By Serge Dedina for The Eye Magazine
If there is a more beautiful beach in Mexico than Playa Cacaluta in the 29,383-acre Huatulco National Park, I haven't seen it. The steep white sand beach is fringed with green mangroves and surrounded by tropical forest as far as the eye can see. Sea turtles, humpback whales and giant manta rays swim in the pristine waters offshore. “There are jaguars in the mountains and jaguarondi, anteaters and even deer along the coast,” said Saymi Pineda, our guide who works with Mexico's National Commission of Protected Areas or CONANP.
I had just taken a tour of the fragile coral reefs of the national park in the company of a group of friends from Southern California and my team at WILDCOAST, a conservation organization I co-founded in 2000. We are working with Saymi and her colleagues at CONANP and local dive outfitters to protect the delicate corals from overuse. To date we have installed more than 200 buoys that steer boaters away from the reef system.
Our lunch break was at Cacaluta. We swam ashore and were greeted by a beautifully set table under a ramada. I had expected maybe a few sandwiches – instead I was blown away by an al fresco Oaxacan feast. Chefs Eusebio Villalobos, Filberto Mendes and Jesus Lopez greeted us with refreshing agua de maracuya and soon we settled in for an incredible meal, served up by these passionate, young chefs committed to exploring the indigenous cuisine of southern Mexico.
The menu included dobladitas de quesillo with flor de calabaza and epazote with roasted tomato sauce and avocado; fish tamales on yerba santa leaf with mashed sweet potato; marlin ceviche as well as escabeche de barrilete. It was an exquisite meal that reminded me of the inventiveness and passion of the food scene in northern Baja, the experience only heightened by the white sand beauty of Cacaluta.
Eusebio, Jesús and Filiberto all form part of Colectivo Tilcoatle in Huatulco, a group of artists and artisans who carry out artistic and gastronomic activities along the southern Oaxacan coast. “The kitchen we manage is inspired by traditional cuisine. Most of the ingredients are from the region,” said Eusebio.
The next 36 hours were a blur of sun, sand, sea turtles and incredible food. We witnessed a pre-dawn Olive Ridley sea turtle arribada at Morro Ayuta beach, and enjoyed another incredible meal served up by Eusebio, Filiberto and Jesus under the traditional palapa roof of eco-guide extraordinaire, Pablo Narvaez, in Barra de la Cruz. The menu included beet carpaccio, pineapple salad presented in a molcajete cured with mezcal fire, peppers stuffed with mushrooms, tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce, and grilled tuna medallions (Pablo caught the tuna). We topped off the meal with a desert of fruta de jamaica with chocolate-mezcal sauce and earthy mezcal produced by the Colectivo.
“Eating this simple but abundant food, chatting with the chefs who are honoring and building upon Oaxaca's amazing cuisine, I felt closer to the land than I ever have,” said Kassie Siegel, who hails from Joshua Tree.
We were lucky to enjoy a perfect visit to what is arguably one of the most beautiful coastal regions of Mexico, rich in both wildlife and culture.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WILDCOAST/COSTASALVAJE, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Saving the Gray Whale, Wild Sea and Surfing the Border and lives in Imperial Beach, California, on the U.S.-Mexico border.