On the tip of Mexico’s Oaxacan coast lies a small port town with magnificent waves, sun-kissed sand and laid back vibes. The fish is fresh, the drink is cheap and you can reach most places on foot in under an hour (although when it gets too hot, you might wheel out your scooter).
Many of the friendly faces you encounter tell similar tales of once having been travellers themselves, who moved there for good after falling in love – with the mezcal, with the surf, with their Spanish teacher, with the easy way of life. This mystical place is not a dream mirage. It’s Puerto Escondido.
Lay back on breathtaking beaches
Best known for being a surfer’s paradise, Puerto, as it’s affectionately known, is fast becoming a hot spot for tourists whether they know how to ride the waves or not.
Its shining jewel is a 3.5km stretch of golden shoreline called Playa Zicatela. The southern end, encompassing La Punta beach, is the busiest – but Zicatela’s sheer size means it never feels crowded. While it’s primarily a surfer’s beach, in the evenings people gather on the endless palm-lined shores to watch the sun disappear behind the dreamy pastel-shade horizon – some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
For a calmer sea dip, go in search of Playa Coral – quite literally off the beaten path, it’s tucked in between Playa Bacocho and Playa Carrizalillo. The fastest and easiest route is through Hotel Villa Mexicana, in exchange for 50 pesos. If you’re into light urban exploring, you’ll also get to see an abandoned water park on the way to the beach. Rather than being eerie, it adds to the cove’s cosy atmosphere, making it an ideal spot for non-surfers looking for a quiet slice of paradise.
Immerse yourself in nature
Beyond the usual ocean snorkel experiences, you can also swim with bioluminescent plankton in Puerto’s lakes. The plankton glimmer neon blue when there’s movement in the water, but the fuller (therefore brighter) the moon, the harder they are to see, so do check the phase of the moon before booking. We visited Laguna de Manialtepec, only 20 minutes from Puerto Escondido. While it was daunting at first to dive into the dark lake, swimming through glowing plankton as they lit up all around me is the closest I’ve come to real-life magic.
Four of the world’s seven sea turtle species live in Puerto Escondido, and all year long, they come to lay their eggs. Conservation efforts include tourist experiences of releasing the hatched baby turtles onto the beach while staff fight off predators (the journey to the sea is an essential part of the turtle imprinting process). The charity Vive Mar has daily releases every 5pm and 7pm. You can’t book in advance, so turn up early to make sure you avoid disappointment – getting to cheer on baby turtles along with dozens of other nature lovers was a truly spiritual experience.
Feed the spirit
It’s no surprise that people in Puerto are relaxed – the town is overflowing with places to do all kinds of yoga, sound baths, and meditation retreats. We attended an authentic Mexican cacao ceremony, which is meant to help you open your heart, at holistic wellbeing centre Barbarenas.
Medicine woman Soren Cortés led us through peeling and grinding our own cacao beans to make the ceremonial cacao. Under the stars and around an open fire, we drank the bitter nectar, shared intimate stories with people from all over the world, and felt our souls healed, if only for a moment.
Explore the urban jungle
Back on land, Puerto Escondido’s two biggest markets are well worth visiting. In the heart of town, the sprawling Mercado Benito Juarez has a huge variety of traditional food, clothing and crafts – don’t miss the surprisingly delicious local Oaxacan delicacy ‘chapulines’ (roasted grasshoppers), and look out for the singing butcher performing cheerful Mexican tunes next to giant slabs of meat!
Mercado Zicaleta is slightly smaller, but no less a delight – don’t miss the row of budget-friendly restaurants with beautiful views of Zicatela Beach, ranging from local street food to a cute French Bistro.
Treat your tastebuds
The Oaxaca region produces 90% of the world’s mezcal, and Puerto Escondido flaunts this with pride. The smokey spirit, derived from agave, is never far out of reach, and you can even discover inventive drinks like Mezcal Bubble Tea in the Black Boba bar along Zicaleta.
You can also join a fun and informative mezcal tasting at the Ruu Piil distillery, the only mezcal producer in Puerto Escondido, which has been family-run for six generations. Not only do you get to sample a wide variety of different mezcals (served with mouthwatering home-made guacamole and nachos), you’re also taken on an interactive and detailed tour of the distilling process. The mezcals were so delicious, everyone on our tour bought at least a bottle to take home!
The other standout tasting experience is Chicama, which serves fresh Peruvian food and a stunning selection of ceviches. It’s a must-visit on Playa Zicaleta, and while it’s located across the street from the beach, the soft sand that lines the restaurant floor adds to the restaurant’s idyllic atmosphere.
Stay in extraordinary settings
Puerto Escondido has a wide variety of memorable accommodation options to suit all tastes. If you’re looking for a unique stay that doesn’t break the bank, we were blown away by the Cabane Container Hotel. Complete with a gorgeous infinity pool, this set of individual container rooms built into the side of a cliff boasts incredible views out to the sea. It’s a ten-minute drive to the nearest shop, but there’s a fully staffed bar and kitchen – where I had some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted.
For a luxury boutique experience, Casana Sforza is a secluded desert-themed hotel designed by well-known architect Alberto Kalach. Featuring giant brick arches lined with tropical woods and hand-made crafts, it’s widely recognised as the “most Instagrammable hotel in Puerto Escondido” – so much so that Day Passes are now for guests to just use the pool and facilities. You’ll also be giving back if you eat at the restaurant, which incorporates the owner’s philanthropic efforts to support Indigenous Oaxacan communities, from the dinnerware to the ingredients.
Getting to Puerto Escondido
The easiest way to get to Puerto Escondido is a short flight from Mexico City, with flights departing every hour. If you’re already in Oaxaca City, the flight is 25 minutes – but may be more expensive as it’s a less popular route. It’s also possible to drive from Oaxaca – an eight-hour scenic route – or take an overnight bus, which is the best budget option.