Thursday, January 28, 2010

Zipolite and Mazunte

We opted to spend another night in Oaxaca, a city that I'm sure will remain a highlight of our trip. We had asked a bunch of people about how long the drive was from Oaxaca to Puerto Angel. The answer was always about the same -- in the six to seven hour range. The road was mostly new and lovely, through hills and small tan mountains, very desert-like and deserted (for Mexico). After about an hour and a half, we'd done well over half the mileage and thought, not the for the first time, that we'd probably be pulling into Puerto Angel a couple of hours earlier than anticipated. Then came the real mountains. Can you say "switchback"? The road was the only remotely flattish thing on the landscape and it appeared to have been affixed to the side of the mountain. Again we found ourselves huddled in the front of the car desperately trying to keep our eyes on the yellow line. We had to pull over several times just to catch our breath and change the air. It was a brutal drive. Inadvertent glimpses of the sudden drop-off on the side of the road only exacerbated the nausea. Every so often a chunk of asphalt had just disappeared over the edge. Someone had very kindly painted a new white line to indicate the new and reduced dimensions of the lane. I was pretty happy to be on the inside of the road. Sure enough it took 6 1/2 hours. We stopped in Pochutla for supplies and then went on into Puerto Angel and then Zipolite Beach. The campsite was well off the beach so we decided to see if someplace closer would let us pitch our "tent". Bingo! Found a lovely spot that we liked for 200 pesos a night. We set up and went to the playa.

As advertised, Zipolite is stunning. Bookended by ragged rock outcroppings, the beach gently curves in and out to the sea. It was quite steep and the waves not at all gentle, pushing and pulling and crashing with impressive force. We didn't see anyone go in any deeper than their belly button. We went out for a great dinner, mezcal, margaritas, shrimp ceviche, fish tacos and an enormous salad while we watched the sunset. The café's owner's boyfriend was the lifeguard/surf expert of the beach. After a chat, we signed the kids up for lessons. The next morning we were out bright and early, not early enough for Henri who just couldn't wait. What a blast to watch him try to get up and lovin' every minute of it. He got up on one knee and one foot. A very proud moment.

The only thing that marred the beauty of the beach was the quantity of old penises on display. Topless beaches I get, but nude beaches are not my thing. I had this image before getting there of all these gorgeous young things baring themselves but the reality was altogether different. The average beachgoer was a man in his fifties or sixties, waxed to within an inch of his life, lying spread eagle in the sun. I was positively pining for a large German in a Speedo. Anyone under sixty was either stoned beyond all repair or on the make. This population combined with the other end of the spectrum, the rather flakey yoga students. Don't get me wrong, I think yoga is great, and probably even greater to do on the beach. But the pairs we encountered at sunset, taking turns doing sun salutations, etc. as the other stood behind documenting the pose before the setting sun did us in. Two nights were enough.

We spent a lovely morning on a little beach called Estacahuite, just a couple of hundred metres long and quite sheltered. We all got on our snorkelling gear and went to explore. Getting in and out was interesting with the big swells but it was well worth it. The colours under the sea trump what you find above it any day. Blue fish with fluorescent blue spots, a school of fish that looked a lot like see-through pencils a centimetre below the surface, spotted eels slithering between the rocks on the sea floor, another school of hundreds moving in perfect, silent synchronicity. A beautiful secluded spot.

After our snorkelling, we drove on to Mazunte. Although only a few minutes' drive from Zipolite, the energy of this place couldn't be more different. It's like someone rounded up the regulars of the Mount Royal tamtams and dropped them in Mazunte. Full range of piercings and tattoos on a lot of very attractive young people, lots of drums and conch blowing. We drove down the short road to the beach to look for a place to stay. Unlike Zipolite, there is no road that runs parallel to the beach which means serious congestion on the ones that do. As we pulled up to a café to ask about places to stay, our friend Céline came running out to greet us. She very kindly helped us sort out a place to park behind a posoda on the beach, even got us a great rate.

In the afternoon, we walked up past the cemetery to her amazing place in the hills for pizza cooked in her homemade pizza oven. René, in his usual role, played the half-naked pyromaniac and got the oven up to a scorching heat. Céline pulled out precious jars of homemade tomato sauce imported from Sutton and whipped up a million toppings, Ira grated blocks of cheese, Marie-Soleil entertained the girls and we all feasted. The house she conceived, with all its whimsical, fantastic details, is so perfectly suited to its seaside hilltop location. After the sun set over the treetops and into the ocean, we drank wine and ate THE best pizza we've ever had.

Despite the fact that the most striking landmark at Zipolite beach's westernmost point, Roca Blanca, is also the easternmost landmark of Mazunte's, the rock may well be the only thing they have in common. Once you get in past the waves, which can be a challenge, the swimming is divine. The surf is very unforgiving however. If you miss the timing by a few seconds, you get slammed on to the shore with all your bits mercilessly grated on the steep pebbly sand. Wil perfected the "throw-Alice" technique — launching her heavenward over the crest of the wave while he pulls himself through to the other side. Henri couldn't be happier, having found a friend who, like him, is content to spend seven hours in the surf.

It doesn't feel much like Mexico to us. The few locals we've encountered are by a long shot the unfriendliest. I can't help thinking how, if the beach clientèle is their only exposure to the outside world, Mexicans from Zipolite and Mazunte could only have unkind ideas about foreigners. The background noise is not the crashing waves but a selection of drums & bass. The majority of tourists appear to be of the self-obsessed variety, either waxed nudists or recently post-teen partiers.

Ceci dit, the second half of our stay in Mazunte was perfect. We spent the morning out with Alvaro and his friend on a "tour". We rode into a big pod of dolphins, watching in wonder as they swam effortlessly alongside and under the lancha, disappearing and reappearing in the most magical way. All of us, our group of nine plus a nice young UK couple scanned the sea and cried out in delight when we spotted them jump. It felt like a performance it was so perfect. After visiting with the dolphins we looked, in vain, for whales. The Punta Cometa in Mazunte is the southernmost point of Mexico, the place where all whales take a left turn to follow the coast southward. Sightings are fairly regular, especially from Céline's, but they didn't appear for us. We did get to see a huge sea turtle however. Alvaro dove out of the boat and got a hold of him so the rest of us could jump in and have a visit.

Later on we found a zone with beach chairs in the shade with a really nice guy who kept bringing Wil beers and me large pitchers of agua de limón. We had a fun afternoon watching skimboarders take on the waves. Later we headed back up to Céline's for cocktails at her neighbour's, to see the Cob house she made. A million-dollar view and the house was inspirational. A round structure with enormous windows framing a spectacular 180 degree view of the sea. The livingroom was a round bench dug out of the ground surrounded by bookshelves nested in the walls, the groundfloor bedroom had a cave for a bed, the stairs looked like Maywests stacked atop each other. The second floor was a vast palapa-style room with a porch for watching the sun rise. We had a few drinks while the kids played on the net-free trampoline perched perilously close to the edge of a hill with a bunch of other kids. Later we went back for Camarones al ajo, pasta salad and Wally-style potato salad. After dinner the kids lay on an outdoor mattress under a mosquito net and told Marie-Soleil stories. They got quiet after a while and when we finally went to investigate they were all fast asleep. Céline and René very kindly offered to set up another bed for us outside. We jumped at the chance to avoid the breezeless van with the barking dogs and drums&bass we suffered through the night before. What a way to finish a perfect evening — crawling into our mosquito net to watch the stars overhead and drift off. We woke up early, expecting to make a getaway before waking everyone, but before we knew it there was coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice and crêpes doused in maple syrup and jungle honey. We said our goodbyes, went to pack up the van and set off north on the coast road toward Puerto Escondido.


Anonymous said...

i have just caught up on your adventures - the markets, the hairpin harrowing drives on washed out roads, staying with michel, fishing, celine's cob house, henri surfing, different cultural interpretations of 'personal space', the beaches - oh and the photos - wow. oh wow. xo

Caroline said...

I had my first fish taco in your honour the other day. Love the photos. What great memories you'll all have!

kelli ann & lorie said...

I can *totally* see Henri on the surfboard. Such vivid writing about Mexico. next year I am stowing away. xoxo