I took a short weekday trip to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido, surrounded by sandy beaches and pipeline waves. My skin was happy to get some respite from the dry desert heat of Oaxaca, and the seafood was a welcome change from a diet of tacos and tlayudas. This piece is a short Puerto Escondido guide, sharing where I ate, where I stayed, and the best beaches to surf and swim.
While I assumed the name “the hidden port” came from the camouflaged bays around the town, there is a more interesting story. According to Marc of Mexican Corrido,
Legend has it that a pirate named Andrés Drake kidnapped a young Mixtec woman from the village of Santa María Huatulco. While the pirates were camped out in the bay of what is now Puerto Escondido, she escaped and hid from her evil kidnappers. The pirates referred to her as “La Escondida” and every time they returned to the bay they looked for her. Afterwards the bay became known as Bahía de la Escondida.
The port was established in the early 1900s to ship coffee, but a town (and potable water) was only established in the 1930s and onward. The first airport, on what is now Zicatela beach, was completed in 1939. In the 1960s, Highway 200 (the Coastal Highway) was built, connecting Acapulco with the towns on the Oaxaca coast. Today, Puerto Escondido belongs to two municipalities, Santa María Colotepec and San Pedro Mixtepec — and they don’t see eye to eye on about which of them should govern the town.
Compared to nearby Huatulco, full of high-end resorts, Puerto Escondido is still relatively quiet and low key — though the New York Times did just include it on their 2017 “where to go” list. It is popular with travelers from Oaxaca and tourist from elsewhere in Mexico, but there are also charter flights directly from North America. I met more French Canadians during four days on Zicatela than I did in my many months of living in Oaxaca de Juarez.
For my purposes, Puerto Escondido was lovely few days away from Oaxaca City, with some great food along the way.
Puerto Escondido: Where to Swim, Where to Eat, and Where to Stay
Overview of Puerto Escondido and When to Visit
When to Visit Puerto Escondido
As you can see from the map above, Puerto Escondido is right on the coast and not far from the popular resort town of Huatulco. See the “Getting there” section below for access to the region. From Oaxaca, it’s not as straightforward as it seems.
If you don’t mind crowds, visit anytime from January through May or October through December — those are the drier months, ones where you will not be prey for a cloud of angry, hungry mosquitos. Or, a little less mosquitos at the very least!
If you want to avoid the crowds, I’d also carve out the weeks of spring break in Mexico (for this year it’s April 6-17th 2020) and the Christmas holidays, when the beaches are packed with tourists from Mexico and elsewhere.
Layout of Puerto Escondido
There are three main beaches in Puerto Escondido town: Playa Marinero, Playa Principal, and Zicatela. In addition, you can visit the smaller coves mentioned below, better for swimming. As its name would suggest, Playa Principal is the most central. Parallel to that beach is Avenida Perez Gasga, a walking street known locally as the Adoquín. The Andador, a long scenic boardwalk, also begins at Playa Principal and loops west along the rocky cliffs.
West of Playa Principal are the smaller beaches that make for great swimming: Puerto Angelito, Manzanillo, and Carrizalillo. East of Playa Principal is Playa Marinero, and then the beach where I stayed, Playa Zicatela, followed by La Punta. The strongest waves are at Zicatela, which is why surfers knew about this town long before the snowbirds and tourists settled in.
Where to Swim and Surf near Puerto Escondido
If beach time is what you seek, you have a few beaches to choose from.
Playa Manzanillo and Puerto Angelito:
The same bay houses these two beaches, which are separated by rocks. Both beaches are calm, without the strong undertow of Zicatela. That said, they do get a bit crowded as the bay isn’t that big. Lots of palapas to rest under, beers to drink, and places to stake out with a comfortable mat or towel. Good spot for snorkeling. You can rent a lounge chair with plastic pillows and the shade of a big umbrella. Be warned, though, boats motor right up to shore during high season to pick up and drop off tourists for a boat tour of the area.
Zicatela for the surfers, with far too strong an undertow for swimming in safety. The beach is famous for its giant Pacific waves that crash to shore. Surfing events like the World Surfing League’s Puerto Escondido Challenge are held in Puerto, and waves come in at 6-15 feet during peak season.
The Encyclopedia of Surfing describes it better than I can:
“[A] savage Mexican beachbreak tube located on the northern tip of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca; often called the “Mexican Pipeline,” and universally agreed to be the world’s gnarliest sand-bottom wave. “Some people love it,” local ace Coco Nogales said of Puerto in 2011. “Some people get pounded, turn around, head for home and never come back.”
Also in Zicatela, you’ll find heaps of food, beachside bars, fish tacos and beer joints, and late night parties on the weekend.
La Punta de Zicatela:
Walk east at the water’s edge past Playa Zicatela and you will eventually hit La Punta, the main backpacker area and with a lot younger crowd than Zicatela on a given day. Also far less Mexican tourists, and more hostels. With thatched roofs and dirt roads, I forgot I was not on the Perhentian islands for a minute or two.
With costs in Zicatela rising, La Punta is still more budget in both accommodation and food. You can swim there, but it’s also known for surfing and features both bigger waves and smaller ones, ideal for learning if you’re looking to take a lesson or two.
While I’ve focused on swimming, I would also recommend a trip to the bioluminescent lagoon at the Laguna de Manialtepec, not far from Puerto Escondido. Many tour operators offer this as an evening trip, and having been elsewhere in the region, it’s a magical thing to see. If you have your own transport, you can do the trip without a tour by heading west about 20 kilometers on the Carretera Puerto Escondido — Acapulco 200. Without traffic, it ought to be about a 20-25 minute drive. Take the exit for La Puesta del Sol, and from there you can book a 1.5-2 hour bioluminescence tour for approximately 250-300 pesos per person ($11-13.50 USD in 2020).
Some tour operators will allow you to swim in the bioluminescence, which is trippy is it sounds, but caveat emptor: there are crocodiles in the lagoon. So you might want to make sure you really want to go for that swim.
With 167 steps from the cliff down to the sea, you’ll need to work to get to and from this tiny beach — but the effort is worth it. Carrizalillo is located about 5km (3.1 miles) north of Zicatela. I should have recorded a supercut of the taxi driver making me repeat the name Carrizalillo until I got it right (it took 6 times). Soft waves, beautiful inlet, palapas with margaritas and more. And a sunset drink overlooking the shore if you so desire.
Umbrellas and lounge chairs are free of charge if you order a drink or food from one of the vendors that manage them, though tourists have reported a ‘minimum spend’ during high season.
Restaurants in Puerto Escondido: Where I Ate
For a Seafood Medley
The seafood cazuela appetizer at Fresh Restaurant and Lounge was so good I returned a second time. Their other offerings are also delicious, although the crowd skewed 100% expat/tourist. Good wine options, and main courses were generous. Their guacamole also very tasty.
For Great Grilled Fish
While the name suggests ceviche, it was the fish that I loved most at newcomer Costeñito Cevichería. The restaurant does have delicious ceviches on offer, but the 400 peso grilled fish, which came with potatoes, salad, and other sides, was one of the best things I ate in town. We were two, but the meal was easily enough to fill four people.
You can choose between oregano and butter, or parsley, garlic and lime. Or do as we did and go half and half.
This was a nighttime shot with my phone, but it shows just how big a fish you get. Fish is whatever catch of the day was hauled in, super fresh.
For a Filling, Cheap Breakfast or Brunch
I loved eating my first meal of the day at El Cafecito, both for the people watching and the food. Their half portions were so generous I often couldn’t finish the plate, and of all the options I stand by the huevos Oaxaqueños, eggs cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and topped with quesillo. They are served with refried beans, some totopo chips, and a side of tortillas. For those who eat bread, the restaurant has an on-site bakery that friends swear is worth the trip. The cafe has two locations, one in town and one on Zicatela beach, but both are very popular – for good reason.
For a Seafood Fry Up
My friend Ian recommended the fiery octopus and shrimp at Coco Fish Zicatela, a bit further down the beach. The meal comes cooked in a spicy ‘diablo’ sauce, with rice, salad, and fruit. For 200 pesos, it’s more costly than the usual meal in Oaxaca or on Playa Principal but it was extremely tasty.
For Sunset Margaritas and Guac
Highly, highly recommended to grab a sunset drink at Espadin Restaurant on Playa Carrizalillo after your swimming is done. Wonderful views, delicious guacamole and a really beautiful space. If you’re hungry still and fancy a splurge, get the grilled octopus.
For Seafood Paella
I really enjoyed the paella at Bungalows Zicatela, with a huge portion of rice, octopus, fish, mussels, and more. And chicken, lots and lots of chicken.
Bonus: daily 2×1 margaritas between 6pm and 11pm.
For a Seared Tuna Salad
If you go to La Punta for a sunset — which you should — stop in for a seared tuna salad at Lychee Thai Restaurant. There’s often live music in the evenings. To get there from Zicatela you can grab a taxi. If a daytime visit, you can walk back along the beach but I would not recommend it. during the evening.
For Middle Eastern Food
El Sultan on Boulevard Benito Juarez, next to the Minisuper 69. The restaurant is cheap, offers falafal, hummous, salads, and for those who can eat bread lots of pan arabe (pita) for sopping up any leftovers on your plate. Good value for great food.
Where to Stay in Puerto Escondido
I stayed at Bungalows Zicatela, which I booked via an online site. They’re available on quite a few of them. The place has two pools, a restaurant, and really lovely staff with a dog named Pancho. Price was very reasonable, $40 USD per night for double room with fan.
If you are sensitive to noise, don’t book the sea view rooms during the weekend, as the bars boom music fairly late.
For other options, check out Casa Dakiri (dorms and 2 or 3-bed suites), Casa Losodeli (3 different room options) for private rooms or dorms near Zicatela beach. For a laid back barefoot vibe, Hostal Frutas y Verduras was recommended by readers.
Getting to Puerto Escondido from Mexico and Abroad
While it looks like an easy trip from from Oaxaca City, the drive requires a small bus (6-8 hours) over the mountains. The road is not so easy.
Another option is to take a short flight on Aerotucán.
The mountainous stretch from the city to the coast includes the continental divide, meaning that rivers flow both toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Though the drive is fairly short, the road’s path includes a lot of nauseous curves. If you get carsick, you might want to fly.
I opened for the flight for that reason. The flights take place at dawn and offer an incredible scenic view of the rolling mountains in Oaxaca State, as well as that smile-inducing time when the plane curves back over the ocean to gain height for the return. What is a 6-8 drive is a 26 minute scenic flight.
Cost was 180$ USD return from Oaxaca.
From elsewhere in North America, you can fly to Huatulco, 1.5 hours from Puerto Escondido. Aeromexico, WestJet, Air Canada, and United all fly from points in the USA and Canada to Huatulco, including Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal in Canada, and Houston, LA, San Francisco, New York, and Boston in the United States.
Thus concludes my short Puerto Escondido guide! I’m still working on the guide to Oaxaca City, but that will be a bit longer yet.
Specialty Guides about Puerto Escondido
- If surfing is your jam, Surfer Today’s Puerto Escondido guide is here, with the gear you’ll need, where the most advanced waves are, and where to catch other ones. (2019)
- Curbed’s guide to Puerto Escondido focuses on architecture and design, here. (2019)
- Mapping Along on the sea turtle conservation programme Vive Mar, here. (2019)
Further Reading about Oaxaca and Mexico
Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks’ fern obsession brought him to Oaxaca and Southern Mexico, fellow ethnobotanists in tow. This book is his journal from the trip, about the culture he comes into contact with, about chocolate and history and Zapotec ruins. In his characteristic, entertaining style, he combines natural curiosity with fascinating exploration. Really loved this book.
The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, by Dianne Kennedy. Dianne’s Oaxaca cookbook is one of my favourites, but also comes in at 10 pounds (!) and is a very difficult read to carry around! Instead, start with her Essential Cuisines, covering the different foods of this culinarily complex country, recipes and history built into one book.
The People’s Guide to Mexico: by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens (Author). Instead of a classic guidebook, opt for this thorough cultural guide to Mexico, now in its 14th edition. From planning trips, bargaining, cultural fiestas and taboos, and a lot more, this book is a thorough resource for even the more experiences wanderers.