By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken for The Eye Magazine
We first drove into Huatulco in 2001 – almost twenty years ago. Our trip from the U.S. down to coastal Oaxaca had been spread over many months, Mexican cities and states, and thousands of kilometers of rough roads filled with potholes, topes, dogs, burros and pigs. We were literally homeless at the time, and our old grey Toyota Camry held all our possessions that weren't being stored in the U.S. Essentials in our car included a PC for Marcia's research projects, some clothes, a pot, pan, and toaster oven, snorkel equipment and a cooler filled with water, cheese, and tortillas. Since the Kindle had not yet been invented, Marcia had stuffed all the remaining space with paperback books. Book exchanges in the major cities helped circulate used books out and new books into the car.
Our stay the night before our Huatulco arrival had been in a cabaña in San Jose del Pacifico, on the highway from the city of Oaxaca. Our fire had gone out well before dawn, and when the roosters started crowing, we awoke to temperatures hovering around freezing. We decided to leave as soon as there was enough light to see the road clearly when driving through the mountains. In many places the road had been entirely washed out by previously gushing water, and we held our breath as the trusty Camry forded arroyos and streams, often scraping bottom. When we reached Pochutla, the topes slowed us to a crawl, as we needed to navigate each slant-wise to prevent losing our undercarriage, but they were welcome since they let us know we were almost to Huatulco.
The highway from Pochutla had many tight curves and was primarily jungle for kilometers on both sides. Highway 200 had not yet been straightened and widened, so the trip from Pochutla was almost three times as long as it is today, especially when we encountered one of the ubiquitous, lumbering Coca Cola trucks that were impossible to pass. But the occasional glimpse of sandy roads toward the ocean were exciting promises of deserted beaches for snorkeling. Given our early start, we reached the Huatulco turnoff in the early afternoon and couldn't believe our eyes.
The roads were straight, wide, multi-lane, flawless and held very few cars or trucks and almost no taxis. Rather than burros and pigs, the animals crossing the streets were large iguanas that scrambled across in front of our car. The areas now home to supermarkets, stores and restaurants were stretches of trees and bushes filled with birds. There were no traffic lights or traffic circles or topes. The many Alto (Stop) signs were gleaming red but so numerous that obviously no one was going to stop at each of them for the nonexistent pedestrians. We followed the Centro signs to Crucecita down a street with a few tiendas; the Madero Mall was not yet even a twinkle in a developer's eye.
We stopped at the central plaza; it was pristine and absolutely charming. We promised each other to return in the coming days to tour the church. Ravishingly hungry, we felt as if we had struck gold when we discovered, right off the plaza, Panificadora San Alejandro. The sight and smell of the fresh empanadas were irresistible. Since our Spanish at that time was minimal (and there were no English speakers anywhere around), it took us a while to figure out that one takes the items on a tray to the front counter, receives the total on a slip of paper, pays for the items at the cashier counter and then returns to pick up the baked goods – a process that eventually seemed normal. We were concerned that it seemed we were being charged for only one empanada when we actually had five in the bag — the price was so low. With a lot of sign language and laughter we completed our purchase, returned to the plaza to sit on one of the benches in the shade and wolf down the empanadas.
Bellies full, we drove to Tangolunda, where we had rented an apartment. We had previously searched the internet for places to rent all over Mexico and had easily found condos, apartments, casitas, and hotels with kitchen facilities. Our needs for Huatulco were simple – a bed, a bath, a stove and a refrigerator – but we really wanted a place with a view. Since plans for constructing condominiums in Huatulco had not yet reached the stage of development, Huatulco had a dearth of places with views other than hotels. One condo associated with the Camino Real Zaashila kept popping up in internet searches but, compared to other places we had rented elsewhere in Mexico with great ocean or city vistas, the price seemed exorbitantly high. Ultimately, we found an ad for and rented an apartment that turned out to be located at the west end of Tangolunda over a Budget rental car office (which is no longer there).
It was perfect. The bedroom looked out over the golf course, and a spiral staircase from the kitchen area led to a rooftop terrace with a view of the ocean – a distant view over the golf course – but still close enough to see waves and imagine we heard them at night. We were within walking distance of the hotels lining the bay but far enough to escape the noise of parties. And we loved having a few geckos sharing each room with us. We were far less enchanted with the scorpions and spiders and a few small snakes that visited from the surrounding undeveloped areas; but we learned to shake out our shoes before wearing them and watch where we were stepping.
The hotels in Tangolunda were essentially earlier versions of the ones that still exist. The most popular resort, the Gala, was later resurrected as Dreams. The Sheraton became the Barceló. And Club Med eventually became Las Brisas. Although one or two of still existing restaurants were operating, most, such as Viena, had not yet been established. Since most of the hotel guests didn't venture off the grounds, we were guaranteed a good night's sleep – which we really needed.
Our agreement was that Marcia would stop working at 2 pm, after which we would head to a different beach every day for hours of snorkeling. The work day began at 5 am with a break around 8:30 am for a quick trip to Crucecita to buy piping hot tortillas and one of the local cheeses for breakfast, and – for that night's dinner – fresh fruits and vegetables from one of the tiendas or street vendors and whichever fish had slept in the ocean the previous night; these were available directly from fishermen who sold their morning's catch from coolers on several downtown street corners.
Exactly at 2 pm, on sunny days, we'd head off with our snorkel gear to one of the bays. We quickly learned that not all of the bays were inviting for watching fish, but those that were provided expanses of wide, pristine beaches, absolutely crystal clear water, primarily undisturbed coral, and thousands of fish and other sea life. Although Maguey and Entrega hosted many local families on the weekends and holidays, on weekdays the beaches and palapa restaurants were largely vacant. Even when families flocked to the beaches, very few people ventured beyond the shores, and they weren't even dressed in what you would call swimwear. Our snorkeling was by and large undisturbed for hour after hour, except for the occasional motorboat that passed too close for comfort.
It was possible to hover over the coral and watch scenes that were worthy of National Geographic presentations, such as a hungry octopus camouflaged under a rocky ledge darting out a tentacle to catch unaware fish. Or a veritable food chain in action, with tiny fish nibbling at the coral being eaten by slightly larger fish who, in turn, were gobbled by good-sized fish who became tasty morsels for larger fish who swept in from the depths and after gulping down their prey, quickly returned to deeper water. The colors were brilliant and the varieties seemingly endless. Sometimes, schools of fish of the same variety would form large masses, and by slightly waving our hands, we could orchestrate the school to perform a water ballet.
The local families were as interesting as the sea life. Usually appearing in groups of three or four generations, the grandmothers wore dresses and aprons, and organized their clan at tables and designated the position of the coolers that the sons and grandsons carried to the beach. Babies were passed from family member to family member. Toddlers carried small pots or pails down to the water edge and were primarily supervised in their digging activities by older siblings and cousins. We almost never heard squabbling among the children. The adults, although seeming to be engaged in their own conversations, immediately dashed down to the children if one of the youngest seemed in danger of being caught up by the incoming tide or if a pail was suddenly caught by a wave. We must have presented an anomaly to these families, given their surprised looks when we emerged from the ocean wearing our snorkels.
We quickly became spoiled and instead of snorkeling on cloudy days, we happily spent afternoons watching the thousands of birds that inhabited Huatulco or were migrating back to northern territories. The antics of large flocks of magpie jays in the brush were always a source of amusement. Many beautiful herons and egrets inhabited freshwater ways running down to the ocean. Almost every bay had resident pelicans to watch filling their bills, holding more fish than their belly could; they seemed very tame and merely grunted at us if we walked or swam close. The three local varieties of vultures circled high above; since their nesting grounds were relatively undisturbed by development, unlike today, they rarely mixed with humans.
The noisy squawking and flash of color of hundreds of parrots filled the air at every sundown as they left and returned to their roosting trees; we especially loved the parrot clamor in Santa Cruz – which, before the cruise ship dock was built, was a quiet village, except for the parrots. But no bird was as loud and grating as the large ungainly chachalacas that were our alarm clocks in the morning and entertained us as they squabbled over territory which they ultimately lost to the development of single-family private homes. At the other extreme, little doves visited our terrace and they billed and cooed as they searched for tiny bits of tortilla that escaped from our table.
Some days, work-related tasks required communicating with colleagues north of the border. Internet connection was possible through several internet service stores in Crucecita – Terra Cotta was one of the first restaurants to install a computer that could be used to check and send international mail. To make an international phone call, one had to go to a specialized office in Crucecita, sign up for a call, wait until a staff member connected to the number being called, and, when informed by the staff member that the call had gone through, enter a designated telephone booth, wait for the phone to ring, and answer the ringing phone hoping that the desired person would actually be at the other end. As was true of almost all purchases at the time, we paid for the call in cash.
In 2001 Huatulco, credit cards were largely useless and ATMs a feature of the future. Use of travelers checks, an acceptable method of payment in large cities in Mexico, required a long wait in a line at a Huatulco bank that accepted them, provision of passport and visa and prayer that the particular bank teller would agree to the extensive paper work required to hand over cash for the travelers check. Fortunately, even though the exchange rate of dollar to pesos was under 1:10, we needed very little cash. Our expenditures were mainly for food and fish, fruit and vegetables, which were very inexpensive. We've never been bar-goers. There were no movie theaters, upscale restaurants, or the now ubiquitous fundraising concerts or festivals. An evening's entertainment was usually a trip to San Alejandro's for a delicious pastry to share in the Plaza while watching the local children play, and then back to the apartment to curl up with one of the books stuffed into the Camry.
There were no vendors with extensive displays of their wares in the plaza. There were no stores that could by any stretch of the imagination be called a supermarket, much less a department store, no air-conditioning at most of the airport, no caravans of buses delivering tourists. Yes, Huatulco has greatly changed since 2001. But when we mention this to our Chilango cousins who visited Huatulco from Mexico City years before we arrived, they laugh and say, “But we remember back to when the area was entirely fishing villages.”