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Puerto Escondido, on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico in the state of Oaxaca, has long been known to the world’s top surfers.
Surfing Paradise, Puerto Escondido
That’s because Puerto Escondido is home to the famous Mexican Pipeline—a towering and expansive wave that curls into a formidable tube off of Playa Zicatela.
Historically, this powerful beach break along the town’s main mile-long stretch of sandy shore beckoned only a niche class of travelers: the mighty surfer.
As other parts of Mexico, like Cancun and Tulum, became commercialized tourist attractions for the everyday vacationer, the warm and clear waters of Puerto remained largely undisturbed, save for the thunderous crashing of the swell year after year.
Of course, a gorgeous location, offering year-round warm weather and cheap living, not to mention delectable fish tacos and fresh ceviche, can’t be kept secret forever.
Tourism in Puerto Escondido
Over the past decade, Puerto has seen massive growth in tourism, not nearly to the scale of Mexico’s beach resort cities, but enough that it has begun altering the laid-back lifestyle and surf culture of the peaceful and hitherto imperturbable town.
As backpackers caught wind of an undeveloped beach paradise, hotels started rising from the sand like tacky castles made from upturned pails, reshaping the coastal landscape, and with it, forever shifting the hospitable tone of many inhabitants.
A favorite way to explore the beautiful nature of Puerto Escondido is on the Horse Ride to the Atotonilco Hot Springs. See the jungle and then relax at the hot spring for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Book this day trip in advance here.
I didn’t know all of this before arriving, but I knew enough to reason it my last chance at a glimpse of the real Puerto before tourism’s greedy hands finished the job by strangling out every remaining breath of authenticity.
Still Far from Touristic
Landing at the quaint oceanside airport, I was immediately hit with a humid yet charming embrace that captured my affection and never let go.
Relieved to find that Puerto is still far from touristic, by any relative standard, my aspirations were swimming in joyous fulfillment.
But it was clear that rapid change is underway—tiki bars and bamboo beach clubs line a once-vacant strip along Zicatela as a foreboding sign of the spring-break-themed development to come.
Willing to overlook these terrestrial renovations in the name of economic boon and boozed relief, local surfers are far less inclined to relinquish their claim to the ocean.
Renowned Surf Spot La Punta
This is expressed at La Punta, the renowned surf spot on the point of Zicatela, which boasts consistently rideable waves. Just because the waves are rideable, however, doesn’t mean you’ll get to ride them, as newly arriving surfers quickly learn.
There’s a strict hierarchy enforced by the local surfers out among the waves.
Barring the exception that you’re an elite surfer capable of earning a spot in the exclusive lineup, new arrivals will find themselves predominantly waveless.
Talking to an Australian surfer on vacation while waiting for the next set to roll in at Carrizalillo—a smaller, still crowded though less intense, beach break a few miles north of La Punta—he explained how the locals, with their in-depth knowledge of the underwater contours, float farther offshore where the good waves break, leaving everyone else to “pick up the scraps.”
Trying to insert yourself into the lineup results in “real abuse,” he assured me without an ounce of resentment, having experienced so himself.
With heightened tourism putting more people in the water, not only do holiday surfers have to contend with local hostilities—which I was later told can extend beyond verbal threats to being tackled from waves and even fights on the beach—they also have to compete for the few waves that slide through with a crowd of beginners getting lessons.
Making matters infinitely more challenging, the surf instructors have a privileged status in the water that allows them to push their students into waves with little regard for the lineup, ultimately ensuring scarce opportunity for the ostracized.
Luckily, I met a fellow novice surfer who’d been similarly frustrated.
“I want some nice waves to myself for a change,” I told him in exasperated desperation while sprawled out on the sand after yet another disappointing and turbulent session.
Corona in hand, the midday sun glistening off the glassy rollers of high tide, he told me about a private spot that a local surf guide had shown him, only a short drive from La Punta.
Beaming with newfound optimism, having thought there no way around the immutable ways of the surfer’s code, I was quickly introduced to his guide, José—a sure-footed, darkly tanned Puerto native who’d grown up surfing the local breaks.
Only days later, I was sitting in a sun-and-salt-weathered jeep, surf boards strapped to the roof, headed half an hour out of town. On the way, José shared his feelings about the expansion of tourism in his home: “On one hand, the waves get crowded—but, on the other, my surf shop is doing great and mi casa, woo, is that worth a lot more!”
His ambivalence became strained, however, as we drove past a construction zone on the dusty coastal interstate. The new government-sponsored highway from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido is almost done, he pointed to and warned.
When it’s completed next year, a six-hour journey through winding rural roads will become a straight shot to the beach in just over two hours. Thinking of the countless more tourists this will usher in, I worried that the Puerto I’d come to know and love really is in its final days.
Though, as we pulled up to the secret beachfront, my concerns momentarily drifted away, as did I, into untouched, mesmeric swell.
If You Go
- When is the best time to surf in Puerto Escondido?
- Surfing season goes from late April to early September. The Mexican Pipeline really shines during peak season in May to August but swells then are usually too big for most surfers.
- How to Get to Puerto Escondido?
Most travelers reach Puerto Escondido by air from Oaxaca city or Mexico City. Puerto’s airport is located just a few minutes from the city center.
Book This Trip
Ready to find your perfect wave and explore the natural beauty of Puerto Escondido? Then start looking at the best hotel or VRBO options, find the best beach spots and book ground transportation with Travelocity and Trip Advisor.
Discover more of this quiet paradise on a tour with GetYourGuide. From the Turtle Release and Bioluminescent Experience to the Huatulco 7 Bays Tour, there is an experience that will make your trip unforgettable. Browse and book more activities in Puerto Escondido here.
Author Bio: Philip Finkelstein is an avid writer and traveler with journalistic aspirations. He’s originally from Vermont and has a degree in political science from the University of British Columbia. Always exploring new places in search of his next story—follow Phil’s journey on Instagram @felipefinklez