants stayed open but strictly for take-out, many stores and all tourist services shut down, and beaches were declared off limits. Even construction came to a halt.
In a town that exists for tourism, this caused unimaginable hardship. Mexico has no unemployment insurance and a lot of people live from payday to payday. Not working could mean not eating. But this is also a compassionate community, many businesses and individuals donated generously to food banks and soup kitchens. Our Municipal President realized that domestic violence is exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, so he prohibited the sale of alcohol. The section in supermarkets displaying spirits, wine and beer was roped off and Huatulco became a dry community.
As the death toll rose, many rural communities restricted travel to or from their region. Towns and villages without medical facilities erected blockades to restrict access and residents were unable to leave without good cause. Our full-time maid lives in Copalita, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Huatulco. In early April, Vicki arrived an hour late, explaining her town was locked down. At the end of the day, I paid her a month’s salary and drove her to the edge of Copalita. When the lock down extended through June, we paid her again; she has been a loyal employee for six years and has a family to support.
Our life changed significantly over the next several months, it was quieter but we’ve adjusted. Our property is open enough that I didn’t feel closed in and for this I feel fortunate. I can’t imagine the stress of many local families sequestered together in small apartments during the hottest months of the year.
Without guests, there was no need to shop daily and we limited our excursions to once a week. Driving through La Crucecita felt eerie, it seemed like a ghost town; most shops were closed, we saw almost no traffic, no street venders, and no one walking along the sidewalks.
Having lived with a daily maid for the past nineteen years, I had to relearn the art of housekeeping. Vicki swept and mopped the floor of our common room twice daily. I bought an industrial sized push broom and moved all the chairs into the entrance. This made sweeping the large area much easier, but I asked myself, ‘Does it really need to be done so frequently’? And I applied the same logic to a number of other household tasks.
I knew I’d need more to fill my time and might have worked on perfecting my Spanish, or taken an internet Master Class in cooking, photography, or writing. Instead I subscribed to Netflix and held marathon sessions of movie viewing.
Gyms were closed but walking through our neighborhood offered a reasonable alternative. I also had the pool all to myself. Enjoying my solitary walk or swim, I sometimes thought about those who had left early. In March and April, much of Canada is either coated in snow or a muddy mess of spring melt.
Throughout the lock down, we may have lamented the lost revenue and we missed the social interaction, but life was not so bad. If we had to be sequestered, there were far worse places to be. We counted our blessings.
Things in Huatulco got a little shaky towards the end of June when the region was hit with an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude. The epicenter was only a thirty-minute drive southwest of the La Crucecita, and for a moment it felt as if we were under attack. The earth roared as our villa swayed, and objects flew across the room as if hurled by angry poltergeists. Fortunately, due to Huatulco’s strict building codes, any damage we experienced was only cosmetic and most buildings in Huatulco also withstood the onslaught. Unfortunately, some homes in U2 were severely damaged and a few older apartment buildings had to be evacuated. Frequent aftershocks continued over the next two months; violent shakes, on top of the financial crisis and social isolation, caused even the most stoic of us to admit to feeling a bit harried.
It has been over seven months since Huatulco rolled up its red carpet. Masks are still mandatory and social distancing is the new norm, but things are gradually beginning to reopen. Beaches, some restaurants, and hotels can function at a limited capacity. It is a relief to have Vicki back, and gradually we are “expanding our bubble,” inviting friends for dinner or meeting for coffee. After being deserted for an extended period, Huatulco beaches are crystal clear with occasional wildlife wandering along the white sand.
We have made some minor changes to our business and hope that eventually things can return to some semblance of normalcy. Huatulco has suffered, but the death toll has remained relatively low compared to some regions. Mexico has weathered many storms, and this too will pass. Sooner or later regular national and international flights will resume and tourists will again flock to our pristine piece of paradise.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).
By Carole Reedy
For nearly eight months COVID-19 has driven living restrictions in Mexico, as it has elsewhere. As I write, the red/orange/yellow/green semáforo (stoplight) recommendation for quarantine teeters between orange and yellow, depending on the state in which you’re situated.
The state of Campeche is notable for having achieved green status. All of Mexico is given daily updates from our Presidente at 7 am and from our Sub-Secretaria de Salud at 7 pm.
Apart from federal requirements, each state or city has its own way of managing the quarantine. For example, you may find that in San Miguel de Allende, you’re stopped by police for not wearing a mask, whereas in Mexico City this is highly unlikely. The San Miguel mayor is taking particular precautions to protect this “best small city in the world” (Condé Nast Traveler, October 2020). Mexico City has many citizens who work day-to-day, so you’ll see more people on the street than in other places, mostly masked.
If you’re tired of sitting at home, working, or just in need of a diversion, Mexican culture and adventures beckon, albeit with restrictions. Here are some opportunities open to you.
Apart from lying on a sunny beach under a blue sky, sipping a margarita on the Pacific Coast or the Yucatán, the pyramids of Teotihuacán, just a half-hour outside Mexico City, are a main attraction of this historically rich country. After being closed for six months, they’re now open to the public. Normally 6,000 visitors a day would visit the site on weekends, but the number has been cut to 30% occupancy.
Also note you will not be able to climb the Pyramids of the Sun or the Moon, and the museum remains closed. As with all other tourist attractions, museums, stores, and restaurants in the country, your temperature will be taken and your hands sanitized before you enter. You’ll be asked to wear a mask and honor social distancing of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Hours of operation also have been shortened. The site is now open 9 am to 3 pm every day of the week, and still free on Sundays.
(The archeological sites of the Yucatán, including the famous Chichen-Itza and Tulum, are also open with restrictions similar to those at Teotihuacán.)
Museums in Mexico City as well as other parts of the country are open with the restrictions stated above. A wonderful surprise is the re-opening and extensión of the multimedia Van Gogh Alive exhibit, sharing space on the plaza Monumento de la Madre at Insurgentes and Reforma streets. The exhibit will be held over for viewing through January. You can make a reservation through Superboletos.
Another notable exhibit is the The Paris of Modigliani and His Contemporaries at the white marble Museo Bellas Artes, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, located in the centro histórico, Juarez and Lázaro Cárdenas streets. Open 11 am to 5 pm Tuesday thru Sunday, with COVID-19 restrictions.
Museo Soumaya, with its curving facade inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, houses more than 60,000 pieces of art, including works by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Carlos Slim’s gift to the city is free to all and open every day of the year. Currently, just 30 percent occupancy is permitted along with other COVID-19 precautions. The Museo is located in the classy Polanco Colonia. It is quite airy and open with its high ceilings and lovely circular staircase.
Your other favorite museums are open too, but be sure to look online for shortened hours and to see if you need to reserve a place in advance. All require the strictest of Covid regulations.
A favorite pastime of visitors and residents alike is flaneuring through the streets and colonias of the city. Most parks are open, including Parque México and Parque España in Condesa.
Roaming the Avenida Reforma is a pleasure not only for the sculptures dotting the walkways, but for the people watching and window shopping. Yes, most stores are open and even offering discounts.
In Colonia Roma you can enjoy street art in the Romita section and then stroll along Álvaro Obregón where there are a number of outdoor restaurants offering everything from fine dining to street tacos. Here you will also find used and new bookstores as well as eclectic shops.
The Bajio region includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro, located to the north and west of Mexico City. Go for the natural wonders in the midst of small colonial cities.
Tesquisquiapan Wine and Cheese Tours
Charming Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) Tequisquiapan is known as La Ruta del Arte, Queso y Vino; it’s also famous for its mineral spas as well as its hand-woven crafts. The climate is perfect year-round, and it’s the jumping off point for the wine and cheese tours of the region. From Mexico City it will take about three hours by car or bus (from Mexico Norte bus station). It sits a mere 52 kilometers from Querétaro, the capital of the area, another interesting, but larger, colonial city.
Most of us think of the fine Mexican wines as those from Enseñada, Baja California, but this region boasts several excellent wineries: Ezequiel Montes, Freixenet, and Viñedos Azteca. Take your own car or join a tour from Tequisquiapan.
Speaking of wines, I’d like to mention my favorite Mexican wine, though it is from the state of Coahuila, not the Bajio region. The winery is Casa Madero, the oldest in Mexico. The wine is Casa Madero 3V, a dry, fruity, full-bodied red. Another favorite is the Casa Madero Chardonnay, a dry crisp white. Tours of the winery take place in Parras, Coahuila. Put it on your list!
A short drive from Tequisquiapan is yet another Pueblo Mágico, Santiago de Bernal. The highlight for most travelers is the hike up the Peña de Bernal, the third largest monolith in the world. At night, you can see the dancing fountains at the foot of the monolith.
There are places to get shamanic cleanses or detoxing temazcal steam baths in the area. It is also a good place to purchase hand-made and loom-woven textiles.
Consider, too, exploring the San Antonio de Cal community behind the Peña de Bernal. Otomí-Chichimeca customs remain intact within this community, which is why UNESCO named the region a World Heritage Site.
San Miguel de Allende
Not only have readers of Traveler magazine repeatedly named San Miguel the “best,” but they’ve also given top marks to some hotels, including #1 status to The Rosewood. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for a sleepover at this deluxe inn, go for sunset drinks on the terrace.
San Miguel is a shopper’s and artisan’s delight. Just roaming the cobblestone streets is a delightful adventure (watch your step and wear sturdy shoes!) and good exercise. The Jardín (garden) in front of the Parroquia (main cathedral) is a popular meeting place and the center of Sunday meetings, dances in the evenings, and other entertainment.
International restaurants abound, as well as great taco places. Here you’ll find Lebanese food (La Fenice, my personal favorite), Peruvian (La Parada, another favorite), and Argentinian beef (Buenos Aires). The best bakery is Petit Four, now also serving a full breakfast in their new digs on Jesus, just around the corner from the Jardín. Do try the chocolate mousse cake. Outdoor terrace dining and drinks are always fun at Azotea, just off the Jardín.
Some of the more popular tours in the city have been canceled due to the virus. Visitors have enjoyed the regular Sunday morning House and Garden Tours as well as the History Tours offered by Patronato, which closed for the pandemic in March, but may be offering private tours or smaller tours (https://historicalwalkingtour.org/, firstname.lastname@example.org./, 415 152 7796). Investigate when you arrive as both tours are informative.
A few hot springs – La Gruta, Escondido, and Taboada – lie just a short drive outside of San Miguel, accessible by car, taxi or bus. Enjoy a day here dipping in the thermal waters and taking in the sun and the fresh air of the countryside away from the dust of the city. Food and drinks are served at some locals.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The brightly colored Monarch butterflies find their home in the mountains west of Mexico City. Morelia or Pátzcuaro are good bases for the tours, though there are tours out of San Miguel de Allende as well. November through March is the season, with mid-January being peak viewing. Look at the Mexperience.com site for more information about tours and access to this natural wonder.
La Ruta de la Independencia
A few other towns a short distance from San Miguel de Allende – Querétaro, Dolores Hildago, and Guanajuato, among others – are well-known as the Route of Independence because this is the place where Padre Hildago, Ignacio Allende, and others plotted and executed their plan for independence from the Spanish in 1810. It is a bloody, intriguing history and a trip to these well-preserved colonial sites is a must for Mexico travelers.
All of Mexico is vigilant about safety during this pandemic. Although your visit may be impeded somewhat by restrictions, the warmth of the people remains just as strong as ever.
By Jane Bauer
“The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.”
— Sterling Hayden
I am writing this month’s editorial from an apartment in Athens, Greece. While this may seem like the worst possible time to leave your house, I am seizing the chance to be a global pandemic traveler.
I embraced the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown by taking an online class in Greek mythology, learning German with Duolingo, writing, cooking new dishes, reading the pile of books on my bedside table, biking in Huatulco’s National Park and meeting up with only a few friends. My daughter was home from university and it was wonderful to be able to spend time together without having to schedule it in and rush off to work.
If this pandemic has shown me anything it is that the time for living is today. No longer can we count on putting off our dreams for a later that may not come. So when the opportunity to do a little jet-setting came up, I didn’t hesitate.
The practicalities of the travel part have been quite painless with almost empty airports, mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and temperature-taking. My first stop was Switzerland where I was required to quarantine for 10 days. I got a studio apartment in the countryside and was able to take short walks with views of cows and even a couple of deer one early morning. After quarantine I was able to hike, go to a concert on the Stockhorn mountain, attend yoga classes and float down the Aare river in an inflatable boat. I have never valued these freedoms more than now.
With rising cases and restrictions being softened and then tightened, in almost every country, it makes it impossible to know what the future will hold. But did we ever really know? Even before the world came to a standstill, wasn’t each day a gift and the concept of the future just a comforting illusion? For myself, I will not stop making plans, they may change, but I cannot sit still waiting.
There has never been a better moment to set sail for the unknown, the entire world is poised alongside you, filled with uncertainty, and time is ticking away at the same speed as before. I am approaching each day with wonderment at the variety of possibilities it holds.
This month our writers share their stories of learning and growing during these times. I hope you will be as inspired as I have been. Stay physically safe; wear your mask, wash your hands and listen to your heart.
See you next month,
By Susan Birkenshaw
Every year as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day come up and the stores are full of cards to honour mom and pop, I find myself looking back at the many things that my parents taught me as I grew up! Besides fierce independence from my Mom, my Dad would not let me get my driver’s license without knowing how to change my tire, check my oil/fluid levels and in a horrid emergency, how to change my fan belt with my panty hose. Yes, this was a very long and distant time ago!
In reminiscing now, I know without a doubt that the most important gift my parents gave me was a series of lessons about how important it is to be a traveller. I realized from a time very early on that I never would be a tourist in the classic definition. My family always took the local route through the places we travelled: local hostels, local food markets and even local fairs. I look back now and realize that my mom always chose routes and locations to travel that had something local going on and something to teach us, everything from music festivals, farm fairs and even a full-moon in Stonehenge.
I am not sure where my mother’s curiosity came from except to say that her parents were voracious readers and had the most fascinating friends and peers – worldwide travel was not really a thing in the days of my grandparents. I do have a series of postcards that catalogue a ’round the world’ trip that a spinster great-aunt took in 1960. My mother protected those bits of history and exotic travel for her entire life and my sense is that’s where her absolute need to travel was born. Aunt Annie was always a most welcome guest in our home as we were growing up and we spent many hours listening to her adventures that couldn’t be described on the backs of postcards.
This is where my story truly begins. In late 1961, when my Aunt had finally returned from her magical trip, my Mom and Dad started talking about travel. Where should we go first, what would we like to see and who might we know who might know someone who could help us? All questions that kept coming up at the dinner table. Finally, all this wishful thinking and dreaming led my mom to set a variety of plans into place.
First, she began saving in a number of ways that would include each of her kids (three in total). For example, she created a 25-cent box that lurked in the front hall closet. The function of this box was simple – anything she picked up that was not in place hit the box. To get it out: “25 cents, please.” and 50 cents for a pair, all from your pocket or your allowance. There was an accounting at the end of each month. Every now and then, she would announce, “We have enough for 5 tickets to enter the Louvre.”
So, our instructions were to “go off and find out what you can find about that museum.” The result? The kids did the research about a specific place, gallery, castle, war field or king – so as the trip in Mom’s mind started to gel, our interests guided her planning for the route. Little did we know that we also learned how to use a library, how to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, sift through the old dusty National Geographics that were hoarded all through the house and to even ask the elders who hung around our house.
Around that time, the time frame was established simply because in 1962, Max Ward of Wardair established the trans-Atlantic charter market. “Four charter tickets to London, please!” The trip summer would be 1966 – it had to be before the Centennial in 1967 (obviously, we had to travel Canada that year).
Starting in 1962, my mother wrote over 100 air mail letters, on flimsy Aerogrammes, to various pensions, hotels, hotels, ferries, car rentals, euro-rail outlets and restaurants that might be part of our itinerary. At that time, it took at least four weeks for a response – if the letter was responded to immediately. Mom resorted to overseas phone calls only for the very big stuff – a hotel in Paris, a hotel in Venice and a hotel in London. The rest was all done by post! It still stuns me! Our bookings were all made at least a year out with no way to confirm closer to our travel date. I can’t begin to imagine what a leap of faith this process took.
When I think back on that planning time, I realize it actually took a couple of years to research and to plot the hoped-for itinerary, and another year to get most of the reservations and then to finally consider the massive undertaking of packing five people – what on earth did we need for two months of travel?
On July 3, 1996, after almost five years of dreaming, researching, saving and planning and changing plans, the Birkenshaw family took off! After arrival at Gatwick Airport, we met Dad in Hyde Park. He only had one month of vacation, so Mom was going to drive around England with three almost-teens for the second month. At the time, it made sense, and I am sure during the second month it was mostly nuts. Many years later, as we’ve became adults, we all understand just how much this was an act of both craziness and love from Mom and Dad, and we often talk about just how much guts Mom had to survive month two.
Our tour’s first month took us from London and its tower, to Dover and its White Cliffs, across the Channel by ferry, to Paris and to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to Versailles and its Room of Mirrors, through many French wine valleys, Austria, Switzerland and to the top of the Matterhorn, on to Milan and to attend mass being held in the Duomo, to Venice and a ride in the iconic gondolas, to Vienna and through its Opera House, finally through Germany and on to the Netherlands with its dikes, tulips, windmills and fabulous people!
When we arrived in England after a very rough ferry crossing, we were able to relax a bit, say goodbye to Dad and get a different car for our whistle-stop tour throughout England.
Castles, royal jewels, battlefields, bookstalls, theatres and opera houses, formal gardens and not so formal fields, churches and cathedrals – the history throughout Europe and England cannot be easily described in a few words. Each time I return to Europe, the things and places I see for a second time, make me realize how much the ’66 trip meant to my Mom. It was a gift and a university degree all rolled into one!
My brothers and I have talked about this trip many times over the years and I know that none of us would have missed it for anything and that the next generation already knows well the gift of travel. know that my answer to the question … are you a Tourist or a Traveller? … will always be a Traveller! Tourist is the first step to be sure, but if we can turn ourselves towards more, a Traveller will always learn and thrive!
Thanks, Mom and Pop, for the gift of travel!
“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory
We are facing harrowing times. Looking at the news each morning we wonder what devastation today will bring. The number of cases and deaths is mounting as coronavirus sweeps across the globe – affecting each country in turn, in a domino effect.
In Huatulco, tourists rushed to head home as governments issued travel warnings and encouraged people to stay inside. Businesses are heeding the call and temporarily closing their doors to protect employees and customers. The streets around the world are quiet. Each of us is glued to various screens for updates and connection.
We don’t know how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be as we realize just how fragile our normalcy is. There have been glimmers of hope, however, and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. The day Italians sang from their balconies filling the streets with joyful song, the number of videos being uploaded offering free classes, concerts and museum tours, shows just how important creativity is to the human experience.
There has also been a shift in our thinking, a need to think of the collective rather than the individual. The idea of working on preventing the spread by staying indoors – not to protect yourself but those around you. If there are repercussions to this world crisis, let this way of thinking remain. Let us carry it over into times of peace. Let us understand the limits of the boundaries we have created: race, class, status. The borders and boundaries we have erected in our desire to claim our identity. These are human-made divisions and if there is something we are learning from this crisis, it is that nature doesn’t care.
Nature will not be stopped by a wall or by how much money you have. As individuals, we are small and made smaller by thinking we stand alone – we are all in this together.
Until next month, stay safe.
By Brooke Gazer
When we first drove into Huatulco, in May of 1999, we were impressed by the wide paved streets that were bordered by green, well-groomed boulevards, and bedecked with stately palm trees. Twenty-one years later, there may be a few more potholes, but FONATUR, the federal tourism promotion agency that manages the resort, has done a superb job of maintaining the major streets in our town. What has changed is the amount of traffic. During those early years, it felt as if we had the roads practically to ourselves and more than two cars at any intersection could be considered a traffic jam.
The increase in traffic is not just related to population growth; back in the early 90s, financing a car or motorbike was practically impossible, and this limited the number of people who could purchase their own transportation. A local friend wanted a car, and this was how he purchased it. He joined a group where each member put in an initial sum of cash. Every month everyone added to the kitty until there was enough capital to buy one vehicle. They drew names and the lucky member drove away with his new purchase. My friend paid into this scheme for almost two years before it was his turn to own a vehicle. Of course, everyone continued paying until all the cars were paid for, but when they got one was literally “the luck of the draw.” Today, traditional financing is much more common, but only on new cars. This explains why we see so many shiny new vehicles cruising around town.
First, I want to explain one of the quirks about driving in Mexico (or at least in Huatulco). As a Canadian, I’ve been conditioned to follow the rules, so when we began living here, I stopped at intersections with stop signs. I looked right, left, and right again before proceeding. In our first month, I learned this wasn’t the correct way to drive in Huatulco.
When a woman bumped into me from behind, I jumped out of my car and in broken Spanish, I tried to ask for her driver’s license and insurance, even before assessing any damage.
She was incensed and ignored my request. “What were you doing? What did you stop for?”
I pointed to the red hexagon on the side of the road, “Well, there’s a stop sign …”
“But there’s no traffic. Why would you stop when no one’s coming? No one with any sense stops for nothing. Are you drunk or just stupid?”
Seeing there was no real damage to either vehicle, I slunk back into my car and drove away. This was a cheap lesson on Huatulco road etiquette.
A few years ago, the town installed its first traffic light at the intersection where my mishap occurred. By this time, traffic had increased significantly in our little town, and I envisioned local drivers ignoring the new signals, sailing through a red light, and multiple crashes. The chief of police must have been on the same wavelength; he stationed officers with whistles and ropes strung across the intersection. After several weeks, local drivers understood that a red light required them to stop regardless of traffic flow.
We now have five controlled intersections and most vehicles actually do stop. Like everyone else, I wait at traffic lights but sail through stop signs as if they’re merely a suggestion. Occasionally this causes a gasp from a guest I’m chauffeuring, but I assure them it’s the only safe way to drive. People don’t always follow rules as strictly as we from up north are accustomed to; one-way streets might also be merely a suggestion, and adhering to the speed limit could cause a collision. But on the whole, traffic flows smoothly, and drivers are courteous and flexible.
The same generalization does not apply to motorcycles. Many are courteous, but a few can be unnerving. It peeves me when I leave a comfortable space cushion between me and the vehicle in front, and a motorcycle weaves around me to fill the space. However, I understand that one’s personal space in Latin America is considerably smaller than I am accustomed to, so, regardless of the safety concern, I chalk it up to a cultural difference. What I really find annoying is when a motorcycle buzzes up on my right at an intersection and cuts me off as it turns left, just as I am about to go forward. Originally, I suspected they didn’t know any better but a visit to the state police office assured me they do, and the problem is one of attitude. Some drivers either have a death wish or believe they are immortal.
Elektra and Chedraui finance these machines to young people with only a small deposit and payments as low as $250 pesos weekly. It made me wonder how many injuries and fatalities result from it being too easy to acquire a motorbike? According to state police records, nine accidents with serious injuries or deaths involving motorcycles were reported in 2019. The damages assessed totaled a whopping $180 million pesos. I was surprised by the low number of accidents, but discovered that unless a death or significant injury occurs, most are never reported. You can’t legislate common sense, but I wonder if these kids paid in advance for the motorbike would they treat them, along with their fellow drivers, with more caution and respect?
Still, by the overall standards of Mexico, driving in Huatulco is a piece of cake.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco: http://www.bbaguaazul.com.
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.